Hello, everyone. This is Ronnie Screwvala, co-founder and executive chairman of upGrad. Today, we are in conversation with Mr. Nandan Nilekani. He’s a Padma Bhushan, and we all know him as the co-founder and the chairman of Infosys. Nandan has also been a Cabinet minister since 2009 and all the way to 2014. He has co-authored and authored a book. He continues a very active philanthropy activity along with his wife, and in education, with his company.
I think there’s an incredible amount of people wanting to understand how to embrace uncertainties and ignite change.
1. About challenges we face right now
I know that these are very difficult and challenging times. This time, the situation that we face, is really unprecedented because this is both professional, as well as sort of a personal challenge. I think the professional challenge is that all of the world’s businesses have been affected by.
You know this. It’s also unusual that this business challenge is combined with personal challenges. The personal challenge of being safe, preventing contagion, being locked down at home, and being lonely because you’re often living alone and there’s nobody with you.
One thing is that we are all knit together in the sense this is not a challenge limited to one class of people, one country or one region. This is a challenge for everyone on the planet. Therefore, to that extent, we’re all united in the fact that no one is exempted from this challenge. And, everybody has to go through the same discipline, the same lockdown, and the same distancing as anybody else.
I always believe that challenges like this are also times when we should take up the opportunities for growth. This, like any crisis, will come to an end. This situation will go away. In fact, I also believe that after this crisis is over things will actually come back with a bang because there is so much of pent-up demand, so much of pent-up desires, that we will see huge growth in an opportunity post-crisis.
2. Importance of technology during the crisis
Advances in telecommunications, broadband conferencing, software video conferencing, and audio conferencing that we have, allow a lot of us to continue to do our work. The second thing is that today, it’s impossible to get things unless it’s delivered home. Therefore, technology enables solutions for commerce, e-commerce delivery, and is becoming very important.
An area deeply impacted is entertainment. The fact that we have a profusion of channels streaming to our homes like Hotstar, Netflix or Viacom, etc., is possible due to technology. What we are seeing now is because of the fact that we have invested in technology to actually be able to deal with the situation.
Another good example of technology which I was involved with was when we built the Aadhaar system. We connected that to the banking system and today, we have 700 million Indians who have an Aadhaar-linked bank account. Using this system, India is able to transfer money in real time to the bank accounts of vulnerable people.
This is something that is helping to keep them going and is only possible because the technology that India built in the last 10 years. What this crisis has shown all of us is that technology has really been the reason that we are able to even continue to have some semblance of working.
3. India is a complex country and needs to get its livelihood back in place. Thoughts on the containment from this viewpoint.
Obviously, the lockdown has enormous economic consequences, especially for the people who live on daily wages. The lockdown may not be that effective in very dense urban population because if you lock down people in a dense urban population, they’re infected, then they’ll just infect each other if they’re not moving around. I think there can be some kind of partial lockdown. But, you know that, obviously, you won’t have big events, you won’t have gatherings and so on. But, some kind of minimal business can function.
At the same time, we have to improve our ability to test and isolate those who have got the disease. So, these go hand in hand. If you want to bring back some semblance of activity, then you also need to have a good testing infrastructure and rapidly test people. You can think of this lockdown flattening the curve to some extent but also giving the time to put in place that testing infrastructure.
4. Views on the demand-supply gap that has formed during this lockdown.
There’s both a decline in demand and a decline in supply which is why many people are predicting that this will be a huge recession that we have never seen before with the contraction of GDP around the world. Having said that I think we should just make ourselves ready for the next wave.
My recommendation, therefore, is that the demand will come back. And, therefore, let’s work on supply to a certain extent and hold on to that demand because otherwise it’s almost like restarting from scratch. We should use this time well to build up our skills, our networks, make friends and learn new things that we need to know so that whenever demand picks up we are ready to roll.
5. Thoughts on online learning
The method of learning online is changing for everyone in the world. Every school, university now has to provide online learning because physically kids and students can’t go to campus anyway. The whole learning experience, which is really the depths of online learning, where grading systems, feedback, mentorship and counselling are accelerated.
I think the credibility and credentials, the value of online learning will go up dramatically because if you have a complete infrastructure for learning, testing, assessment, credentials and certificates, then companies will respect that. And, I think what would have earlier taken 10 years, will happen in two years now.
6. Do you think there’s going to be some change in this whole balance of urban-rural divide?
I think at least in the short-term, we will see a lot of migrants returning home. They reside in cities because there is income. When there is no income in the city, there’s no reason for them to stay. So, I think in the short-term, we will see people returning. I think in the long-term, the trend towards urbanization is inexorable and it will be continued.
I think people will become more conscious of the fact that we have to provide better urban infrastructure for people migrating from villages because if we don’t give them the right environment, the right living conditions, then all these health concerns can get out of hand. I hope our leadership is convinced to improve the quality of our cities so that you have better infrastructure for people who are just coming in.
7. Advice for B2B businesses
For B2B businesses, clients are so diversified in terms of industry, in terms of region and in terms of size. Your clients are going through extreme stress and that stress is often communicated to vendors. If you have clients who are in the telecommunication industry, big tech companies, fast-moving consumer goods like people who sell soaps and hand sanitizers and so on, then they are doing well because people are buying these basic products.
I think it’s a good lesson in the diversification of risk. So, one of the ways that B2B businesses can diversify the risk is by having a large number of customers and not only depending on one vertical, industry or company so that you are protected from any downturn.
8. What would be your advice to entrepreneurs of medium and large companies?
It’s your ability to see behaviour shifts now. We still don’t fully know the behaviour shifts that are going to come from this crisis. How do you figure this out? While we can have a bunch of speculations on how behaviour change will happen, it’s very difficult to predict. Those entrepreneurs who are able to see tea leaves and figure out behaviour changes in consumers and are able to plan their products and services for that will do exceedingly well.
If we are going to have a situation where people are going to work from home, then the kind of environment and productivity they need to have are fundamentally different from how things have been till now. Perhaps, things that will help make it easier for them to work from home are a very big category for entrepreneurs to look into because we don’t think of work from home as a lifestyle.
The current environment looks difficult and people are wondering how will companies grow? Whether markets will grow? When jobs will be there? I can assure you that this crisis is finite and all companies will grow. Maybe in the next few months, companies will face different challenges but all the big companies like us will not have layoffs.
We will make sure that people have their jobs and we will make sure that we continue to provide income to everyone. And, I hope that many of the companies will follow that premise.
Please use the next few months to take advantage of all the huge volume of learning that is possible, develop new skills, apply them as much as you can and be ready when the next opportunity comes.
Utilise upGrad’s limited-time free courses during this lockdown. Hone yourself and rise to the challenge.