Some years ago I was at an event when a young man, looking a bit starry eyed, came up to me. He might have been about 20 and since I had been doing a bit of cricket on television for a few years, I thought he wanted to ask me something about cricket. Instead, he inspected me a bit and asked, “You from IIM-A?” I smiled at him, the kind of smile that says yes, and with the same intense gaze he said “Wow!” and walked away. My professional work meant nothing to him, I wasn’t a cricket 50 years of IIM-A host, just someone who had passed through “wow”!
Now, like many of my batchmates, my institute turns 50 too. Like many of them, and maybe even more so than them, it is robust and successful and hugely aspirational. Sometimes great brands can show signs of age, can become irrelevant to generations that care little for reputations, but IIM Ahmedabad is still the place to be for the best young men and women of this country. It is a solid brand, one of India’s strongest and most resilient; a “wow” brand.
It is a brand that many like me wear with pride and emotion. IIM-A changed my life, it put me into a peer group I didn’t think I could have belonged to, a group I could claim for life. It gave me my Test cap, something I have often felt the need to turn to at various times in my career. To aspire for something and to be accepted is a very special feeling. And I know I am not the only one who thinks this way. That is crucial to understanding the aura of an institution.
Hall of fame: The Louis Kahn- designed IIM-A campus is iconic. Ramesh Dave / Mint
Indeed IIM-A shares a wonderful symbiotic relationship with its students. It is not the bricks, but the minds in it that make a place and every year, the institute admits some extraordinary minds. As they become successful they build the aura of the place they come from and in doing so draw more extraordinary minds to it. It is an upward spiral. The best students need the IIM-A stamp to be seen as special and the institute needs the best students to retain its standing.
And yet, the institute needs to add value, for otherwise, it could become a best-in-best-out train. Late last year, when we were there for our reunion, it was an issue that was debated strongly. Unfortunately, it is not something I can have a strong point of view on since my life has taken me in a different direction but it is an issue worthy of discussion. Do employers—and let’s face it, they often determine the standing of an institution—regard admission to IIM-A as a quality sifting process or do they believe that it makes men out of boys?
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And so, while I cannot speak for others, it did change me as a person. I came from a soft engineering course where I was able to end up as a rank holder without really doing too much. I had no idea of the rigour that success demands and I was lost in my first few months in Ahmedabad. I thought getting in was difficult, I discovered that getting out would be even more so. That I eventually did count among my prouder accomplishments. I have often been asked how IIM-A helped me in my life as a broadcaster. It taught me the importance of rigour.
My professors there were vastly superior to those where I came from, they were far more committed (I can never get over Prof. Abhinandan Jain, one of the stalwarts of IIM-A, visiting our dorms late one evening to return our assignments since we needed to work on them for our next submission) and they set standards that you were mighty proud to meet. If you got a “B” in Prof. Mote’s course you knew a thing or two, if you, perchance, got an “A”, you were a superior being; as you were if you cracked a quiz set by Prof. Jaikumar or by Prof. Barua. Not everyone was in that league, but then not everyone can be!
IIM-A made me tougher; partly due to the academic standards (a third D and you were back home) but even more so by being part of an extraordinary collection of talents. By nature, the human species is competitive, maybe there is a survival gene in us somewhere, and while there were many who pretended to be unconcerned by such petty matters, deep down, they knew they had to deliver. In my engineering college, if you felt the need to deliver, you delivered. Here, it was nowhere near as simple as that.
But academic rigour is but one factor; a critical factor but only one. The success of its students in diverse fields adds to the aura. As a young kid you can wander through the Louis Kahn Plaza and imagine you are doing what many corporate stars had once done. You can sit there and dream or reflect, as I still do every time I revisit the campus. This feeling that you have the opportunity to become part of a bigger success story is another reason for coming to IIM-A. Many other institutes, and there are many fine colleges around, offer that opportunity but not always the chance to be part of a club.
GURU-SPEAK: It’s the first Indian business school to launch its own publishing programme. Random House India and IIM-A have collaborated on a series of books written by faculty members on subjects usually covered by most management and business books—management skills, strategies for growth, business and intellectual property, among others. Authors use largely Indian examples such as the Mahabharat, the mantras of business leaders such as Narayana Murthy, and companies such as Bharti Airtel Ltd, Tata Motors Ltd and Bank of Baroda. For beginners and students. The books cost R299 each. For details, log on to www.iimabooks.com
Naturally then, these alumni return to pick the best cherries from the next crop. It is a cycle all Bschools hope to establish and one that, through longevity and pedigree, IIM-A has accomplished. But now, as always, many challenges line up on the horizon. It is critical that IIM-A has teachers students can be in awe of. I was only one of two that didn’t sign up for Prof. Nitin Patel’s course on MIS but I saw my friends looking up to him. As the pillars of the institute retire, are others stepping up? It is something only more recent alumni can answer but it is imperative that the answer is “yes”.
And many great universities from around the world will come knocking at India’s doors. They will bring global appeal. The Federers and Woods and Messis of the world of education will be here but IIM-A needs to be the Tendulkar; the local global colossus.
Fifty years is a landmark, but one that is much smaller in the life of an institution than it is in the lives of its many distinguished alumni. And yet it is a great moment for one of India’s greatest brands. There will be many who will applaud; a tiny part of its heritage will offer thanks.
Harsha Bhogle, an IIM Ahmedabad alumni, is a cricket writer and commentator.
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