NR Narayana Murthy in conversation with Harsh Neotia for a ladies study group session
Often referred to as the father of India’s IT industry, NR Narayana Murthy is not just a prolific businessman but is also a visionary who has always strived towards uplifting the status of India on the global platform. In a recent session for the Ladies Study Group, Murthy took questions from another visionary businessman known for his ventures in the east — Harsh Neotia. Excerpts from the chat:
Harsh Neotia: How do you look at a woman’s role in our society, particularly in the evolving world of business. You have seen the role of women particularly closely and your wife, Sudha Murthy, is herself a very accomplished social entrepreneur. So please share with us some thoughts on how you see the evolving role of women in India.
Narayana Murthy: There are three players in this game; there is the family, then we have the corporation and third, we have the government. First of all, in situations, if possible, any couple should learn to live with their parents so that the grandparents can look after the grandchildren well. That was the case in our family. My parents-in-law lived downstairs and we were upstairs, so we had absolutely no worry with our children, they brought them up very well. Second, in cases where it is not possible, we have to ensure that both the husband and the wife should work because we need two-income families to afford good support systems. If we want women to take up professional positions and advance while having children and while supporting family, then we need good support systems. The society has to develop support systems for managing household and children. Now this is where I think government comes in. We have to start world-class colleges like the ‘Norland Nannies’ (Norland College that trains nannies) in the UK to train the best nannies. Not only that, we should ensure that the salaries of these nannies become competitive, because then only good people will start entering this profession and for that to happen, obviously we have to become two-income families.
A part of the corporations’ funds should go to starting creches, where working mothers can leave their children. Corporations should provide suitable allowances to single working mothers to send their children to creches, which should have good Internet access so that mothers can check on the safety of their children from their workplace once in a while. The government will have to start training colleges for cooks and house-workers and have reasonable salaries so that good people can get into these jobs. It may be a good idea for the corporations to allow couples to arrive at the office at times convenient to them. For example, the wives can arrive at the office at 10am while the husband works from 7am to 3.30pm so that either of them is at home to receive the children when they come back or to see them off when they go to the creches. These are some of the ideas that can be implemented in India so that women can enter the profession with lot more confidence and they can add value to society.
Neotia: If I take this one step forward, since you are from the information technology industry, do you have any specific suggestions for women coming and joining the IT industry? Any specific thing that they need to be particularly trained for or prepared for?
Murthy: It is very important to remember that 95 per cent of the revenue of IT companies comes from export markets where the only companion is performance, in terms of price, elapsed time and quality. Therefore, we have to ensure that our women are provided good education, they possess good knowledge of English and they are trained in their ability to perform as a high-class professional. It is the responsibility of the government to provide good education for women and to equip them with a good knowledge of English. Unfortunately, we are making every effort to lower the quality of English in our country, for example we are trying to start engineering courses in vernacular language. Now my own feeling is given the amount of knowledge that exists in engineering in English, we may be hurting our children and our country in the next 10-15 years if we accelerate on this path. Now we also have to realise that IT companies cannot do the job of the government. The government must bring the quality of education for the poor and marginalised children, particularly girls, at least to the level of 80 per cent of the required level, and IT companies can do the remaining 20 per cent by building and holding specialised finishing schools for these children.
I, myself, conducted one such experiment for two years in 2006 and 2007 when we took a set of SC and ST boys and girls and it was a hugely successful programme. Our programme made these youngsters as good as any and better than many. But unfortunately, no state government or central government was interested in continuing the progress because this requires a lot of hard work. Now there is something else that we have to look at very carefully. Our own experience with women professionals at Infosys during the time I worked in the company was that women would come, they would perform very well as software professionals for two-four years. They would get married, they would have children and they had to take a year off or in some cases, more. While we provided them all these gaps, the reality was that in an environment where technology is changing so rapidly, they were at a disadvantage when compared to their male counterparts. So many of them lost because they have to be away from the workplace. Now this is a problem we have not been able to solve but I think all people interested in advancing the career of women in the IT industry must work on this problem because the technology is changing rapidly. The business models are changing rapidly, therefore when women take off a year or two to focus on their children, we have to see how they can come back and succeed.
Neotia: How would you look at the youth — or the millennials as you call them — as different as those perhaps from the previous generations and what do you think is their mindset, which you find to be distinctive?
Murthy: The youngsters today are much more confident than I used to be at their age. Their aspirations are higher than mine when I was at their age, their expectations from life are also higher. They want instant gratification. They are always in a hurry to move up the corporate ladder. They are much better at technology than I was. Thanks to the economic progress of India in the last two decades and through the success of Indians in cricket, our youngsters have tasted success. They want more of it. They want much more access to information than I had and they do have, thanks to the Internet and umpteen TV channels showing the quality of life of youngsters in developed societies. Every year, about 200,000 students go abroad to the developed countries, mainly America, for their undergraduate and graduate studies. They expect the same level of infrastructure, opportunities, lack of corruption, same level of prosperity, healthcare, housing, primary education and good governance that they saw abroad in developed countries. Thanks to liberalised remittance schemes, our youngsters and their families also travel abroad often and they observe how developed societies have advanced or how certain societies which were once upon a time developing, have progressed very well, like Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Malaysia. In other words, we have uncaged a tiger, which is full of hunger, energy and enthusiasm. Unless we, the elders, understand this problem, we work hard, we perform and create a better quality of society, I do not think it will be possible to satisfy the aspirations of our youngsters.
Neotia: We now talk about poverty alleviation and job creation and trying to increase the disposable income in the hands of people. In your book A Better India, A Better World, you had alluded to this and given some suggestions. Since then, we’ve had this pandemic and some new situations have emerged. How would you like to modify or perhaps supplement some of the thoughts that you gave with respect to poverty alleviation?
Murthy: I think I have studied this problem reasonably deeply. I have read a lot. I have discussed with specialists in economics, and my views have not changed. My belief is that nations can become prosperous and elite probably only through the creation of jobs with good disposable income. There is no other solution to the alleviation of poverty. Why disposable income? Because such disposable income alone will be able to buy other goods and services and this creates even more jobs in the secondary and tertiary sectors. Now at this stage, our country cannot create enough consumption. Therefore, exports become very important. We have to raise the contribution of exports from the current 15 per cent of our GDP to about 40-50 per cent. This is exactly what the East Asian countries did. Also, remember that competing in the export markets requires us to compete with successful countries like China, South Korea, Taiwan, South Asia and, of course, with the developed countries. Now for this to happen, we have to create a culture of high performance, high aspirations, hard work, being disciplined and being honest and have a good work ethic. Whether Covid or no Covid, we cannot relax. Covid requires us to be even more disciplined in social distancing and in wearing masks. For example, one solution to Covid is to reduce the number of workers in each shift to a third so that we can have the required social distancing and to work in three shifts in factories, which were working in single shifts. This will help workers travel safely to their factories because even in the buses and in the factories, they can have social distancing. Therefore, we can all work safely. I do not think that we should stop working due to Covid and operate from home. I am not a great believer of that.