Awaiting Another Bradman Encore From Azim PremjiBloombergQuintOpinion
As a cricket lover, I have always admired the long form of the game. Nothing has been more pleasing for me than to see back to back hundreds in test cricket by legends of our time like Sachin, Sehwag, and Kohli. However, I have always wondered at the sheer thrill one would have experienced seeing Sir Donald Bradman hit a classy triple ton in one innings of a test and a double in another. I think we are on the verge of seeing the equivalent of that in Indian society with Azim Premji.
While regarded as one of India’s foremost information technology czars, Mr. Premji's roots lie deep in the consumer industry. It was in 1966 when, as a student at Stanford, he had to return home in the tragic circumstances of his father's death, to assume charge of a company called Western Indian Vegetable Products. The company then dealt in hydrogenated oil manufacturing but he went on to diversify its business to include bakery fats, toiletries, soaps, and lighting products. He consequently went on to also add a hydraulic cylinders division.
Recognising the opportunity that a few other early movers also spotted in information technology in the 1980s, Mr. Premji changed the company’s name to Wipro and it made a foray into the tech sector. Initially, Wipro manufactured minicomputers via a collaboration. However, subsequently, it entered the software services industry and gradually that emerged as its largest business, making Wipro one of India’s leading and most respected IT services firms, alongside Tata Consultancy Services and Infosys. This has truly been a remarkable journey.
Few entrepreneurs globally have been able to exhibit the versatility to be deep-rooted for many decades in one business, and then lead a build-out into a completely unrelated business, requiring very different skills, that too into a global market place, and have spectacular results to show for it.
In his 53-year tenure, Wipro Ltd. (now a standalone IT services and BPO company) has grown into a Rs 58,584 crore revenue company with Rs 9,017 crore profit and a market cap of Rs 1.78 lakh crore or $25 billion!
However, what is equally remarkable is that through its long history, Wipro has always set the bar high as a firm reputed for being a value creator using ethical methods and fair play.
Over a decade ago, when I led what was then the country’s top investment bank, I worked with many of India’s business leaders but didn’t get the opportunity to work with Mr. Premji. Wipro didn’t do many deals back then. Also, while I admired him immensely, I also found him intimidating, given that he was a man of such few words.
Soon after leaving banking our paths crossed more frequently due to a common interest - philanthropy. It’s an area in which he is a true giant by global standards and has been one of my inspirations. His philanthropy forums offered a chance to meet him more frequently.
It was at one such conference recently that I had the amazing opportunity to interview him and his son Rishad on their philanthropic journey.
“If you had the chance to turn back time, would you, Mr. Premji, do anything different in your philanthropic journey,” I asked.
“I would have started earlier,” he said.
He founded the Azim Premji Foundation in 2001. But I’m sure the seeds were sown much earlier, by his mother who was a renowned social worker and philanthropist associated with enduring organisations, some that still exist in Mumbai today, and supported by his wife Yasmeen, a large-hearted kindred spirit.
In the first decade of the Foundation Mr. Premji made a massive pledge of $2 billion towards improving school education in India. Over the last decade, he has given away substantially more of his wealth, a staggering $21 billion or Rs 1.4 lakh crore.
His actions are simply incredible for a number of reasons.
First, his donations are unmatched by anyone outside of the United States, other than the Tata family!
As a consequence, over the past decade, his total donations are more than what all other philanthropists in India have donated on a combined basis, and vastly exceed corporate India’s combined spend in the period since the Corporate Social Responsibility law was introduced.
Second, the number is impressive on its own and doubly so when you note that it represents a vast majority of his wealth. He isn’t giving in bits and pieces, he’s trying to give almost all of it away.
Third, he has not been a follower but a trendsetter. He was the first Indian to sign the Giving Pledge and the third Non-American to do so. In his actions, he has been an inspiration to many, not just in India, but globally.
The Second Innings
In a note sent out on his retirement, Mr. Premji says that he now plans to devote most of his “time and energy to the philanthropic efforts of our Foundation.” I am sure employees of Wipro will miss him after the spectacular Bradman-esque triple hundred that he has scored over a 53-year innings. They have, however, had an orderly transition to the much capable hands of Rishad, who is relatively fresh and ready to lead them into a new chapter. As for Mr. Premji, it is time for all of us to sit back and now enjoy watching his second innings, for Sir Don rarely disappointed and even a double followed his triple in the summer of 1934!
Of course, pledging to give away close to Rs 1.5 lakh crore may be one thing but actually giving it away is going to be no minor challenge. However, if he is able to, by the time he is done, he could well have changed the fate of tens if not a hundreds of millions of Indians - something perhaps only three or four leaders in any sphere can claim to have achieved over the course of the last century.
Mr. Premji once famously said, “I strongly believe that those of us who are privileged to have wealth should contribute significantly to try and create a better world for the millions who are far less privileged.”
I know he’s going to find immense satisfaction achieving this goal and many Indians are going to join him in his mission to do so.
Mr. Premji, may you do better than Sir Don – may your triple hundred in business be followed not by a hundred in philanthropy but by another triple.
Amit Chandra is founder and governing board member of Ashoka University, chairman, of Bain Capital India Office, and a philanthropist. Views are personal.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.