Just Like That | From Lakshmi to Chanakya: Behind the Indian CEO success story - Hindustan Times
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Just Like That | From Lakshmi's blessings to Chanakya's wisdom: Behind the Indian CEO success story

Oct 29, 2023 09:00 AM IST

The remarkable rise of over three dozen Indian-origin CEOs in top global corporate industries prompts questions about the underlying reasons for their success

I have often wondered why, in a highly competitive world, over three dozen CEOs of the top global corporate industries are people of Indian origin. From Sundar Pichai heading Google, to Laxman Narasimhan helming Starbucks to many others, Indians are now in charge of over one trillion American dollars of business. Is it because they are better educated? I doubt if this is the answer. There are many individuals from other nationalities, including the developed world, who have had as good an education, if not better.

From Sundar Pichai heading Google, to Laxman Narasimhan helming Starbucks to many others, Indians are now in charge of over one trillion American dollars of business(Reuters file photo) PREMIUM
From Sundar Pichai heading Google, to Laxman Narasimhan helming Starbucks to many others, Indians are now in charge of over one trillion American dollars of business(Reuters file photo)

I have often wondered why, in a highly competitive world, over three dozen CEOs of the top global corporate industries are people of Indian origin. From Sundar Pichai heading Google, to Laxman Narasimhan helming Starbucks to many others, Indians are now in charge of over one trillion American dollars of business. Is it because they are better educated? I doubt if this is the answer. There are many individuals from other nationalities, including the developed world, who have had as good an education, if not better.

Are they given preferential treatment for any extraneous reason? This is a definite no; in fact, they often are the victims of racist biases and ‘outsider’ hostility and have to compete on a less-than-level playing field. Do they have a special genius for the IT sector? Perhaps yes, because a large number of the giant MNCs in this sector are led by them. But this too cannot be the only reason. Today, NRIs are also heading global firms in areas outside the IT sector, especially in healthcare and industry.

What is the secret then behind this phenomenal success, for it cannot be just happenstance? I believe the real answer is that Indians are diehard entrepreneurs. We love our spiritual halo and given our profound philosophical and metaphysical legacy; we have reason to. We never experience any basic conflict between Saraswati, the Goddess of Learning, and Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth. At least where Hinduism is concerned, I don’t think there is any other major religion, which has so many gods dedicated to the pursuit of wealth.

Lakshmi is a ubiquitous presence in homes across the country. On Deepavali—which is due shortly—Hindus pray to her to bring wealth and prosperity. Expectedly, she is of special importance to people in business. Her portrait adorns shops and business establishments, and her blessings are sought to keep the profits flowing in. The following lines from the aarti or invocation to her, are revealing: ‘Jis ghar mein tum rehti, tahen sab sadguna aata, sab sambhav ho jaata, man nahin ghabrata (In the home you inhabit, virtues come automatically, all becomes feasible, the mind is free of worry’.

No important event in a Hindu devotee’s home can begin without seeking the blessings of Lord Ganesha, who is the god of wisdom, material wealth, and the removal of obstacles to worldly success. The essential point is that Hinduism’s social sanction to the acquisition of wealth differs dramatically from the Biblical injunction that a rich man will find it next to impossible to enter the portals of heaven.

Among the four purusharthas or highest goals of the Hindu worldview– Dharma, Artha, Kama and Moksha – Artha or the pursuit of material wealth, is considered by Chanakya’s Arthashastra as the most important, as without it none of the other three is attainable.

In such an approach there is pan-Indian acceptability. In the South, Thiruvalluvar’s Thirukkural, considered the repository of wisdom and written over 2000 years ago, has this stanza: Pini inmai Selvam Vilaivinbam Emam Aniyenba Nattirku vainthu (Important elements constituting a nation are: being disease free, wealth, high productivity, harmonious living and strong defence’). In the North, Valmiki’s Ramayana (circa 500 BCE) has this nugget of advice: dhanamulam idam jagat, antaran nabhijamn nirdhanasya mrtasya cha (The world has for its roots wealth. There is no difference between a poor man and a dead one.’)

I believe that somewhere this psychological porousness to the legitimacy of wealth—and the entrepreneurial energy that is required to achieve it—are part of our DNA. Add to this our ability to think out of the box. That too is a consequence of attitude and training. Wealth can be acquired in India only by outwitting immense competition and adversity.

For every opportunity, there are thousands of claimants. And none of these can take any coordinate for granted, or be guaranteed a level playing field. This inculcates in us the ability to find ingenuous solutions where none seemingly exist. It hardens us for adversity. And, in a more professional milieu, such as global corporate firms, this genetic legacy finds fertile ground. Indians are able to prove their mettle, demonstrating their ability to keep their feet on the ground and their eyes on the balance sheet.

There are other reasons too, I believe, which stand us in good stead in the face of international competition. One is our abilities in mathematics—again an ancient legacy—and the other is our inherent felicity in classifications. But more on these aspects later. Right now, the real question we need to ponder is why, in spite of such startling instances of success, most Indians end up being competent cogs in somebody else’s wheel, rather than producing the wheel themselves.

Pavan K Varma is an author, diplomat, and former Member of Parliament (Rajya Sabha). Just Like That is a weekly column where Varma shares nuggets from the world of history, culture, literature, and personal reminiscences with HT Premium readers. The views expressed are personal

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