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India@75 | How can business leaders have a positive impact on society?

Business leaders have the knowledge and ability to gather resources, and they understand that some issues require urgent solutions. They can get things done by trying to do them in ways not done before.

August 15, 2022 / 12:41 PM IST
A village school in Kovalam, Kerala. (Representational photo: Fabrice Florin via Wikimedia Commons 2.0)

A village school in Kovalam, Kerala. (Representational photo: Fabrice Florin via Wikimedia Commons 2.0)

My three boots

The time to hang up my boots is still far away, but I have seen three kinds of boots in my life, figuratively speaking. The first was the “flip flop Sandal” phase from 1992-2005, while setting up a successful start-up called Comnet, which was a pioneer in IT remote infrastructure management that grew to be a multi-billion growth segment.

The second phase was the “Shining Leather shoes” phase from 2005-13, being part of the HCL Technologies' transformation from $700 million to $4.5 billion and giving birth to the idea of “Employees First, Customer Second” which is now a book I wrote, and a case study at Harvard Business School.

The third and the most exciting phase is 2013 onwards - the “Hiking shoes” phase, where I had the opportunity of being a catalyst of large-scale social change by leveraging design thinking and innovation through Sampark Foundation. Today, we impact learning for over one crore children in 84,000 government schools and have an aspiration to touch the lives of two crore children in the next three years.

Having said this, it feels like the hike has just begun. I still spend most of my time thinking about the problem of education in India, where 7 out of 10 children in grade 5 can’t read grade 2 texts or solve simple maths problems. We need innovative and frugal ideas that would transform learning in rural schools by inspiring lakhs of government school teachers to ignite the classroom. Our early attempts with Sampark Smart Shala, maths, science and English kits are a result of many slips and tumbles, and now finally, we have the feeling of moving forward.

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The boot with a soul 

In hindsight, when I compare the three boots, I see that all three needed different skills to succeed and resulted in three different kinds of satisfaction. The first two gave me economic independence and recognition, and the third gave me a sense of purpose and satisfaction on a completely different level. However, the third would have been impossible without the first two journeys, and thus it truly is a journey and not one better or worse than another.

While we have a learning outcome problem amongst our rural children, we also have a fear of the third boot problem amongst many successful business leaders. They all know that it is a boot with a soul, but cannot muster the courage to throw the other two away and put on their hiking shoes. I know it because I was once there turning 50 and asking-should I or should I not.

Lets begin with the why

Business leaders focus on maximising profits and creating wealth in the belief that it somehow contributes to the nation. Yes, I agree it creates wealth, but this does not solve a nation’s problems. If that was the case, we would have long solved the problem of poverty, education and health because, as a country, we are far richer than what we were 50 years ago. And yet, our learning levels remain just about the same.

It is my belief that global business leaders can and should take a lead role in contributing to solving a nation’s problems, but what we need from them is their time, intellect, ideas and not their money. Investing millions to solve poverty, illiteracy, disease has not helped so far. Almost all of these investments are bound to fail because there is not enough innovative thought behind them.

The question really is how can business leaders have a positive impact on society. I can think of so many ways in which a business leader can offer solutions to our most urgent challenges. Leaders have the resources or the ability to gather resources, they have the knowledge, and they sure have the ability to understand that some issues require urgent solutions. Either we can wait years to solve the problem of education, or we could apply the same urgency that we do in achieving business goals to transforming education. In my opinion, this is where business leaders are invaluable. They can get things done by attempting to do them in ways not done before.

Now, let's talk about how 

Business leaders can have a meaningful impact on society, if they have a clear strategy to tackle existing challenges. One reason for my early failure was while I was adept at managing a company, the same approaches did not work in an NGO set-up. We do not have ample resources to spend, an alignment of objectives or control on efforts of all stakeholders. This is where radical business leaders can thrive if they have the patience and work towards evolving a new strategy that can create a lasting impact.

Technology offers us an opportunity to take on problems, as big as they might seem. We do not have to necessarily invent something new. We could either leverage existing technology or develop our own technology to efficiently solve problems. We have done this at Sampark, where we used frugal innovation, something as simple as an audio box to teach language through music and dance or an android device that converts the class into an interactive smart class, with all the resources embedded in the device for offline use. The use of the right technology improves the scalability of the solution, so we can reach a large number of people in a short period of time and, most importantly reduce their efforts and increase impact.

Back to the boots

Business leaders are born problem-solvers. This is what we do best. Leaders are open-minded, unconventional thinkers who are always looking for a new and more effective way of doing things. Now, imagine applying this unique problem-solving mindset to poverty or education. A successful business leader is usually an expert at using available resources to offer innovative solutions. I can’t think of anyone better to offer meaningful solutions that can change the world than a business leader. The missing piece is finding the courage to put on the hiking boots. From my experience, I can tell you that the joy and satisfaction you feel would make the risk definitely worth taking. So, let us go on a hike….What are you waiting for?
Vineet Nayar is the founder chairman of Sampark Foundation and former vice-chairman and CEO of HCL Technologies. His management bestseller, 'Employees First, Customer Second: Turning Conventional Management Upside Down', was published by Harvard Business Press in June 2010. Views expressed are personal.
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