India Abroad Lifetime Achievement Award 2012
India Abroad Award for Lifetime Achievement 2012
Romesh Wadhwani (Class of 1969)
Excerpts from India Abroad - Issue dated June 28, 2013
Billionaire entrepreneur and philanthropist Dr Romesh Wadhwani, winner of the India Abroad Award for Lifetime Achievement 2012, bares his soul as he has never done before in a conversation with Aziz Haniffa.
For his remarkable philanthropy; for being an accomplished entrepreneur and for giving back so generously to the country of his birth, and indeed the world.
Hackneyed as the cliché "only-in-America" may be, billionaire entrepreneur and philanthropist Dr Romesh Tekchand Wadhwani is a quintessential and tangible manifestation of this oft-used phrase in all of its facets. That a Karachi-born child — who was one of those Midnight’s Children, born in 1947 at the cusp of Partition — who barely escaped with his parents the brutality that led to the birth of Pakistan, and came to the United States as a student at age 22 could achieve the success that he has, is yet another one of the fascinating compendium of immigrant stories that this country can take justifiable pride in.
As Wadhwani says, his father Tekchand — who later became a banker at the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, first in Delhi and then in Mumbai — and mother Shanta, a homemaker, “were absolutely products of Partition. We moved to India from Karachi in the midst of Partition. In fact, almost 80 percent of the group that they were in was slaughtered during the atrocities. We happened to be the lucky few, and I was just a few days old.”
Wadhwani is not one who forgets — not his beginning, not what India did for him and certainly not what the US gave him. ‘The US has been the country which has given me the opportunity and the privilege to have achieved three successful companies, two in Pittsburgh, one in Silicon Valley. Today, I run a large group of companies, about 14 companies, doing around $3 billion a year,’ he said while launching the Wadhwani Chair for US-India Policy Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies — a leading Washington, DC think tank – in 2011.
In a wide-ranging interview with India Abroad, Wadhwani bares his soul as he has never done before on his early years, his marriage, his entrepreneurial success, his philanthropy, including his commitment to the Bill Gates-Warren Buffet Giving Pledge, and the issues of the day.
After you received your master’s degree and PhD from Carnegie Mellon till you founded Aspect in 1991, what did you do in the interim?
I came to the US in 1969, I got my master’s in 1970, I got my PhD in 1972, and straight out of Carnegie I started my first company, CompuGuard Corporation… (It) had nothing to do with my PhD; (it had to do with) computer systems for energy management in buildings. It grew to about $10 million in revenue and then was acquired by a large European company. I stayed for a year and then left to run a company called American Robot, which had been started by the Rockefeller family. I bought a major interest in the company, became the CEO, built it up over a 10-year period and then sold American Robot as well.
I decided that if I wanted to compete with the best of the best, there was only one place to do it — Silicon Valley. So, I started Aspect Development in Silicon Valley.
Did you start Aspect from scratch?
Started from scratch. Our family moved there in early 1991 and over a roughly 10 year period I built a company that was truly a great company, growing 60 percent a year, doing 25 percent operating margins.
After that, I really wanted to go build a company with my DNA, with my set of values. But I didn’t want to do a single-company start-up again because I had done it three times, and I felt I wouldn’t be able to learn very much doing a fourth start-up. I am very passionate about continuing to learn in everything I am doing because if I am not learning I get bored. It’s not about the money for me; it’s about building great companies; its about learning as we build a great company.
You’ve got to have that adrenalin pumping …
Yes, and I love working 80-90 hours a week. I love waking up every morning with all cylinders fully engaged, but I didn’t want to do it for just one company at a time. I started Symphony Technology Group, with the idea that I would build a group of companies focused on software and technology-enabled services. That some of these companies would be acquisitions and some of these companies would be start-ups, but in every company we would try and put the company on a path to becoming a great company in the technology space. Our definition — at least my definition — of greatness, is a company that does four things — the first is that it is continuously increasing the value it delivers to customers; the second is that it can attract and retain the best talent in its sector; the third is that it is achieving organic growth through innovation… and the fourth is that it is the highest-performing company in its sector whether you measure it by revenue growth rate, by innovation, by profit margins, by the lowest levels of attrition or by the value delivery to the clients. On any of these metrics I feel each of our companies has to be the best in class for that particular sector. And that’s the foundation of the Symphony Technology Group.
How many companies are there in the group?
Today, we have 12 companies in the group; collectively the companies will do over $2.5 billion in revenue — keep in mind that 10 years ago it was zero, so we have come a long way. We have 16,000 employees, and by the end of this year, we expect to have about $3 billion revenue, probably 17,000 to 18,000 employees. Our employees are all over the world, we have companies with headquarters in the US, with headquarters in Europe. We now have one company with headquarters in India (Bengaluru). Of our 16,000 employees, they are roughly something like 35 to 40 percent in the US, about 25 percent in Europe. We have something like 6,000, 7,000 employees in India. Across our different companies, we have almost a thousand employees in China. We have 600 employees in Russia. All of us at the Symphony Technology Group think globally, because that’s the measure of the world we are in.
Last September, you committed yourself to the Bill Gates- Warren Buffet’s Giving Pledge. What was your motivation for this and what is your vision, vis-à-vis your contribution?
About 10 years ago, well before the Symphony Technology Group had begun to make the kind of progress that it has made, I had decided to give away most of my wealth. I didn’t know what the amount would be because obviously my work is still a journey in progress, even though it has been 40 years, but, god willing, the work is not yet done. I just felt that all of us have been very privileged. I also felt that most people who grow up in India and become very successful in business in India are not particularly focused on philanthropy … I had a desire to be different. I had a desire to want to give most of my wealth away, so I started doing that 10 years ago. I started the Wadhwani Foundation.
About a year ago, Bill Gates invited me for dinner, and he didn’t make a case one way or the other for Giving Pledge, which is the commitment to give more than 50 percent of your wealth away. He just shared his experience and others who were at that dinner also shared their experience. To me, it felt like I wasn’t going to be doing anything different from what I was doing anyway. I am giving away 80 percent, but Giving Pledge is only 50 percent, and so, I am actually doing more than what Giving Pledge requires.
India does little or no world-class research in any field. You take the IT domain — you have all these giant IT outsourcing services companies, they are all growing fast, they all have high levels of profitability, but none of them is putting any meaningful amount of money into innovation, into the development of intellectual property, tangible intellectual property as compared to simply the knowledge that’s in the head of the software engineers who do the outsourcing work. My feeling was that no country can be a really great country unless it also does world-class research, unless it produces world class intellectual property. I picked one field, which is biosciences and biotechnology.
In India there is no new molecule development, no new drug development. India is terrific at generics, but generics is not about creating anything new, its about copying what’s been done before, having reasonably good manufacturing practices, selling it at a low price. Well that’s great, but again, if all you do is copy and you don’t create any new intellectual property, India cannot in the long run be a great country. So, I thought one of the ways in which we could both address the national need to innovate and to create, through innovation, jobs that would support the mission of our foundation was we should initially support two research centers.
We funded the Shanta Wadhwani Research Center last year, then we funded the Wadhwani Research Center in Biosciences and Biotechnology at IIT-Bombay.
Have you also funded other programs at IIT-Bombay?
I have, of course. That’s my alma mater, so many years ago I funded the Wadhwani Electronics Laboratory. I also funded a number of entrepreneurship activities.
When you left India did you ever think you would be what you are today?
Not in my wildest dreams.
What was your ultimate dream?
It wasn’t even completely clear. But I kind of had a sense that I wanted to be an entrepreneur. I kind of had a sense that I wanted to do well as an entrepreneur, but beyond that you know if you would have asked me in those days, being a CEO of a million-dollar company would have been my lifetime ambition. That would have been the extent… I could not dream beyond that.
There are very few Indians — whether in India, the United States, or elsewhere in the world — who have donated as much of their wealth for good causes as Romesh Wadhwani has. It is an area of his life that he considers deeply personal. Dr Wadhwani opens up about why in his hands philanthropy emerges as a tool of humanitarian and educational change, not influence policy.
What advice would you have for the Indian-American community in terms of philanthropy? Do you believe it is time for them to move beyond the building of temples and more into perhaps towards setting up of chairs and building colleges, hospitals like the Jewish Americans have?
Absolutely. I believe it comes down to a very fundamental question that all immigrant communities have to deal with — are we immigrants, but always different? Or can we be different where it counts like our culture, and yet be part of integrated America that has helped America grow generation after generation and be a greater and greater country. I feel when you build a temple, nothing is wrong with that — it is an important thing to do for our culture — but if that’s all we do, we are essentially transplanting India into Queens, or India into Monroeville in Pittsburgh or…
Yes. It might be a very high-class ghetto; it might be a very beautiful temple, but it is a ghetto nonetheless. I don’t believe that that’s the way we should assimilate. The Jews have assimilated completely into the American fabric, but they haven’t lost their Jewish identity — they have their Jewish temples and yet they are part of the whole philanthropic system of the US, they are part of the business system of the US; they are part of the government system of the US.
Now, if I take India, first of all we are a much younger immigrant community, so we haven’t been in the US for 200 years. The bulk of immigration that has happened from India has happened in the last 20 years. When I came 40 years ago, there was just a handful of Indian immigrants. So, certainly from a time stand point, there is nothing to be critical of. But going forward, philosophically, it is very, very important for the Indian Americans to be philanthropists and to be philanthropists outside of the temple community family. They have to help other communities in the US. They should build hospital wings; they should build schools; they should build colleges; they should fund US universities, not just Indian universities, and they should also do great things in India. To me, philanthropy is not just about giving money; it’s also about giving bandwidth and time, because remember all of us have the privilege of great education and a worldview. We have an India view, we have a US view and we have a world view, and if that is applied to philanthropy, both in India and the US, it can have so much of impact. I would use Bill Gates as a great role model. He gave up the running of Microsoft; he spends his entire day, entire week, working passionately for health-care, malaria, HIV prevention, primary education. The Indian-American community needs to do a lot more of that. The good news is I see it beginning; the bad news is it is still very small.