TABLE FOR TWO Subroto Bagchi knows how to draw out the best from an assortment — be it a great salad or his latest roll-out, “MBA at 16”
Dot on time, all eager for a chat, he is at Pavilion, the ground floor restaurant at New Delhi’s ITC Maurya. I spot him soaking in the lunch hour bustle, his appearance radiating what a life guru would call total presence.
It soon turns out that it is indeed nice meeting an affable Subroto Bagchi, who doesn’t wear success on his sleeve. A toast of the world of business books, a name admired in the software industry for forking a fresh course in human management out of a man-eat-man corporate world, Bagchi, in fact, is near apologetic when I tug at his feat. “I am an outsider to the world of business. I am an accidental entrant,” is all he says. From a middle class upbringing in a dot of a town, Korapat in Orissa, with no part of the family in business ever, his was a warped route to the pitch. Much before co-founding the IT consultancy, MindTree in 1991, he worked as a clerk in a government office.
Bagchi has just come out with his third book, MBA at 16 — A Teenager’s Guide to The World of Business (Penguin). So our conversation takes an obvious swerve towards it. In fact, to “the beauty of interacting with 31 teenagers” from a public school in his city, Bangalore, “the kind of questions they asked” him.
“I have become friends for life with them,” says the chairman and “gardener” of MindTree. He notes, “We spend time with our children, not others’. I wish our policy makers would spend 4-5 days in a year with others’ children, touch their hopes, see their zest for life, feel their sense of innocence.” Also then, they would have heard the bunch posing questions like, “can we even do business without being corrupt?”
Lunch time looms large on us and a waiter eagerly brings the menu card. Bagchi settles for a vegetable soup and a vegetarian salad. Noticing the sudden crease on my forehead, he responds, “I am not a typical Bengali who loves his fish. For some years now, I am a vegetarian.”
Well, to each his own and we return to talking MBA at 16. Bagchi says the catchy title of the book is to attract readers’ attention but the aim behind it is the need of the hour. “When we were growing up, education was a force in India. Parents wanted their children to become doctors, engineers, bureaucrats and college professors. Only those from business families would take up business as a career. But today, business is becoming a large force in India. So we need to move with this change and prepare our young adults at the school level itself. We need to instil in them a sense of business, how businesses touch everyone’s lives, what really makes an entrepreneur tick, why do we need the world of business, is business good or bad for us.”
I draw his attention to the bad examples of businessmen today and he tells me why, “Business is a double-edged sword. If you don’t handle the sword well, if you are not honest with it, it can cut the hands that carry it. The examples are Rajat Guptas and the Rajus.” More and more Bollywood films portray young entrepreneurs as cool cats driving fast cars, addressing board meetings from oak tables, but what leads them there is also important to show, he says. Here, he makes a pertinent point: “India is succeeding but will India succeed?” He calls it “both a challenge and an opportunity”.
Meanwhile, Bagchi’s vegetarian soup arrives. Soon follows the salad bowl loaded with veggies. The thread of the conversation soon passes through sips and stabs at the salad. Bagchi talks of the need to make our youth see the ground realities. For it, he had packed the bunch into a bus to a coffee farm in Chikmanglur, the place he took his employees at MindTree to. With relish he narrates, “One of the exercises I gave my colleagues there was to pick coffee the whole day, like the labourers do. One proudly brought her day’s pick, 20 kg of beans, only to see that the labourer behind her had picked 70 kgs. For so much hard work, she earned little. It helped them feel good about what they have.”
With the chat gaining pace, Bagchi pushes aside his salad and requests for a cup of Darjeeling. “After my first breakfast meeting in the U.S., I returned starved. A colleague told me, one thing that you don’t do in a breakfast meeting is have breakfast. To talk and eat is difficult.” The tea arrives instantly and Bagchi says, “I like my tea to smell good,” adding, he can make a good cuppa. He recalls what his father taught him, “He used to say, to get good tea, the kettle has to sing.”
Another thing he is growing fond of is whipping up salads. “Whenever I travel, I bring good salad ingredients. I now grow lettuce on my roof top.”
As in business, very few look at food as a knowledge form, he says. “Someone experiments with a recipe, gets it right and it becomes a knowledge base. Same is in business.” He quotes the Upanishads which says, you are what you eat. “It has a direct bearing on our metabolism. Same in business, you will get what you put in.”