Veterans Unpacked Podcast Presents Harish Mehta: "Spend 10% of your time on building and growing your business"

Veterans Unpacked Podcast Presents Harish Mehta: "Spend 10% of your time on building and growing your business"

Harish Mehta founded Onward Technologies in 1991 - he remains its executive chairperson to date. In addition, he founded the not-for-profit organisation NASSCOM which represents India's technology industry. He is also an angel investor and spends considerable time mentoring younger entrepreneurs and with start-ups.

Mehta graduated as an electrical engineer from College of Engineering, Pune, and also received a masters in electrical engineering (specialisation in computers) from the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute. He returned to India after six successful years in the US. Mehta worked with leading IT experts F.C. Kohli, Nandan Nilekani, and others to start NASSCOM in 1988. In 2017, he was honoured by Prime Minister Narendra Modi for 25 years of exemplary contribution to NASSCOM.

He is the former Director of Gujarat Venture Funds Limited and a founding member of Infinity Venture Fund, India's first corporate VC fund. He introduced the Silicon Valley-based organisation TiE to Mumbai after which he served as its first president in Mumbai in 1999 and then as a member of its global board in 2001-2002.

While my son Jigar and senior executives are at the helm of affairs at Onward Technologies, I am still a part of the core team, strategising and planning for the business. I am still overseeing strategy as executive chairperson at Onward.

However, I do have more time than earlier. Over the last three years, a large part of that was spent on thinking and writing a book. Apart from that, I take a keen interest in mentoring young entrepreneurs and I like to invest my time in mentoring and coaching them.

What keeps you busy now?

Oh, there is always enough and more to do. I just launched my book The Maverick Effect which is the extraordinary story of this band of dreamers who joined hands to transform a nation while also changing the lens through which the world looked at India. The book talks about how some of the fiercest of competitors collaborated, thereby creating an unstoppable flywheel that is India’s technology industry. So, there are always a lot of activities surrounding a book launch, like book readings. That is taking up a lot of my time and I am quite engaged with that.

NASSCOM continues to be a passion. I am a part of the chairperson’s council where I am involved to serve the interest of various affiliates across several sectors. I also continue to work closely for devising long-term strategy and special groups focusing on enabling and bolstering the Indian IT sector with a nurturing tech environment in the country to continue to flourish.

I have recently been appointed as an expert adviser at the Small Industries Development Bank of India (SIDBI) for its fund of funds operations. I am also a director of Indian Angel Network (IAN), the world’s largest and most active angel investors group.

I also take interest in start-ups, and am so excited about the way India is booming with this entrepreneurial energy. I involve myself in a lot of mentoring, investing with the start-up community. It’s young blood, new age ideas and there is so much transformation that is happening because of digitalisation and it is exciting.

And of course I continue to spend my time learning. There is so much happening in the IT and tech sector and it is such an eye-opener to see where the world is headed. I spend my time learning about Industry 4.0, Deep Tech, and so on.

Looking back, can you tell us about three interesting events or anything that has stayed with you since?

Sometime in the ’80s, the customs’ officer at the airport told me that I needed to leave samples of what I was exporting with him. I was forced to leave floppy disks of the software with him. The officer followed process and planted a stapler pin through the floppy disk and attached it to the form, inadvertently rendering it unreadable. In the ’70s and ’80s software was confusing and led to many such stories.

Then sometime around 2004, I landed in the US and hopped into a cab driven by a middle-aged Indian. Realizing that I, too, was an Indian, he asked me if I worked in the IT industry. When I said yes, he thanked me profusely. He said that because of the IT industry, the way Americans who travelled in his taxi looked at him had changed drastically almost overnight. He laughed and said, "People who travel in my cab assume I am a PhD student driving a cab to pay for his fees. 'Aap logon ne humein izzat dilai hai.’" ...His words have stayed with me. I had redeemed my decision to cut my Green Card a couple of decades ago.

The third was the Onward IPO. The late ’80s to early 1991 was a challenging period for me on multiple fronts. I had had to exit Hinditron, there were teething troubles at NASSCOM and both my wife and I suffered health-related setbacks. The major professional step forward was setting up my own venture, Onward Technologies, in 1991 followed by the massive JV with Novell in 1993. The landmark that has stayed with me though is the Onward IPO in 1995. From a troubled professional period to seeing your venture go public as a leading MNC was a major victory.

What do you miss most about the C-Suite?

While I am not the CEO any more, I am still the executive chairperson at Onward. So I am still in a way part of the C-Suite/decision-making process. To be honest, I don't really miss the day-to-day affairs of the C-Suite. One major reason is that I know that the leadership team is extremely able, dynamic and futuristic. Another reason is my passion for institution-building, entrepreneurship nurturing and deep tech. NASSCOM, TiE and other pursuits keep me more than occupied.

If you had to relive your corporate career, what would you do differently?

A couple things that I would do would be to eliminate my bias against 3am calls from offshore customers, and the other would be to invest more in the product - and push the paddle harder.

What are the changes in the corporate world that you see now that are vastly different from your time?

Some changes that I see are the relentless focus on growth as is seen in new start-ups - even at the cost of a path to profitability.

The other is a formalised focus on social responsibility, which older companies also had back in the day but today it is institutionalised to a much greater extent.

Which business leader in the current crop impresses you?

In the current crop it would be Vembu (Sridhar Vembu of Zoho).

How did you plan for life after retirement?

To be honest, retirement is a word that does not exist in my dictionary. However, now that I am being told to take it easy, I am going even faster and I have sort of decided to report to my new bosses: my grandchildren. They choose what I get to work on, where I go, how I spend my time! Of course, the other things that keep me occupied I have mentioned earlier.

Is there anything you would tell your younger self?

Sincerely, I don't have any noteworthy regrets, so there is probably no pressing need to tell something to my younger self. Moreover, hindsight vision is 20/20 and you don't have that level of clarity in the present or in the moment.

That said, I would probably tell the following to my younger self: Don’t spend too much energy on anticipating/forecasting the future. Being willing to learn and therefore the ability to adapt are far more important. Find the right mentor(s). One cannot overemphasise the value of mentorship in a rapidly changing world, especially the technology industry. Nature is a great teacher. Most challenges in life and career have solutions that one can pick up from nature.

What is your advice for the next cadre of corporate leaders?

You must try to learn from the experience of the ones that have been there before you.

Nature has served me well as a constant companion. For each problem that you may come across, you will find an answer, and an inspiration in nature for that. Please spend 10% of your time on building and growing your industry. Growing the overall pie has a compounding effect on growth of your share of the pie.