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Murthy gave a level-playing field to India’s young middle class. He must not regret

From leading by example, to being fair and transparent, I have learned many lessons by observing Murthy, Nilekani and other founders at Infosys.

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As Infosys celebrates its four decades, the founders have much reason to be proud of the institutional legacy of the company that extends far beyond its corporate walls. And much of it comes from N.R. Narayana Murthy. Murthy, while speaking at the IT major’s 40th anniversary celebrations in Bengaluru on Wednesday, said that he was “completely wrong” in not permitting the next generation of founder families to participate actively in the company. As someone who has spent over 15 years at the Bengaluru-based company, I can say that he must not regret his decision barring family members of founders. And I have my reasons, for it was the right call in the 1990s to inspire confidence in India’s young middle class on a level-playing field he had created for the first time in corporate India. It is that ecosystem that enabled an entire generation to aspire to one day become the CEO of a large Indian corporation.

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Language of wealth creation

It was in November of 2014 that I had a surreal moment when I was representing Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s digital campaign to receive the Dataquest Pathfinder Award for Innovation during the 2014 general elections. Presiding over the awards function was founder of Infosys N.R. Narayana Murthy who had just served his second stint as chairman of Infosys. To Murthy, perhaps, it was one of many events. But for me, it was an Eklavya moment, having learned so much from him from a distance during my more than sixteen years at Infosys between 1997 and 2013.

My first impressions of Murthy were from 1995 when I as a young engineer who had recently graduated from IIT Bombay and landed in Delhi for my first job at Engineers India Ltd (EIL). While Infosys was a popular recruiter on the IIT-B campus, I had no idea about its history or its founders. In 1995, a couple of years after Infosys had its famed IPO of 1993, one of the newspapers in its Sunday magazine ran a feature on Murthy and his philosophy of wealth creation for employees through the stock option plan. While I didn’t think much about Infosys or a career in software back then, the feature remained etched in memory for here was a first-time entrepreneur and a professional speaking a language of wealth creation through compassionate capitalism that was unheard of and unprecedented in India.

As fate would have it, a year down the road in 1996, I ended up making the switch from chemical engineering to software engineering, landing a job at Infosys. The story behind that switch will have to be told another time but it was a pivotal moment in my life personally and professionally to join Infosys, not to mention having to convince my father I was quitting public sector employment that was paying Rs 10,000 a month for a private sector job that would pay me only Rs 8,000 every month. What was perhaps not very well understood across middle class India was the transformation of the Indian economy that was underway but under the shadow of tremendous political uncertainty. The preceding years of tumult starting with the Ayodhya movement, Mandal agitations, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Gulf War and economic crises of the early 1990s culminating with the 13- day Vajpayee government, made it very difficult to appreciate why one would take such a personal risk on a not-so-well known private enterprise. In many ways, my joining Infosys was influenced as much by my drift toward software as it was by that Sunday feature article on Murthy’s philosophy of wealth creation and compassionate capitalism.

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Lessons in leadership

Over the more than a decade-and-a-half journey at Infosys, I travelled the globe several times over, made many professional and personal friends, but the intangible contribution of Infosys to me was in shaping and molding my professional ethics and value system, much inspired by Murthy and his fellow founders. Few incidents remain etched in my memory as I observed Murthy from a distance. One of them was after he had been first nominated to a national honor with the Padma Shri in 2000. It was a quiet Saturday morning on the Infosys campus, and there he was his usual unassuming self, sitting by himself in the cafeteria with the rest of us.

Another incident that I recall well was also from the cafeteria where a humble Murthy gave a lesson in leadership–not flinching for a moment from cleaning up after a spill. If humility and being down to earth marked his exterior demeanor, there was a toughness of mind within him, which was revealed one afternoon in the early 2000s when he took the tough call to end the food subsidy in the cafeterias. His roof-top pep talk that day explaining why it was important to get rid of entitlements even though Infosys could have easily afforded to continue with the subsidy was a life lesson in both taking tough decisions and rallying the support behind them. It was also a lesson in public policy on doing away with a culture of entitlement.

The early 2000s were my best years at Infosys as we were marshaled with a missionary zeal to not merely ride the Information Technology boom but shape the transformation of India being scripted by the then NDA government led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee. As foot soldiers in the battle that saw India’s rise as an IT power, we were proud to be making history every day as Infosys saw exponential growth and the technology prowess of Indians made a global mark. From incubating a start-up within the Infosys environment with OnMobile to working on several cutting-edge technology innovations, the next decade at Infosys gave me professionally and personally the economic freedom and confidence to break the umbilical chord to contribute to the nation during the 2014 general elections.

Nandan Nilekani’s stint at UIDAI was a great inspiration too. Nilekani has been a role model to me on how a technocrat could make meaningful contribution to the public sector and nation. Soon, life saw full circle—a stint on the Board of Prasar Bharati at the PTI Building on Parliament Street where I had appeared for my first job back in the 1990s at Engineers India office. From leading by example, to being fair and transparent in transactions, many such lessons learned by observing Murthy, Nilekani and the other founders at Infosys, came to my aid during the five years as CEO of Prasar Bharati, India’s public broadcaster. One mantra of Murthy that stood me in good stead was “in god we trust but everyone else please come with data”. This helped bring objectivity to decision making while ushering in a culture of IT to Doordarshan and All India Radio.

Shashi Shekhar Vempati is former CEO of Prasar Bharati, India’s Public Service Broadcaster. He tweets @shashidigital. Views are personal.

(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)

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