Episode Number 238 / December 18, 2023

ISB Hyderabad, Rajat Gupta Case & CB Naidu I Pramath Raj Sinha

1 Hour 25 Minutes

Episode Number 238 / December 18, 2023

ISB Hyderabad, Rajat Gupta Case & CB Naidu I Pramath Raj Sinha

1 Hour 25 Minutes
Listen on

About the Episode

This week’s episode is about Chandrababu Naidu’s influence, the inception of ISB Hyderabad & Rajat Gupta’s Case Study as we welcome Pramath Raj Sinha, founding member of ISB & Ashoka University, to the Neon Show!

Chandrababu Naidu’s Role In Building ISB Hyderabad!

Why Is ISB Unable To Break IIT’s Monopoly In The Educational Sector?

What Makes US Education STAND OUT From the Rest Of The World?

Would ISB Have Happened WITHOUT Rajat Gupta’s Involvement?

All these CAPTIVATING topics and more in this MASTERFULLY INFORMATIVE conversation. A deep dive into where India is headed as a country & how important education will be in propelling it to new heights… Tune in NOW!

Watch all other episodes on The Neon Podcast – Neon

Or view it on our YouTube Channel at The Neon Show – YouTube

Pramath Raj Sinha 00:00

I have never had to give a single penny of bribe to any politician (SPEAKS HINDI). Any government ever. The scandal that took place at Satyam, our Dean was the Chairman of the Satyam audit committee and because of that he had to resign (SPEAKS HINDI). Even the Rajat Gupta case was a big challenge for us. ISB is in Hyderabad because of Chandrababu Naidu. I have spent nine years working with him and I’ve seen the intensity with which he took Hyderabad from nothing to what it is today. In India the situation is that we don’t treat students as students. We treat them like a commodity like we are doing them a favour and we really regard faculty in a high position. The importance of placements should stay. I think the mistake we are making is that… The mistake we are making is that we are saying that ‘if you study this then this will be the outcome.’ Who said this? This is wrong. And suppose this is actually true, then what is the point of being sentimental or non-sentimental about it? My relationship with that person is what matters. What you think of it doesn’t matter to me as I know what the reality is (SPEAKS HINDI).

Siddhartha Ahluwalia 01:18

He is the founder of Harappa Education. Founder of Ashoka University. He built guardrails and the infrastructure for modern business education in India. Today, even IIMs compete with ISB. And he has raised the bar for the entire Indian Education. Welcome Pramath Raj Sinha. Pramath sir, so glad to have you on the podcast.


Pramath Raj Sinha 01:38

It’s so nice to be here. And it’s a big privilege because so many people have told me about your podcast. So it’s, it’s a real honour to be here.


Siddhartha Ahluwalia 01:47

Thank you, sir. I’m really proud that we could host you.


Pramath Raj Sinha 01:51

Privilege is entirely mine Siddhartha.


Siddhartha Ahluwalia 01:53

Sir, before we dive into some of the journeys on education, some aspects of education, and Indian education in general, right, how we have evolved over the last 70 years and particularly over the last 25 years. And you have played a very active role in the last 25 years in shaping up the modern Indian business education.

Siddhartha Ahluwalia 02:15

I want to go into your childhood. Right. Those memories of your childhood that made you what you are today, and made you inclined on you know, pursuing the best part of your later half of your career in education.


Pramath Raj Sinha 02:31

I think the first thing I should talk about is the education that I got outside the formal education. And I think there were two or three elements that I would like to highlight. Number one is that I come from a family of writers. A legacy of writing in Hindi. So my father, my grandfather, my great grandfather, and his father were all writers of Hindi and Rajbhasha. And so even my father, when I was growing up, he was still around. My grandfather died early. I lived around lots of writers, literary figures. I used to be taken to lots of Goshtis and book launches by my father.


Siddhartha Ahluwalia 03:26

What is a Goshti?


Pramath Raj Sinha 03:27

A Goshti is just a seminar or discussion, you know.


Siddhartha Ahluwalia 03:30

A group of writers who gather together.


Pramath Raj Sinha 03:31

Yeah, you could say a seminar basically. So, of course, as a young boy, I did not appreciate it as much. Some of it was very boring [chuckles].


Siddhartha Ahluwalia 03:42

How old were you when you went to your first Goshti?


Pramath Raj Sinha 03:45

I don’t remember, but must be well before teenage. My father was a bit of a nervous type [chuckles]. So he would always take me along because he wanted somebody there with him. So he would take me along. After school I remember in the afternoon he would often say that eat lunch, rest a bit and then in the evening we have to go.


Siddhartha Ahluwalia 04:05

It must have been five, six years of age you were when you started going—


Pramath Raj Sinha 04:08

Yeah… from ages of 5, 6, 7, 8 I was doing that. We also had a printing press. And in that printing press, in those days, my father used to print school textbooks. They were books in… Simple books. There was one I remember called “East and West”. Short stories and so on. The point being that I grew up around a very scholarly, literary atmosphere, which I got to appreciate later, and it does connect to what I do now. So that was one connection that I go back to. The other is that… I don’t know if he did it by intention. My father used to give me lots of errands. He used to make me do lots of things. So I mentioned these textbooks that were printed and published by my father’s firm. In the winter time around this time, we would go through the villages in Bihar. Around Patna in an ambassador car loaded with books and diaries and calendars. And we would distribute it to the school teachers and school principals, encouraging them to buy the books for their children.


Siddhartha Ahluwalia 05:20

This was 1972—?


Pramath Raj Sinha 05:22

70s. Okay, now for me, it was like an adventure. It was fun. We were roaming around from morning till evening, going to places. But now when I look back, it was pure and simple door to door marketing, you know. It was market activation. Yet, I never thought of myself as a business guy. He would make me buy paper, ink. He would make me do… Catch people to do maintenance in the printing press. I would be exposed to some of the problems he would face. The ups and downs of the business. We actually had a physical shop, where we would sell the books. So every night we would go there and in the cash box, he would actually take out, count the money and make a register. He would send me to banks, post offices. He would send me to buy railway tickets, train tickets— plane tickets to receive people and see off people. My sisters got married. Their arrangements for— So again, I’m making a point here that I I learned a lot by doing and that’s something that has always stayed with me that while education makes you learn to do later, I think I benefited a lot from doing which helped me learn how to do later. Right. So that was the other aspect of my childhood. And the last thing I will say is that there was a lot of focus on education in the family. I had three older sisters and initially, there was a big focus on getting them married off. But there was an incident with regard to my oldest sister, which I’ve talked about. She’s written a book about it.


Siddhartha Ahluwalia 07:05

“Madam Sir”.


Pramath Raj Sinha 07:05

“Madam Sir”. So in that case, what happened was the emphasis shifted a lot on making the girls independent. Economically independent. Which also had an impact on me because they all went on to do big things in their lives. And that was inspiring for me. So they were a source of inspiration. So I would say that my younger days were laced with these types of things, which have really influenced me later in life.

Siddhartha Ahluwalia 07:34

But subconsciously, there was always the desire to educate others in you, even when you were growing up?


Pramath Raj Sinha 07:40

No, honestly never thought about that, to be honest. However, now when I look back, my parents were very involved in doing things for others. So my father was the secretary of the Harijan Sevak Sangh, and the Harijan Sevak Sangh used to run Balwadis. One Balwadi used to actually run next to our home, in a garage for the local children. So I remember being part of all of that. I didn’t realise what we were doing. I was too young to appreciate. One the need for it, and the fact that we were imparting education. My mother was involved in many women’s organisations: The All India Women’s Conference, the Bihar Council of Women. So she would be constantly fundraising, organising things, going to villages, selling items knitted by the women in the villages or helping them get loans to get a cow that would help. You know, I guess this is before the days of self help groups and so on. So these women’s organisations were very active. My father was very active. We were very active in the village that we come from. Even though we were living in the city, we were very closely connected with rural Bihar. So, there was a lot of, if you would want to call it social work going on in the family, which I think may have informed my desire to then later in life give back and I think again, that inspiration did come from my parents.

Siddhartha Ahluwalia 09:22

When you and Rajat were initially thinking of setting up ISB inside IIT Delhi is a story that you know, there were so many constraints that it couldn’t have been set up inside IIT Delhi. You have to shift it to an independent autonomous university, right? So how did Chandrababu Naidu come to know about it, because it was a private affair, right?


Pramath Raj Sinha 09:43

Yeah in that, there is a little bit of cheating going on [chuckles]. So what was happening was that I was at McKinsey at that time. And I had worked on this project in Malaysia which was on the economic development of Malaysia. So Chandrababu Naidu had visited Malaysia and heard from Mahathir (Mohamad) that McKinsey had worked on creating a vision 2020 for Malaysia. So when he came back, he tried to get in touch with McKinsey. And so, to cut a long story short, now I was with McKinsey here in India working on the Andhra Pradesh vision 2020. Now, even though we were working with the state, and we were doing a lot to attract investment into the state, honestly, in the early days of that, in parallel, I was working on ISB. Honestly, in those early days, the idea of having ISB go to Hyderabad never came up, because even after we moved out of IIT Delhi or cut the… I decided to move on from IIT Delhi and set it up independently, most of our board members and you know, all the, like, we talked about industrialists were from Bombay. So the obvious choice was to go to Bombay, and they said, “We’ll get land in Bombay regulatorily everywhere, you know, we are comfortable. We are all in Bombay.”


Siddhartha Ahluwalia 11:06

It would have been the easiest place to set up because—


Pramath Raj Sinha 11:08

And the commercial capital of the country, logical choice. Now, when we started to run into problems in Bombay, and you know, the story. I don’t want to repeat it here, but it’s, you know, there were the… Bal Sahab Thackeray asked for reservations and very heavy reservations. 50% for faculty. 100%, for staff. So then, our strategy was to see if we could put pressure on Bombay to remove those constraints, because after he made those pronouncements, unfortunately, he made it to the press. Then the bureaucrats started feeling like, oh, no, we did not want it to go this way. It was a situation that went a little bit out of hand. So they started saying, listen, just let’s wait a little bit and in a few months, and so on, we’ll try and correct this situation and remove some of these restrictions. But informally, and formally, we also thought that let’s put some pressure on Bombay by showing that other people are also interested. But when this happened, that news came out that this is happening and now ISB is looking for other locations. Then the McKinsey team that was working with Chandrababu Naidu, which was also working with me. They got… We got into action and we made him write a letter to every board member individually saying “Listen, if you want to look for a good location, there couldn’t be a better place than Hyderabad, and I’m happy to welcome you.” and so on. So that’s when we started engaging. And then there is of course, the whole story of how one day we flew from Bombay to Hyderabad to Bangalore to Chennai to find the place. And of course, the way he treated the board when we arrived there. And with so much respect, and affection and grace, that people were just bowled over. The land that he offered us was fantastic. I think you know where the campus is. In those days, there was nothing there, but a barren piece of land with some rocks. Today it’s a thriving metropolis. It could be anywhere in the world. So I think he was really visionary in that sense. In fact, I still remember that he took everybody and made a… presented. And of course, the presentation was done by the McKinsey team, but the title was ‘Hyderabad, the knowledge capital of Asia.’ Okay. And on the PowerPoint, he had Hyderabad with a star and there were links to Shanghai, Singapore, London.


Siddhartha Ahluwalia 13:57

He wanted to make Hyderabad a Dubai or Singapore.


Pramath Raj Sinha 14:00

Exactly. But just this conception that Hyderabad can be the hub, he saw it. He could see. Now, you could argue today that it has not quite become that but equally, if you look at where it has gone from where it was, it’s amazing.


Siddhartha Ahluwalia 14:15

If you aim for stars, then definitely you’ll reach the moon.


Pramath Raj Sinha 14:17

That’s right. That’s right. It’s a great example of that. So yeah, that’s how it happened. But more than that, you know, he did not give up. Once we got the land, I still remember there were three public interest litigations against the award of the land to ISB And this was not free like we had actually paid for it. But a lot of people got into the court… Went to court and said that this land was not legitimately acquired by the government and they had no right to sell it to ISB and that the price was not right and this is not in public interest. This is a private project, all of that. He personally asked the Attorney General to take charge of these three public interest litigations. I remember he told me that you have to come here and work closely with this gentleman to fight these cases. Then just every amount of support. We had problems with water. Drinking water. The last stretch of land— of road that had to be built when it was unprecedented. He basically told me in the end that “Listen, my guys won’t be able to get the road done in time. You please build it and you tell me how much it is. I’ll find a way to pay you.” That’s what we did. The electricity, they had to build a substation and towers to carry power to will the power to the campus. That was delayed. Again, he stepped in. So every step of the way. And he started to talk about ISB wherever he went. So he became our biggest evangelist. So wow, I mean, I really think we owe it to him to have and then you know, he got Rangarajan to inaugurate the camp— Lay the foundation stone. He got Prime Minister Vajpayee to come for the inauguration. He got President Kalam to come for our first convocation. So he took a lot of personal interest. See, there are many chief ministers. “Okay now you got your land so you go ahead and do your work.” (SPEAKS HINDI) Right.


Siddhartha Ahluwalia 16:32

“I have so many others to work—


Pramath Raj Sinha 16:33

Yeah he had lots of things to do. But he took personal interest and every step of the way he kept asking us what we needed, how we wanted it (SPEAKS HINDI). Now there was an advantage that I was also working with him on the site. So I could ask and I had access to him but I don’t think that that was something so special. I think even if I was not working with him as a McKinsey consultant, he would have supported us because I could see that he was doing that with many other people. I also saw Microsoft when they came. So again, he was… I don’t know if you remember the story that he flew to Delhi. In fact, we were again at McKinsey involved in making sure that he went and met the… Bill Gates at the US ambassador’s home and said that you come. Then Gates came. There was this big announcement. And finally Microsoft put their research centre in Hyderabad. And it’s a massive research centre. It’s a massive research centre. I don’t know if you know, it’s probably the largest outside of Seattle. So when they were coming in, they wanted to be next to ISB. Now you see how the multiplier effect starts. In fact, they wanted a little bit of extra land and Mr. Naidu personally called me, and he said, “Can you give us five acres of the land that we have sold you? I will give you land on the other side.” Right. And of course, I couldn’t say no to him, even though this is prime frontage land. But you know, we talked to the board. Board understood and you know, Microsoft is, uh, is right there with us. And then the whole area just exploded. So I think exemplary leadership as far as I’m concerned, in terms of really building the state, the city and contributing to its economic growth and creating a fantastic legacy.


Siddhartha Ahluwalia 18:23

This is a very interesting story, right? Because of how public… Though to create a private university, how a leader of a government came and just made sure everything happened right? From start to the finish line and was this the same case how you set up ISB Mohali, or the Ashoka University campus?


Pramath Raj Sinha 18:43

Yes. I have to tell you that these are all… I’m a big believer that when there’s some like in everything, there are some great leaders in government. And they know exactly how to help build things. They are visionary. They are builders and they go all out to support you. In any of these projects, I have never had to give a single penny of bribe to any politician, any government ever. Okay. And for everything that people say about regulation or policy… There are situations here and there. “Not like this, do it that way” but nobody has ever troubled you if you want to do the right thing. That is like you are saying okay, your belief is in business is that you can’t die—


Siddhartha Ahluwalia 19:40

You cannot be killed.


Pramath Raj Sinha 19:43

Right. I also believe that if you’re doing a good thing, and if your intent is very clear that “I’m just trying to educate people [chuckles]. I’m trying to help people achieve their full potential.” No one can stop you, okay. And so I think that’s what I feel like the universe has helped me and all my teams and all our co-founders in these. So yes, if you—

Siddhartha Ahluwalia 20:10

I believe right just after the success of ISB Hyderabad, there would have been a ton of contenders for you to put up the next—


Pramath Raj Sinha 20:15

Yeah, yeah. Even today. Dubai wants us to put up ISB and an Ashoka in Dubai. I have been personally approached. Krea University founders wanted us to build Ashoka university there. So absolutely. But if you look at—


Siddhartha Ahluwalia 20:37

So how did Mahali happen?


Pramath Raj Sinha 20:39

So Mohali happened partly because of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. At that time, Punjab and Mohali was obviously getting developed and they have developed a sector. Chandigarh is very sector, you know, nicely laid out with these rectangular plots of sectors. So they had designated one sector as a knowledge sector. So in that they had been approaching IIMs. Now this is a backstory so I cannot vouch for this story, and I may if I’m giving something wrong, it’s my mistake. But what we were told was that the backstory was that the government had been trying to approach IIMs that IIMs should be opened here. They were not getting any positive reactions. So some of our board members like Sunil Munjal of Hero and Rakesh Mittal of Airtel. Anil Jeet Singh of Max. Atul Punj of Punj Lloyd. Some of these people became aware that something like this is happening in Mohali so they went to the PM and they said give us a chance. Give us a chance to build this… You know how things happen in government. That area was designated as a knowledge area. Knowledge park and within knowledge park. Premium management institute. Premium technology institute. Premium science. So IISER they got. IISER Chandigarh is there, right? The PMI that existed, premium management— I still remember, they were looking for a PMI. So they were trying to get a IIM to do a PMI. When that didn’t work out, three to four of our board members basically went and said if you really want it, give us a chance. We will take it, take that project, fund it and build it and we’ll build a ISB. So that is how ISB happened in Mohali and of course their the arrangement was different there. There we have a 99 year lease for the land. But yes, we replicated the model. There one thing to point out since you’re talking about education is one of the things that we have done very uniquely there which a lot of people don’t realise is that we made sure that from day one, Mohali was not seen as a B-grade to Hyderabad’s A grade. It shouldn’t feel like there is a pecking order that first Ahmedabad, then Bangalore, then Kolkata, then Indore, then Lucknow. So we kept the one institution, two location policy very clear. There’s only one Dean. Madan Pillutla heads both institutions. There is one placement. There is one admissions process. Everything is one. It’s just two locations. So I think that’s how Mohali happened. And Mohali has done really well. We have a beautiful campus there. Now we are expanding. Ashoka incidentally is the first time I got involved in building a university, which is a full fledged university and needed lots of regulatory approvals, right? And we had very systematically identified that Haryana state had the best private university act. At that time when we went to Mr. Hooda, he was very supportive. Jindal had already been in talks and had been sort of approved. They had not been approved but they had already initiated. But what I still remember is that Mr. Hooda would keep saying that make something like the quality of ISB. In his mind, to your point, the talk of ISB had stuck. And then he knew that ISB has come in Mohali. So he wanted to do something for Haryana. But one thing I will tell you, in all these places, across political lines, different chief ministers and different governments have supported us, and that’s very good to see in India. Rajasekhara Reddy when he became Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh after Chandrababu Naidu, did not say that “Oh Naidu has made this so I don’t want any part of it.” He’s been equally supportive. So the current government, the TRS government, that was there has been equally supportive. So I think the one thing about all these regimes, all these political parties, all these chief ministers that has really amazed me is that they have not made the educational institution a political pawn that oh, this was built during this person’s time so I will not support you or I’ll badmouth you or I’ll trouble you. They’ve all been supportive and so we’ve kept growing. So even with Mr. Khattar in Haryana, he’s been amazingly supportive. He’s one of my favourite supporters for the university. We run the chief minister’s good governance associate programme in Haryana now for seven years. And it’s run by Ashoka University. We train 25 young men and women who go and work in the districts on priority programmes for the government, report back to the Chief Minister every quarter, every six months. And that programme has been one of the most successful such programmes in the country.


Siddhartha Ahluwalia 26:10

And what is commendable is, nobody has ever asked to name it after a state person. For example, I’m a graduate of triple IT Gwalior. Indian Institute of Information & Technology Gwalior. So somebody named it after Atul Bihari Vajpayee. ABV triple IT but—


Pramath Raj Sinha 26:27

Not yet [Laughs] but this is why we kept the name Ashoka! You know, and similarly, yes so far.

Siddhartha Ahluwalia 26:38

But it’s amazing, right? The first 50 years of the setting up of the education infrastructure of India was done by the government. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru set up the IITs. I think that he also laid the foundation for the first two IIMs. And in the last 25 years that has been driven by folks like you, right, who are just raising the standard of education. What I’m also surprised is you have given… ISB has given a run to IIM for their money, right? Some of the best candidates are choosing or wish to choose, right. But this has not happened for the IITs yet?


Pramath Raj Sinha 27:15

Yeah, Lakshya is an experiment in that. See, most people have stayed away from engineering, or have created engineering institutions, but not of that quality. BITS Pilani, though, has always existed. So to give them credit, BITS Pilani was always in the same league as the original five IITs and I think still remains in that contention. But yes, I think beyond that, there hasn’t really been anything that you can say is a real contender. Jio is probably going to try. Plaksha is trying. In engineering now IITs have grown in numbers. So it’s going to be difficult to compete with that. So yeah, you’re right. I think there have not been any new, clear contenders. I would also say that, you know, in the case of ISB, we never saw ourselves as competing with IIMs. And I’m not saying this just to be nice. And I genuinely mean it. I think there is space for a very different segment of management education. And, yes, of course, we are in the same space so I don’t want to be cute about this. We do compete in that sense, especially for faculty. And we do compare salaries and research and so on. But really, I think there’s room for many, many more institutions, as you know. Many more high quality institutions are required. If you think about it, after ISB nothing has got created in the private sector of the same quality. Two years ago, the BITS Pilani people have launched BITSoM. The BITS School of Management, which I’m also associated with and I helped create. But other than that, you know, I think the others have tried to catch up, but there’s always been a distance.


Siddhartha Ahluwalia 29:16

Right now, you have studied in US universities right? You did your PhD and you did your undergrad from Indian University. Both the best of them, right. Do you think necessarily the US way of teaching works necessarily or will work here in India?


Pramath Raj Sinha 29:33

Of course, it will work and there is no US way of teaching as such. Yes. The US way of teaching is what we are trying to do at Ashoka for example, right? And by the way, this is now called the US way of teaching. Not being jingoistic, but this was the Takshila way of teaching or the Nalanda way of teaching. The idea is very simple. Don’t spoon feed in college. For 18-year-old children, you have to let them discover themselves. You can’t tell them that they can only be a certain way.


Siddhartha Ahluwalia 30:06

“This is the course and in these 4 years you’ll be studying these 24 subjects…”


Pramath Raj Sinha 30:08

18 year old… The whole point of education when you’re 18 and 20 is to make mistakes. Screw up. Let the business fail. Make a choice and you say, ‘Okay, I’m going to be a philosopher.’ And, you know, you go and become a philosophy major and then you say, ‘Oh, my God. I’m not understanding any of this. In fact, I never knew that BioScience also existed. Or that even though I did not study maths, I’m actually a great coder.’ So I think the education system in the US, all it does is it gives you the flexibility to choose. That’s the crux of it. On top of that, it says that learn to read and write and think. That is the core of existence in your life. Now, reading today may become listening to Siddhartha’s podcast [chuckles], or it may become watching a documentary on Netflix, that’s fine. It’s the same thing. Right? So how do you absorb information? How do you process that information? And how then do you put that information out? You could have been a print blogger. You could have been a professor, or you’ve chosen to be a podcaster. Okay. So how you do it is a different thing. There are multiple modes available now.

Pramath Raj Sinha 31:33

So what the US education really does… What we are calling US education really does is focuses on this. This thing about reading, writing, reasoning. Okay? The thing about multidisciplinarity is that the specialisation is not important. The range is important. Not that you should not specialise. You should specialise. You should learn how to specialise. But that doesn’t mean that that is what you will be for the rest of your life. So learn other subjects also. Keep yourself curious, educated. Can’t learn everything, but at least keep yourself… Don’t box yourself. And it puts that choice onto you.


Siddhartha Ahluwalia 32:15

You are responsible for your own outcomes.


Pramath Raj Sinha 32:17

Absolutely. My guarantee is that whatever you choose from my buffet will be good quality. I’ll serve you genuine, a good course on that subject. Now that you decide whether you want it or not, it feeds you or not. And it is not also that it is completely anarchic. There are some guidelines. There are some rules that yes, you must specialise in something. But you can specialise in something very interdisciplinary. You can create your own major. What I think is that if you ask me if I ever have the resources, the next university I will build is that you create your own major. Here are some guidelines. To be counted to have a specialisation, you should have done 50% of courses out of the courses that you have done in four years, which is what the UGC and others in the NEP are saying which is a good idea. But you choose whatever 50%. You define that 50%. Now, these are the tenets of what is so called happening in liberal arts education. There is no reason it cannot happen in a law school, medical school, architecture school, design school, farmer school, engineering school, management school, liberal arts school in this country.


Siddhartha Ahluwalia 33:33

I think the other thing that got unique about Indian education was everything became outcome oriented. So because initially we didn’t have corporates, right, to scout for our students. So we started inviting them for student placement at Day Zero. This is a very Indian innovation I would say, right? It doesn’t happen anywhere in the world. Right? And now everything for the student becomes, ‘How do I prepare for that end outcome so that I get Day Zero placed?’


Pramath Raj Sinha 34:01

See the importance of placements will always remain. (SPEAKS HINDI) The kind of background we come from, our parents want us to make sure we get a job and ensure financial and economic stability. My father used to tell me that I must do a 10,000 rupees salary work. I think the mistake we are making is that we are saying that if you study this then there will be a specific outcome. Who said this? This is wrong. In order to achieve a certain outcome, you have to study a particular field or only studying this particular field to get the outcome you want is the fixation is where we are making a mistake.


Siddhartha Ahluwalia 34:39

There is not a course called problem solving that gets taught.


Pramath Raj Sinha 34:42



Siddhartha Ahluwalia 34:42

And you did problem solving at McKinsey. Every professional at any capacity is a good problem solver.


Pramath Raj Sinha 34:49

(SPEAKS HINDI) And that is what we teach at Harappa. So in Harappa, the 5 skills we have started with and our foundation which are our five pillars are how exactly we think, how we solve the problem… Thinking, solving, communicating, collaborating and leading yourself. So these are 5 things which are, you know, these are foundational skills. This is why we’ve kept the name Harappa because even if you go to Harappa’s civilization also, even there people were doing the same thing. If we focus only on this and give appreciation to our children, youngsters & employees for this then a lot could get solved.

Siddhartha Ahluwalia 35:31

Charlie Munger has been like a guru who I’ve idolised like Dronacharya right. So, so what he always says ‘People are trained to, to solve like, put a hammer to every nail.’ Right. I think the best thing that we can do in education is give the widest variety of tools.


Pramath Raj Sinha 35:54



Siddhartha Ahluwalia 35:55

So I can choose on my training which does it require a hammer or does it require a saw?


Pramath Raj Sinha 36:02

What type of nail first. (SPEAKS HINDI) If you use a nail and a hammer analogy which is a great analogy. We keep saying that there is only this nail and only one hammer. If you want to join two things then you can only use this nail and hammer to do so. And if you use that analogy, all you have to do in higher ed… In K-12 education what you have to explain to people is that to join two things you will need a nail and a hammer and this is why it sticks. Teaching that is important because that is fundamental. Everybody needs to know that and we would have to spoon feed that information to them. But once you come out of K-12, then you have to say that ‘Listen, I have these two things. I have to join them.’ Now, whether you want to use a nail, whether you want to use Fevicol, whether you want to weld it, you decide. You figure it out. That’s the crux of it. And I think that freedom and that confidence, we are not giving our people. That you can do it also. You don’t need to be trained in welding to know that this has to be welded. If I taught you how to use a hammer and a nail doesn’t mean you cannot use adhesive glue.

Siddhartha Ahluwalia 37:23

Also not giving large credit, but what I’ve seen is people when they go from India after the undergrad from the best of IITs and they go to the U.S., their ability to figure out becomes so high on their own, that the level of confidence that they come back with is very high.


Pramath Raj Sinha 37:39

Yeah. That is what happened to me. When I had gone to UPenn, my academic confidence in myself was zero.


Siddhartha Ahluwalia 37:47

You told that in the first semester you got 4.8.


Pramath Raj Sinha 37:50

Yeah! (SPEAKS HINDI) So when I first got there, I felt like— My professors had trained me through a cut-throat style of teaching. But when I got there and had a choice, I did an introduction to computer vision, introduction to robotics and found the courses to be quite good and interesting and because I was interested I worked night and day and in those four courses I got an A. I thought to myself that how did I become intelligent all of a sudden? And by the way, because that course was so inspirational and the teacher who was teaching it was so inspirational that she became my PhD advisor. Even today I’m connected to her even as she is 90 years old. In fact I’m getting an autobiography about her written as well. So I think that if you give people the choice… So actually many people tell me when I talk to them about this and I have written a book called “Learn, Don’t Study” you may have seen in which the the philosophy is this. People say that ‘Pramath this is a very privileged point of view that if some child who is growing up in a remote village somewhere then what choice do they have?’ I don’t accept this. This is a limitation of our views. I see the kids who come to Ashoka, especially the kids with a scholarship who have come from small villages. Nobody has studied in their family. They have gone to a modest local school. They have studied in the vernacular medium. Everybody has dreams. They do want a liberal arts education. They may not know it is called liberal arts but they also want choice. They also want to make movies. They also want to do podcasts right? And it is not about money. It is about providing them a good training and education which can be done in an inexpensive manner or through scholarships which they have earned. So somehow we assume that this choice is only available to those who are rich or elite. I think education is the biggest democratizer and we should not assume that that person doesn’t have ambition. And we should not assume that you cannot provide them with that choice. You can absolutely provide it to them.


Siddhartha Ahluwalia 40:19

And I think because you got so good at the subjects that you were not trained for in your undergrad… At McKinsey, you were doing not computer vision. You were not doing robotics.


Pramath Raj Sinha 40:30

And a lot of people and this is the… I now go back because during those times I didn’t have the understanding but so many people made fun of me and quite a few people would say behind my back that ‘What was the point of doing robotics for those five years? You wasted your time and now there is no use of it.’ However, I know what use it had. Its use was that it taught me how to get deep into a problem. It taught me how to think very deliberate, relentlessly with tenacity. It taught me how to deal with problems, because when you do a five year PhD, there are points in time when you want to give up. Right? So it’s a bit like being an entrepreneur, and you’re very alone because the PhD you’re doing on your own topic by yourself. You have an advisor—


Siddhartha Ahluwalia 41:24

[chuckles] You can’t blame anybody.


Pramath Raj Sinha 41:25

You can’t. You feel up and down in motivation—


Siddhartha Ahluwalia 41:29

And you fought to get that advisor.


Pramath Raj Sinha 41:31

[chuckles] That is true. So all these things start to train your mind and train you. In fact, I even tell people now when they come to me, I said, ‘Can I see a little bit of potential for scholarship, academia?’ I said, boss, have you thought about doing a PhD. And they say ‘Pramath me?!’ And it reminds me of me when I was their age. You can’t believe that you have the capability to do it.


Siddhartha Ahluwalia 41:59

Capability doesn’t mean being an academic.


Pramath Raj Sinha 42:01

It doesn’t. It’s a way of doing something that you feel passionately about. Some people really love to be in an academic environment and they thrive. Now, that doesn’t mean that they’re going to be an academic all their life, but if they spend those four or five years in this very scholarly academic environment around people who have a similar… Their personalities change and they flower and they bloom and they go on to do amazing things.

Siddhartha Ahluwalia 42:26

I consider Rajat Gupta a hero, right. Whatever happened was unfortunate. And he gave so much back to the society at least in India. He was your mentor and he pulled you into the ISB project.


Pramath Raj Sinha 42:43

He is still my mentor.


Siddhartha Ahluwalia 42:46

Yeah. So, do people when they take up let’s say 50 things, 100 things to scale in, when people are not able to say no, right? This is one of my learnings that when they are not able to say no then which of the small things becomes large, they’re not able to know what has gone wrong. Because he was involved in 50 things. Many philanthropies, setting up of institutions, dealing with governments, right, and every nook and corner.


Pramath Raj Sinha 43:22

So this is a risk that we all run. I have seen that happen to Rajat—


Siddhartha Ahluwalia 43:29

And I’m so so you know, honoured and proud to have to be somebody that you’re one of those persons who never left his side. You went to visit him in jails when he was—


Pramath Raj Sinha 43:42

Thank you for saying that. I never thought about it that way but—


Siddhartha Ahluwalia 43:45

Because everybody left him and he said it publicly that during that time—


Pramath Raj Sinha 43:50

Yeah. Yeah, I don’t know. I just feel that,I think he’s a great person. And I have seen him very up close and personal in the way he has interacted with me and with scores of other people. I have seen very clear, consistent behaviour. And I personally feel that what he has done for me and of course many others, but that is for them to decide. There is no way that I cannot be a well wisher, supporter and be by his side, whatever I can do. Not that I have done much. He and his family and other people who are closer to him had to take the brunt of what happened. But it is true that one of the values that it has taught me, it wasn’t that I knew this or thought it through but now that this whole thing has happened, one of the values that it has taught me is that you have to stand by the people who you care about. And for me, it becomes very clear that let’s say if your mother had done something. Would you not have stood by her right? So how is this any different? So there are people who you are close to. There are people who may have done things for you. There are people who may have helped you. I think you have to decide how you want to be with those people.


Siddhartha Ahluwalia 44:22

And you being at such a core at that juncture, right. Building ISB and starting so many new things. A lot of people would have told you, your friends or your other well-wishers, why are you—


Pramath Raj Sinha 46:04

‘Yeah why are you getting into all this.’ In fact, Rajat asked me if I was going to be a character witness in his case and I said yes. And I must tell you that my own family members told me that what are you doing. There was an incident that happened with me which I don’t think I’ve spoken about before but when I was in New York and his case was going on and I had to appear as a witness. So one day, I suddenly got a call on my mobile phone. Sorry, I first got a call— I was in a meeting, I came out and I saw lots of messages from my niece. My niece was with my sister at my sister’s home in California. ‘Where are you? What are you doing? Yeah, I need to talk to you. I need to talk to you.’ I said what happened. In fact, my mother, who was in her 80s at that time, was visiting so I thought some incident had happened with my mother. So when I called her she said, ‘You know, we’ve been getting calls and this person says she’s from the FBI. Yeah. And grandmother picked up the phone and she didn’t know what was going on. So she gave it to me and I took the call and this lady says she’s from the FBI, and she wants to talk to you. And I don’t believe that she could have been from the FBI. Why would the FBI want to talk to you? I thought… I think she’s somebody who’s posing. But in any case, she was asking about you. And I wanted to let you know.’ The moment she said it may I don’t know what it could be. I said, Listen, I think it may have had to do with Rajat’s case because I am here in New York because of that. And she said, ‘Oh, wow. That makes sense. But I hadn’t put two and two together. I just got spooked that somebody was calling and grandmother had picked up the phone and she was getting all worried that who is this?’ By that point, my phone started ringing. And sure enough, there was a lady who introduced herself and said that I’m so and so and I’m from the FBI. I’m calling you regarding this case, and then she asked me a bunch of very tough questions. She was like, ‘Why are you giving evidence? How do you know Rajat? What do you know about this case? Were you also involved with Raj Rajaratnam?’ And it was like, boss, are they trying to pull me also into this or whether this line of questioning. It was very intimate, polite, but you know, tough. So anyway, without going into the details, that conversation happened, and I was very disturbed. I remember after I hung up, I was shaking a little bit because you’d never got a call like that. Of course, when I talked to Rajat, and then to his lawyers, they said see, this is standard tactics. And we didn’t warn you because we didn’t want you to be spooked by this, but this is what happens. And in fact, we were surprised that they didn’t stop you at the border. That you could have been actually asked not to enter the country. So there were these moments and you know, even today, a lot of people tell me that ‘Yaar Pramath you are just a sentimental guy. He clearly did it.’ How do they even know what he has done or not done? And let’s suppose that he actually did do it, then being sentimental or not sentimental towards it has no point. My relationship with him is what matters. What you guys think of him does not matter to me. I know what the reality is. So I think this is one of the things that I have learned from that incident and I’ll give you an example of something that happened just two days ago, which reminded me of this incident. I was at the Bangalore Literature Fest and somebody came up to me, and you know, usually in life these kinds of things rarely happen. One is now an old professional one. So you get surprised and shocked. I was with a Young India fellow who is an alumnus, and she had come to see me and we were chatting, and then a gentleman walked in who I know. I know him very well. We have a long association. So I said, ‘Hello, good to see you.’ And I keep seeing him all the time. And I just very jokingly said that ‘Now that you’re here, there will be some fireworks.’ because I know him and I know what he will say. And he suddenly started shouting at me. And in front of everybody, and people were looking and saying, you know, this was a speaker’s lounge, and people are looking and then of course, he said something. I couldn’t even make out what he was saying. He was just was angry. And this girl who was with me was ‘Pramath what happened. What just happened?’ And I was also a little… I was feeling bad that how can he behave like this? Later on both he was signing books. And a good friend of mine was also signing books right next to him so we met again. And he looked at me and then he kind of was sheepish and he said, ‘Listen, I’m sorry. I don’t know what happened to me. I think what you said just triggered off this reaction. I want to talk to you about that. I mean he was still a bit defensive about it. And I genuinely by then told him that listen, it’s okay. It’s fine. You needn’t have gotten annoyed. But I also know that a lot of times in the past this is a person who has helped me so much. Today, his views may have changed. The environment may have changed. He may have you know… I have to let it go. And I have to at least give him credit for the fact that when I needed it, this person helped me. He was there. Right? So I genuinely said ‘Listen, you don’t need to think about it. Just don’t think about it. Forget it. It’s over. Let’s move on. And I’m not trying to say that I’m some great guy and I’m evolved. Everyone gets angry. I feel bad about it and even today I think about those moments and feel bad thinking that it was unnecessary. Maybe going forward I will maintain a distance and I will be a little bit more like let it be. But I do think that it was important for me that for somebody who had done so much, and who was such a well wisher and who had done so much for others, for India and so selflessly. I have seen it. I mean, whatever I try to do is this person is my role model. How can you not stand by such people? You have to. I mean that is… Somewhere you have to also like yourself right, when you do things. So I don’t think I would like myself if I had not done what I did.

Siddhartha Ahluwalia 53:19

And I think ISB wouldn’t have started, if not for the partnership of both of you. So many folks were—


Pramath Raj Sinha 53:22

Forget about the partnership for a second. Without him it would not have started. The question doesn’t even arise. That vision wouldn’t have existed. And in today’s time when people ask me in podcasts like this as to how do you think university can be started? Actually, if you think about it. To start a Vedika scholars programme or a Naropa fellowship is also a big thing. If you actually step back to say that we will start a programme in Leh, Ladakh. Faculty will come there. Students will come there. We will admit them and train them for a year then we will get them hired. You know it’s a big task. And again, I’m not trying to show that I’m great or something but the fact that you can think this way is something I learned from him. And it happened because he… I’m sure he was not born with it either. But he learned that along the way and got the confidence to do it himself and then passed that confidence on to me. I still remember or… I spoke about this in Shantanu’s podcast as well that when I didn’t become a Partner then he told me ‘I didn’t think you were ready to be a partner.’ So I felt quite about that but when he told me ‘That see, what is the mark that you’re making? What are you doing in this project that is making a difference?’ That has stayed with me and that’s such a profound thing to say. That changes everything because that gives you the confidence that I can also make my mind. I can also push myself. What can I do that is different or distinctive? So there’s so much to learn from such people. And all of us have faults. I mean, I’m not perfect and I’m sure that there are things about me that could be taken out and completely seen to be inappropriate or not right. So yeah, I think you will encounter— I think these are all learning experiences. One should learn from the errors of judgement, of omission, commission that others have made. But it is very sad.


Siddhartha Ahluwalia 55:36

And one thing that inspires me from Rajat and you is that you both love… I think it might have got ingrained as I observe your journey and Rajat’s journey in McKinsey, that you both love human potential.


Pramath Raj Sinha 55:50

Oh, of course.


Siddhartha Ahluwalia 55:52

That’s why you know, so many institutes like ISB. So many institutes got created.


Pramath Raj Sinha 55:59

And I’ve said this in the book I wrote that I really believe that anyone can do anything. Whereas now we were talking about Nansi, your co-founder. When you look at her journey, it’s incredible.


Siddhartha Ahluwalia 56:16

Against impossible odds.


Pramath Raj Sinha 56:18

Absolutely. Who would have thought? Who would have thought?


Siddhartha Ahluwalia 56:22

I’ll tell you a funny incident right? When we were both not together, I came on a TV interview and when I was running the company, Nansi was an intern in those days. I spoke about her journey at a TV interview and then Nansi’s family saw this and thought ‘Something is going on between them!’ [laughing] There was nothing like that.


Pramath Raj Sinha 56:41

[chuckles] If someone was spiritually inclined then they would say this has been taking place over a span of lifetimes! But back to back to that point. See? It seems like a cute thing to say. But it isn’t. Nansi cannot do everything. I can’t do everything. Nor can you do everything no matter how hard we try. No matter how much I want to play cricket like Virat Kohli or be an actor like Amitabh Bachchan. That’s okay. Yet there’s a lot that I, you or Nansi can do. It’s how you enable it is where all the fun lies. I see many students and alums and where they were before to where they are now. That’s what has happened with us as well but the power to be able to do that with many more people is what keeps you going.


Siddhartha Ahluwalia 57:47

Personally let’s say you are a partner at McKinsey then you would have taken 20 people under your mentorship outside. That would have been you know that unlocking human potential. Right? But for doing that at scale, would you have realised that so much scale would be unlocked?


Pramath Raj Sinha 58:02

Not at all. I’d like to tell another small story if you don’t mind.

Siddhartha Ahluwalia 58:08

Sure sir, sure sir.


Pramath Raj Sinha 58:08

So one of my big inspirations in life was a gentleman called Professor Sumantra Ghoshal. Sumantra was a management academic. Bengali, worked at ONGC. He went to the U.S. to do a PhD and after getting PhD in Harvard and then teaching at MIT or the other way around, I can’t remember clearly. But yeah he was associated with Harvard and MIT and then he was INSEAD as a professor and then London Business School. From there we hired for ISB. He was going to be the founding Dean actually. I wasn’t going to be the founding Dean, he was. So I used to have many conversations with Sumantra and he died relatively young. He was 55 years old and he passed away. And he has written some great books and papers. Was a very charismatic person. I would think that if he would have been alive today, he would have been one of the greatest management academics ever. That was his brilliance.

Pramath Raj Sinha 59:12

So I still remember that we were sitting in ISB and I was on my first year. I was on a sabbatical from McKinsey. And the idea was that I would go back to McKinsey and Sumantra even though he had decided not to do the Dean role because he felt he wouldn’t be able to do it but he was very committed so he used to come teach.. And he was fond of his drink and his cigarettes so in the nights we used to speak at great lengths as there was nothing much to do there. So I still remember he says, ‘Why are you in McKinsey? You are caught up in these old middle class Bihari values. You know what Pramath. I’m a middle class Bengali boy and you idolise Rajat. He is also a middle class Bengali boy. So as middle-class Bengali boys, we are very fat and happy that everything is going fine. We have a job and the salary is also decent. But why are you doing this though?! Don’t do this!’ [chuckles] Right. He used to tell me. And he says, ‘You think Rajat whom you hold on such a high pedestal… You think that is the only trajectory that you should have. Rajat could have done so much more. You can do so much more. This is not enough. You should get out of McKinsey.’ and I used to think that what rubbish is he saying. Maybe it’s the alcohol talking. And but, you know, that’s I think what he was trying to say is not trying to be disrespectful to anybody. But he was really pushing on potential. Recently a book by Adam Grant came out called “Hidden Potential”. So I knew he was writing this and I was waiting for the book to come because I’m such a big believer in potential. So I’m reading that book very carefully because for the first time somebody has really written about potential because whenever I talk about potential, people always ask, ‘How do you assess potential?’ I equally say that it’s easy to assess potential or you look for people who are really driven. Who has an interest. Who are curious. Who are whatever. So we’re sitting in Harappa with our CEO Shreyasi Singh, and she used to write articles for one of our magazines when we started the 9.9 Group. After that she took time off. She wrote a book on entrepreneurship called “The Wealth Wallahs”. Then she worked with me at Vedika. Now a lot of people wonder, why did I choose her as a co-founder in Harappa and make her CEO and say, ‘You should be running it.’ and actually I’ve already let her run the company. It was really because I saw the potential. Was I sure that it would be a success or that she would be successful? No, of course not. You’ll never know. [chuckles] You don’t even know about yourself. But the idea that you can actually see that, hey, somebody is capable of much more than they themselves can think of, is something that people have done with me. This is one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned. What you can’t recognise in yourself, other people recognise in you, and you have to trust them sometimes. I’m sure Nansi did not really know what she was capable of. So the encouragement, that’s when I think people are truly visionary. People associate visionary with ‘Oh, big business idea. He saw the future.’ Okay, that’s great. But for me, being visionary is really about seeing the satisfy— you know, seeing the future potential of somebody. And then seeing them achieve that and exceed that. In fact, you can also never fully estimate the full potential. All you can do is give people a chance. A leg up.

Siddhartha Ahluwalia 1:03:19

Take a bet on people. I think people who take bet on people are disappointed because I have seen people close to me they trust everybody around them endlessly. And they sometimes fall short. But over a large scheme of things, what they have become is… Because they took bets on so many people, they wouldn’t have reached there right? If somebody goes tell them, ‘Hey, you trusted this person, and he is a sham or this or that.’ But that’s their nature that they keep on taking a bet on people, right? And you can’t change—


Pramath Raj Sinha 1:03:51

Well Siddhartha, now you are an investor. It’s the same thing. You are betting on human equity. You are a human venture capital firm. Right? Instead of betting on financial capital or financial equity, you are betting on human equity, and some of those startups will fail. So I heard this just recently where somebody said that, you know, it’s like everyone is a startup. Every person you’re betting on is a startup. And it’s likely that that startup will fail. But over time, if you are making the investments with the right principles, the guardrails, the assessments and applying your best possible judgement and getting better and better at it, then the success really multiplies.


Siddhartha Ahluwalia 1:04:50

I can tell you from my own experience, and that two of our 50 companies failed recently. And I was so happy that you know… It hurts but I was so happy that they failed. They failed for the right reasons. Right? I’m unhappy with founders in portfolios that sell the company at so much less potential. So for example, a company at 2.5 million annual revenue, selling at 11 million. So man what have you done? [chuckles] I would have completely been okay, if you have tried for bigger or failed, but at least in the journey I think people who do startups, people who are entrepreneurs, they really do it because they believe in some version of their potential that this is where we could become.


Pramath Raj Sinha 1:05:36



Siddhartha Ahluwalia 1:05:37

Not just the future of a problem, but this is where they believe that, ‘Hey, I envision that this can be done and I can play a role in that. And thereby unlock my potential.’ And take a bet on themselves.


Pramath Raj Sinha 1:05:49

Yes. Often people are able to do that. But often you need somebody else to throw you a line to say, ‘Boss you can actually climb this mountain also and I am there with the rope to pull you up.’ Right? And that’s the role you can play in other people’s lives. Again, it sounds like you’re playing God. It’s not that. Just trying to give people a chance—


Siddhartha Ahluwalia 1:06:19

And I think that’s how society progresses. Foundations are built.


Pramath Raj Sinha 1:06:22

Absolutely, and that is what I also keep telling people that you don’t need to teach people. You don’t need to educate people. People will educate themselves. All of us have— It’s inbuilt in our 100s of years of evolution. I’m not very spiritual and I don’t have much knowledge in it, but from the little that I read, our Upanishads and our Vedantas have told us that, we are at the end of the day, we are the most superior of all beings. So that drive or curiosity or aspiration or desire to progress. To improve. It already exists within us. In fact, that is what the whole Indian philosophy is based on so all you have to do is to channel it. You just have to give people a chance. You have to support people in that. And when people get that support, then you see magic happen.


Siddhartha Ahluwalia 1:07:31

So we have so many stories in our mythology. When Hanuman was trying to find out somebody who could go to Lanka because there was no road. [Inaudible] was the one who took a bet. Yeah, you can do it. You have the potential.


Pramath Raj Sinha 1:07:44

Yeah. It’s the same thing. Somebody took a bet that he could fly and get there. So I do think that this idea of human potential is really the crux of the hope and optimism that underlies all the gloom and doom around us.


Siddhartha Ahluwalia 1:08:07

Sir my last thing to you is if you could tell a couple of stories, right, because nobody knows. And this was the first time you’re doing completely zero to one. In the founding years of ISB, what were the purest struggles that you faced that you felt like were unsolvable? Because nothing like that had been done before.


Pramath Raj Sinha 1:08:27

(SPEAKS HINDI) So the first struggle was that… See, I was very clear that and Rajat of course was also very clear that we need to make a high quality world class institution. Now this world class word is very cliched but during that it wasn’t used as much. So how do you go about creating a world class institution and that also from day one. This was a really tough challenge and whichever angle we looked at it from, that struggle seemed unsolvable because after doing all the analysis, we had reached the conclusion that the key problem to solve is faculty. How will we bring world class faculty into a new institution? So the visiting faculty model that we adopted to solve this issue is something that is still working for me even till this day. So I think that was one point.


Siddhartha Ahluwalia 1:09:39

That was the biggest struggle that you faced in the journey of ISB?

Pramath Raj Sinha 1:09:42

(SPEAKS HINDI) In solving the problem, but other struggles were also there. One big struggle was regulation. Going to AICTE and getting an approval and then they asked for money. Then they said we can’t make it happen. Despite trying many avenues… People refused to even help us which felt like a jolt and I felt really bad. I remember feeling sad because during that time in AICTE, there were some people like IIT Chennai’s former director, another was Professor Dharni Sinha who was from Bihar, from IIM, ASCII’s Chairman was also there. ASCII is the Administrative Staff College of India and he has been an Ambassador for Nepal as well. At his house, he would always call me and give me Bihari food, fried Rohu fish as well but he used to say that he can’t help me. Rather, I wouldn’t try to help either. I felt like how can this be so difficult. So the regulation issue hurt a lot and even does to this day because when we applied for the Institution of Eminence and when ISB did not get it. The informal feedback we got was that we were accredited and for 20 years we were running a sort of unaccredited “illegal institution” so how can we give this to you? So this is a struggle that still hurts. Even in today’s day we can’t call it an MBA. Even in today’s day we are allowed to give one year’s Masters program according to National Education Policy but I don’t think ISB has been legitimately given that right to do so. So it does hurt and has been our biggest struggle. Some other challenges have also come along such as the scandal that took place at Satyam, our Dean was the Chairman of the Satyam audit committee and because of that he had to resign. Even the Rajat Gupta case was a big challenge for us. In 2001 when we first started out, we faced two big challenges. The first being that we didn’t have enough money because of the stock market crash and the IT industry crash that happened in 1999 and 2000,. The funding that we were due a lot of people could not actually give us the money. Nobody went back on the commitment, but they could not give us the money


Siddhartha Ahluwalia 1:12:42

There’s an infinite delay that is there till things recovers.


Pramath Raj Sinha 1:12:46

So we had to take a loan.


Siddhartha Ahluwalia 1:12:48

But who’d take loan right, because nobody is a single owner of ISB.


Pramath Raj Sinha 1:12:52

So ISB was a Section 8 company so people gave a loan to a Section 8 company. The good thing was that board members also helped as we owned the land so we could mortgage it. There were no conditions placed on it, going back to what Mr Naidu had done for us. So we were able to mortgage the land and get the loan and good news is that like you were saying that a person never fails. So we were able to get the loan. Overtime pay back the loan. That was another moment as I still remember that there was one month where I didn’t have enough money to pay salaries so I had to borrow money. One of our founders actually lent me money to meet payroll. In that first year, 9/11 took place as well as a result of which our first batch of students were quite disappointed as the placements were not as good compared to the aspiration and what we could actually have achieved especially with the commitments we had.


Siddhartha Ahluwalia 1:14:02

Because you had termed the world class.


Pramath Raj Sinha 1:14:04

So for example, McKinsey hired three people, but according to me, McKinsey could have hired 10 people. Lehman Brothers did not hire at all or only hired one. Goldman Sachs didn’t hire— so a lot of the investment banks, consulting firms had committed. The top firms had committed but there was a proper hiring freeze going on. Now if there are ups and downs in placements we will face them but in that first year to get such a big jolt was not something we had anticipated. So all these challenges were there. One more big challenge was that we had actually hired two or three big faculty who were hired in a permanent role, as Sumantra Ghoshal and Deepak Jain were the ones who had actually recruited these people. So I I knew them but they also did not expect that I would become their Dean so they were a bit resentful that okay he’s a McKinsey Partner and that’s fine but—


Siddhartha Ahluwalia 1:15:10

You were 40 year old right?


Pramath Raj Sinha 1:15:12

I was 36 years old when I was appointed.


Siddhartha Ahluwalia 1:15:16

36-37 year old. How can he become a Dean?


Pramath Raj Sinha 1:15:21

And those people were Seniour to me as well. They studied at IIT and IIM and were my seniours actually. In India, there was a sense that he’s kid and now he’s become our boss. And the second thing was that I always maintained that I went all out for the students. To help them. To place them so all those things they resented a lot because in India the situation is that we don’t treat students as students. We treat them like a commodity like we are doing them a favour and we really regard faculty in a high position. Not everywhere but in many places. So it was the thought that I was doing too much for the students and why do so much. ‘Why so much focus on food and air conditioning and maintaining the ambiance. It wasn’t as if we weren’t focused on education. Thoughts as to why we were paying so much to faculty coming from the outside compared to our own faculty. Why are you spending so much of your time on placements? it’s not the institution’s job to get people placed. We didn’t do that in our own respective institutions so why is the Dean doing that. There is a placement committee. Let them do their job. So I used to fight these things and so I became slightly unpopular. So with them the relationships weren’t great and then they all eventually left as well. From the inside, I was confident and sure that this was a good thing that they left because they would not have been able to create the right culture. But I had to face a lot of backlash from the others that the ‘top faculty is leaving us and this would have long-term repercussions.’ These kinds of things happen in some capacity always and the challenges will continue to be there. But there were challenges, very serious challenges.

Siddhartha Ahluwalia 1:17:30

And you had been in McKinsey only for seven years. You joined at the age of 29?


Pramath Raj Sinha 1:17:35

Yup for seven years. I was a Partner for one year.


Pramath Raj Sinha 1:17:38

Many people must have told you that you should build your career in McKinsey


Pramath Raj Sinha 1:17:46

Yeah many. My friends at McKinsey were very clear that I should not leave this job. The system in McKinsey is such that there are only a few of us and we were partners. Partners are like co-founders so suddenly if a co-founder that generates revenue and manages relationships says that they want to leave then there’s a fear that the revenues will go with that person and so will the relationships that were formed. That client may go to some other competitor so that was one thing that caused my partners to be annoyed with me. My own friends were saying that ‘You’re too nice a guy and so you are not able to say no to Rajat so this is why you’re leaving’. This wasn’t true because I had become so invested in the institution that I knew that if I didn’t go then who would and if nobody goes then—


Siddhartha Ahluwalia 1:18:51

And you were the last option. You were not the first option—


Pramath Raj Sinha 1:18:55

I was the last option and I was feeling bad that 128 kids left their jobs and they are going there. And if the people who recruited them are now saying that they themselves won’t be there and they themselves don’t know who will stay. So I very clearly remember, in Ansal Plaza here in Delhi, in the peak of the heat I spoke to the first batch. I met up with them. And they were very, they were short of angry. They were like very ‘What are you guys even doing? I have left my ITC job. I’ve left my Infosys job. And you don’t have a Dean, and the people who came and told us that, oh, we’ll be there to receive you on campus and come to campus because we’ll teach you are saying that they’re not going to be there and now you don’t even have a Dean. So who’s going to be the Dean.’ And I couldn’t tell them I’ll be the Dean because I… So you know, those were tough times. But I think focusing on the students making sure that… I sat down with every single one of them and helped them with their resume. But going back to your question so the people in McKinsey didn’t want me to leave. My own wife was not in favour. She’s from Delhi. All our family was in Delhi. Going only for a year and then come right back. I was also very clear but at the time my thinking had not evolved actually. Actually if you think about it, I should never have come back. I should have just stayed on. But I didn’t have the courage and being middle-class like Sumantra said I should just leave McKinsey was one step too far… And to be a Dean wasn’t a thought at the time as I never wanted to be an academic so those were all cobwebs in my head. So she was not in favour but when I spoke to two to three clients, they all said ‘What’s the issue? You McKinsey folks think too highly of yourself as if you are Gods who cannot be replaced but someone will do the job if need be. What’s the big deal?’ So that was liberating. And then finally, like I’ve said earlier also, Donald Jacobs, who was the Dean of Kellogg, told me that, ‘Why are you thinking so much into it? Have you ever thought about it? How many people in the world get a chance to say that they were there at the birth of an institution.’ He of course said that, ‘I’m telling you this will be successful. So you will get a big hand to play in making it successful because right now if given the situation this could flounder. So you will have a chance to play it successfully. This will always remain your legacy. And you are forgetting that you have been doing this for the last six, seven years. So it’s not that somebody just picked you off the street and told you to become Dean. This has been your baby. So think about it that way.’, which I was thinking about, actually that part I was thinking about, but I never thought about legacy or future—


Siddhartha Ahluwalia 1:22:15

When we’re in a crisis, you don’t think about the legacy or the future when survival is in question.


Pramath Raj Sinha 1:22:21

Yeah I mean, I was just saying to Nansi that there is a women’s leadership programme and she should join it. Even in that we were talking about legacy and so my people have made it into a curriculum in the programme. Many a time people think that who even thinks about legacy so I never thought about all that. But I think that this opportunity is unprecedented and how many people would get it. These were the same things we said to people who were asking for money as well. When we were asking for donations or when we’re asking industrialists to join our board, that is exactly the tack we used to use but I was not even thinking about it for myself, that even for me, if we are telling somebody else that you give us your hard-earned crores because there’s a chance for you to build a Harvard or Stanford. I never thought that, oh, this is a chance for me to be associated with building. And I tell a lot of people that. Actually if you look at my journey and how people remember me, I was Dean only for one year of these almost 25 years. And so I get associated with that. But rightfully, the journey has been a 25 year journey. I’m still associated. Today’s Tuesday. On Sunday, I was with the Dean in Hyderabad, having a conversation about ISB. So, it has always remained part of my life. It will always be part of my life and that one year just gave it a stamp. If I had always been behind the scenes, I may not have been known for who I am.


Siddhartha Ahluwalia 1:24:05

And how many people can say in their life that they built an institution.


Pramath Raj Sinha 1:24:09

That is of course also a very—


Siddhartha Ahluwalia 1:24:12

It can only be thought of in hindsight. In that moment—


Pramath Raj Sinha 1:24:14

Yeah in that moment it certainly did not feel like that. In fact since you brought it up, I feel a little embarrassed and humbled but this title of institution builder came from somewhere and now people call me that and many a time so I feel very humbled. I don’t feel like I’m a big institution builder but yes it is also true that I’ve started many things from the start. So over the last few years, many a time people come to me and ask me what the characteristics are of building an institution. So I’ve started penning some thoughts down. Maybe I will write something also.

Siddhartha Ahluwalia 1:24:59

A conversation for another podcast.


Pramath Raj Sinha 1:25:01

[Laughing] I don’t think you’d want another podcast after this one. Now I’ve got nothing much else to say as you’ve covered so much ground. But yeah, no, thank you.


Siddhartha Ahluwalia 1:25:12

Thank you so much, sir. It’s been such a privilege to have this conversation with you. I enjoyed every second of it.


Pramath Raj Sinha 1:25:18

No, I enjoyed it too. And thank you Siddhartha for reaching out. Thank you to both you and Nansi, and it’s wonderful to meet both of you. I would love to continue to stay in touch.


Siddhartha Ahluwalia 1:25:31

Thank you!


Pramath Raj Sinha 1:25:32

Thank you very much

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