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The Pilani Pioneers – When isolation sparks the entrepreneurial spirit

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New Delhi, Aug 4, 2021- It’s located in the small town of Pilani in the northern Indian state of Rajasthan with a population of around 30,000 but occupies a pre-eminent position among India’s institutions of higher learning. Away from the distractions of a big city provides for a focused academic environment and the birth of some ingenious ventures driven by highly motivated and compassionate individuals, say the authors of a book that details the remarkable achievements of alumni of the Birla Institute of Technology and Science (BITS) in their pursuit of “meaningful success”.

“The position that BITS occupies is owed to the very challenges that its students face in the 4/5 years they spend in this isolated haven. Pilani’s remote location has kept the hubbub of city life, and along with it its distractions, at bay. This has provided for a focused academic environment, but more importantly has forced its residents to interact with each other,” Gaurav Mandlecha and Durjai Sethi told in a joint email interview of their book “The Pilani Pioneers” (Pan) that profiles 25 of its graduates, including startup founders, entrepreneurs and CEOs who have made an indelible mark on the Indian and global business landscape while deftly navigating the twists and turns of their professional and personal lives.

“This interaction has led to innumerable discussions, and a multitude of ideas being shared. Apart from being cathartic in day-to-day conversations, this exchange of ideas has led to the birth of some ingenious ventures driven by highly motivated and compassionate individuals. An institution is as good as its alumni who serve as a metric of their alma mater’s success. Till the time we have these 25 individuals and thousands of BITSians like them, BITS Pilani’s pre-eminent position would remain intact,” the authors added.

The book features mavericks like Baba Kalyani, CMD of Bharat Forge; Hari Menon, Co-founder and CEO of BigBasket; Harish Bhat, Brand Custodian at Tata Sons; Sunil Duggal, Dabur’s longest-serving CEO; Tulsi Mirchandaney, MD of Blue Dart Aviation; Nandini Chopra, MD at Alvarez & Marsal; and Phanindra Sarma, Co-founder of redBus, among others, whose stories of passion and perseverance reveals what it takes to not only achieve success in the competitive arena of business but also make a positive difference in both industry and the world at large.

Is there a common thread running through these individuals that has taken them to the top?

“First and foremost is their pursuit of ‘meaningful success’. Apart from the fact that they are all BITSians and share the same moral fibre; it’s the sentiment of camaraderie which unanimously felt across the years and batches,” the authors explained.

“Throughout these interviews and our discussions with several BITSians, we found that the journey was as important as the goal. Without a doubt, these are all highly ambitious individuals, but marching on toward greatness while taking everyone along, helping others be better individuals, creating job opportunities, giving back to society, taking care of the environment is no ordinary feat.

“In the words of Adam Grant, these individuals are the ones who ‘rather than taking a bigger portion from the pie, expand the size of the pie so that there is more for everyone’,” they added.

For instance, Abhishek Humbad has done this via his firm, Goodera, which helps firms manage their CSR; Pradeep Kashyap through Project Shakti, which has helped empower 60,000 women entrepreneurs; and Sandhya Prakash through Beacon — her energy management and solar solutions firm.

How did the book come about?

In January 2018, Mandlecha had conceptualized the idea of a BITS Leadership Summit (BLS) — a student-run conference aiming to create a platform to promote thought-provoking discussions and constructive dialogue between pioneers of the global spectrum and pathfinders of tomorrow. He asked Sethi to join him on this venture and started reaching out to business leaders and influential personalities – the likes of former Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan (class of 67), (former Union Minister) Suresh Prabhu and Ajoy Misra (former MD and CEO, Tata Consumer Products).

However, due to certain administrative issues, BLS had to be shelved, but the idea of disseminating key learnings from individuals who had created a meaningful career still “remained with us and we decided to compile them in form of a book, which is how The ‘Pilani Pioneers’ was born,” the authors said.

They travelled to Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Pune, even San Francisco, and interviewed 25 BITSian business leaders “who not only were massively successful in their professional lives but more importantly had created a meaningful impact throughout their journey — helping the society, the underprivileged, the environment along the way. We felt these stories deserved to be documented well and be shared with the world,” they added.

“We had a rough idea how the book should be like,” the authors said.

“We wanted to interview business leaders who had built large businesses, and/or been part of corporates that have had great positive impact. Our final list is pretty much in sync with the initial goal we had in mind,” — a balance of huge traditional businesses like Bharat Forge and ONIDA — both iconic brands. On the corporate side, there’s Tata Consumer Products, Dabur, Mahindra EVs, and on the startup side, redBus and BigBasket.

“With these parameters in mind, we started researching BITSians who would fit the criteria. Reaching out to these individuals was a laborious task — we spoke with friends, seniors, professors, other alumni; we would even ask some of our interviewees to recommend and get us in touch with other influential BITSians.

“That is how we grew our network and then came the herculean task of contacting these individuals — cold-emailing, setting up the interview, researching in-depth about the interviewee, their organization and their contributions. We would read any and every material available about them on the Internet, curate our questions accordingly and only then go ahead with the interviews,” the authors said.

Since a key element of being a BITSian is the payback, the authors said they are donating 100 per cent of their royalties to institute a scholarship at BITS “to promote the culture of entrepreneurship and in the hope of benefiting the larger community”.

“One of the main motivations to do this pro bono was to inspire others that giving back needn’t wait till you’re 50. It can be done every day with little gestures and efforts. Let the compounding effect do its magic,” Mandlecha and Sethi concluded.  (Agency)

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