Pramath Raj Sinha: The classroom entrepreneur
The first dean of the Indian School of Business and co-founder of Ashoka University on a new classroom for women, and trysts with chief ministers
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By the time we get to lunch at Mumbai’s Sea Lounge at the Taj Mahal Palace, the restaurant has begun serving tea. The place exudes an old-world charm, with live piano music, the clink of china and the buzz of conversation. We are ushered in to a much coveted sea-facing table. Outside, the afternoon sun makes everything sparkle as barges and boats criss-cross the Arabian Sea against the backdrop of the imposing Gateway of India.
It’s 3pm. Pramath Raj Sinha hasn’t had lunch. The 52-year-old entrepreneur had flown into Mumbai that morning and had just finished speaking at a business school event on education. Sinha was the founding dean of the Indian School of Business (ISB), Hyderabad, and is co-founder of Ashoka University, Sonipat, Haryana.
His most recent venture is the Vedica Scholars Programme for Women in Delhi, an alternative master’s in business administration (MBA) programme. This all-women residential programme tries to address the problem that far more women graduate from high school than men, but get left behind in careers. Sinha says he was inspired by institutions like Wellesley College of Massachusetts, US, where women get the confidence to express themselves. The Vedica curriculum includes subjects that many conventional MBAs neglect, like politics, sociology and history. The first batch of 36 Vedica scholars has just graduated and Sinha informs me that one student has received an offer from Google at a starting salary of Rs22 lakh.
By now we have settled into our seaside seats and turned our attention to the menu. We debate the relative merits of keema ghotala (a spicy Parsi keema with bread), a smoked salmon sandwich or a BLT burger, and end up settling for the latter two.
Sinha grew up in Patna, in a house with a printing press. His father and grandfather were writers. Writing didn’t pay all the bills, so Sinha’s father started a small textbook-publishing business to supplement his income and pay for the education of his four children—three daughters and Pramath, who was the youngest. Sinha recalls going on marketing trips with his father in winter. “We called it canvassing; we would fill the car with calendars and diaries and call on schoolteachers with these gifts. I thought it was a lot of fun; only later I realized it was serious marketing,” he says.
Years later, it was another printing press that drew Sinha back to the country of his birth. By then, he was an alumnus of the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, with a PhD in applied mechanics and robotics from the University of Pennsylvania, US, and had been working as a consultant since 1993 with McKinsey & Co. in Toronto. And then one day he was assigned to a project on newsprint. The project was in Canada, but it had an India component. Sinha tells me about the days he spent in India at the time, visiting newspaper offices and finally working at the Ballarpur Industries paper plant as part of the project.
“It was an almost surreal existence. At one level you are working for McKinsey, which in Toronto was boardrooms and office and always talking to CEOs. Here in India, I was in a paper plant in Haryana, living in a guest house with an Indian toilet and a dhobi visiting every day. We were sitting in our ganjis every night because it was so hot. Hanging out with the workers, speaking in Bhojpuri with the Bihari labourers, having shouting matches with the union.”
Such experiences, and work in the newsprint and media sector in India, made Sinha want to return. He started working with McKinsey India in 1995 on a project basis and moved full-time in 1997.
By now the salmon sandwich and the BLT burger have arrived, and we have half portions of each, complete with fries. Sinha begins talking about the ISB story. He was involved with the institute right from the planning stage and even took a year off from McKinsey to be the founding dean. The story has all the elements of high drama—a cast of powerful industrialists, including Adi Godrej, Anand Mahindra and Rajat Gupta, chief ministers, and complicated negotiations. Most of these took place 1999 onwards, but for Sinha, the introduction to education and institutions had come even earlier.
In 1995, McKinsey India began working on a project with management guru Kenichi Ohmae and then Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, on ways to transform that country into a knowledge economy. Sinha was assigned to this project, and it became the first of many such university projects for him. “A PhD in robotics doesn’t make you a guy who knows how to build a university,” says Sinha of those early days. But this was where he first began institution-building. The ISB started as a project McKinsey was doing with the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi—Sinha has since come out with a book about setting it up, An Idea Whose Time Has Come: The Story Of The Indian School Of Business.
Over a cup of Darjeeling first flush, Sinha tells me about the day ISB’s board of governors visited three states and three chief ministers. Their first stop was Hyderabad, where then chief minister Chandrababu Naidu pulled out all the stops. “The chief minister sent his ratha to receive us, a bus with sofa seats, and we were taken to the site for the business school. On the way back to the airport, the bus was redirected to the CM’s house. He welcomed us all, garlanded us and served us breakfast in his house. Afterwards we were taken to an adjoining room and given a presentation on Hyderabad as a knowledge hub,” Sinha recalls. The team was charmed, but behind schedule.
In Bengaluru, then chief minister J.H. Patel and his team were furious at the delay. “The CM didn’t speak a single word to us. And then when we reached Chennai, we were asked to garland the CM, Jayalalithaa. We were taken to see the venue which was supposed to have a lake, and we walked and walked to see the lake, but there was no lake. So in one day, we saw three chief ministers, all such contrasts of each other. One garlanded us, the other didn’t speak to us and the third wanted us to garland her,” Sinha says.
Not surprisingly, the ISB was built in Hyderabad. Sinha is currently on its executive and governing boards.
From being the founding dean of ISB, Sinha returned to work at McKinsey in 2002, then left to head the ABP Pvt. Ltd as the group’s managing director and CEO in 2006. In 2007, he set up his own media company, 9.9 Mediaworx Pvt. Ltd. Like much of the media, 9.9 has had uneven economic growth. Its Rs45-crore-turnover business in 2015-16 includes magazines and websites like Digit, CIO, CFO and some consulting projects.
In 2010, Sinha tried setting up a business school in Vadodara on the lines of the ISB but had to give up the idea because the school was not able to generate enough demand at the price point he had thought of. Currently, he is working with consulting and implementing project proposals at the Crescent School of Business in Chennai, the Anant National University in Ahmedabad and the Shoolini University in Solan. The Union government is planning a railway university in Vadodara and Sinha plans to bid for that project.
Sinha and his wife Gauri live in Delhi. They don’t have children, so Sinha says he has “all the time to fill my weekends and free time with all the different things I do”.
By 5pm, Sinha is ready to leave for the airport for his flight back to Delhi. His last meeting for the day is with an alumnus of Ashoka, a Young India fellow. The next day is a Sunday, but Sinha has an online robotics event that he is conducting for 9.9 Media with a special guest.