Secret Diary of an Entrepreneur / CEO-2018

“It’s okay to chase impossible trains. Keep running and someday, someone will throw you into it”

Secret Diary of Vineet Nayar

Best teachers My mother Janak; Mrs Anand; Sister Laurette; Father McGrath. And the lady who threw me on to the impossible train

My sounding board Professionally Shiv Nadar; personally, my mother Janak and my wife Anupama

Closest friends Anupama, and kids Varun and Sophia

Most vulnerable moment When I lost my mother in November, 2017 to cancer. I couldn’t do anything to reduce her pain. Those last three months were very traumatic. They made me question many things in my life, my thinking, my ethos, my values, reason for existence... I still can’t make sense of it all

Favourite quote “I don’t know” - Dalai Lama. Whenever he is asked a question, he starts with “I don’t know” and then ends up saying something profound

Strength I listen

Weakness I am never happy

Favorite superhero Superman

Superhero moment Making my R&D team from Chennai dance on their chairs and go crazy and wild!

Best days of my life The five years my would-be father-in-law asked me not to meet my future wife! It was a rare promise that i didn’t keep!


My life is defined by five stories and then some more. In Nagpur, we lived in a duplex; we were on the ground floor and a Sikh lady, Mrs Anand, lived on the first floor. She didn’t have any kids, so she treated me as a son.

I was the middle child, and the naughtiest. My father worked at the National Physical Laboratory. Next to us lived a world-renowned scientist. One day, we were playing cricket. My friend swung his bat and the ball flew — straight through this scientist’s front window! All my friends ran away at once, but I simply stood there. I don’t remember why — maybe because I had not done anything wrong.

I went and rang his bell, and asked for the ball. The scientist was so angry — we had broken his window and had the cheek to ask for the ball back! He took me to a chair and tied me up with a rope and told me, “You will sit in front of this broken window.” I sat there for what seemed like hours but were minutes at best.

I was so miffed. None of my friends had tried to save me; instead they made fun of me for ‘getting caught’. I brooded and didn’t play with them for days. Mrs Anand noticed this and called me upstairs. I started crying, blurting out that the broken window had not been my fault in the first place. Why was I punished? And all that she said was: “What are you going to do about it?”

That scene is still etched in my mind. Every time I gave an answer, she repeated the same question. She must have asked it a dozen times. Finally, I understood that I had to do something. So, I went downstairs, picked up a ball and broke another window. Then, I rang the bell and told him on his face that I had just broken his window, because I hadn’t broken the first one. And that the punishment he had meted out was unfair. This made him laugh! He gave me a piece of cake and sent me home.

That incident taught me that things happen — sometimes it’s your fault, and sometimes it’s not. You don’t have control over what happens to you, but you can decide what you are going to do about it — and that is the difference between success and failure.


The second story is from the time my father got transferred to Pantnagar, a University town at the foothills of the Himalayas. We were travelling there by train in the summer and the second-class coach was perspiring hot.

That night, I was awake, looking out of the window while the rest of the family slept soundly — I was always interested in what was going on around me. The train stopped at Ratlam station and I got down immediately, without, of course, telling anyone. I had never seen a railway station at night. Two people were fighting, and I stood to watch them. That’s when the train started moving. It was moving in the way trains do — very slowly at first. I was eight-years-old and completely overconfident — I thought I could catch the train. What I didn’t realise was that I was not tall enough to reach the hand rails: I started running but when I tried to jump onboard, I fell. I tried again and fell again. Suddenly, fear gripped me. What if I miss the train? I tried for a third time and fell again. I was in absolute panic now. The train was moving faster than I could run. I had two choices — to stand and cry or run after the train. I decided to do the latter but by then my compartment had long gone. I kept running; not very hopeful of a happy ending. Just then, a vegetable-seller, a lady who had obviously been watching this entire scene unfold, caught hold of my knickers and threw me into the guard’s compartment.

I still recall the sheer relief that washed over me. I quietly joined my parents. I never told them about this incident — I was already getting whacked for mischief and did not want to get a beating for wandering off in the middle of the night. I told them years later.

This taught me an important lesson, though. It’s fine to have impossible dreams. If you want to do something meaningful in life, then you have to start running without doubt, fear or panic. Just keep running. And someday, someone will throw you onto the train where you don’t belong.


In Pantnagar, I went to a small school run by the Sisters of Notre Dame. We had an American principal called Sister Laurette. She was free-spirited, but so was I. When her superior, Sister Mary came for a visit, I performed Dum Maro Dum in front of her. She laughed her head off! Despite my free-spiritedness, Sister Laurette always encouraged me. But when I was in Class 6, we had a civics teacher who we thought wasn’t up to the mark. I remember her being quite young — maybe it was her first teaching assignment. So, one day during her class, we started dropping marbles on the floor — tak-tak-tak-tak-tak. Every time she faced the board, we would drop a marble. Predictably, this made her really mad and went to the principal and narrated the entire incident. This was the first time I saw Sister Laurette so angry and her face turned red as I had never seen before. She simply threw us out of the school.

I couldn’t go home and tell my family that I had been suspended. What could we do? Being the leader of the group who pulled the prank, the decision was left to me. I decided that we should all to go to school, and just sit in front of the gates. We didn’t know what a dharna was. We simply went to the school gates sat there, every day. Our mothers assumed we were going to school as usual. Every day, Sister Laurette would come out and reprimand us, asking us to go away. We would simply tell her that since we were outside the gates, we were technically out of school. We even claimed that we could hear what the teachers were teaching in class and could follow; we had our books and were not going anywhere. We sat outside school for what felt like days before she took us back in. She called me to her room and said, “Vineet, you will go far in life, but only if you pick your battles right. If you demonstrate the spunk you showed here in those battles, you will rise. On the other hand, if you choose the wrong battles, you will go down.”

That lesson was critical for me. I still live by it. I don’t fight 90% of the battles I face; the 10% that I do pick, I fight aggressively. I have never compromised on what I believe to be right. Never. If you eventually need to compromise, you shouldn’t have picked the fight in the first place.

The fourth story is from when I hit 15. That summer, my father unfortunately passed away due to a heart attack. Apart from the utter shock, the most immediate problem was money. We had exactly Rs 320 in the bank — I remember it because I was the one who went to the bank to get the passbook updated and that number is etched in my memory. My mother was still young, but instead of breaking down completely, she took charge. She called my brothers and me for a family meeting and said that we are going to take three decisions today. One, we are not going to move out of town. Two, we are not going to take help from anybody. “And I am going to pursue higher studies in English. If I can demonstrate that I can get up at 4 a.m. and study, you boys can surely study too.”

Till that point, no matter how much I got yelled at or beaten, I would not study. But that day, all three of us changed. My 10th Board exams were coming up. The circumstances dramatically changed the outcome. When faced with an adversity, your reaction to it has to be as strong as the adversity itself. If not, it will consume you.

XLRI was the most defining two years of my life shaped by some fantastic friendships that have lasted through all these years and where I met some professors who were brilliant and selfless. It was the period that shaped my ideas around leadership. This is the place where I had my first drink which became many by the time I left, my first smoke which fortunately I gave up within days of starting and my first trek which has grown into a crazy passion, now, of an annual high altitude trek. Thanks to my friends and teachers, XLRI helped me find myself.


When I joined my first job at HCL, I got an offer from a global FMCG. But I was clear that I wanted to join a tech company. HCL had around $4 million in revenue at that time. It was the fourth largest tech company, with aspirations of becoming the largest. That drew me — that it wanted to go for the top position. I joined them. And within 30 days, I almost got fired.

The firing was completely my fault. I took what they said very seriously that they had hired us to be change-makers. I am a straight talker and say it the way I see it. Some things few of the leaders said didn’t seem right to me. So, a few conversations led to a confrontation. Naturally, I was declared a misfit.

It was a very big deal. My younger brother had just joined IIT Delhi; his funding would be affected. What if my XLRI friends found out? I would turn into a laughing stock. That night, I cried a lot. I couldn’t go back to my mother because she already was dealing with a lot of issues.

I had Anupama, my would-be wife, by my side — that gave me some strength. But then, she was far away. Those days, we would only write each other letters. I had proposed to her a couple of years ago — it was around the time the movie Ek Duuje Ke Liye was released. And my father-in-law was not impressed by me. Her parents were doctors, so her father obviously wanted her to marry a doctor. And I was this rookie, still in engineering college, always in trouble, more likely to be on the sports field than in class, wearing a cross and riding my cycle as if it was a Mercedes Benz. I didn’t have anything that would appeal to doctor parents. So, her father had told me I couldn’t meet Anupama for five years — just like in Ek Duuje Ke Liye — and after that time, if we were still interested in each other, we could get married. I promised that I wouldn’t be in touch with their daughter for five years and that was amongst a few promises in life I did not keep. However, at that time, there was still no Anupama by my side. Everything looked grim that night.

The next morning, when I looked at myself in the mirror, I decided that if I let other people take my life decisions or decide my happiness, I would fail. I need to be in a position where this situation never repeats itself — I wanted to become so good at what I do that I would never have to get my appraisal done by anybody. Otherwise, I would have to change my behavior and toe the line. I am a contrarian, I think differently. I attempt impossible things. I like my teams to think differently and attempt impossible things too. So, the only option was to become so indispensable that people can’t ignore my ideas and me irrespective how out-of-the-box they may be.

Fortunately, many in the team in Bombay office resigned and the company needed someone to go there immediately. So they postponed the decision to fire me. In those days, we had an inconsequential market share in Bombay. I was there with a bunch of demotivated people. And I was myself a demotivated boss. The organisation clearly told me: “You are not technically good, your culture doesn’t align with the organisation, and you will not succeed. Because we have no choice, we are sending you to this kalapaani called Bombay.”

I had to turn the tide. After many sleepless nights, I went to the Asiatic store in Churchgate in the morning. There, I bought 50 condolence cards and got them to the office. I told my team, every time you win a deal, write the name of the person from the competing company on the card and send it to him. That became our motivation — to post those 50 cards within a year. Everyone was so angry with the competition winning most of the deals that it drove them to think out of the box and win by sheer grit, determination and passion as never seen before. The first condolence card we sent was to a big IT czar. When we won the deal, the entire office signed the card and decided to send it, not to the sales guy, but to the top guy. It became such a big story within the team that we started winning one in every two deals we bid. We were chasing impossible dreams and doing it in ways others were not even thinking. To win over the reins of success, you just have to try harder than anybody else. Then magic happens. And it did. The Bombay turnaround was a classic story of my life.

Meanwhile, Anupama and I had stayed the course, won my father-in-law’s approval, and got married. Winning her hand was actually the biggest victory of my life. The five-year embargo notwithstanding, we stayed connected. But then, that’s the way love works — it finds a way to win. Thankfully, many things had changed in those five years — apart from my MBA, I had a stable job, or at least at a position that gave them the confidence that I could feed their daughter!

Everything was going fine. HCL gifted me a car, transferred me from Bombay to Bangalore, then to Delhi, then again to Bombay. Each time, I was the guy sent to douse the fire. By then, I had been with HCL for five years. I was clear that I didn’t want to stay on the same path because the HP joint venture was coming in. I always thought of starting my own company. That was a dream that was born when I had almost got sacked from HCL earlier. Now when I think about it, had they not sacked me, my life would not have shaped up as it did. I think that shock was critical. It reminded me of Mrs Anand’s question: “What are you going to do about it?” My mother always used to say, “It’s not what happens that’s important, but what you take away from it and do something with it that matters.”


Shiv is a spectacular human being; ‘brilliantly crazy’ is the word for him. I saw him take big bets which others were afraid of, and win. I thought I needed to do the same, and thus quit. I still remember our conversation at the Taj President. He said, “You are recently married; your wife has moved to Bombay and you are quitting. Why?” I simply told him I didn’t want to continue on the same path. That I didn’t know what I’m going to do next, but I did know what I do not want to do, and this was the end of my HCL innings.

Shiv didn’t probe further, instead, he was curious to know who I was — we talked about aspirations and about life. We discovered that we had many things in common. Our mothers were our main inspiration. His father had died early, just as mine had. We just talked about life, nothing about business or strategy or HCL. Our conversation that night continued till the next morning, and he asked me to come to Delhi the next day. When I met him in his Delhi office, he invited me home and we continued our conversation again until the wee hours. That’s how our partnership as entrepreneurs started. That’s how Comnet was born. Had I not walked away from HCL then, I don’t think Shiv would have wanted me as a partner. I was someone who was willing to risk my entire existence as he had done and, I guess, he respected that. Shiv became the primary promoter of Comnet followed by JP Morgan who came in later.

Over the years, I got a lot of love from him, Guddu (Kiran Nadar) and his mother. His mother is the best cook in the world — you will want to eat your fingers! Whenever I went over to Shiv’s house, his mother would insist on cooking for me. He would come home with me as well, sit down with my mother and spend hours with her. He was a friend, guide and a mentor and I learnt a lot from him.


Comnet was born. It was 1993. We had the partnership but didn’t have the money. The National Stock Exchange had just floated a tender for its trading terminal. We were a young company with zero revenue and 13 employees. But we decided that we needed to win this tender. We had HCL, Wipro, AT&T and other bigwigs as competition. Once again, we were going after the impossible. I put the team together and started working out of a small office in Delhi, which was right next to a smelly toilet — that was the only space we could afford. Getting out of that office became our motivation!

I told the Comnetains that we were going to win by leveraging something that nobody else had — the gumption to work for 24 hours. I told them that nobody is to go home for six months. “We will write a proposal and present it in a way that they don’t ask for our revenue or balance sheet. If we failed, we would shut down the company and take up jobs,” I said. They were a talented bunch from IITs and IIMs, but not from a technology background; I was one of the few so-called geeks. Moreover, they were young, most with just a year or two of experience. I went to Israel and tied up with a technology provider who was small, hungry and cutting-edge.

We did all kinds of crazy things and made it to the final two. The NSE team asked us to be available for negotiations. In those days, there were only landline phones, so we had to give them an address. I told them that everybody was staying at The Oberoi because it was a $6.5 million deal. A deal that size had never taken place in India till then. Of course, we didn’t have money to stay there, but I checked in anyway. I booked a room in my name but all 13 of us stayed there. Whenever the hotel staff came, the others would hide in the bathroom or some corner. All of us slept in that single room. One of them, who is now a big shot in Indian IT, would snore a lot, so we made him sleep in the bathtub! We lived like that for seven days, but crafted a great pitch — that’s what mattered.

I knew how to make a convincing pitch; after all, I managed to convince my father-in-law with the same approach! If you are looking to propose, you can do it two ways. Either you go “Marry me because I’m the most handsome or the richest guy in town” or you make it about her. Tell her she is the most beautiful person you have ever met, the warmest and so on. The same principle works when you go to sell a product or service. Most sales guys go the first route and end up talking about themselves. Going the second way worked for us. Our pitch was about NSE’s aspirations and granular details of how we will get them to that point — faster, cheaper and better. They didn’t just want a technical solution but people committed to their vision. They saw that in us. We didn’t talk about ourselves because that was our weak point. Our approach took away the scanner from who we were to what we could do for them. And we won! We survived! We now had a future.

Our stay at The Oberoi had paid off. When checking out of the hotel, the manager and I exchanged pleasantries. He asked about my stay. I said it was great. Then he said, “Did your friends enjoy the stay too?” I looked up at him in surprise. He knew! Smiling, he said, “We have never seen a bunch of such passionate guys.” Since then, I have always stayed at The Oberoi no matter where I go.

That NSE win created Comnet. I was building on Sister Laurette’s lessons. When you choose which battles to fight, you have to see where you have the advantage. Number two, it has to be a battle worth fighting. Number three, you fight it like a cornered tiger would. If you step away from 90% of the battles, you will fight the remaining 10% with a velocity and ferocity that is unbeatable. You should be guided by logic, and not fear, and have the patience to wait it out.

Comnet grew swiftly and, when we started looking at the billion-dollar milestone, it was time to move on. That was 2005. I had started asking questions around purpose of life and the frugality of leading a life in the pursuit of profit. I wanted to do something dramatically different that had a purpose. Once again, I did not know what and how, but I knew the why. My mother, Anupama and I formed Sampark Foundation so that we can give back to the disadvantaged India when we had the energy to do it. At that point, Shiv came to me and said why don’t you come and lead the transformation at HCL Technologies? I thought that would be a bad decision from Shiv’s point of view; predominantly because I had never run a large company. And a turnaround is different from a start-up. I told him I was the wrong candidate for that role. But Shiv is very persuasive. Once he wants something, he gets it. So, a few long dinners and months later, I agreed; and I am glad I did.

Heading the transformation at HCL was like home-coming but also a difficult challenge as I had to learn, adopt and execute fast. I had a fantastic team, the best in business and the board, led by Shiv, was very supportive of bold moves. So, I was the only weak link in the chain and that is how I saw life in those early days. Yes, I was nervous and had a fear similar to the one I had felt while running behind the train at Ratlam.

We had to choose our battle in terms of who we wanted to fight. I decided to fight the big ones. My 10% rule! Let’s fight IBM. Let’s not fight with Indian IT. So, we started gunning for large total outsourcing deals. That change in focus had high risk but was a blue ocean strategic move that worked for us. The second question was ‘how do we fight this battle?’ We fight it with a new management thought — employees first, customers second. The ‘employees first, customers second’ as a disruptive management thought came about by asking three fundamental questions. Question one: what is our core business. The core business we are in is to create unique experiences for your customers, and thereby deliver unique value to our customers. Question number two: who creates these unique experiences, the unique value? The obvious answer was, the employees. So, the third and final question: if the employees create the unique value, then what should the role of the management be? And we said, that the role of the management cannot be anything other than enthusing, encouraging and enabling employees. Thus, was born employees first, customers second. We turned conventional management upside down and inverted the pyramid. That is the only way we could increase the passion level in the organisation to a level similar to that of the Bombay team raring to sign the next condolence card.

My appraisal was done by 100,000 employees and, it was posted on the intranet for everybody to see. I said that if my ratings were below a certain level, I will lose the right to lead. While I was putting up a brave front, I was also thinking to myself, “Holy shit, what have I got myself into!” But then, when people saw the leader taking the risk and surviving, the managers started seeing this as a new form of leadership. The resistance started waning. The whole strategy was to raise the motivation level in the organisation. You can accomplish anything. You just have to trust your employees, and raise their energy level and aspiration. I still remember our pitch to attract new talent — it said, ‘We are looking for plumbers.’ The idea was that there are organisations that are perfect — they have no flaws, no problems; but our organisation has lots of leaks, a lot of problems. So, if you are a plumber, where should you be working? That pitch worked.

‘Employees first, customer second’ became a rallying call. We would back our employees no matter what. Customers would often insist on working with a particular employee, especially if there were ego clashes or ethnicity issues. But we would push back and not take the easy way out. Over a period of time, the customers would come around. Whenever we faced such sticky situations with a customer who did not understand our employee-centricity, my best advice was to give it time. Don’t say a yes or a no. Just let it go, let time pass, like a river. Once you let things drift, the person changes or his decision changes.

I made it a point to meet all our employees every year face-to-face across the world. HCL Town Halls in India had around 5,000 people. One of the core aspects of employee first was to get rid of the halo around the CEO and get employees to stop looking at the top for directions and decisions. What fun we had! We would start the meeting with a dance. I would dance to a Bollywood song. I can’t dance for nuts but I used to, and then everybody would join in. A superhero moment was making my R&D team from Chennai dance on their chairs!

One Town Hall I can never forget was when we were celebrating the success of our trouble ticketing system. I used to call them gods — managers of the main departments such as finance, HR, admin and so on. If the employee wants to do something, the god will often say, well, you can’t, quoting some rules or regulations. So we created a trouble ticketing system, where an employee could open a ticket on the gods and the gods have to resolve it inside a certain period of time.

In the first week, we had 10,000 tickets and 99% of them were resolved within two to three hours. The next week, we had 20,000 tickets, again 98-99% got resolved. So I called all the gods and had a celebration. There were some 500 people in the room. I was raising a toast and congratulating everybody, when a girl, about 21 or 22 years old, stood up and said, Vineet, I have a question. It is a vivid memory. I said, yes, go ahead. And she said, Vineet, “I have not met…” — and these were her exact words — “I have not met anybody else as foolish as you.” I said, “I have teenagers at home and I have heard that statement before, but please tell me your reason for saying so.” She said, “How can you celebrate the fact that there are 20,000 problems in your company, and celebrate with the people who have created it in the first place?”

I was dumbfounded. It was an obvious point, but I had completely missed it. I drove from there straight to my office. It was 1 o’ clock in the night. I sat in my office throughout the night, asking myself, “What did I miss?” The next day, I announced a change in the plan. “We are going to incentivise gods on the days employees have no tickets,” I told everyone. So, we called it the ‘no ticket day’. We were not incentivising speed of closure but the fact that there is no ticket at all, which meant that every policy will be discussed with employees, they will do roadshows and they will take inputs. Now, the gods were most afraid that when they announce a policy, they will get tickets. And all this was because of that girl. That is the power of employees first. If employees are empowered and you create an environment where they can call the CEO a fool, great things can happen because everyone is aligned — looking outwards and not inwards.


When it came to creating big wins, it was always about doing the unimaginable. I can never forget the deal with Reader’s Digest. Their CEO, Mary Berner, was outsourcing and she had decided to give the order to a competitor of ours. I called her and asked her for five minutes of her time. She agreed and asked me where I was. I said, India. She said, okay, we can do it India time, so that it is convenient for you.

So, it was decided that we will have the call at 9 a.m. EST. After disconnecting the call, I drove straight from the office to the airport, took a flight, landed at 6 a.m. in the morning in New York, and by 9 a.m. I was at her door. I went in and she said, “We were supposed to have a call.” I said, “How many people will fly across the Atlantic just to have that five-minute chat with you?” She called her CIO and said, “Please change the decision.” We won the deal and at 3:30 p.m., I caught the flight back to Delhi without having checked into a hotel and the deal in my bag.

You can’t always pick every battle and do stuff that is unimaginable. So, don’t go after stuff you don’t believe in. But for stuff you believe in, you have to go with a ferocity that nobody thinks is possible. It’s about conviction and how ready you are to stick your neck out. We had made a pitch to a UK-based client, promising him a total saving of $160 million. It was a huge saving but he did not believe us. We decided to take with us a large cheque, literally — an artwork of a cheque with $160 million written on A3 paper. Our man loved the idea, but still would not believe us. We said we’d leave it with him so as to let it sink in. The next day, he met us and said that he would like to go with the deal but needed a guarantee. We said, he could reward us with a 5% bonus if we achieved the target. If we did not, then we would offer him a 5% discount. We made the deal because he could not take his eyes away from that A3 cheque on his wall.

Another spectacular win was the Axon deal. The Axon acquisition was very critical for us because till that time — 2007 — nobody was taking HCL seriously. Irrespective of our employee first, customer second strategy, nothing had changed. The company was ready, but nobody was taking us seriously. We needed to do something big. We decided to go for the Axon acquisition. Besides, the moment another Indian IT company arrived at the scene, we saw an opportunity for fairly large coverage, for free, in this battle. If we could take Axon from under their nose, the world would stand up and take notice.

The dilemma was that we had to make the acquisition, but not by paying a higher price. We had to make the other company blink, because if we make an offer and they got into a pricing war, then our board would not support such a move. So, our primary job was to make the other company believe that we are illogical and irrational — after all, the biggest fear you have of anyone is when the person is illogical, they’ll do crazy things like bidding till they go bust. So, we just kept sending feelers to the other team through various channels, trying to convince them that we will bid them out of the scene. So, we had six months of dance, and they blinked: they didn’t revise their bid. The deal was ours.

This is really an art. And Shiv is a master at that! I have not seen anyone better than him in such complex negotiations! I have not met a better mind than his in my life. There is a critical difference between a manager and leader. A manager helps you deliver more and a leader inspires you to do it in your own way. Shiv was clearly the latter. I had ideas and knew how to implement, but he fine-tuned them. He chiseled out the rough edges.

Nothing in business is always going right — we were in a deep mess, many, many times. He totally trusted me, and that’s how we accomplished what we did. That’s why I always say, the HCL transformation is not my doing. It is his doing and that of a brilliant team that put their heart and soul in making that magic happen. Our transformation from $700 million to close to $4.5 billion in six years was a fairy tale and we were one of the few companies that grew even during recession. By the time HCL Transformation phase 1 was complete, our market cap had gone from the low of $1.4 billion to over $10 billion. I think the board was convinced that we are in good shape. We had a good second-in-line in place. Shiv and I had an agreement that I will go back to Sampark Foundation. And I did.


The biggest influence in my life has been my mother. She was my closest friend and my soul mate. She was rare with her praise and harsh about making sure all of us do the right thing. She had seen life from close quarters and wanted all three of us to turn away from meaningless pursuits of wealth and recognition. My mother was after me more than the others because I was the one always arguing but she would win most of them. She was truly the one reason why Sampark happened. She was not one to mince words. “You are selling your soul,” she told me. “If a person of your talent is not working for the society, then you are wasting your life.” She would provoke me. “By wanting more and more success, you are only inviting unhappiness,” she would say. She defined four stages of happiness: financial security, recognition, giving and, finally, growing an understanding that none of the three were of your making. She said, you should not be stuck chasing the first two. That you have to give up these two to gain the third. Then, you have to learn the fourth. Plus, she said, and rightly so, if you want to see something change, you have to give it time. She said, you need at least 15 energetic years to make any change. It took me some time to act on it but I did. I had decided that Sampark is not about money, it is about my time. From 2005 to 2013, we gave away millions of dollars in cheques to a lot of NGOs. Anupama and I were convinced that none of them made any impact. That’s when I decided to quit my job. I was 50. My mother was decidedly against calling it the Nayar Foundation. She said, “The day you do it, don’t call me your mother!” She came up with the name ‘Sampark’.

My wife is a very different person — she has a heart of gold and a passion for education that I have not seen in anyone till date. She supported me, as always and we started working together. She in the lead, and me following for a change. She decides what we do, the brain, and I execute that vision in the best way possible. We wanted Sampark to come out of our house, not out of a garage, not out of a commercial building. I bought the house next to mine, where we are headquartered now, as the first step.

The India we had seen — in villages — was an India that had 150 million children whose first meal was from the mid-day meal scheme. Most in the fifth grade could not count beyond 99 or construct simple sentences. The urgency for change was hard to miss. It was a problem that spoke to me. We wanted to solve the problem of scale with limited resources. So, frugal innovation became the central theme of Sampark Foundation inspired by my friend Tim Brown, the CEO of Ideo.

Since my parents come from Punjab, we started there. After one year of tremendous effort, it became clear that we had failed. Whenever anyone asked me about our work there, I would say we are working with 5,000 schools, blah blah blah, and they would be very impressed. But I was convinced that we were fooling ourselves. I still remember the conversation with the Sampark management team. I said, I am pulling the plug, we are getting out of Punjab, because we don’t have the political support and our intervention lacks the excitement to become irresistible. This system is not keen to change. And we don’t have the resources or the products to make the system work. Let’s get out and say Punjab is a failure. Whose failure? Our failure.

Around the time, I heard of this ex-governor of Chhattisgarh, who was very progressive. A friend of mine, Arun Seth knew this ex-governor, General Seth. I called him and asked if he could introduce me to him and he did. I met him and shared with him our vision and how we believe we can transform Chhattisgarh’s education system. Then, I asked him, if he could introduce me to the chief minister. He looked at me and said, the chief minister of Chhattisgarh is in the hospital taking care of his wife (she was very sick at that time). I said, I don’t mind meeting him at the hospital. He laughed, and said, well, that’s not the point!

Anyway, that meeting took place in the hospital. Honorable chief minister Raman Singh saw merit in what we were doing. And I said that we wanted to do a state-wide implementation — 32,000 schools in one go. And he agreed. That led to the launch of Sampark Smart Shala, which is a outcome-focused, frugal innovation that uses audio technology, a voice mascot called ‘SamparkDidi’, toys, folklore, board games, teacher-training modules, and a mobile app combined with rigorous monitoring in collaboration with State Governments.

That was a big battle to win and we won many more  We won the right to impact primary education of our children in Uttarakhand and Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand and Haryana and UP and Himachal. Today we have 7 million children in our programme across 76,000 schools and it costs less than $1 per annum per child for them to benefit from the Sampark Smart Shala program. Three years from now we will have 200 million children across 200,000 schools. That is my dream.

However audacious the dream may be, my philosophy at Sampark remains the same — put the doers at the centre. At HCL, it was the 100,000 employees and, here, it is the 200,000 teachers. All others are simply facilitators. The difference, however, is that HCL’s 100,000 employees reported to me directly, but these teachers don’t. But then leadership was never about exercising control, it’s about encouraging and inspiring people to act. Then simply seeing the magic unfold.


In life, I am very, very grateful to a lot of people — I am very grateful for the teachers I got, and to have Shiv as my friend and mentor and to have worked with some amazing Comnetains, HCLites and now Sparks. But most of all, I am very grateful for my mother. If you have a rock solid mother in your life, you cannot fail. She was a simple girl from Jalandhar. Her father was a cigarette vendor at the railway station. During partition, she was standing on the ledge of her house and she saw a Muslim man’s head being cut off. As if those scars were not enough, she lost her husband when she was very young. She survived a lot in life. But she never ever expressed regret. Never.

The last four months I spent with her during her battle with cancer changed me as a person forever. She had so much to give even in her last few days. That is a life worth living. She inspired me at every step. She also was my professional guru, in addition to Shiv. She would look at my quarterly earnings call on CNBC and have two pages of notes on the things I did wrong! She shaped my core beliefs about ethics, values and society.

Anupama reinforced that. She made me more empathetic. She was the first person I met as a friend. We met very early in school. As she has been with me for so long, she has had a tremendous influence on my thinking about people, friends, society, etc. She is also the one I fight with the most.

One of the great things that I have been blessed with is a fantastic family. My two brothers Neeraj and Vibhu and my cousin Mukesh are rock solid supporters without whom I would have tumbled down from the hill long before it was time to climb. After my dad’s death these three have been my support group who I run to in trouble, which is quite often. They are my Panchayat. I laugh the loudest, dance the hardest and drink the most with them. They have least, sorry, no respect for me or my opinions and tolerate me only because I happen to be their brother. We love life and we love it when we spend it together. Without them I wonder where I would be, but it is best not to tell them that because I would have to pay a price for admitting it!

Life has turned out great, but it’s not been easy. I had my share of ups and downs. I am sure I have made many more mistakes than an average leader, however, sometimes when you work with the right set of people, things just happen. For me, victory in life, not just in business, was always snatched from the jaws of defeat. The high point has always been chasing the impossible trains. Impossible trains that create meaning in life, and are for a purpose beyond wealth and recognition.