Coverage by Bhat Dittakavi of Variance.AI on “Mind without Fear” by Rajat Gupta, cofounder of ISB on 4th April 2019 at ISB, Hyderabad
As a proud alumnus of ISB and as a visiting faculty for its AMP program in Business Analytics, it was one of the exciting moments on campus for me to hear from the man who made ISB happen. The idea of ISB that Rajat and his cofounder envisioned back in late 90s turned out to be one of the finest examples of thinking big. Today ISB has 10,000 alumni and is self-sustained. I would have liked to listen more about the ideation and execution side of this phenomenon called ISB directly from the horse’s mouth. Hope to see that happen next time around.
“Proud that ISB turned out to be bigger than what we envisioned“, said Rajat Gupta as he addressed a houseful gathering of MBA students, industry professionals and entrepreneurs at ISB. Rajat chose ISB as the venue to launch his new book titled “Mind without Fear”. Pramath Sinha, founding dean of ISB, played the role of the moderator for a lively session that followed.
Pramath) Why did you write this book?
Rajat) You might have heard that I made big news in 2011 and during the subsequent trial on insider trading. I wanted to let the world know about my side of the story. I missed an opportunity to tell when I was going through the trial. This book is that story. I am at the eighth decade of my life. My primary interest is to share my life’s journey. From respect and authority to suspicion and disgrace. My life got ups and downs. My intent is neither to seek redemption nor to claim my innocence. I have served my time and paid my dues. My reputation got destroyed. I know I didn’t commit the crime. I also know I wouldn’t be what I am today without this event. I have become better as a result of these experiences.
Pramath) Why did you name it “Mind without fear”? There is a chapter about ISB too in this book.
Rajat) My publisher was searching for a title. I had it in my mind that this would be the title and I finally convinced the publisher. One of the most important things is to conquer one’s own fear. Mind without fear is aspirational. One of the reasons I decided not to testify was to give into that fear. Most of the times I could come over fear in my life but not every time. “Where the mind is without fear” is a famous poem by Rabindranath Tagore.
Pramath) Your life has seen significant transitions. What is your experience like?
Rajat) There are momentary transactions and then there are others. When you are too much in your comfort zone, that’s the right time to get out of it. Comfort zone puts you in a rut and you can’t be innovative there any more. I have pulled myself out of the comfort zone all my life.
Pramath) What was it like to be in a solitary confinement?
Rajat) Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. This gentlemen from the jail sent me to solitary confinement for making a pillow out of two towels. I could convince finally to take two books with me to the confinement. 1) Gita 2) Pranayam by Iyengar.
Despite my exhaustion, I couldn’t sleep that first night in the solitary confinement. I picked up Gita. I never read it from the beginning to the end in its form until then. I told myself this is the opportunity like a retreat. Orange was the prison robe for me and incidentally that is also the color of Sanyasin’s dress. I got into the confinement without my choice but I could embrace it. I was determined to use the ancient wisdom from Gita to raise above the confinement. That first night I read about the detailed description of great war Mahabharata. I read aloud to myself taking the pleasure of the powerful Sanskrit dictations. Life and immortality of the soul made me see the downs of life as trivial. That my life force is connected to universal force made me feel better. Death of my parents appeared in a new context. Leaving body is like shedding old clothes and wearing a new one. I slept with Gita on my chest. When I woke up the next day, the jail food tasted like cardboard and thankfully I reoriented myself. I didn’t know how long I was there. I was there for seven weeks. It was very hard. I saw many prisoners routinely sent there without a strong reason.
When I was in solitary confinement, it offered me to go through myself in depth.
Pramath) Talk about the beliefs that you had changed after the event. What are the things that changed?
Rajat) Here are some of my beliefs. 1) If someone else wants to do it, let him. 2) If you have ten problems, ignore them and nine go away. 3) The softer you blow your own trumpet, the louder it will blow. 4) Listening takes lot less energy. 5) When in doubt, invite them all. I ignored nine problems and the tenth one came biting me. This would be the change I guess.
Q) Fear is by-product of risk. How did you handle it?
Rajat) I led an office in Scandinavia and I decided to leave the office in the best comforts. As a consultant, I had no clients and nothing to do and it was risky but I left. I have voiced opinions against the conventional wisdom or politically correct things. They were risky, but in the end they paid off. I chose to take risk and not be afraid.
Q) Had it ever crossed your mind to return to ISB in the near future as a professor?
Rajat) I have attempted that once. I taught strategy. It was a half credit course. It made me learn that teaching was the toughest. Hats off to the teachers. If I follow my own rule of getting our of the comfort zone, if dean invites me, I will teach again.
Q) Thinking big may make others misunderstand you. How did you deal with it?
Rajat) ISB is like this. A collective group of like minded business leaders had come with the idea of ISB. We wanted to create a truly marquee campus with huge funds. People said we couldn’t. We told ourselves we shouldn’t operate under the regulatory regime of the government. Hence we offered diplomas only. We couldn’t bring permanent faculty. We hired visiting professors. this trend still continues. People said this business can never self sustain. Our dean proved that ISB is truly self sustaining institution that reinvests in itself.
Another example of thinking big. Global fund for AIDS, Malaria and TB: It was Kofe Anna’s idea. Through his courage and with the support of Bill Gates, the fund started unique PPP partnerships among donor and receiving countries. It was big idea. Four billion dollars go into this fund each year. One million children used to die every year and today the number came down to 400,000. It is a big idea.
Public health foundation in India that I was responsible for was a big idea. It again became the PPP. We started five schools of public health (preventive and promote health). It reminds of a quote by Mahatma Gandhi: If the cause is just, the means will come.
Q) Please talk about rebuilding your life. Business ethics is a shifting paradigm. Do you ask young executives to behave differently?
Rajat) Much needs to be reformed in US justice system. Education and health are at the heart of me. Criminal justice system has a staggering impact in US with largest number of people (millions) incarcerated in the world. Think of the families they are connect with. More than a 100 million suffer due to this. I chose to make the difference in whatever I can. That is the new thing.
The biggest mistake in some ways is that I was too busy with too many initiatives going on. How come anyone would be doing this? I wasn’t doing for pulling my name but in the end it added up to be a hell alot. I missed out on details of some that would have helped me stay away from the bad elements.
Everyone of us has a set of principles and you just be true to yourself. Those kind of values stay truth forever and are never shifting. Values that you believe in give you dividends in the long term.
Q) What were the reactions of your friends after the news broke? How did they shape your mental attitude?
Rajat) When the first article came out, I was in P&G board meeting. They told me to continue in the board. A friend told me now is the time to learn who would be the real friends. Many of my friends stayed with me through the difficult journey. Without their support, I wouldn’t be able to cope as well as I did. Some so called friends moved away and did things against me and they were never my friends to begin with and hence I didn’t miss them much. Corporate friends didn’t know how to interact with me. Some got frozen. In the life, you only need few good friends and I had more than my share.
Q) Your experience in public health?
Rajat) Maternal and child health and clean water and sanitation. It is an interesting project that has been going on over an year in Gujarat targeting a population of 300,000. We brought technology to solve these problems. We experimented with one of the big problems for women health of anemia. Anemia can be solved by iron supplements and the easiest way to do is to smash the iron compound into small pellets of any form and add them as ingredients to the cooking pot and that bonding action helps get iron into the body.
Q) How do you see your future now?
Rajat) I am in the process of discovery. Writing this book took couple of years and was cathartic. I am in the mode of reflection. I don’t have the full answer.
I lost nine years and every battle. Had I given in, I would have got out much faster. After my indictment I learnt about true friends. Criminal justice system taught me how complex it was. Had I resigned from Goldman in 2008 as originally planned, things would have been different. Who knows! After 2008 crisis, things looked worse and the society got bias against anyone who worked for big banks from board offices. My case was one among the several where circumstantial evidence was good enough for conviction.
If you work with right intentions, outcomes won’t matter. Becoming a better professionals is what you need.