Azim Premji was in his 20s when he took over his father’s vegetable oils business. Back in the 1970s, the firm, then only just diversifying into manufacturing soaps, set out to hire from one of the top B-schools in the country, but had to return empty-handed—for nobody, as Premji once recounted, had heard of them.
The Wipro story—the transformation of a family business into a professionally-run one and, then, its early bet on infotech as the future—is one of India’s corporate legends.
Premji, 72, who has been at Wipro’s helm for half a century, believes owners of corporates are trustees of the wealth that has to drive social causes. He is among India’s most generous businessmen, having pledged 39 per cent of Wipro’s shares for philanthropic initiatives.
Premji, Best Socially Conscious Entrepreneur at the Outlook Speakout Awards 2017, feels we are doing far too little when it comes to caring for our environment. “Issues of environmental sustainability, particularly that of water and climate change, are going to hit us harder and sooner than we expect,” he tells Outlook in an interview. Edited excerpts:
Education, you have always believed, is the fuel that drives India’s growth. Looking back at the Azim Premji Foundation’s work through these 17 years, how satisfying has the journey been?
Education can drive growth and development, but it is a lot more than that. It is the foundation for a just, equitable and humane society. A good public education system is critical for a sound democracy.
The 17 years with the foundation so far have been very gratifying. We have learnt a lot. We have built deep expertise in education and a large, outstanding team of committed people working in the field and at our university. As a nation, we have made a lot of progress. We have one of the largest public education systems anywhere in the world. School enrolment is close to universal, irrespective of gender, caste or religion. If you consider that just 30 years ago, less than half of our girls were in school, this is nothing short of remarkable. All this has not happened by chance, but is the result of systematic efforts.
We cannot be satisfied, though, when there is so much more that remains to be done. The quality and equity of our schools need to improve significantly, so that all our children learn to think for themselves, and grow up as good citizens of this country. Once this happens, I believe school education will play an important role in bringing to light the India that we have promised ourselves in our Constitution.
What are the broad issues you often find yourself worrying about?
I must say I don’t worry too much, because worrying is not constructive. We continue to have so many of our people without access to the most basic of things—a decent livelihood, nutrition, shelter, healthcare, education, justice, all that is essential for a life of dignity. This is deeply troubling.
We are also doing far too little when it comes to caring for our environment. Issues of environmental sustainability, particularly that of water and climate change, I feel are going to hit us harder and sooner than we expect.
There are challenges on multiple fronts of human development, and we must confront them.
I think each of us must pick up some area and try to contribute towards it. This will require building great expertise in that area, and working on a sustained basis.
Corporations, you have noted earlier, can play a significant role in contributing to building a better society. Understandably, there are limitations. Even external regulatory mandates for social action, can have only a limited role to play. Do you see owners, who aren’t restricted in that sense, doing as much philanthropy as they could be? This, more so, at a time when we are seeing a vibrant start-up ecosystem taking shape and creating more, and younger, millionaires?
There are many individuals and corporations already contributing to building a significant society in India. Surely this number can increase substantially.
Along with a few other like-minded philanthropists, I am involved in the India Philanthropy Initiative, which is an effort to share and learn from each other on matters of social concern and philanthropy. We have seen very vibrant and honest sharing of experiences and resources. Over time, I feel, such initiatives will help in increasing philanthropy.
Some years ago, at a graduation ceremony, you spoke about the “critical importance of things that we consider ordinary”. In an age defined by the speed of innovation and disruptive business models, what are some ordinary aspects that we often overlook?
There are three simple things whose importance can never be overstated. They are hard work, humility and integrity. In my experience, these three qualities are essential for a meaningful and fulfilling life.
Through Wipro’s journey from a small company making vegetable oils to a global technology firm, if there was one persistent thought you woke up to in the 50 years at the helm, what would it be?
I have usually been a good sleeper, because I don’t carry my worries to bed. But if I were to interpret your question metaphorically, I have always felt it is very important for our entire organisation and everything we do to always reflect the deepest sense of integrity. And integrity, to me, is more than only abiding by the law. It is about honesty and fairness in all actions, it is about delivering on commitments, it is about being true to oneself.
N.R. Narayana Murthy has described you as “one of the finest exponents of good governance in India and the best example for separating management from control”. What would you reckon as the most important lessons you have learnt about governance, leading Wipro?
At the risk of sounding repetitive, I would say, integrity is at the core of good governance and I mean integrity in the manner I have described previously, the broad and deep definition of integrity, not a narrow one.
And I must also add that I feel there is too much attention being paid to the notion of good governance at the board and top management level. This, however, is not of much use unless there is a culture of good governance, a culture of integrity, across the entire organisation.
Good governance manifests in what happens with your company’s front-line employees, its clients and vendors. As I said, a culture of integrity is everything, good governance is only one aspect.