In 1945, Mohamed Hashem Premji incorporated Western Indian Products Ltd, based at Amalner, a small town in the Jalgaon district of Maharashtra. It used to manufacture cooking oil under the brand name Sunflower Vanaspati, and a laundry soap called 787, a byproduct of oil manufacture. In 1966, on the news of his father's death, the then 21-year-old Azim Premji returned home from Stanford University, where he was studying engineering, to take charge of Wipro. The company, which was called Western Indian Vegetable Products at the time, dealt in hydrogenated oil manufacturing but Azim Premji later diversified the company to bakery fats, ethnic ingredient based toiletries, hair care soaps, baby toiletries, lighting products, and hydraulic cylinders. In the 1980s, the young entrepreneur, recognising the importance of the emerging IT field, took advantage of the vacuum left behind by the expulsion of IBM from India, changed the company name to Wipro and entered the high-technology sector by manufacturing minicomputers under technological collaboration with an American company Sentine Computer Corporation. Thereafter Premji made a focused shift from soaps to software.
Azim was born in MumbaiIndia in a Muslim family originally hailing from Kutch in Gujarat. His father was a noted businessman and was known as Rice King of Burma. After partition, when Jinnah invited his father Mohamed Hashem Premji to come to Pakistan, he turned down the request and chose to remain in India.
He has a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering degree (equivalent to a Bachelor of Engineering degree) from Stanford University, USA. He is married to Yasmeen. The couple have two children, Rishad and Tariq. Rishad is currently the Chief Strategy Officer of IT Business, Wipro.
Premji has been recognised by Business Week as one of the Greatest Entrepreneur for being responsible for Wipro emerging as one of the world's fastest growing companies.
In 2000, he was conferred an honorary doctorate by the Manipal Academy of Higher Education. In 2006, Azim Premji was awarded Lakshya Business Visionary by National Institute of Industrial Engineering, Mumbai. In 2009, he was awarded an honorary doctorate from Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut for his outstanding philanthropic work.
In 2005, the Government of India honoured him with the title of Padma Bhushan for his outstanding work in trade and commerce.
In 2011, he has been awarded Padma Vibhushan, the second highest civilian award by the Government of India.
In 2013, he received the ET Lifetime Achievement Award.
In 2001, he founded Azim Premji Foundation, a non-profit organisation, with a vision to significantly contribute to achieving quality universal education that facilitates a just, equitable, humane and sustainable society. The Foundation works in the area of elementary education to pilot and develop 'proofs of concept' that have a potential for systemic change in India's 1.3 million government-run schools. A specific focus is on working in rural areas where the majority of these schools exist. This choice to work with elementary education (Class I to VIII) in rural government-run is a response to evidence of educational attainment in India.
The non-profit organisation set up by Premji in 2001 currently functions across Karnataka, Uttarakhand, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Pondicherry, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh, in close partnership with various state governments. The foundation has worked largely in rural areas, to help contribute to the improvement of quality and equity of school education.
In December 2010, he pledged to donate $2 billion for improving school education in India. This has been done by transferring 213 million equity shares of Wipro Ltd, held by a few entities controlled by him, to the Azim Premji Trust. This donation is the largest of its kind in India.
The AzimPremjiUniversity was established under an act of the Karnataka Legislative Assemblyto run programmes to develop education and development professionals, offer alternative models for educational change and also invest in educational research to continuously stretch the boundaries of educational thinking.
Azim Premji has become the first Indian to sign up for the The Giving Pledge, a campaign led by Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, to encourage the wealthiest people to make a commitment to give most of their wealth to philanthropic causes. He is the third non American after Richard Branson and David Sainsbury to join this philanthropy club.
"I strongly believe that those of us, who are privileged to have wealth, should contribute significantly to try and create a better world for the millions who are far less privileged"--- Azim Premji
In April 2013 he said that he has already given more than 25 per cent of his personal wealth to charity.
Famous Quotes by Azim Premji:
- People are the key to success or extraordinary success.
- A girl child who is even a little bit educated is more conscious of family planning, health care and, in turn, her children's own education.
- I think the advantage of democracy is that it makes us less dependent on a group of leaders.
- I think that any wealth creates a sense of trusteeship... it is characteristic of the new generation which has created wealth to have some amount of responsibility for it.
- Inflation is taking up the poverty line, and poverty is not just economic but defined by way of health and education
- The Western world loves liberalisation, provided it doesn't affect them.
- The Indian community in Canada has integrated much better than the Indian community in United States. They've become really Canadian at the same time as keeping all their Indian characters and customs and social groups.
- You cannot get into business for the fashion of it.
- If the United States wants access to Chinese, Indian or Vietnamese markets, we must get access to theirs. U.S. protectionism is very subtle but it is very much there.
- With the attention I got on my wealth, I thought I would have become a source of resentment, but it is just the other way around - it just generates that much more ambition in many people.
Business quotes by him:
- As you get bigger, you have to learn to delegate. It’s also an excellent way to get staff involved in the company’s operations.
- The early years were more about learning than about acting. I had to carry on my father’s work, which was a big challenge.
- As an advisor, I can say what I want. If I were a politician, I would constantly have to compromise, and I’m incapable of doing that.
- Character is one factor that will guide all our actions and decisions. We invested in uncompromising integrity that helped us take difficult stands in some of the most difficult business situations.
- There are millions of children today who don’t attend school. However, education is the only way to get ahead in this country.
- In our way of working, we attach a great deal of importance to humility and honesty; With respect for human values, we promise to serve our customers with integrity.
- "It is heading to be the IT capital of the country. That's very good."
- "We compete with global companies and are primarily in the services business, which is highly people dependent."
- "For us Japan is a much higher priority. We find there are challenges in China -- the stability of people, intellectual property, uncertain cash flows. They are hard-working people but they don't have democracy. When they have a transition to democracy there are going to be huge challenges."
- "We must overhaul our land laws, taxes and information system. Some 90 per cent of land in India is subject to legal disputes over ownership."
- "The strategic initiatives we propose to undertake as part of our plan over the next few years position us well to lead this evolution."
- "My company believes in hiring people based on merit."
- "It is no longer the issue of whether one should focus on China, or India versus China, but of India and China."
- "Though delivery of superior solutions to our customers and creating sustainable value to the shareholders remain unchanged, we are devising strategies in anticipation of challenges and opportunities to focus on execution for higher operating productivity."
- "We hire on requirement basis and not on anticipation."
Speech Delivered by Mr. Azim Premji, Chairman, Wipro Ltd. at the Jawarlal Nehru Memorial Lecture, 2003
Ladies and Gentlemen
Let me start by saying that it is a rare honour to be speaking from this platform to a gathering of august ladies and gentlemen. The luminous galaxy of thinkers who have spoken from this platform pays tribute to the great man in whose memory we all assemble here today. That I have been invited to share this platform is an honour to the hundreds of industry leaders in our country.
Character, Human development and Success
Among the several invaluable teachings that Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru left behind for all of us, the one closest to my heart is about “Character”. Very early in my life I learnt that Character is Destiny. That Character of an individual, an organization or a society is the most important determinant of success.
When I use the word Character I use it in the broad meaning of the word - the indescribable mix that an individual is: thoughts, words, feelings and above all of actions. And the heart of Character is Values.
If you consider Wipro as a successful organization,the factor I would rate uppermost as contributors to its success are our Values. At the outset we decided that Character is one factor that will guide all our actions and decisions. We invested in uncompromising integrity which helped us take difficult stands in some of the most difficult business situations. We defined a set of values and beliefs for the organization in early 70s before it was not fashionable to do so. We decided that upholding those values was more important than achieving business success.
Let me also confess with candour that upholding these Values over the years has not been easy, especially in the early years. But we stuck on. And as the years passed we realized that what started in the realm of idealism and implicit belief, not only held true in reality, but proved to be a unique, tactical competitive advantage. Customers wanted to buy from us because we honoured our commitments. Business associates wanted to be associated with us because they were reassured by our straightforward dealings. Employees were comfortable working with us because they were not obliged to do anything that could not stand scrutiny or that made them feel ashamed at the end of the day. Practising these values across the organisation also gave complete transparency and a shared sense of purpose to everyone in the organization. It is gratifying that over the years more and more organisations want to run their enterprises with character and integrity.
It’s only with pride that I can say that today the entire canvas of human endeavour in our great nation, whether in business, academics, sports or politics is full of examples where Character and Values have driven success.
The thought that Character is Destiny can be easily illustrated by citing names of great men and women who have turned the tide of history. What I am trying to emphasize here is that this is relevant not only to the visionaries, but to also to millions of people like you and me.
Education – the only character builder
Convinced as I am on the importance of Character, I have tried to think and discover what shapes Character. Being neither a scholar nor a scientist, all my thoughts in this regard have been at the level of action rather than in unravelling of mysteries of human development. Luminaries like Pundit Nehru who can deeply influence the Character and personality of an entire nation are few and far between, the question is can we afford to wait for messiahs, or do we take our future in our hands.
I believe it is our inherent responsibility to build our nation, build Character and integrity in our children and the future generation. I strongly believe that the one concerted area that wittingly or unwittingly can shape the personality and Character of a society is education - and I refer to fundamental education at the primary school level. In my view it is and absolutely imperative that we prioritize education and its issues on the national agenda, not only in discourse but in action. I have no doubt that our education system as it stands today is in need of transformation and that transforming our education is really the key to transforming India’s destiny. I am immensely aware that I am neither an educationist nor an academic person. All that I understand is what kin of people have a potential to be more successful in business and what kind of people make successful employees.
A lot of work has been done by us as by many others to determine the kind of citizen the nation ought to be looking for at the end of education cycle. Let me place before you some of the characteristics of such an individual :
- a person who has the ability to relate rationally to fellow beings and to their environment,
- a person who has an inherent sense of curiosity and interest beyond his/ her own life,
- a person who perseveres in the face of odds,
- a person who is not blindly obedient but can act on the basis of independent thought and exercise judgment
- a person who has the ability and willingness to continuously learn and change,
- a person who is excited by challenges,
- a person who sees diversity and plurality as a strength not a threat
- and above all a person who will stand firmly by a set of values which will guide him/ her through life.
Over the years, as I have interacted with people and organizations, and have been exposed to the diversity in various countries, I have realized that the difference between the successful and the not so, is consistently the above qualities that they bring to the task. I refer to “success” not in its narrow sense, but in broad terms - success is being able to achieve what one sets out to achieve, no matter how simple the goal.
Status of Education today
The all important question is “does today’s education deliver on the above characteristics?”
My experience personally and as also of recruitment in our organization indicates “it is not” delivering the same. I have also had the opportunity to understand the education system both in rural and urban India through the initiatives of Azim Premji Foundation and Wipro Applying Thought program in Schools (the former in rural government schools and the latter in urban elite schools). Both the initiatives focus on “Improving Quality of Learning”.
We realise that our education system continues to remain enmeshed in a paradigm where note accumulation and reproduction of information is equated with learning and mere memorization seen as the critical cognitive faculty.
The almost factory-like efficiency of the end school exam seems to drive everything in the system, unifying all participants around the single objective of “doing well in exams” which seems to have become the be all and end all of education. This makes the system thrive on churning out standardized children like graded “products” in a factory ………weak in creating, thinking, discovering and learning. It fosters individuals who are programmed to obey and conform, who have limited life skills and need continuous direction.
It’s only a tribute to the undying human spirit and some balancing social structures that all the qualities of success are not completely obliterated in vast majority of our youth, but still do find expression. It is not that the importance of education is underestimated in our country; public discourse and debate keeps it very much a part of everyone’s agenda. However this consciousness and the resulting actions revolve mainly around what I would term as “Access” to Education and concentrate on issues of enrolment, attendance, alarming drop out rates, discrimination, physical conditions and facilities all of which doubtlessly merit highest attention. But equally deserving of urgent and immediate attention is the Quality of Learning, which usually tends to get perfunctory treatment.
It is true that Quality of Learning cannot be addressed in a vacuum caused by absence of schools, or absence of teachers from schools, or the absence of the basic facilities from schools. Nor can it be addressed divorced from the socio-economic context of the child. Indeed Quality and Access and therefore equity are inextricably entwined. But in my view it is critical to appreciate that in our complex socio-economic system, as much as Access impacts Quality, so does Quality impact Access. It is like the double helix of the DNA, never complete in itself but complete together, the DNA of education runs on two strands of Quality and Access.
A lot is stated about poverty and socio-economic conditions within a habitation as important causes for families deciding not to send their children to the school. Our consistent experience is that from families with identical poverty levels and socio economic backgrounds, almost fifty percent of parents send their children to school while the balance fifty percent doesn’t. There is an important lesson in this. To us it simply means all of them are families that have potential to send their children to the school. It is just that those who don’t send their children to the school do not find the education and the quality of learning in the schools relevant to their lives. So we have a situation where sections of both the elite and economically backward find education in a large measure irrelevant to their needs.
In other words the quality of public education is so poor that it does not incentivise us to overcome odds and send our children to school. In a parallel to Economics the demand side sees no rewards and therefore does not do its bit to “make the market” of education.
The irrelevance of what is taught in schools, both in the immediate context of the child and what it may mean to the child and her family in the foreseeable future, is glaring in the rural areas and in the schools which primarily educate the children of the under served part of the society.
My conviction that Quality of education must get an equal share of the national action agenda has grown significantly over the last few years after we started working closely in 4000 habitations in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh in the Azim Premji Foundation and about 100 urban elite schools under “Wipro Applying Thought in Schools” program. While the Azim Premji Foundation works in rural government schools that have a preponderance of under-served children, most of the schools where Wipro works are for the privileged and would generally find a mention in the “best schools” lists. Their desire to participate in the program stems from their own conviction that they must do something about the Quality of education, in an attempt to overcome the constraints of “system”.
So whether one were to consider the so called best schools or the schools that some how continue to exist in the most underprivileged of areas, the issue of Quality is equally paramount. Interestingly, paucity of funds or the intention of the government is in no way a road block. The funds are there and the intentions are there. In fact the funds that the successive governments have committed to education are generous.
Let me also say that I sense a simmering consensus (I don’t know how large) around the issue of Quality of education. We need to develop the “simmering consensus” through informed public debate into a strong visible consensus and real action on the ground. This alone would achieve positive transformation rather than a mere tinkering of the existing system.
What kind of education should we aim at?
When we speak of “Quality of Education”,it becomes imperative to address the all important issue of “what kind of education”?
The philosophy, purpose, method and institutions of education need to be re-thought. This rethinking should lead us to an education that facilitates the blossoming of all the qualities that we talked about earlier; qualities which truly drive success for individuals, groups and societies. In other words an education system where the top of the agenda is real Quality. Let me articulate what I visualise education to be. Education to my mind is an organized system that facilitates learning so that each individual: imbibe the process of understanding and becoming what he / she can be and wants to be, i.e. develop his / her full potential; and understands his /her role and responsibility in society and contributes to its progress.
If that is the aim of education, how do we envision the kind of individual that our education system should strive to create ? I cannot phrase this better than Pandit Nehru. In moving words from the Discovery of India, he says:
“We can never forget the ideals that have moved our race, the dreams of the Indian people through the ages, the wisdom of the ancients, the buoyant energy and the love of life and nature of our forefathers, their spirit of curiosity and mental adventure, the daring of their thought, their splendid achievements in literature, art and culture, their love of truth and beauty and freedom, the basic values that they set up, their understandings of life’s mysterious ways, their tolerance of other ways than theirs, their capacity to absorb other peoples and their cultural accomplishments, to synthesize them and develop a varied and mixed culture; nor can we forget the myriad experiences which have built up our ancient race and lie embedded in our sub-conscious mind.”
Being the non-educationist that I am, I have no business to articulate what education should be like, but being the risk taking businessman that I am, I will take the risk of articulating what education could be like:
1. Every child is an individual with a right to respect. This respect for the child must translate into providing a non-intimidating and exciting space in which the child learns. Schools need to proactively identify and eradicate every element of threat – physical, mental and emotional – that stifles learning and growth.
2. The right learning environment ought to be contextual to the learner and to the community. For instance, a blind child needs non-visual learning tools; hunger is a physical threat detrimental to learning in underprivileged communities. It follows that the local community has a responsibility in creating a feasible environment within and outside the school. So education will create frameworks for learning which is contextual to the child’s history, future and environment.
3. There has to be this clear understanding that learning occurs everywhere and that all learning can be interesting. It would build on the operating principle that each child constructs her own learning. To quote Plutarch, “The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled”.
4. Why is it so difficult for us to accept that every child learns differently, at different depths and at different speeds? Some children learn best when doing things with their own bodies; some learn better in peer groups; yet others learn best by emulation. There is an acute need to recognise the importance of “Individual Learning”.
5. Let me ask you… under what subject should the eruption of a volcano in Japan be covered? geography? physics? maybe chemistry? geology? It is all of this and more. This is because nature is inherently whole. It cannot be broken down into fundamental building blocks. Then why is curriculum boxed into subjects, modules and chapters? The child would understand inter-related disciplines at a fundamental level. Only then will she be able to construct knowledge that is not cut-off from the reality of the world around her. We ought to think of “Integrative” and wholesome learning.
6. This form of education will not stop at “content”. The child would continuously develop life-skills. This would include physical development, relevant vocational skills, competencies such as creative and critical thinking and abilities such as risk-taking and coping with change. Further, the child’s learning would be grounded in an individual, social and human value system imbibed from self-discovery.
In education of this nature, caring for childrenc and feeling responsible for the holistic progress of every child would form the basis for all decisions. Such education will invest in teacher development, better assessment systems, community participation, and in a culture built on the imperative of the learner. It would be an education system which would continuously refine the dynamic balance between being the key agent of socialization and being the driver of social change. In such a system, the child would learn how to learn, develop and grow. These are thoughts as I said emanating from the experience of a businessman, not that of an educationist.
Change processes to achieve the kind of education we aim at. If we understand and agree on the kind of education quality that we need to aim at, it is important to understand the change processes that it calls for. The revitalization that a movement towards such a fundamentally changed education system will imply and demand, in my opinion will be driven by many initiatives.
Some of those that occur to me that need emphasis are:
1. No participant of the education system today will disagree with the kind change that we are talking about. Every one wants learning which is “child centric”, “enquiry based” etc. The disagreement is never in overt words – but in action on the ground and deep down in belief systems and zones of comfort. This deep resistance must be overcome before real and systemic change can be initiated.
2. Thinking must translate in to outstanding execution on the ground. While a large part of the problem today is with the ideology and working of the current system, an equally large part of the problem lies with “managing an effective delivery system”. Currently the management of the system has not been a focus of much attention. This would need correction. To begin with by gathering and creating a cadre of charged education leaders (and I can assure you – there are plenty of those), who would see the change in Quality of education as a nation transforming mission.
3. An absolutely important aspect is going to be what in business organizations is called “change management”. I have no illusions that the learnings from organizations can be translated to a behemoth like the education system on this count, but certainly in my mind the importance of this initiative remains the same as in organizational change. It would involve overcoming resistance, developing shared goals and an acceptance of accountability for outcomes.
4. A key issue is how the education system can attract good talent. One just needs to see who works in schools, and for what, to realize that fundamental improvement cannot be achieved without addressing the issue of the talent pool in the field of education. As with everything else in the context of education, this is easier said than done. While it requires intervention at the level of teacher education, continuing education, management and leadership, one cannot evade the issue of how to impact the social reward structures to get the right set of people into education.
5. We don’t readily see the impact of the so called “English Medium Convent School”, but this manifestation of private enterprise in education is ubiquitous, even in the smallest towns. The social impact of such schools driven by aspirations of the local middle class is tremendous. There is no case for “regulating” these schools – but there is a compelling case to use the spirit of private entrepreneurship in the process of change.
6. Given the deep social impact of education and it very long term economic returns aspect, especially for primary and secondary education, a completely “free market” in education is not desirable, nor practical. But the fact is that there is a market aspect of demand and supply in education. We need to harness this efficiently, instead of ignoring it or letting inefficiencies continue. Deep community involvement and ownership is one key aspect of making this “market” efficient. One glaring lacuna in the system today is its inability or reluctance to listen to some the key stakeholders such as the parents or the local communities. There is no mechanism for these crucial voices to be a part of the system.
7. Technology as a low cost enhancer and multiplier of educational capacity must be driven as a top priority. There is still inadequate appreciation that IT (especially the internet) is one of those few things in human history which increases in power by sharing. The greater the number of people on the net, the greater its power. By its ability to deliver transparency to all in a completely non-discriminatory nature, the net can be a fundamental driver of democracy and equality. We are seeing the excitement our computer assisted curricular and co-curricular learning program is achieving in over 400 government rural schools in Karnataka and Andhra.
One of the most dramatic turn-arounds of our time has been the dispelling Malthusian thought. The unthinkable leaps of technology in this century have already made a phoney boogey-man out of the Malthusian fears.
However I think and even more interesting turn-around over the past decade or so has been the complete turning on the head of the Malthusian hypothesis. Population and its growth from being the primary cause of concern have gradually emerged as unparalleled assets and strength.
As intuitively compelling was Malthus’ fear that humanity will not be able to feed the teaming billions, it is even more compelling reality that the most unique resource on earth is the human mind, endeavour and spirit. Once the issue of feeding the billions is taken care of, this unique resource counts for all the difference in the world. It’s on this pool of unique resource that India is uniquely ahead of every other nation. Its large population is and can be the most important differentiating factor.
This differential becomes even more significant if one were to look at comparative demographics of nations a couple of decades in the future. The productive population in India will continue to grow, whereas this most important segment of the population will continue to fall in relative terms in all the major nations of the world. So we have the inevitable scenario unfolding where India will be the powerhouse of the most important resource – the productive human spirit. The stage is set. It is for us to choose which play will be staged.
This will depend not wholly, but substantially, on what choice we make on our education system. Will we continue with the present blinkered system which can in no way adequately nurture our unique talent pool ? Or will the key stakeholders join together and transform the system to facilitate true, lasting and relevant learning for every child which inevitably will lead to a turbo charging of our unique human resource pool. The choice clearly is ours to make. And the future clearly is ours to construct based on these choices. As a stakeholder of the education system, I have no illusions about the difficulty and complexity of the task on hand. But I see a big glimmer of hope in the “simmering consensus” that I have talked about. The mainstream of education must pick up this agenda and make it its own, and people like you and me who are stakeholders must engage with this process of transformation even if to begin with, it is just lending our voice.
At this moment of inflection in our history, the best way to conclude is to recall Pundit Nehru’s immortal words :
“A time comes when we need to redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance”.
It is fitting that on this momentous occasion we take another pledge of dedication - Every child of India in school and learning joyfully. This is our chance to shape a future which will inevitably compel the world to recognize this as the Indian Century.