Book Review: Just Aspire – Notes on Technology, Entrepreneurship and the Future

The background:
Back in 1975-76, Ajai Chowdhry, a young engineer from Jabalpur left a stable, secure job with DCM Data Products and joined forces with Shiv Nadar and four other associates to set up a company that would design and manufacture computers; Hindustan Computers Ltd. (HCL) was born. Remember, this was back in the day when computers weren’t a part of everyday life for most people, and even Microsoft (which was founded at around the same time as HCL) was still 10 years away from releasing the first version of its Windows operating system. Well, they must have done something right – the company, now known as HCLTech, earned revenues of US$11 billion last year.

The author:
Ajai Chowdhry, co-founder of HCL, has had a stellar career – he received the prestigious Padma Bhushan award in 2011 and is, among many other things, Chairman at the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) and a member of the advisory board with the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology. With a long list of impressive accomplishments to his name, you’d expect Chowdhry to write a book about his life and times, and he has.

What the book is about:
Just Aspire: Notes on Technology, Entrepreneurship and the Future is Chowdhry’s memoir. ‘When I left Jabalpur, the small town in Madhya Pradesh where I grew up, to pursue a career, I could not have dreamt that I would find myself at the vanguard of pathbreaking revolutions that would transform India,’ he says, in the author’s note. ‘My story is interleaved with my experiences and learnings at HCL. It is also about my life, pre- and post-HCL,’ he adds.

Some interesting bits:
The books starts with the author’s description of his early days in Jabalpur, a somewhat privileged childhood (briefly, he had a tiger cub for a pet!), what with his father, an IAS officer, being the municipal commissioner of Jabalpur at the time. Chowdhry mentions Christ Church, the school where he studied in Jabalpur, a Christian institution where strict discipline was enforced and competition in sports was intense. It was here, perhaps, that young Ajai must have picked up some useful skills that would hold him in good stead later in life, in the HCL boardroom and, we’re sure, in many corporate battles over the decades. He also talks of his fascination with reading in his schooldays; everything from Enid Blyton and Agatha Christie to classics like Lolita, Madame Bovary, and To Kill a Mockingbird.  

Chowdhry’s father wanted him to follow in his footsteps and join the IAS, although the young Chowdhry had engineering on his mind. He does get what he wants and goes on to study at Jabalpur Engineering College, where he says he had a great time watching movies, copying Dev Anand’s sartorial style and making pen friends (no email in those days, remember) in France, Japan, the US and the Philippines – most of them girls, of course.

Done with college, Chowdhry moves to Bombay, taking up a job in sales with DCM Data Products. And then comes the most interesting part – the setting up of HCL and the early days, dealing with the challenges of building up a new business in a nascent industry, meeting bigwigs of the tech world and working alongside some of the biggest names in the business. His accounts of his meetings with luminaries like Bill Gates and Ray Kurzweil add a nice bit of colour to the book.

The pages devoted to the story of how HCL spread its wings and expanded operations in multiple countries, learning to work with the computer technology available at that time, learning hard lessons in management and riding the liberalisation wave of the 1990s in India provide useful insights into the tech culture that prevailed in the 1980s and the 90s, and how business used to get done. Particularly intriguing is the author’s account of how HCL took its business to China in the early-1980s, which was an emerging market then, with huge potential. Chowdhry became ‘Chow Ta Lee’ for the Chinese market and learned to deal with Chinese bureaucracy and their unique business tactics, and even adapted to Chinese food, which, with its ‘array of unfamiliar meats’ was ‘a far cry from Indian Chinese.’

Chowdhry also, briefly, talks about HCL’s partnership with Nokia for the distribution of affordable, low-cost mobile phones for the Indian market. This also makes you wonder if this was one area where HCL could have done more. Even as Nokia faded away due to their shortsighted business policies and Chinese manufacturers rose to the occasion, dominating the smartphone segment in India today, perhaps this was a missed opportunity for HCL? The author doesn’t say as much, so we’ll probably never know.

By the time you’re about half way though the 225-page book, Chowdhry is already taking about moving on from HCL and focusing on his philanthropic work and other objectives, which includes promoting tech entrepreneurship as an investor and mentor, and fostering technical education in India. The rest of the book is devoted to the author’s efforts in building (and in some cases, rebuilding/reworking) major institutions, helping and encouraging young entrepreneurs, and reading extensively. ‘I took a course in speed reading, which allows me to take in whole sentences at a glance, rather than words,’ he says in the context of the latter. Chowdhry also talks about another key area of interest for him, which is futurology. ‘I firmly believe that humankind will conquer death and disease, time and space. A brilliant future awaits humans – or ‘posthumans’ – provided we’re still around to enjoy it,’ he says.      

Published by HarperCollins India, this is an interesting, well-written memoir that provides a glimpse of what it took to build up a tech company like HCL, a bunch of useful management lessons, and many interesting anecdotes about Dr Chowdhry’s family life and his other work apart from HCL.

Just Aspire: Notes on Technology, Entrepreneurship and the Future is available on Amazon

Ajai Chowdhry, at the launch of Just Aspire

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