We have been avalanched with anecdotes about Azim H. Premji ever since he announced his retirement as chairman and managing director of Wipro Ltd. Next month, he will make way for his son, Rishad Premji, to take over as executive chairman, and for the company’s CEO Abidali Z. Neemuchwala to succeed him as managing director. Online tributes to the 73-year-old seem choked with emotion, each offering testimony to his remarkable leadership. Over a career spanning 53 years, he led the transformation of a small vegetable oil firm into a bustling $8.5-billion information technology major. In doing so, he led not just an audacious mission to diversify operations, harmonize divergences, cross-fertilize ideas—from soap to software and, believe it or not, even vice-versa—and maximize profits, he led hearts and minds by the force of his conviction in the values he espoused. Apart from the clarity of his strategic vision, he is held in high esteem today for his integrity, compassion and emphasis on ethics. For all his success, as colleagues and associates testify, modesty attends whatever he says and does. By all accounts, he was profoundly embarrassed to find his name on top of the Forbes list of Indian billionaires for a few years at the turn of the millennium. That he is India’s biggest philanthropist now should surprise nobody.
Premji may have inherited Wipro, but his success was self-made. He had just begun his twenties when he had to drop out of Stanford University and take over his family firm in 1966. Moving into information technology (IT) in the early 1980s was the company’s big break, of course, the start of a dream run that saw the company enlisted on the New York Stock Exchange by 2000, the year he finally got his graduate degree from Stanford. Resolutely defiant of the Western market wisdom of sticking to a field of “core competence", he was already a legend by then. Not that he never faced criticism. Some sniped that Wipro was too closely held to be a paragon of wealth sharing. Others carped that his all but complete control over Wipro made talent retention harder, which they said would render it uncompetitive. It lost some senior executives, but kept growing; and once Premji began to give his wealth away for causes nobody could argue against, his critics fell silent. Wealth was to be generated not just for shareholders, he held, but for the upliftment of the needy.
The focus of Premji’s philanthropy is education, a sector he chose because it has the greatest potential to improve the lives of Indians at large and the underprivileged in particular. The Azim Premji Foundation, which he set up, has been working since 2000 towards that end, more than a decade before he took a cue from Warren Buffett and Bill Gates and publicly pledged to give away at least half his wealth. Earlier this year, he made a multibillion dollar endowment that made news across the world: In all, his philanthropic trusts are now the economic beneficiaries of two-thirds of Wipro’s entire equity, worth over $17 billion in market value. Crucially, year after year, the bulk of the company’s dividends will be used to achieve the goal of a well-educated country. Sure, Premji retains the voting rights of those shares, but that’s exactly how those whose lives have been touched by his largesse would probably want it.