labels: telecommunications and computer network, profiles, it features
A karmayogi and a technocratnews
30 August 2006

Even after having inspired and built hi-tech companies worth hundreds of crores of rupees, Dr Ashok Jhunjhunwala remains a simple scientist and teacher, says Venkatachari Jagannathan.

Dr Ashok JhunjhunwalaWhenever any Indian industrialist is felicitated, it is very common to hear admirers say that (s)he is a ''karmayogi''. A true karmayogi is a doer, one for whom the attainment of the goal and the success of their mission is paramount, and the material fruits of the action are of no consequence.

Strive as they might for piety, most of our industrialists are unbelievably wealthy and yet want even more for themselves. Wrong category. A true karmayogi is creator of wealth, assets or knowledge for society, without actually craving for it personally.

Meet Dr Ashok Jhunjhunwala, head of the department of electrical engineering, Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras. After having inspired and built hi-tech companies worth hundreds of crores of rupees, he remains a simple scientist and teacher. Now he is spearheading the rural information technology enabled services and business process outsourcing (ITES/BPO) project of IIT Madras.

Little wonder that, two years ago, when Saloni Malhotra heard Dr Jhunjhunwala speak at a conference about his vision, she decided there and then to chuck her lucrative software job in Pune and work for the rural ITeS / BPO project of IIT Madras.

Inspiring people is nothing new for Dr Jhunjhunwala. "There is no transition of role from teacher to visionary entrepreneur," he says. "In the classroom, all teachers try to inspire their students to excel." He believes that students like to follow a leader, but the real way forward is to allow the students to see the action for themselves. "My role is to communicate the work effectively," he points out.

Dr Juhunjhunwala is no pompous pedagogue. He''s done it all before. He has guided the successful development of the indigenous telecom technology corDECT wireless in the local loop (WLL) (See: A global winner), and overseen the promotion of around 16 business outfits collectively called the Telecommunications and Computer Networks (TeNet) group. Today, TeNet group constituents do business worth more than Rs250 crore annually. IIT Madras gets around Rs10 crore in royalties annually from the technologies developed and commercialised by the TeNet group of companies.

The one disadvantage he faced in being a teacher was to get his students to put across a differing point of view. "In this country people respect their teachers a little too much. That prevents them from voicing their views openly," he says. But today, the situation has improved, and TeNet group insiders say that they can fight tooth and nail with Dr Jhunjhunwala on any point of view. "You can argue and get away saying anything, provided your intervention is for the project''s progress," says a TeNet manager.

Dr Jhunjhunwala feels a leader should have a large vision and boundless determination to attain that vision. In 1994, when he and his team spoke about 100 million telephone connections in India, the task seemed quite impossible. But India already has that number of connections now. A leader''s vision should be on this scale, he feels. "We are happy to have played a small role in the country''s telecom revolution," he says modestly.

There is no leadership without people to realise the leader''s vision. That can become possible only when a leader is able to identify, nurture, empower and also propel talent towards his vision. (S)he should be able to communicate the vision clearly, and inspire people. Dr Jhunjhunwala is an acknowledged master at this. In 1994, he convinced six youngsters — Shirish Purohit, Rene Abraham, Sanjay Gupta, Prakash B Khawas, Jawahar P Murugesh and Deepak Khanchandani — to develop and commercialise the corDECT technology by floating Midas Communication Technologies Pvt Ltd.

While that was the first set of people he inspired, the latest is young Ms Malhotra. When Dr Jhunjhunwala received Malhotra''s first mail, he invited her to Chennai. After talking to her, he was convinced that the young girl had the fire in her belly to lead the rural ITeS / BPO project. Though many in the TeNet group were sceptical because of Malhotra''s age, the professor didn''t hesitate. In one year, the rural IteS / BPO project has generated an income of around Rs80,000 for the villagers. Malhotra says the project is rapidly gaining momentum, and they have recruited more people to execute the orders on hand.

The IIT professor''s third leadership tenet is accepting mistakes. A leader should be ready to own the blame for a failure, and not blame the environment. Dr Jhunjhunwala admits that group company n-Logue Communications failed to live up to expectations. Now, he is in the process of rewriting the company''s business model.

A leader, feels Dr Jhunjhunwala, is one who sleeps peacefully even after hitting a dead end and can start afresh the journey towards the goal the next day. He and his team members did exactly this when they were trying to convince the Indian telecom authorities about the efficacy of the corDECT technology. (See: Tackling same side goals)

How does an entrepreneur compare with a professionally trained manager? He says, "A professional manager has often learned more and understands the processes better. Professionally, they are structured better. But their sense of ownership is much less than that of an entrepreneur." Leaders, he feels, should allow people to grow. Any leader who feels threatened becomes obsolete. "One should do one''s karma. One should work out the dharma of one''s trade and carry it out," he emphasises.

A recipient of the Padma Shri award, Dr Jhunjhunwala is perhaps the only serving academician in the country to have a place on the boards of large corporations like Bharat Electronics Limited, State Bank of India, Polaris Software Lab, Shyam Telecom, Tejas Networks and Sasken Communications, apart from the directorships in the TeNet group companies.

For the professor and his two colleagues — Dr Bhaskar Ramamurthi and Dr Timothy A Gonsalves — their karmic duty is to develop technologies and promote entrepreneurial talent, without themselves profiting from those activities.

Says Ray Stata, chairman, Analog Devices Inc, "Dr Jhunjhunwala has had many opportunities to personally financially benefit from the vision and the innovative products and technologies that he has generated, but he has scrupulously and wisely avoided taking any personal benefits from these situations, so that he can advocate and promote what he believes is in the best interest of Indian society without any suspicion of personal gain or conflict of interest." Analog Devices is one of the earliest supporters of TeNet group.

In fact, none of the TeNet faculty members hold stakes in the companies they have incubated. The stakes are held by the Swabhiman Trust and a Section 25 (non profit) company called Vishal Bharat Com Net. There is not much of cross holdings among the TeNet companies. It appears there are yet more karmayogis in the making.

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A karmayogi and a technocrat