Infosys has lost a bit of sheen as it slows and gets used to a pace more suited to companies in their middle age. But for a majority of Indians, the information technology giant will always be known as the country's first globally successful technology start-up, one that caught their imagination for, besides its epic success, embodying values such as transparency and fair play. A large part of that narrative was shaped by its founders' image of 'guys next door' who, without powerful connections, made it big through ingenuity and hard work.While Infosys is now run by a new generation of professionals, the promoters are very much in action elsewhere, doing what they have always done best - change things for the better. They are using their not-so-inconsequential wealth and expertise to help the country get around some of its biggest problems - such as lack of quality education and archaic governance systems - while also helping create a new generation of star entrepreneurs.
"I am no spring chicken. So, I want to harness my time for public good"
BT spent time with the four key founders - N.R. Narayana Murthy, Nandan Nilekani, Kris Gopala-krishnan and S.D. Shibulal - who also occupied the CEO & MD position, to know about their life after Infosys and get their views on the opportunities in the current scenario. The other three founders, N.S. Raghavan, K. Dinesh and Ashok Arora, did not respond to requests for an interaction. Here is what is keeping Infosys's Famous Four busy these days.
The Elder Statesman
Tathagata is one of the titles of Gautam Buddha. In Pali and Sanskrit, it has two meanings - 'one who has thus gone' and 'one who has thus come'. It is an apt name for the operational headquarters of N.R. Narayana Murthy. While he may have 'gone' from Infosys and retains just the honorific Chairman Emeritus title, he has 'come' into the world of investing through Catamaran Ventures. The venture capital firm has made eight publicly known investments, including in Yebhi (online e-commerce), Innoviti (online payments), Bloom & Wild (fresh flower delivery), Lookup (messaging app), Coverfox (online insurance) and Hector Beverages.
Tathagata, nestled in the quiet, upscale residential suburb of Jaya Prakash Nagar in South Bengaluru, is a few kilometres from Murthy's house. The building is unassuming, except for the high walls and burly security men at the entrance. The security men let people in with a cursory glance once it is confirmed that they have an appointment.
At 70, most people are looking forward to a less fast-paced life. Not Murthy. The day we met him, he was looking at his itinerary for the next few weeks with his Man Friday, Pandu, who has been with him for a couple of decades now. He is running a bit behind schedule and apologises for the delay. His office, meanwhile, serves Paper Boat ethnic drinks such as 'chilled rasam, anar juice and aam panna'. Catamaran is a big investor in Hector Beverages, the owner of the Paper Boat brand.
As we get off talking about life after Infosys, Murthy does not agree with a comment that his pace has not changed since Infosys days. "Now, I get up very late. I am up only at 5.30 am. During my Infosys days, I used to be in office by 6.30 am. Now, I do a little bit of exercise in the morning and catch up on reading over coffee. I come to work only by 9 am." He says he has resigned from all boards except those of not-for-profit organisations and academic institutions such as Princeton University, Cornell University, Wharton Business School, Ford Foundation and UN Foundation. "I am no spring chicken. So, I want to harness my time for public good," he says.
On start-ups, he says there has never been a better time to be an entrepreneur in India. "We had to wait for weeks and months for every clearance when we set up Infosys in 1981. Funding was also a problem. However, I respect today's entrepreneurs as the field now is much more competitive. The other change is that Indian companies had to look for global opportunities if they wanted scale. Growth of the Indian market means that is no longer the case."
But what about the eye-popping valuations in the start-up world? "Who are we to determine whether companies are overvalued or not? Price is agreed by the buyer and the seller. There is no coercion."
If he were to launch a start-up today, he says he would still bet on the biggest differentiator an Indian company can have. "We have to leverage productivity per dollar of the Indian worker. For instance, our ability to deliver healthcare services at lower cost will be attractive. Similarly, in areas such as Internet of Things, providing education in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) to a global audience, leveraging the power of mobile ... there is no paucity of opportunities."
The elder statesman of the IT industry is also all praise for the government's initiatives around Digital India and Start-up India. "If we follow through and execute, we can create several globally competitive companies. I am a strong believer in the India story."
Besides work, he enjoys spending time with grandchildren and reading on esoteric computational mathematics. "I am off to the UK (his son-in-law is a member of Parliament there) where my daughter is planning to take me to some theatre. One of the joys of my life is ability to indulge grandchildren, as there are no attendant responsibilities," he says.
For Murthy, who built one of India's most successful technology companies, it seems that every road is paved with opportunities.
Protege Who Trod a Different Path
More than a billion Indians have got a digital identity today. This can transform lives on a scale no one could have imagined till even a few years ago. Aadhaar, as it is called, has become the launch pad for a series of reforms, right from subsidies, where beneficiaries get cash directly into their accounts, reducing leakages, to the more mundane ones such as monitoring of attendance in government offices. The credit for this goes to Nandan Nilekani, the former chairman of the Unique Identification Authority of India or UIDAI. He may have left the UIDAI but informally gives consultation to the "platform I helped create".Nilekani, called variously as the architect of Aadhaar, author of two well-regarded books, successful CEO, philanthropist, a protégé of Murthy and a not-so-successful politician, operates out of a building near his home in Bangalore's Koramangala, India's start-up suburb.
After leaving the UIDAI and a "painful" loss in the Lok Sabha elections, "I found I had no work to do," he recalls. However, for many, his loss was a blessing.
"After Aadhaar, for me, the challenges had to have scale. When I heard the numbers, I felt it was worth my time. So, we created Ek Step"
For decades, his wife, Rohini, had been involved in improving literacy and numeracy skills of children in primary classes. In Boston, where he had gone to attend his son-in-law's graduation ceremony, he met a few "like-minded individuals" who, along with Rohini, encouraged him to tackle the challenges in India's primary education sector. "After Aadhaar, for me, the challenges had to have scale. When I heard the numbers, I felt it was worth my time. So, we created Ek Step with some people who had worked with me on Aadhaar."
Ek Step is a smartphone-based platform for enhancing learning. Teachers, parents, volunteers, in fact any adult, can use it to teach. The outcomes are measured thoroughly. Global experts, universities and even the World Bank have contributed to its content. The Nilekanis' have put in millions of dollars of personal wealth in the effort.
Nilekani is also involved with iSpirt, the industry body for software products. "I was not involved with the start-up sector for the five-odd years that I was with the UIDAI. iSpirt helped me realise the kind of changes that had happened during those years." The involvement led to mentoring and handholding (in most cases pro bono). In some cases, he chose to invest too.
Talking about his investment philosophy, Nilekani says he looks at teams with transformational ideas to help India's unorganised sector become organised. He adds he gives equal importance to what not to invest in. "I don't do fintech investments as I am involved in the segment at the policy and regulatory level. I work as an advisor in creating a unified payment platform that will transform mobile payments. I do this pro bono. Since I am helping define the architecture, I don't want any conflict of interest. Also, I don't do anything linked to Aadhaar as I helped create it. I also don't invest in for-profit edtech companies because of Ek Step. So, no Fintech, no Aadhaar-based companies, and no edtech. These are my no-go areas."
Nilekani has invested in 10 companies. Some of them work in areas such as robotics, artificial intelligence, start-up infrastructure (Tracxn, which provides a start-up database) and publishing. He has also invested in the maker of an app that connects truckers and brokers and a company that has an app for data consumption statistics. He has co-invested with Accel Partners in some cases.
"The greatest pleasure I get is in working with iSpirt and building on the Aadhaar platform for things such as authentication, eKYC, digital signatures and digital repositories. These will enable government services to be paperless and cashless. This is at the heart of re-imagining government and business, which I believe will transform India," he says. He adds that if he were starting up today, he would set up a new generation bank that will be a global technology platform but with very few employees.
Even as he divides time between philanthropy, investments and policy advocacy, he still finds time to go for long walks in Conoor, where he has a historic bungalow. The bungalow, appropriately, has a connection with Alan Turing, the 'Father of Computer Science'.
Two Amigos: Joined at the Hip
On a weekday, in the office of Axilor, an early-stage venture firm that says it improves the entrepreneur's odds of building a successful business, a slim grey-haired man walks in wearing a T-shirt, jeans and sandals. Par for the course, one would say, at a firm that works on building cool, next generation companies, till one recognises that the man is Kris Gopalakrishnan, the soft-spoken former CEO and co-founder of Infosys. Kris, along with another co-founder, S.D. Shibulal, runs Axilor, which says that it is the place where "innovation meets execution". Kris, in his previous roles, was known as a serious, buttoned-up suited-booted executive.
Even as we question him about Axilor, Kris cuts in to share his excitement about the work that is being done on the history of Indian IT services. It is called Project Itahasa (history). "It will be in the form of an app across platforms and create a digital archive. The team and me have spoken to more than 690 people who created this industry. It will be launched shortly."
Axilor was set up by Kris, Shibulal, Harvard Business School Professor Tarun Khanna, former Infosys Director Srinath Batni, and Ganpathy Venugopal, another former colleague. It invests in early-stage start-ups. It takes in a dozen applicants and provides them co-working space and a little investment. Both Kris and Shibulal provide the mentoring.
"The thing I am most excited about is the work being done on the history of Indian IT services. It will be in the form of an app across platforms. It will create a digital archive"
Kris, however, says he spends 70 per cent of his time on not-for-profit education-related work. He is closely working with Indian Institute of Science and IIT-Madras where he has funded three chairs each on computational brain research. These work in areas of machine learning, artificial intelligence, neuromorphic computing and auditory circuits of the brain (to help the deaf). "Building fundamental research capabilities will be key to our long-term success." He has given more than Rs 300 crore for these research activities. He says he is also investing in medicine, primarily the overlap between computing and personalised medicine, but doesn't want to talk more about it till it has had some success. He also funds 400 financially challenged engineering students for four years. Each student gets Rs 4,000 a month. He is also on boards of a number of educational institutions, including IIMB, IIT-Madras and Chennai Mathematical Institute.
The two friends do much more together than investing and mentoring start-ups. Improving the education system is their common passion. Shibulal runs model schools under a foundation for primary education in Bangalore and Coimbatore. The foundation also gives scholarships to 3,000 students.
Shibulal also travels a lot as he is on the boards of a few universities such as Boston. "The good thing is all family members now can at least, once in a while, be on the same continent," he says. The day we interacted with him, he was hosting a delegation of education experts from the US. The only company he chairs the board of is his daughter Shruti's The Tamara, a hospitality venture that runs a high-end resort in Coorg (Kodagu, called the Scotland of India). Like Nilekani, he, too, escapes to the rolling hills to unwind.Shibulal is also funding studies of 297 children of police personnel who lost their lives on duty. The funding commitment is for a period of 12 years for each child.
His love for things that are technical or a design challenge has not dimmed. He says he was recently involved in designing a school safety product. "The only thing I regret is that I don't get enough time to read, given my commitments."
"The only thing I regret is that I don’t get enough time to read given all my commitments"
While their family offices manage most of their wealth, both recently sold some of their stake in Infosys worth Rs 862 crore to fund philanthropic activities.
The Infosys founders, it seems, are in no mood to pause.