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August 12, 2014 Comments (0) Views: 1512 More, Thinking

Make a Difference!

“There is much we have to do as a country, but it is PRECISELY that point, that there is so much to do, so much need everywhere, so much opportunity to contribute at work, in one’s community, college and child’s school, that makes it so great to be here in our country, at this point in time.”

At the recently held Convocation of D Y Patil DC Institute of Design, Dr. Naushad Forbes, Director of Forbes Marshall, and CEO of the steam engineering companies, urged students to embrace their professional life with passion.

Here is the excerpt of his inspiring speech that will give you an interesting insight about India.

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It is a particular pleasure to be with you today for two reasons: First, it is always a privilege to do anything connected with design. I deeply believe in the role that design can and should play in building better products, better companies, and a better environment. Second, it is always a pleasure to talk with fellow students. I said ‘fellow’ students, and I did so consciously. I believe that the essence of being alive is to learn, so if one ever stops considering oneself a student, one is probably dead!

Ever since I was asked to speak to you today, I’ve been trying to figure out what would make sense to talk about. I finally decided that a convocation address was an opportunity to indulge oneself. And since you don’t get to ask any questions, this is a fine opportunity to give advice with no consequences! I thought, therefore, that I’d make a few comments about what in my view makes for living a good life. I’m mindful that most of you here are about to graduate as designers, are parents of students, and are current design students. Having a degree in design is a privilege; it means one automatically has options and opportunities that are distinct and attractive. So these reflections on living a good life are for those, like you, who have the privilege of these options.

How does one choose a career? I believe very strongly that one must enjoy what one does. This to me is an absolute. If you don’t enjoy your work, change what you do. Too many of us choose fields of study and choose careers because someone tells us they are good to do. By choosing design you made a deliberate choice – you picked something that was different, that was unconventional. If I think of the many hundreds of people I’ve worked with over the last few decades, I think I can safely say that designers were amongst the most passionate and committed to their fields. So let me start by complimenting you on your good choice of field. If we work on something we are passionate about, we generally end up doing a good job and the rest takes care of itself. So I really think you have started right. (I say this especially to help those of you whose parents kept wondering what this strange animal ‘design’ was, that their child had chosen to study).

To me it is important to make a difference. If you are one of 500 professionals recruited each year into a company, the chances of making a difference are very limited. That, to me, is the single big advantage of manufacturing companies over IT companies. For the IT service business, ‘People are the Products’, so recruiting more and more people is the way they grow. Even the largest manufacturing companies recruit dozens of professionals, not hundreds and certainly not thousands, so the chance of standing out, of making a difference are much greater.

It also matters where one works. Until a few years ago, I used to teach a course each year at Stanford University. I loved the course, the university, and the teaching. People used to ask me which I enjoyed more, teaching at Stanford or working in Pune. My answer was always that while I enjoyed the teaching very much, I knew that regardless of how much people liked my course, it made very little difference to the University. Stanford was a great university before I got there, and if it had never heard of me, would still be a great university. I felt, though, that working in Pune I made more of a difference – in our company, in the industry in general, in the society around me. Perhaps that was just my ego speaking, but I felt, and feel, that I make a difference here – and that makes it all worthwhile.

Let me continue this argument of working in India. When I first started teaching my course in 1987, we lived in an India that was stuck. The Economist did a survey of the Indian Economy in June 1991, in which it said-

‘Nowhere in the world is the gap between what might have been achieved and what has been achieved as great as it is in India’.

That is a very sobering statement. Isn’t it great that in these 22 years so much has changed that today no one could make that same statement? In all of the press coverage about policy paralysis and falling growth rates and a rupee that searches daily for a new low, I think it is good to remind ourselves of an India that has been un-caged, an India that has a dynamic which just didn’t exist 20 years ago.

Let me illustrate what we have achieved and how much we are still to achieve, by giving you some data points: two are about people, and two are about companies. The first data point is about someone who works as a security guard at our factory. He stopped me some months ago to tell me with great pride that his son had just graduated as an engineer and gone to work for GE, and his daughter had qualified as a doctor and started work in a hospital. So within a year, this family had gone from a monthly income of ` Rs. 10,000 or so to a family income of over a lakh. That is what is driving our growth forward. It is real, it is widespread, and it has thirty years to run. This security guard is not unique – there are hundreds of thousands like him. But he is also not typical, and there are many millions of Indians who need to go through the same process.

Second is the story of Vaibhav Chidrewar, who contacted me two years ago saying he had been admitted to Stanford for his Master’s in Electrical Engineering, and asking if he could come and see me. While I spent a while answering his questions about Stanford, he ended up spending much more time answering my questions. It turns out that his mother runs a hand-cart selling bhel, (a common street food in Pune). He was in a municipal school until the 4th standard, then went to the Maharashtra Mandal (which is,
I think a private trust started by Tilak), and did very well. When he was in the 10th standard, his father – who had gone into chit funds and such, and ended up with debt of  Rs. 50 lakh – disappeared with his partners, leaving his mother and two sons behind to cope with the debt and manage. Since then his mother has supported the family. In his 12th standard, the family couldn’t afford the fees of an engineering college, so Vaibhav applied to a commerce college. An article appeared on him in the local paper Sakal and he received over a hundred offers of help from random members of the public. One of them was a trustee of the Pune Institute of Computer Technology, who offered him a full four-year scholarship. While at PICT, he got placed at Cisco, where he worked for two years. Along the way, he thought of doing graduate work, but thought the US too expensive to be within reach for him. Someone else read an article on him, and contacted him, saying he should apply to the best universities, and he would support him. He applied and got into Stanford, among other places, and was taken along to various foundations. He has interest-free loans of Rs. 23 lakh between the Mahindra and Ambuja Foundations.

I have to say that meeting Vaibhav made my day, week, even year, because it provides context for what development in India is all about. It says great things about our willingness as a culture to help people, and great things about how opportunity is opening up to more and more people. It also says that opportunity still relies too much on luck, and that our challenge in the country is to make such opportunities available to all.

The third story is about our organization, Forbes Marshall. Soon after I started work, we began using a metric for value added per person – sales minus material cost divided by number of people. Fifteen years ago we started comparing our productivity with that of our joint venture partners. When we first measured this 15 years ago, our productivity was one twelfth the productivity of our JV partners. In other words, it took 12 of us to do what one German or British fellow did. Today, our productivity is half that of our JV partners. That says we’ve come a long way, but half still means it takes two of us to do what one German or Brit does. So we still have some way to go. Productivity goes with pay. So 15 years ago, like other Indian companies we probably paid our engineers one-tenth what engineers doing the same job at our JV partners earned. That was a huge gap, which made for a big difference in quality of life. Today, the gap is 1/2, and if you correct for cost of living, then not very much at all.

These data points illustrated both – how much we had achieved and also how much we are yet to achieve. Our security guard needs to be typical of millions, not hundreds of thousands. The next brilliant Vaibhav Chidrewar should be able to depend on a system that creates opportunity without depending on luck and newspaper articles. It should take two Germans to do what one engineer at Forbes Marshall can do, not the other way around. So there is much we have to do as a country, but it is PRECISELY that point, that there is so much to do, so much need everywhere, so much opportunity to contribute at work, in one’s community, college and child’s school, that makes it so great to be here in our country, at this point in time.

So here’s my fourth data point: a member of our board is Hans Gass, who used to be the MD of Sandvik here in Pune. Before coming to Sandvik, Hans was the MD of Sandvik’s French company, and after he retired, he and his wife returned to live in France very near the Sandvik factory. Hans has worked in Switzerland, South Africa, Sweden, France and India, but sees his time in India as the most rewarding of his career. Here’s why: in France the top questions at work were where was one going for one’s holiday that year, could one stop work at 3 pm on Fridays, how could one get an extra week of vacation each year? In India, it was about how the quality of the Indian factory was now second only to the Japanese and better than Sweden, about how one could start exporting to a yet new territory, about a new product line that could be made here for the first time. Where would one rather work?

Congratulations to all the (about to be) graduates. I wish you a life of working with passion, of experimentation, of doing what you love, of making a difference.

(Dr. Naushad Forbes is Director of Forbes Marshall, and CEO of the steam engineering companies within the group. He was a Consulting Professor at Stanford University in the Program in Science, Technology and Society from 1987 to 2004. On the board of several public and private companies and an active member of the Confederation of Indian Industry, he has co-authored with David Wield the book ‘From Followers to Leaders: Managing Technology and Innovation in Newly Industrialising Countries’).

This excerpt appeared in POOL 40.

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