On a good day for technology stocks, Roshni Nadar Malhotra is India’s wealthiest woman. She has inherited not only the genes of her father Shiv Nadar, a pioneer of the Indian tech boom, but also his keen sense of philanthropy. In a freewheeling chat with Business Today’s Global Business Editor Udayan Mukherjee, she speaks about stepping into Shiv’s tall boots, preparing HCL Tech for the digital age, her mother Kiran’s love of art, and her lifelong admiration of primatologist Jane Goodall. Edited excerpts:
Q: Roshni, you are today one of the richest women in India and chairperson of HCL group, but you had once set your heart on being a media personality. And, if I remember correctly, you even interned with CNN and Sky News. So, I had imagined Roshni Nadar was going to become a media face. So, what happened? Did your father take you aside one day and say ‘Roshni all this is fine, but who is going to manage this multi-billion-dollar enterprise?’ Is that how and when you decided to change course?
A: Well, I would have to say that my media journey started with CNBC as an intern. And I distinctly remember seeing you there. But, obviously, I was too junior an intern for you to notice. But I firmly believe, Udayan, that the richest learning comes from a diversity of experiences. I was raised in a fairly liberal household; my parents allowed me to do whatever I wanted to pursue. If Shiv [Nadar, her father] had serious plans for HCL, he would have asked me to do Science in Grade 12 and then put me in engineering. But I did commerce. And then, I pursued under-graduation in radio, television and film, with a focus on journalism. I interned with CNN and then I worked with Sky News in London for a year and a half. It was then that I had a very interesting conversation with Shiv. He said that even if your dream is to have a media empire, you would still need to know the ins and outs of the business. So, please go and attend business school. I think that’s how I landed up at Kellogg, doing my MBA. And after that I moved back to India. So, that was really the long and winding journey of moving from India, going into media, business school and then coming back to the fold.
Q: Do you ever intend to take him up on that offer, surprising him by starting a media empire of your own, or are you too entrenched in the HCL fold to think about all that? Does it seem like a distant memory now?
A: Well, I still love content! So, in The Habitats Trust, which is a foundation in which I am Founder and Trustee, I have actually been producing TV shows for Animal Planet and National Geographic. Couple of years ago, I even produced a very small children’s film. So, whenever I get time, I keep my mind and hands and feet in content and media.
Q: Tell me, how is it being Shiv Nadar’s daughter? I mean you can’t get away from it. Of course, you have built your own life, and now sit at the helm of the group. But, he must still be a larger than life figure in everything you do. And, those are big boots to fill. How do you feel about being his daughter? Does it weigh you down? Is it an inspiration?
A: I think it is a privilege. There is no way to fill his boots. That’s true, so I prefer to say that I stand on his shoulders. And it’s an honour to be able to do so. What’s helped tremendously is that he is such a great teacher. And he has been that through his entire career. You know, HCL was not just built by him, but by the brilliant people he surrounded himself with. And so many have learnt from him along the way, including myself. You know, he stepped out of the role of being an active CEO almost 20 years ago. Since then, HCL has had multiple CEOs who have all been his students, because they all started their careers in HCL. For all of us, this larger than life figure is actually an amazing teacher. I think that has been my privilege. And he continues to be that.
Q: Your breaking into the fold was an interesting journey. You carried the Nadar surname and could have just been brought in and placed at the top. But the way it was done—placing you first with the HCL Foundation, then giving you a seat on the board, and it was only after years of observing how the business worked, that you were allowed to take on the hot seat of the chairperson. How would you describe this journey?
A: So, when I returned from business school, Shiv immediately made me the CEO of HCL Corporation, the holding company, which had a balance sheet almost as big as the operating company itself. It was an instant push into the deep end and that taught me a lot. This was in 2009. After that, it was a very interesting time between 2009 and 2013, when I actually spent a lot of time between both the group companies, HCL Technologies and HCL Infosystems, working in different departments, with different leaders, even the shop floor at our manufacturing facility in Pondicherry because those days we used to make computers. Then I was in [then CEO] Vineet Nayar’s office, working with Zulfia [Nafees] in marketing. So, I think there were lots of roles that got me familiarised with the huge group that existed. And in 2013, I was inducted on the board. Through it all, one was also witnessing transition: Vineet as CEO, then over to Anant [Gupta]. And then from Anant to CVK [current CEO C. Vijayakumar]. A lot of changes happened at the board level as well. I think it was a very interesting induction for me, because Shiv deliberately ensured that I was always in places where key decision-making takes place. That is what decides the trajectory and the strategic direction of the organisation. Then Shiv stepped off as the Chairman last year [in 2020], at which point I was appointed. All in all, it was a great learning curve for me.
Q: At any point, while you worked with so many CEOs, did you ever sense any resistance? Because you were a woman, and the boss’s daughter, you could easily have been marked out as the outsider. Or would you say you were accepted with open arms, without any kind of rancour?
A: Even if it did, I would not know, right? And I guess it wouldn’t matter. You know, Udayan, I am an only child. I have been around Shiv, been around all these CEOs at the office literally since I was a kid. So, a lot of my equations with these people are not just professional, but quite personal. So, it is a very different equation. It is difficult to explain. But they have all seen me growing up, been my mentors and teachers at some point or other. So, I hope it was all okay.
Q: I think I understand. That there was some personal affection, which is usually not the case between members of a board. Speaking of your time on the board, this was also when the major $2-billion IBM deal on products and platforms went through. And, it may well be an important cog in the wheel for HCL Tech going forward. Did that deal process teach you a lot?
A: Udayan, I think that was one of my biggest learnings. Not just for me, but for the board as well because strategically it is a very big pivot and a shift. We were always doing a lot of business in IT and solutions. And in products and platforms. But when we actually took the leap to acquire these IBM products, we learnt how to do the software business. Which is very different from what we were doing otherwise, which is ITBS (IT and business services) or engineering and services. So, now HCL Software is almost one-third of our revenues and a very large strategic part of how we do business. Now, we have to build those teams out. You know the kind of skills required to do software business, the kind of investment cycle. In one shot, it has given us access to over 2,000 global CXOs, which would otherwise have taken HCL about a decade to develop. The customers that we acquired, not just the revenues but the people that came with it... it has taken a couple of years to settle down but, all in all, this strategic investment was required. And I think it will hold us in good stead in future.
Q: Let me get back to Shiv for a moment. When he started HCL Tech, and when it started becoming a big company, that was the time when Y2K was happening, such a big tailwind for the entire IT sector. Today, it’s all about cloud transformation. Do you think this digital wave or cloud transformation is as big an opportunity or an even bigger tailwind than Y2K might have been in your father’s generation?
A: Certainly, and to add, the largest tailwind has sadly been the pandemic, because it has pushed the demand for digitisation that much faster. What would have taken two to three years, happened all of a sudden in the past 15 months. There was a Gartner report that said by 2025, cloud transformation will become the foundation for all intelligent enterprises, not just tech companies. So, I think it is here to stay. It is getting adopted faster and faster. At HCL, we have the HCL Cloud Smart offerings and were one of the first to dedicate units to hyperscalers such as Google, Microsoft and AWS. There is a lot of investment going in there, and not just in opening up business and opportunities. But it is actually about skilling the people who are going to get us to the next step, as eventually it boils down to that—our companies employ lakhs and lakhs of people. So, technology is moving fast and we have to move as fast.
Q: People like Shiv Nadar and Azim Premji are leading lights in the field of philanthropy. Is that something for which your heart beats for as well? Do you see this as a major prerogative?
A: Definitely, Udayan. Shiv Nadar Foundation was founded in 1994. Shiv established the SSN College of Engineering in Chennai. All the rest of the institutions—Shiv Nadar University, Shiv Nadar Schools, VidyaGyan, Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, SHIKSHA [Initiative]—were all established post 2009, after I returned. So, I would like to think it was a joint effort between Shiv, me, Kiran [mother] and Shikhar [Malhotra, her husband]. By March of 2022, we would have spent a billion dollars on our initiatives. We’ve got 18,000 students in the system at the moment, 21,000 alumni all over the world doing incredibly well. It is a very different foundation because we are not targeting millions of lives, but are far more focussed. Shiv always feels that he is a product of quality education and in that aspect, there is much left to be desired in our country. The more we can work towards that, the better it is.
Q: You mentioned your mother; tell me more about your equation with her. She has done such a stellar job of the Kiran Nadar Museum. Do you share her interest in art?
A: Oh, she is amazing. She is a national level bridge player, one of the only women in India who plays in the open circuit. In 2018, she was the Asian Games Bronze medallist. Also, a Commonwealth gold medallist. So, before art came along, bridge was her passion. She started collecting art in the 1980s. So, you could say I grew up with HCL on one side and art on the other. Unfortunately, bridge, I didn’t pick up, shame on me. But it has been incredible to watch her journey. Today, I think she may be the world’s largest collector of Modern- and contemporary Indian Art. So around 2010-11 we thought that everybody has great collections. But the kind of development we see in the American, European, Chinese or Japanese art markets, that kind of development isn’t there in India. So, we should build a museum. And, you know we have finally acquired land to build a museum near the Delhi airport and David Adjaye, who built the African-American museum at the Smithsonian, has been selected as the architect. I think it will be India’s first private museum of global repute. I hope it will put Indian art on the global map.
Q: What do you look forward to, Roshni? You are barely 40. You are incredibly wealthy and sit at the top of one of India’s largest companies. What is really aspirational for you? Where do you see yourself, at 55 or 60?
A: Thanks, but I am 40! For HCL Technologies, definitely, that it continues to grow much bigger, much more dynamic. Maybe that our Products and Platforms business will become as big as the rest of our businesses as well, lots of aspirations there. If I think of VidyaGyan, which is what I drive at the foundation, the bunch of students who are now coming to the workplace, maybe some of them go on to establish their companies and be successful entrepreneurs. Even better, with valuations like our unicorns today! That will make me pretty excited. On conservation, by the time I am 55, through The Habitats Trust, be able to save some species from extinction. I think that would be a great achievement. There are so many elements. Finally, you have to take each day as it comes and just make sure you are more effective than efficient.
Q: Who are really the people you admire? If you have to look outside the HCL fold and think about some mentors and people who have really inspired you, who would you name?
A: This is a bit out of the box, but one of my role models and one by whom I am really inspired by is the primatologist and anthropologist Jane Goodall. She is in her eighties but still such a force. In September, I had the privilege of talking to her for 25 minutes on Zoom. Just one on one. An experience I will never forget. You know, I met her three years before that in 2018 or ’19 at the World Economic Forum. There were all these world leaders but I went up to her and took a photograph. And said I wish I could meet you and talk to you. She agreed. At the end of the day, as people like Jane remind us, the only things we are always running out of are clean air and good earth.
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