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Meet KV Ramani, who donated 80% of his wealth to Shirdi Sai Baba and is now building Sai University

The 70-year-old entrepreneur and philanthropist is now gearing up for his next mission- to build, in his words, the Stanford of India. Ramani is the founder-chancellor of Sai University,. an interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary university that started functioning in August this year.

November 03, 2021 / 01:02 PM IST

When KV Ramani, a co-founder of Nasscom and a software entrepreneur, exited his businesses — Future Software and Hughes Software — in 2004, he did something unusual. Ramani kept just 12 percent for his family and placed more than 85 percent in the Sri Sai Trust, which he had set up. The corpus was worth around Rs 325-350 crore back then. The trust, till date, does not accept donations — it gives thousands of scholarships to first-generation graduates, supports 4,000 people with emergency medical care needs and provides 5,000 meals a day to people all over India. It has also funded  nearly 450 Sai temples all over the country.


 The 70-year-old entrepreneur and philanthropist is now gearing up for his next mission—to build, in his words, the Stanford of India. Ramani is the founder-chancellor of Sai University, an interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary university that started functioning in August 2021. Located on Old Mahabalipuram Road in Chennai, it will start with three undergraduate programmes in the liberal arts, science and technology, apart from one postgraduate course in law.


“We are doing education as a service and not education as a business. When you are doing education as a service, you don’t want to take a single rupee out of it; you want to put in more to make sure it succeeds,” says Ramani. He spoke to Moneycontrol on his vision for the university, why India is lacking in this sphere, and how spirituality anchors him. Edited excerpts:


After several years, Sai University has finally come to fruition. How did it start?


The key purpose and vision to start Sai University is that India needs major reforms in the higher-education sector. In the past 75 years, since independence, we have not had one Indian University in the top 50 of the world. I think the first one comes in the top 150.

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Where is all the investment that India is making in education? Are we investing in the wrong direction, people and infrastructure? Our vision for Sai University came out of the hunger to create a higher education institution of global eminence in India.


India has the world’s second-largest population and we want to offer better higher education and opportunities for our youngsters in more emerging technologies, services and industries.


This year, 55,000 Indian students were granted student visas to the US, the highest ever. We should be ashamed that the top talent is going abroad and we cannot provide them with opportunities here. There is also an economic disadvantage. A student going abroad for higher education will spend about Rs 25 to 30 lakh a year, which translates to Rs 13,000 crore in forex outflow per year. There is no point in complaining about the brain drain and all when we are not catering to the requirements of our own youngsters. That’s a fundamental fault. We are trying to pick that ball by creating Sai University.


When you talk about creating a university of global eminence, what are you trying to do differently? With the introduction of data science courses and integrated degrees, the higher education market in India is already crowded with online learning schools and engineering colleges.


First of all, before getting directly to your question, you need to see the motivation for going abroad. Today, from whatever data I’ve seen, a third or a fourth of the students and faculty abroad are either from India or China. We thought about what it is that makes these people go abroad. It was not just about the physical infrastructure, curriculum and labs, it was the whole learning environment, which was quite different: freedom for academic expression, freedom for students to inquire, learn and debate.


This is the gap that I want to address. An institution is only as good as its faculty and students. Apart from infrastructure, we will invest in the top faculty in the University. And in fact, one of the key parameters is that 50 percent of our faculty will be International, from all the top Ivy League schools in the world. Second, we are ensuring that the other 50 percent of Indian faculty that we get have some international exposure, either as a student, faculty or a researcher, so that they bring in their best practices, knowledge about their university, and learning systems to our students.


How are you planning to build this?


We are not putting up one building and claiming to be a University. We are going to be putting up in the next seven years almost 25 lakh square feet on 100 acres of land, as mandated by the Tamil Nadu government. The University is not named after the promoter or founder. It is named after Sai (an Indian spiritual master).


Coming back to beating the global competition, it starts from architecture.We’re going to create world-class infrastructure. Not only in the classrooms, but also in labs, residences of the faculty and students, outdoor and indoor recreation spaces... We will also have a competition with international cities and student and faculty exchange programmes with international universities.


This year we are offering two undergraduate programmes and two postgraduate programmes. The first one is the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences. We have Vice Chancellor Jamshed Bharucha, who has a PhD from Harvard in Cognitive Neuroscience and has been in various capacities in three Ivy League universities in the US. We want to tap his expertise to make sure our own students can gain.


We will have a foundation course in the first semester, where students will go through critical thinking, analytical thinking, logical thinking, and then tech skills like computer skills, then communication skills, written and verbal communication skills. Next semester, students can choose their own major and minor programme, unlike other colleges that have 10-12 courses in semester two. We are making it multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary education, But before you choose your major and minor, you can go through 10 or 12 courses, and you can take a major in economics, and minor in a totally different subject, like Physics. This is not possible today in Indian colleges but is a standard practice in Ivy League schools.


We have been seeing a lot of private industrialists and entrepreneurs coming together to support education. We saw this in the case of Krea University. We are also seeing this with respect to Shiv Nadar. What are your thoughts?


There are many private entrepreneurs in India, who have been sharing their wealth in diverse ways and CSR responsibility. Successful entrepreneurs are very invested in developing this country, infrastructure, and the human capital of India, considering that we have the largest population of youth in the world. While we are talking about many of these entrepreneurs giving to the education sector, most have repeated the same model.


You mentioned Krea University, which is an interwoven liberal arts, science and management university. If you take engineering universities, it is the same. They’re not multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary.


We take the model of Stanford. We not only have arts but also liberal arts, sciences, and we will soon have engineering, and management. We already have a law school. Within 4-5 years, we’ll have a hospital and a med school. So, this makes it a truly multidisciplinary/interdisciplinary university. For instance, you could actually say that I will do sports and a minor in sports medicine, or vice versa, which is not possible in universities today. We are going beyond just providing skills and jobs, helping students think critically and analytically to become entrepreneurs, global scientists, or even global laureates. Obviously, we cannot fill all the schools in year one. But in the first six years from rollout, we will have all of these schools and we will increase the number of courses so students will have more options to choose from.


Can you tell us about the corporate leaders backing Sai University? How much money have they put in and what are your other sources? How will you be raising funds to sort of run the university apart from those fees?


Before I come to money, I have to talk about the Constitution of a board. I wanted to go abroad to make sure that they can give us the right advice and direction and think where we are progressing. So, let me quickly tell you a few names and then you’ll understand what I mean by it. I requested Narayana Murthy (Infosys co-founder) to help us out. He has been on the board of at least five or six Ivy League schools worldwide, including in the US, France and Japan. This way we can get the global best practice at Sai University. Then I wanted to have somebody with Indian higher education experience. Therefore, I went to the top private university in India, Manipal’s TV Mohandas Pai. Then we started a law school. I requested MN Venkatachaliah, former chief justice of India, to be on the Governing Council. Then we tried to get others who are specialised in each sector and vertical. This includes Ashank Desai, who is on the Governing Board of IIT Bombay and IIM Ahmedabad, and Anil Kakodkar, who was head of the Atomic Energy Commission of India, and other eminent personalities.


Since you mentioned Stanford, you know US universities have the advantage of endowments and pension funds, and private philanthropy. In the case of Sai University, how are you going to manage the running of this world class university?


We know the exact rollout plan for the next seven years and by the end of the seven years we will be running as a full-fledged University in all departments. The capex cost to build the University is Rs 750 crore, out of which Rs 300 crore will come from the trust founded by me. We are planning to have debt equity of 1:1 and borrow about Rs 300 crore from financial institutions. Many of them have already approached us and said that they want to be part of this higher education story in India. Around Rs 50 crore we are planning to raise from philanthropists and sponsors and donors, whom we will approach only after we have two years of success running the University.


So, the Rs 300 crore that you mentioned, is this from the trust you had established over 20 years ago?


I exited my businesses, Future Software and Hughes Software, now called Aricent, at the same time in 2004. I got lots of money. I kept about 12 percent for my family. More than 85 percent of the money I contributed to Sri Sai Trust as a corpus. This corpus was about Rs 325-350 crore at that time, not now. Till today, the trust does not take donations from anybody. It has been 23 years running. Each year, we are giving 3,000 scholarships to students, who are first-generation graduates going into college education. We are providing 4,000 people with emergency medical care like heart and kidney surgery, dialysis, and others. We also provide 5,000 meals a day to people all over India. We have funded nearly 450 Sai temples all over the country and they use about 65 as the outreach point, where we provide 5,000 meals a day for lunch and dinner. We have been doing this for 23 years.


So that corpus is sort of like an endowment where you keep investing the money…


Yes, so the corpus is the endowment. The interest from the corpus is investment and that is what has been paying for over 23 years to build 450 Sai temples around India, scholarships, emergency medical care and meals all over India.


You will be spending a significant amount from the trust, over Rs 300 crore. Now that you are over 70, who will be helping you run the university? Will you continue to be completely active or will you assume more of a supervisory role? What’s keeping you motivated to do this?


Number one, age isn’t a number. I think if you sit at home, you get sick. So, being active is the only way to say that you know you are contributing as well as being healthy. Sai University is also a method of combining whatever I’ve been doing in the last 22 years at the Sri Sai Trust into one institution, which I can leave behind for future generations to enjoy.


The scholarships that we were giving inside the trust will be done here, and emergency medical care will be done when the hospital is ready. Annadanam (free meals) that we were giving can continue with a smaller investment corpus. This can be done by one person and we don’t need a large amount of staff to run it. The rest of it will be moulded into Sai University. As for the question of who after me,  we have an eminent board, learning and executive council, and academic leadership. We have a fantastic team working here — great professionals at the Director, Dean and faculty level, who are here to take care of the institution.


Last but not the least, I must tell you so that you don’t get the wrong idea. I’m working here as an honorary Chancellor. We are doing education as a service and not education as a business. When you are doing education as a service, you don’t want to take a single rupee out of it but you want to put in more to make sure it succeeds. So, the whole idea is that it is not a business enterprise but to build a great institution in India that is going to help students and the country.


You’ve always sort of taken a different path as an entrepreneur. At a time when you could have perhaps started your third venture, you decided to go down the spiritual path. What drives you and why do you think of wealth in a different way? Even with the university, you said you are merely an instrument and it is named after Sai.


Indians have a herd mentality. From the days of the License Raj in India, if one industry went and applied for a license for something, others would just go and start the same. Because somebody else is starting, it must be good for me to start it. Somebody starts a steel factory, everyone starts a steel factory, and the same with automobiles and now solar. We go to a temple for prayers, which is a personal place of worship. You want to get a spiritual experience, peace, and a few minutes of silence. We have a mob mentality in everything we do and we don’t know where it evolved. So, I strived to be away from the mob and different from others in my thinking.


I believe that in order to succeed, you need to have a USP — a unique selling proposition — you need to be different from others. Our approach in our business, even in the higher education space that we operate, is to say that we need to be unique from the rest.


When everybody in India is doing software services exports, I said I don’t want to do that because it is not a software business but an HR business. You are getting employees trained and then deploying them in foreign companies, where you are enabling visas, tickets, and hotel accommodation, which is an HR function. Then your customer abroad is managing the work and then you get paid by the hour for the work you do. Effectively, what you are doing is the cost arbitrage. I believe in technology arbitrage and that a company should have some inherent strength in itself.


Our first project was communication software. In those days people laughed at us and said that we must be crazy. There were so many restrictions in India back then. Even to get a computer, it took over two years. So, it is a crazy business model, but we did it and we were successful. It is the same in any other business, where unless there is an inherent strength, it cannot be successful. That inherent strength cannot be obtained having a mob-centric mentality and herd approach. So, we won’t be following the herd approach in the higher education sector as well.


What motivates and drives you?


What drives me simply is Shirdi Sai Baba. He came to my life at the age of 23. For 47 years I’ve been a devotee of Shirdi Sai Baba, my Guru. I don’t know why I didn’t go after him. He came after me.


How did this connection change?


I was not born different. When I was in school and college, I was the last bencher because it used to be close to the exit door. If you didn’t like the class, you could exit, you know, in college. When I was in college, my physics professor called seven of eight of us, and told us that we would all be medical representatives in Andhra Pradesh, selling pharmaceutical supplies in scorching heat and meeting with doctors and waiting in front of their doors. All seven or eight of us, I can tell you today, we’ve achieved some level of success in our professional life, some in India and others overseas. We met with the professor recently, before he passed away, We just said hello to him.


Once I had gone to a Sai temple on a vacation to pray for something. A family member was unwell and I was praying for a speedy recovery to normal health. He (Sai) pulled me over and showed me a miracle. Within two hours the person became normal and then after that he (Sai) dragged me to his service.  The rest is history.


What do wealth and money mean to you?


Money is very essential to cover your basic needs. You need to have enough wealth to have the basic needs met. You need to have a family, home, food on the table, medical care, transportation, and also certain luxuries like a car, television. You need money to live well. But beyond that amount, money is bad for you.


I’ll give you a simple instance. After a threshold, which changes from person to person from low income to middle income to the rich, the need for money becomes greed for money. When you get greedy for money it is poison. So, I think this is a fine line that you need to divide and that line is different for each person, each family.

To a certain point, money protects you. You need money for food, shelter, clothing, medicare, whatever other things that you need, up to a certain point. But beyond that, money, what you create is a surplus and you need to protect that money. Beyond that point, when you have too much money, you start investing, and you start worrying. Where is the stock market today? Is it going to crash? How much money am I going to lose? You are constantly tracking your money on your mobile device. You don’t have peace of mind. You start worrying about money.

Swathi Moorthy
Chandra R Srikanth is Editor- Tech, Startups, and New Economy
first published: Nov 2, 2021 05:58 pm
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