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'Now, Americans connect India with technology'

December 06, 2006 15:20 IST
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IIT-ian Kanchana Thamodaran is a critically acclaimed Tamil writer-activist. Born and brought up in India, she obtained an undergraduate degree in engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, in 1980.

She moved to the US in 1980 to pursue postgraduate education in engineering and business administration, and has co-authored academic publications in the Journal of Consumer Research, the Journal of Marketing Research, and the Journal of Marketing.

Her work experience includes being a marketing executive for Procter & Gamble and Pepsi-Co, and an independent business consultant. She has actively contributed as a member of the parent advisory council in the Norfolk Academy High School.

She is actively involved with the education of the under-privileged, tsunami relief, et cetera.

In an interview with, Kanchana Thamodaran speaks about how IIT-ians plan to give back to India, how Americans view IIT-ians, and how young entrepreneurs can succeed in their chose fields. Excerpts:

'Inspire, Involve and Transform India.' Can you dwell upon the significance of the theme for this year's Pan-IIT global conference?

I personally believe this theme is long overdue and I am happy to see us march in this direction. We received a world class education that has served as a springboard for spectacular achievements later -- all subsidised heavily by the Indian taxpayer. We need to give something back to the society/societies that nurture us.

How do IITians plan to give back to their country and to transform it?

There are many areas where India needs to develop -- like primary education, basic healthcare, infrastructures, protection of internal resources, awareness of constitutional rights among citizens, corporate responsibility reform, consumer rights, women's empowerment, basic human rights, and so on.

I believe that India should objectively assess its strengths and weaknesses, and decide on a multi-pronged strategy which would continue its global player status without compromising the long-term wellness of its people. We need to be part of such an assessment, planning, and implementation, and contribute the broad knowledge and experience we have acquired from within India and elsewhere.

India needs to have a strategy as to how to harness and utilise this brainpower effectively. FDI does not have to mean just money; brainpower is an equally significant resource we can put at our motherland's disposal. Naturally, this would have to be a labour of love on our part.

And, all this needs to be done under the advisement of a select few who are familiar with, yet not shackled by, the existing Indian system. President Abdul Kalam and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh have already been encouraging us along with constructive suggestions.

Transformation of a diverse society like India cannot be just a unilateral top-down process. A simultaneous grassroots approach is absolutely essential.

IIT-ians are considered the pride of India. What do you think is the biggest contribution of IITians to India?

I cannot help a slightly embarrassed smile at such an enthusiastic IIT flag-waving. Yes, we too have made India proud.

The yesteryear perception of India as the exotic 'Other' -- complete with snake charmers and long-haired native girls -- has disappeared now. And that is a good thing, since being branded as the 'Other' has historically been a key component to being branded 'Inferior.'

IIT-ians have contributed to this positive change continually and steadily over time -- even before India opened her markets, and even before Y2K brought several talented Indian software engineers to foreign shores.

Since IIT is a unified umbrella brand name, it has been easier to attain the critical mass necessary to make a difference in global perception.

Colonialism brought some key industrial advances to India, but our ability to participate fully in the industrial revolution was limited by the colonisers' objectives. The creation of IITs was part of postcolonial India's step toward achieving that which had been denied to us. While (former prime minister) Jawaharlal Nehru's socio-economic-political policies are not beyond criticism, his decision to invest in IITs shows long-term vision in retrospect. The payout has been significant, both in tangibles and intangibles.

When you made it to IIT, what was that experience like?

OK, I am going to date myself by telling you that I joined IIT in the mid-70s. Going from an all-girls convent school to an almost-all-boys IIT was initially a challenge. Friendly comments like "IIT girls are the third species," were quite amusing. Then there were those not-so-amusing remarks like, "You girls are going to get married and stay at home anyway, why are you occupying seats that the hunter-gatherer men actually need."

Finally, there were those life-altering job interviews with unconstitutional comments like "tough to hire female engineers, there are night shifts you know."

However, the overall IIT experience was positive. It taught me what healthy competition among peers means. It taught me how to work as a team. It also taught me to understand differences between genders in communication styles and effectively overcome these natural barriers. It taught me that I needed to work doubly hard to prove myself so as to overcome century-old biases against educated females.

Finally, it taught me that I can still spare my weekends to work with the underprivileged children in a nearby village IIT had adopted. Some of these core skills have gone a long way for me in my professional life. Additionally, IIT has given me valuable friendships which last to date.

Did you have any role model who inspired you in your career?

No one particular person I can call role model. But there are a few people who have inspired me. My Mom, who encouraged me to follow the IIT path despite objections from within a conservative family, and who has been a cheerleader throughout my corporate career, now-renowned Tamil writing, and quiet social service.

Both my parents taught me a good value system through their real-life behavior. Dr M S Ananth, now the director of IIT Madras, then my professor for thermodynamics and fluid mechanics, urged us to have a broader worldview than that afforded by our conventional education.

Tell us about your stints at P&G and PepsiCo.

Fabulous growth experiences. Both the companies offered young and dynamic environments to work in. It was fun being the new generation of young women who could simultaneously define power and femininity. We wanted to make things happen. And, we did. We aspired to have it all. And, we do -- for the most part.

P&G wrote the book on marketing, so I am fortunate to have been a marketing executive with them. I liked their strict views on ethics in business; it takes a very responsible corporation to urge its employees to differentiate between the right way and the easy way, and take a clear stance. P&G was then leading the way in terms of creating better working environments for women who wished to balance career and family; I was part of a few of these core teams to effect change.

In PepsiCo, I was involved in some of their cutting-edge projects; I found myself part of an energetic group which made being intellectual an actual fun exercise. Additionally, I got to work with the world's top advertising agencies through both P&G and PepsiCo.

Many new worlds opened to me through these two companies. They built on the education I had received from IIT and the US universities. They continually forced me to ask questions based on reality, not some theoretical abstraction of reality.

How do Americans view IIT-ians today?

CBS's 60 Minutes segment on IITs by Leslie Stahl has been widely disseminated and discussed by all in the US and outside. It basically hailed IIT as the best engineering institution in the whole world; while that might have been a bit of media overkill, the overall point was well-taken.

Americans never connected India with technology in the old days, now they are seeing it and going, 'Oh wow! India. . . who knew!' When I run into US Senators and Congressmen, I see my IIT credentials add to the generic respect they already have for Indian-Americans.

How would you say have IIT-ians contributed to making 'Brand India' a hit in the US ?

By becoming who we are today, through hard work and integrity.

Could you tell us 5 things that young IIT-ians, entrepreneurs must do to succeed?

  • Develop core skills in your area of expertise to the point of perfection;
  • Know what your strengths are and what your areas of opportunities are: exploit strengths while continuing to weaken your weaknesses;
  • Keep your eyes and ears open for new opportunities: remember that every opportunity has a very small time window;
  • If you are in a high risk-high payout situation, be very clear on when to call in your gains or when to cut your losses and get out;
  • Prioritise and manage your time accordingly.

What are the challenges that India faces in the new millennium? How can IIT-ians help address these challenges?

Unless every citizen has some basic level of education, India cannot be a real constitutional democracy. Public school education should be the strong backbone of a country like India. However, the Indian government spends roughly 1.7% of its GDP on school education and a total of 3.4% on overall education (versus Brazil that spends 5%).

School education has festered into an unregulated free market, and both children and parents are getting crushed. We, the products of a world class educational institution subsidised by the government, need to ask why so little is being spent on primary education.

There needs to be an exhaustive public library system in India, like in the US, as part of a larger drive to make education accessible to all.

There needs to be sufficient protection of natural resources like water from both State and Corporate forces. For example, Tamil Nadu has had to wage constant battle over Cauvery and Mullai Periyaaru waters with its neighboring states for years. It is ironic that we are able to share a river with China but unable to share rivers within India.

As India is a non-federal setup where power resides at the Centre, states do not have enough power to resolve anything; lack of clear laws or coordinating agencies for effective water sharing between states leaves the situation in an unhealthy status quo. Further, ground water appears to be getting depleted faster than it is being replenished in several parts of the country.

Add industrial pollution of water bodies and the picture gets even messier. Since water -- not oil -- is the scarcest natural resource for the coming years, an immediate and feasible action plan is necessary. This is too precious a matter to be allowed to get lost in the politics of the moment.

I am all for entrepreneurship and free enterprise, because I can clearly see the benefits. However, the American model of the same includes several antitrust acts as part of the judiciary, and also federal regulatory agencies such as the FCC for the media, FDA for food, medicine and other consumer products, citizens' watchdog groups, etc to watch out for the people.

How would we rate the judicial infrastructure of India, in terms of its ability to protect the key interests of the citizens in an open market economy, in the short-term and long-term? Are there clear means of self-empowerment for women and other historically oppressed groups? We need to understand that a country with a large gap between the haves and the have-nots could never thrive long-term, since it will continue to be in an unstable equilibrium at best. While a perfect level playing field may be a pipedream in practice, we have to at least strive toward an egalitarian State.

Ensuring the general well-being of society at large is the only way to ensure the well-being of any one individual long-term.

I can keep listing more issues. We need to get our energies together, decide on clear-cut ways of addressing the issues with minimal bureaucracy, and need to start doing. Less hierarchy, less committees, less words, more action, please.

What keeps India from becoming a product giant like it is in services?

This is a question I ask myself often. Service requirements are dictated by others. India steps in to fill the needs with brilliant competence and world class manpower. India can always say we have let China be the manufacturing centre and we have chosen to focus on services, at least for the next eight years.

However, the question goes deeper than just that. How innovative are we? How capable are we in out-of-the-box thinking? Where are the new ideas coming from really? If the answers to the above questions are not very encouraging, then we need to ask ourselves why honestly -- yes, 'we' includes us flag-waving IITians too.

The long-term global position as well as the degree of self-sufficiency of India would depend on how many real leaders the educational system and the society at large produces in all fronts.

What did you do for the tsunami victims?

When Tamil Nadu was hit hard by the tsunami of 2004, I felt restless and quite unnatural sitting in my office and staring at the bright Christmas scenes outside my window. All I could do was contribute to the special fund the Chief Minister had set up for orphaned children. But that just wasn't enough -- just contributing money is never enough. I flew to Chennai, stayed there for a few weeks, went to some places, met the children and others. Quietly and non-obtrusively.

How do you contribute to the society?

By being a good citizen to both my motherland and my adopted land. My work relates to educating the underprivileged children and motivating them to stay interested in studying against all odds. I've done volunteer work at school to contribute to the educational system. I write in Tamil in India, to share my knowledge with those who cannot read English -- about education, sex education, family violence, media, consumer rights, physical handicaps, the concept of civic sense, et cetera.

I speak to the younger generation here in the US, as in my keynote speech at the 2006 University of Michigan South Asian Studies conference. Interacted with Yale University about their Tamil Studies program. I continue to write to children and youngsters from India who write to me seeking a few words of encouragement. Currently, I am trying to figure out how best to consolidate and leverage my boundless energies and hard-earned skills toward bettering society.

In what way do you help train women for senior management roles and entrepreneurship development?

In my experience, networking and mentoring are important for women, in addition to the required conventional training. Information about opportunities should be made available to all.

Many IIT-ians have preferred to go aboard rather than work in India. . .

You know, I was talking about this to Professor Ananth during my last visit to Chennai. He said about 15% off the IITians go abroad. We should compare this percentage with other universities, before we jump to any unwarranted conclusions or judgments.

Do you think this trend is changing now? How can India retain its talented people?

Definitely. I think many get offered good packages even before they graduate. There is also reverse migration to some extent by those who went abroad before. However, here is something I read in the New York Times recently -- apparently, most of the plum jobs get taken by the IIT or IIM or similar upper tier school students, whereas the rest of the students are left to fend for themselves.

I found myself thinking, may be a one-billion strong nation cannot, need not, and should not retain all of its talented people. Until that nation can be developed into a land of opportunity for all. We should be contributing toward the latter.

Which are the technologies and companies in the rich India that can have a beneficial impact on the rural India ?

Water conservation and innovative irrigation technologies are a must. IT sector can have a tremendous impact in rural India: it can have tie-ins with women's self-help groups, and also serve to educate all through simple literacy classes.

Last century we talked about food self-sufficiency. This century we need to be thinking about energy self-sufficiency and fuel independence. There needs to be a focused and intense program of alternate fuel research in India, as there is in the US now.

Should India have more IITs? Why?

We have to have more IITs or increase the number of students in each IIT -- whichever is viable and feasible. If you take the US Ivy league schools, and compute the number of students as a percentage of the population, that is higher than the percentage of IITians as a fraction of the Indian population. If a brand name serves to expand opportunities, then the question is to optimise the brand's size so as to maximise opportunities without reducing brand equity.

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