The CEO with a public agenda
Even when the compulsion of dressing formally makes him sport a tie, the image of him that persists is one of a quintessential, casual Bangalore technologist, in shirt-sleeves and, if he can get away with it, open-toed strap-on sandals.
As if eager to live up to this image, Nilekani tucks right into the Hyderabadi biryani with his fingers in the formal and carefully laid out corporate dining room of Infosys' headquarters in Bangalore's Electronics City.
The mutton biryani and chicken 65 (a roasted preparation) mostly make up the fare that has been ordered from the campus's own Hyderabadi restaurant, Plantain Leaf. The dishes are Nilekani's favourites and he would have asked for the same if he had time to go out and dine for our feature.
Nilekani manages to have an informal air about him partly because he retains his small town links. He has set up a modern auditorium, costing Rs 4 crore, at his alma mater, Dharwad's Karnataka College.
But the "defining formative experience" in his life has been his years at IIT, Mumbai, with which he maintains powerful links. He is on its advisory council, the co-chairman of its Heritage Fund (his donation of Rs 25 crore is the largest) and occasionally takes part in activities like addressing the annual convocation as chief guest.
After leaving IIT, Mumbai, in 1978, Nilekani was recruited by N R Narayana Murthy, who was then head of software in Patni Computers. They made the big push three years later, in 1981, to move out and set up Infosys Technologies.
All the founders except Narayana Murthy pushed off to the US where they worked on various projects. Nilekani came back to India in 1987, Infosys got listed in 1993 and the rest is history.
In between, Nilekani didn't go off to get a business school stamp. "Neither I, nor any of the other Infosys founders went to B-schools," he says, and adds, a bit tongue-in-cheek, "I don't know if that's good or bad."
In keeping with his informal demeanour, Nilekani seems to carry the rigours and demands of life at the top with a fair amount of ease. He likes good food, eats well and variedly, though nowadays, he is more careful about what he eats, exercises every morning and tries to spend as much time with his family as his job permits. The family ("all four of us") has just seen Lord of the Rings, which he could not miss, having seen the previous two films of the trilogy.
Be it at the cinema hall or Koshy's Restaurant, he is easy to spot and approachable. Though he considers himself a fairly private person, he does not mind the intrusions that being a local celebrity bring. "It is easy to form a cocoon around you," he says; something he has not done.
And he certainly has no plans of buying out his neighbours in Kormangala to preserve his privacy, as Bill Gates has been doing around his house, because, he says, "people [here] are very decent."
Infosys, of which Nilekani became chief executive officer (CEO) in 2002, naturally takes up most of his time. What's left goes to the family and the various non-government organisations (NGOs) he is connected with — the Bangalore Agenda Task Force (BATF), for instance, which has become a model for public-private partnership, and eGovernments Foundation, which has developed easy-to-use software for citizens to interact with municipal bodies.
These have been beneficiaries of Nilekani's personal philanthropy. Till now, he has donated close to Rs 45 crore of his personal wealth.
In the past few years Bangalore has witnessed an annual ritual — the BATF summit. Here, various public agencies like the municipal corporation and the water and sewerage board list their accomplishments in the last year and place the agenda for the coming year, in the presence of the chief minister and Nilekani.
If Nilekani still finds time to read, and he reads a lot ("It is a good stress buster and I am currently going through Raghuram Rajan's Saving Capitalism from the Capitalists"), then it is because he is strict about what he does and does not do.
His engagement with the corporate world ends with Infosys. He is not on any other company board and does not track the stock market as an investor.
The only other semi-business hat he wears is that of a trustee's (the only Indian) of the Conference Board of New York, which brings together top business leaders to work for the betterment of business. And from the point of view of time management, he does not watch cricket.
He has strong views in this regard: "Indians have a few major distractions — cricket, Hindi movies, gossip, the minutiae of politics and subjects like the caste composition of every entity, no matter how insignificant, over which they spend a great deal of time." The message is clear: if we didn't waste so much time on these, we would be pursuing far more useful things.
India and Indians are certainly progressing and have, in a way, crossed two milestones. For quite some time now, they have excelled individually.
Thereafter, they have excelled collectively. Infosys is a prime example of it. What they now have to do is excel as a society. To do this, Indians can usefully borrow from successful private organisations' practices that are equally valid in the public space.
In seeking to leverage modern business practices for public governance, he reflects the mindset of a lot of present-day techies. "In our industry, we are socially-conscious guys, aware that we are beneficiaries of a global boom. We are conscious of the need to give back to society some of what we have received, but have not been able to create a bridge between the two worlds."
This need to leverage good business practices like goal alignment and financial management and IT to improve the quality of public governance is a key driver for Nilekani. He is rather proud of this dual business and civil society roles he pursues and asks, "Do you know of anyone else who does this?"
What does someone, who became CEO of a global company at 46, have to look forward to? I mention a common acquaintance who became an editor at 24 and has been a celebrity without a specific role ever since he turned 40. Has Nilekani reached the top rung too early in life?
The retirement age in Infosys is 60, though Narayana Murthy became chief mentor (he quit from the position of CEO) at 55. Nilekani finds success "quite ephemeral". It is not enough to achieve something once. People keep asking: What have you done today?
It seems that as long as Nilekani is in Infosys, he has one clear goal — turn it into a top-class global company. The journey has just begun, even as "India gets more mindshare than ever before", something he felt palpably during the annual Davos meet this year.
Another goal, which drives the other part of his brain, is to make a tangible and measurable impact on the quality of public governance. "So there is plenty to look forward to," he says.