I’m always amused when I’m invited to speak at premier management institutions like Wharton and London Business School. Imagine a college dropout being asked to speak at such prestigious institutions. It’s a huge honour and opportunity to say a few words to aspiring youngsters on coping with the challenges life throws at you; to encourage these people to go through life with bold initiatives and innovative solutions. Although a Gujarati-medium education hindered my communication skills in English, I’ve never let embarrassment be a roadblock in my life. The one thing I’ve never lacked is confidence and courage of conviction.
I’ve always believed vision, wisdom and dynamism are no one’s monopoly as we can find these in anyone—from 15 to 75. I’ve never had any doubt that dreams can become a reality if you have a focused and honest commitment. You have to have fire in your belly to excel without having to succumb to any qualitative compromise. You don’t need to be part of any top business school alumni. As a product of India’s 1991 economic reforms, I enjoy telling today’s youth about the immense possibilities in successfully developing infrastructure in our great country.
I was never afraid of hard work. At 16, I was the youngest sales representative for Poopcee, the makers of feeding bottles. Visibly tiny in both age and height, I was soon nicknamed “Poopcee Mini”, a small bottle for infants. I had a tough time dealing with clients who wouldn’t believe that despite my age, I was commanding the job. Some senior representatives were even jealous of the way I overcame the challenges I encountered. As a young boy fresh out of school, I had all to gain and nothing to lose. Six months later, my remuneration went up from Rs 475 to Rs 750. I was a hero among my school friends.
The success went to my head, unfortunately, and I began thinking I would venture into my own business. Everyone thought I was stupid to leave such a well-paid job. All I had saved was Rs 5,000. That was a big lesson to learn—to distinguish between arrogance and conviction. But it became a hobby to preserve and nurture till I succeeded at it.
One of my first entrepreneurial endeavours was to take betel leaves from Calcutta and sell them in Mumbai. I packed 4,000 leaves, purchased from the wholesale market, in 10 cane baskets and left for Mumbai. The plan was to sell these leaves to shops in the suburbs of Mumbai. I took the blessings of my parents and boarded the train only to realise that my ordeal had just begun. I had to travel in unreserved compartments to save money and slept near the toilets so I could continuously sprinkle water to keep the paan leaves from drying. Everyone from the coolie to the ticket collector thought they could have a go at me since I was young and alone. When I landed in Mumbai, the nightmare continued as people swamped me to get their pound of flesh. None of my clients (the ‘paanwale bhaiyyas’) could believe that a boy from a ‘good family’ could survive such trauma and come to Mumbai to sell betel leaves at attractive prices. But I learnt to deal with people, to drive a hard bargain and the trip turned out to be a huge success—I made Rs 450 out of those seven days of pain and stress.
Later, I forayed into manufacturing pharmaceutical bulk drugs for the export market and had to pay heavy demurrages (charges paid to compensate for the delay of a ship beyond its scheduled date of departure) to Mumbai port for the import of raw materials. The Mumbai port was extremely inefficient. I was aghast to find out that while ports in UK, Europe, Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea would take 12 to 24 hours for pre-berthing and turnaround, Indian ports used to take between 12 to 17 days. I remembered what my mother had told me—‘jiska raja vyapari, uski praja bhikari’. This effectively meant that the government had no business being in business. Privatisation was the need of the hour. I conceived of India’s first private sector infrastructure company, Port of Pipavav.
Most people didn’t believe an unknown company could even muster the courage to develop the first private sector sea port in a country where there was still no policy or precedent to attract private investment. People would ask me about my background, my father, and even ask who would support building of the port. All this only made my resolve stronger. Infrastructure had to wait for industry and not vice versa. We faced a very hostile site which was cobra-infested, leopards roamed at night and the mafia reigned merry. For us, it was either them or us. As if the adverse conditions weren’t enough, two ghastly murders occurred. One of those killed was a senior official from Japanese company Sumitomo Corporation. I was brutally attacked as well. But this didn’t stall our resolve. We found mentors who believed in us and our vision. And finally in November 1996, Port of Pipavav became a reality and our first ship was turned around in just 36 hours. Nothing seemed impossible for me and my bunch of wise and brilliant men and women.
In all my years, I have never allowed my dreams to be overpowered by circumstances and overwhelmed by situations. Despite this, I have no doubt about the importance of centres of excellence, top schools and universities. Having achieved everything I have, sometimes I wish I had been able to learn from visionary gurus like Professor Nitin Nohria. But I have no regrets, life teaches you a lot anyway.
However, unless hundreds of millions of children and youth get quality training, coaching and education, India, at least in our lifetime, may not achieve the distinction of being a developed country. Formal education will open up doors for all those budding stars of India as it is imperative that they are all qualified in some sense to secure jobs based on their knowledge, competence and capability. I am an unsatisfied soul who feels so much more needs to be achieved in the education and knowledge sector, a sector which requires big partnerships to service the population of one billion and needs to combine brick and mortar with the virtual world to meet the goal of education for everyone.
(The writer is the group chairman of skil Infrastructure, a first-generation entrepreneur who set up India’s first privately developed mechanised port in Pipavav, Gujarat.)