On Building Nirma Spirit: Value for Money & Many

I want to begin by heartily congratulating the graduands of the day. This is a very special day in your life. When my generation graduated about fifty years ago, India was struggling as a `third world country’. When you are graduating today, everyone expects India to be the `third most powerful country in the world’. And my friends, it is you, who will be charged with building this great future of our great nation.

You all are also entering a world, which is exciting as well as challenging. I say challenging, since we realize that we are living in a VUCA world, which is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous.  They say that institutions can’t build `the future of the young’, but they can build `the young for the future’.  You are fortunate that Nirma University has equipped you fully with skills and tools to deal with this challenge most confidently.

The theme that I have chosen for my lecture is all about “Building the Nirma Spirit”.  Who was responsible for creating this Nirma Spirit?  It was none other than the founder of this great institution, Dr. Karsanbhai Patel.

What does the Nirma spirit mean?  First, it means believing that the size of the company does not matter. The size of the ambition matters. Second, it means having the supreme confidence to take the multinationals on – and that too on their own turf and beating them.  Third, it means not doing incremental but disruptive innovation, which is game changing, which requires changing the marketing rules to win the heart of the consumer. Fourth, it means going for not only value for money but value for many – meaning value for the masses.  Fifth, it means we can `make in India’, as our Prime Minister says, and create a great Indian brand. Nirma is one of India’s greatest brand today.

As I said, the size of the ambition matters. This is true for a company as well as individual. So my young friends, keep your aspirations high, and you will achieve your ambitious goal.  Let me take an example.

In recent times, we in India celebrated the appointment of Sundar Pichai as the CEO of Google.  Earlier we celebrated the appointment of Satya Nadella as the CEO of Microsoft.  India believes in Satyam, Shivam, Sundaram.  So we already have Satya and Sundar – may be now it is time to have Shiva as CEO of another global giant, may be Apple, may be IBM, may be Intel …… who knows?

So while we celebrate Satya and Sundar for their heading Microsoft and Google, should you, as young Indians, not raise your ambition, and ask as to when will we create the new Microsofts and Googles of the 21st century in India? My friends that must be our ambition. To create companies that are global giants, global leadres.

To understand the Nirma spirit, let’s recall the inspiring Nirma story.  Forty to fifty years ago, the domestic detergent market had only a premium segment, with very few players.  It was dominated by MNCs. It was in 1969, when Karsanbhai Patel started door-to-door selling of his detergent powder, priced at an astonishing Rs. 3 per kg, when the available cheapest brand in the market was Rs. 13 per kg. It was really an innovative, high quality product – with indigenous process, packaging and low-profiled marketing.   It is a great achievement to create an entirely new market segment starting from a scratch.  That is exactly what Nirma did.  Not only that, it became a dominating market player – a position it has never since relinquished.  Going forward, it was widely discussed as a unique Indian success story in business schools around the world.

So my young friends, you don’t have to seek inspiration from outside.  You have it right here in the form Karsanbhai, in the form of Nirma.

My convocation address today is focused on the movement that Nirma pioneered in the country.  It is the movement on ‘Value for Money’ and also ‘Value for Many’.  So this lecture is all about Nirma spirit, which amounts to getting ‘More from Less for More and More People not just More Profit’.

And I do so for a bigger purpose.  As economic growth in an emerging economy like India takes place, the income inequalities also rise.  This leads to social disharmony.  This means we have to create access equality despite the income inequality.  That can be achieved only when we create both value for money and value for many, not for just some privileged few.

Value for Money and for Many

Value for many has to mean value for many more, and not just “for a few more.” Then we cannot be just satisfied with low costs, we must strive for ultra low costs. Then we cannot just seek affordability, but we must go for extreme affordability. This also means our not stopping at “incremental innovation” but striving for “disruptive innovation.”

Can we really get value for money and at the same time, value for many? Can we make a laptop costing $2,000 available at the price that is 10 times cheaper, not just 10%.  Can we make a Hepatitis-B vaccine costing $20 per dose available at 50 times cheaper price, not just 50%?   Can we make an artificial foot costing $10,000 made available at 300 times cheaper price, not just 300%?  Or can we make a high quality cataract eye surgery made available not at $3,000 but 100 times cheaper, not just 100%?  All these look impossible.  My young friends, all these impossible looking challenges have been met successfully, and all of them in India!

You might ask as to what does it take to achieve such feats.  Well, my friends, it takes an inspiring leader, who believes in making impossible possible, in setting stretched goals for his team and inspiring them in achieving them. It takes not only just incremental innovation but disruptive innovation, extreme innovation, game changing innovation.

Let’s take the case of telecommunication industry in India, specifically in wireless communication.

There are 950 million plus mobile phone holders today as against just 15 million ten years ago.  Why?  The consumers are enjoying value for money as well value for many.  The cost of a minute of a cell phone time is the lowest in the world. A mobile handset is available for as little as $20. The cost of one SMS text message is the lowest in the world.

This brilliant journey of delivering value for money as well as value for many began with yet another  visionary leader Dhirubhai Ambani, founder chairman of Reliance.  Dhirubhai had an audacious dream of bringing the benefits of telephony and communication to the common man in India. He challenged his team to innovate and bring down the cost of a phone call to that of a post card in India.

To achieve this dream of value for many, a series of innovations emerged. Most notable was the birth of the “refining model of telecom.” Reliance drew inspiration from their  experience in building a world class refinery in India. The refinery integrated complex processes in isolation from the number of customers using the end product. So, rather than following the traditional model of purchasing telecom equipment on a cost per subscriber basis, Reliance invented its own model. Rather than paying a massive upfront cost per subscriber fee to vendors, Reliance paid them for the volume of traffic that flowed through the equipment, because in refining, they were used to thinking in terms of barrels per day.  So analogously, they said, here it will be erlangs per day.

Reliance also pioneered some groundbreaking marketing strategies including free text messages, free phones, free incoming calls, and more. The results were phenomenal. With Reliance’s entry, outgoing call rates were dropped exponentially thus creating a revolution in the Indian telecom industry. Reliance’s deal with equipment suppliers set the benchmark for the lowest equipment prices in the world. And this initial movement of providing value for money plummeted the prices and costs to the ultra-low levels.  And Airtel carried all this much forward.

And yet another value for money and for many will follow soon, when Reliance launches Jio, with its offer of 4G mobile revolution, which is again a case of ‘extreme innovation’, conceptualized, designed and delivered by yet another iconic leader from this land, Mukeshbhai Ambani!

I am stopping at citing just one example to show you that innovation is all about doing things differently to make a difference. You can’t take a trodden path, a bold new untrodden path is a must.

Innovation, Compassion & Passion

And finally, what are the three qualities I would like to see you imbibe?   These are three things which are connected to your body. One is innovation, the mind, the brain. The second is passion; passion in the belly and third is compassion – compassion in the heart.

Many nations, many societies, many individuals may be very passionate, they may be very innovative but if they have no compassion then  they are missing something vital.

You as young citizens of India will have to imbibe these three qualities. And particularly compassion is very important for India for the simple reason that we have to create an ‘inclusive’ society, not an ‘exclusive’ society. We talk about 8%, 9% growth. It has to be “inclusive growth”; it has to be innovation led inclusive growth, which ‘includes’ all those unfortunate ‘excluded’ – all those poor, those deprived, those have nots.

Let me give you two examples of such young innovators, who demonstrated what this combination of innovation, compassion and passion can lead to.

In my mother’s name, I have created an annual Anjani Mashelkar Inclusive Innovation Award. This is the fifth year of the award.

The concept of this award is that the poor and the old must have access to the essential necessities of life at affordable prices. The objective is not just to produce low performance, cheap knock-off versions of rich country technologies so that they can be marketed to poor people. Rather, the objective is to harness sophisticated science and technology know-how to invent, design, produce and distribute high performance technologies at prices that can be afforded by majority of the people.  The award is for achieving affordable excellence. Second, it is for achieving not just the “best” practice, but the “next” practice.

One of these awards was given to a 28-year-old innovator, Myshkin Ingawale. He found that women in villages were dying of anaemia because their low haemoglobin levels were not detected in time. He found out why: many of them were reluctant to give their blood. So he decided to create a non-invasive diagnostic tool, something that has never been achieved before. He used photoplethysmography, spectrophotometry and an advanced software for photon scattering to create ToucHb. This was technological `excellence’ achieved by using cutting edge technology, and not jugaad. Furthermore, he reduced the cost per test from Rs. 150 to Rs. 10.  This was `affordable’.  So he achieved `affordable excellence’.  You can see that Myshkin had compassion in the heart for those poor dying women in villages.  He had passion to achieve the goals.  And he achieved them through extreme innovation.

This year’s Anjani Mashelkar Inclusive Innovation Award was given on 17th November, my mother’s death anniversary.  It went to Rahul Rastogi, who is in his early thirties, for designing and developing an extremely affordable ECG Device ‘Sanket’.

Sanket is a credit card-sized heart monitor, which acts like a portable ECG machine, making it possible to monitor the heart condition, making it as simple as monitoring the body temperature. The high-tech 6-lead ECG recorder connects to a smartphone wirelessly, and displays and records ECG graphs on a smartphone. The ECG report can be shared instantly with a doctor via e-mail, Bluetooth – or even via WhatsApp! The affordable device marks a dramatic shift in the way we approach cardiac care – doing away with expensive ECG machines, distant hospitals or laboratories, and skilled technicians. Sanket is all set to bring about a revolution in cardiac care and disrupt this space, since it brings the cost of doing an ECG from a few hundred rupees to few rupees.

What led Rahul to achieve this innovation?  His father, who had a bad heart condition, passed away a couple of years ago.  Rahul had to struggle to get his ECG done in the middle of night.  He felt that there must be several thousands, who must be suffering similarly.  It was this compassion to help thee sufferers that led to this innovation.  Again a case of innovation, compassion and passion!

I am sure there are thousands of young Myshkins, young Rahuls around the country, including in this great auditorium.  We must find them, trust them, fund them, help them, since, helping these compassionate innovators will help the society at large.

Five Golden Rules to Success

My young friends, at the end, you will ask me, what will it take us to succeed in life?

As you step out of the portals of this great institute, I will like to give you `Five Mashelkar Mantras of Success’, if you like. I repeat these messages everywhere I go.  Here they are:

First, your aspirations are your possibilities, so keep your aspirations always high.  We often complain about scarcity in India.  But remember, the combination of scarcity and aspiration can create disruptive and game changing innovations.  Karsanbhai is a brilliant example of this.

Second, there is no substitute to hard work for becoming successful.  I have myself worked 24×7, week after week, month after month, year after year and will do so till I take my last breath. The golden rule is the following.  Work hard in silence. Let success make the noise.  Karsanbhai again is an embodiment of this.

Third, like instant coffee, there is no instant success. Your overnight success is always a result of everything that you have done through that moment. If you really look closely, most overnight success took a long time.  Karsanbhai is a living example.

Fourth, it is wrong to wait for the opportunities to knock on your door.  If opportunity does not knock, build a door.  Karsanbhai built his own doors.

Fifth, I strongly believe that there is no limit to human endurance, no limit to human achievement and no limit to human imagination, excepting the limits you put on your mind  yourself.  So be `limitless’ in terms of your imagination.  Karsanbhai is yet another example of this.

So my friends I wish you all the very best as you step out from this great institution to begin your journey up the limitless ladder of excellence and achievement.  God bless you.