Entertaining, driven, vivacious and intuitive, Ravi Venkatesan (HBS 1992), Chairman, Microsoft India, is the single point of leadership for Microsoft in an exciting pluralistic, multilingual and multiethnic country with complex needs, rampant piracy, intricate bureaucracy but yet unlimited potential. Let’s get to know Ravi.
What are your most memorable memories from the HBS experience?
Fifteen years after graduation from HBS, my lasting impressions of HBS revolve around my classmates and my section mates. Section C in 1992 was an incredibly small cohort – we started out with 82 students and for various reasons graduated with just over 72 people. A small section allowed us the intimacy to develop some super close friendships that have endured over the years.
Another lasting impression is being introduced to the case method and thanks to a few stunningly good teachers, falling in love with the pedagogy. Over and above this, my time at HBS was unusual because I spent the bulk of my two years researching a topic and publishing an article in the HBR called ‘Strategic Sourcing – to make or not to make’. So I spent most of my time and my summer actually thinking about my research. In retrospect, I was much more a doctoral student than the typical MBA; I always thought that I would come back for a PhD and teach here someday.
You decided to go return to India in 1996. How close-knit is the HBS India community and how do you keep in touch with HBS alums that are currently in India?
First of all, the explosion of the Indian population on campus happened only after 1997. In our entire class of 1992, there were only 4 Indian students. I think there are 80 or so students from India now. Therefore, there is a real generational gap if you look at the HBS community in India.
Nevertheless, HBS club is very active in India. They organize events about once every other month. We recently organized an alumni event associated with Professor Krishna Palepu’s visit to the India Research Center. The younger alums are pretty active in both Delhi and in Mumbai but by and large it’s a much younger group and at a different stage in their lives than the old farts like me! Most of the younger folks are in start-ups, family businesses or the investing business. They are a pretty amazing group- self confident, aspirational, and unafraid to take risks.
Do you see business school alums going into General Management in India?
I don’t see enough in General Management. If you look at alums from Class of 95 and earlier, for the most part, they were owners like Rahul Bajaj, Rajiv Modi or Anand Mahendra. There were very few professional advisors. Apart from myself, I can largely think of Naini Kidwai at HSBC.
General Management went out of vogue in India post 1999 as we started concentrating on emerging businesses like media, entertainment, PE and VC. Today, it is a pretty rare student that wants to go into General Management. Right now, India’s economy is being built and you want to attract this booming talent to building new businesses rather than sustaining mature businesses. Nevertheless, I am amazed at the lack of interest in General Management.
You mentioned that you came to HBS from a manufacturing background. What was your favorite course at HBS back then?
I am bit embarrassed to admit this but the two courses I thoroughly enjoyed were the first year accounting class and a second year cost accounting class with Robin Cooper who was a pretty amazing teacher!
And who was your favorite professor at HBS?
I was fortunate to have two spectacular teachers to whom I am perennially grateful- Steve Wheelwright was the single best teacher I ever had. It wasn’t the course (Technology and Operations) but he was incredible as a teacher. Len Schlesinger who taught Service Management remains one of the most inspiring people I’ve met. It’s delightful to be in touch with Steve and to use him as my mentor despite the passage of years. A very very close second would be Len Schlesinger who made Service Management come alive for us.
What are the key lessons from HBS that still apply in your current job?
One, HBS gave me a much broader perspective. I came with a functional perspective and left 18 months later with a general management perspective. It has shaped the way I think and shaped who I am. Two, it woke me up to the importance of building and sustaining personal relationships. I realized that business is largely only about people. My institutional connection with school has been very deep and rewarding. I have clearly got more than many alums who haven’t maintained relationships with the school.
Do you have any suggestions as to how the current generation of HBS grads can maintain connections with the school?
Come to reunions. Be an active member of the HBS club or Alumni community in the city that you live in. Do Exec-Ed programs every 2-3 years because the world is changing. Have a case written about your company! It’s a lot of fun to be a protagonist and come back to class and comment on it. A lot more fun than being called on to open a case!
What is Ravi Venkatesan like when he is not busy being the Chairman of Microsoft India?
I love music – I used to play the violin, harmonica and the flute. I would love to do that someday again. I love ideas – nothing gets me more than discussing ideas and issues with thoughtful people. I am very passionate about the role of business and business leaders in solving the big issues of our time – climate change, healthcare, education, poverty – with for-profit business models. Lately, I found that I really enjoy mentoring people and seeing them blossom into their full potential.
IIT, Purdue, HBS, CEO of Cummins (Diesel Manufacturing) and now Microsoft India, are you happy where you are? What are your goals for the next 5 years?
When you sit in India, you can not be moved by 800 million people who have been left behind. India only shines for 300 million people and not for the 800 million people who live on less than $1 a day.
I use more time everyday trying to create a more inclusive model of development using Microsoft as a platform, whether that’s in education, helping poor people have access to markets, access to credit and finance. I believe in the paradigm of solving societal problems with innovative business models – i.e. doing well by doing good. I am increasingly passionate about this and also helping global companies figure out how to succeed in emerging markets like India.
Any parting words of wisdom for Class of 08 and Class of 09?
Live life to the fullest. As you look back, what you regret is not the things you tried and failed but the risks you did not take. Many of you will make one big mistake-you will take a job that will pay off your tuition loan and help create your little nest egg. But don’t forget that your risk capacity is maximum today-so take a risk and don’t postpone living your dream!
Mid life crisis hits everyone- just make sure it hits you the right way. Surround yourself with a team of A players who compliment your strengths.
We are a privileged group of students – with that comes a responsibility to the societies in which we live. Don’t go stale after HBS! Reinvent yourself every 10 years.