Innovation, transformation are what excite me: Vineet Nayar

Sampark Foundation founder and former HCL Tech CEO Nayar on his foundation’s goals in education and beyond


Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

The walls of Vineet Nayar’s Sampark Foundation office are covered with framed media clippings of his corporate achievements, but the former chief executive officer of HCL Technologies Ltd wants to talk only about education, a cause to which his organization is devoted. Like the clippings, his corporate life is a thing of the past, said Nayar, who has committed Rs.650 crore to philanthropy.

Vineet Nayar, 54Nayar is the founder of Sampark Foundation and former chief executive officer of HCL Technologies Ltd. After a successful corporate life, he is now focusing on improving education outcomes of government school students through his foundation and has committed Rs.650 crore for his initiatives. He is also an author, and mentors several start-ups.

He does not like being called a philanthropist though. “If you call me a philanthropist, you are undermining my intellect. We are a start-up where the Rs.650 crore will be used as seed capital to bring large-scale social change,” he said in an interview. Edited excerpts:

You left a high-profile corporate career to settle for an innovative education venture. What made you quit the high life?

If you look at my life, it is around new ideas and new innovations. When I founded (technology management firm) Comnet it was an innovation on the remote infrastructure idea; when I was given the responsibility of HCL Tech, it was the “employee first, customer second” idea.

So, for me, it is the third phase of innovation—how to revolutionize education and increase learning outcome by at least 10x.

What has always attracted me is the challenge... In the 1990s they used to say you cannot start a company which could become a billion-dollar one; in the 2000s many said you cannot transform HCL Tech… and now many say that education problem is too big to be fixed.

The size of the challenge has always grown 10x. The challenge from Comnet to HCL Tech was 10x and from HCL to this (education venture) is 10x. From 100,000 employees at HCL Tech to 10 million children is 100x.

Doing transformation, leveraging innovation is what excites me... Transformation of a company is great, but after sometime, it becomes boring. Because, it is doing more of the same. What I am doing today is 100 times bigger, 100 times more meaningful, 100 times more impactful and needs 100 times more innovation because it is frugal.

You have committed Rs.650 crore... we know it’s long term, but how are you spending it?

We have already spent Rs.65 crore and are committed to spend Rs.100 crore by 2018 on improving students’ learning of mathematics and English in primary schools in Chhattisgarh and Uttarakhand only. More when more states join in.

As a corporate leader, you are driven by results. What are the three key results your investments have achieved?

What we have achieved is not because of the money spent but because of the innovation. Right ideas in India can attract a huge amount of money… I can convert Rs.650 crore to Rs.6,500 crore. There are enough friends who are waiting to say “Vineet, what can we do?” I am not limited by my money.

First, we have achieved 100,000 teachers who are motivated to change the teaching-learning experience.

Second, when we began our programmes two years ago, only 50% of primary-school children could recognize numbers... today, 86% of our children can do division and multiplications and we are talking about 3 million children.

Third, when everybody said that you cannot teach English in rural schools, we used audio technology to teach English.

First, better teachers; second improvement in learning outcomes on the ground and third, frugal innovation.

By 2020, where do you see your mission going?

The aim is to be in three more states impacting 10 million children in total in 200,000 schools, from 60,000 schools now.

This is where this experiment will end. This experiment will end in 2020. I believe any innovation and experiment has to have an expiry date. We will put up education innovation in public and demonstrate that it works with 10 million children. Someone else may take it forward. We will go and innovate in a completely different field.

You won’t work in primary education… so what next?

We have three experiments going on right now—poverty alleviation, water and science education in middle schools. Depending on where we can move the needle the most, (it) will be our focus.

The middle-school experiment is on a science lab with an expenditure plan of less than $1 per child per year. Democratization of water usage, meaning better usage from the same supply… it is going to be a product for increasing productivity.

Third is Mothers Fresh, where we will reach out to organic farmers who are also mothers. We can create a closed-door community—consumers and producers who believe in a cause.

Can you create a community of 1 million mothers who are both consumers and producers?

We are not a philanthropy, but an innovation organization. Where we can break the logjam, we will flood that with investments.

I am here because we believe we can bring large-scale social change. If you call me a philanthropist, you are undermining my intellect.

We are a start-up, where the Rs.650 crore will be used as seed capital to bring large-scale social change. Social sector has to be objective and be ruthless about evaluation and outcome.

The interesting metaphor in your office is you are talking education but your back wall is full of clippings about your corporate life in international media—‘Financial Times’, ‘New York Times’, etc. Do you feel like going back?

I am an adviser to 18 starts-ups and on the board of some large companies. I spend 20% of time on things corporate... I believe the forward is significantly more exciting than the back. Why would you go back when the forward is significantly more exciting?

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