Nikhil Pahwa on fighting India’s internet battles, being an angry young man

Nikhil Pahwa is an angry young man.

But that doesn’t make him an outlier. Pahwa, 37, channelises that anger to build and scale mainstream movements such as the net neutrality campaign against Facebook’s FreeBasics in India more than two years ago.

So what’s the source of all the anger and sense of activism? It’s Pahwa’s deep need for freedom of the internet.

“The need for freedom led me to activism, entrepreneurship…I don’t know where it will take me next but freedom is central to everything I do,” he says.

“My mission is to build an internet ecosystem which is open, fair and competitive.”

Pahwa’s journey as a media entrepreneur has been filled with existential crisis because of the battle he fights. But then, those battles are also the reason why his venture, Medianama, lives today.

“I’m what I’m today because of the fact that internet is open and this freedom exists. Medianama has turned 10 today because of that. I want that for everyone.”

Before he committed fully to the net neutrality campaign, he knew it could mean a near death experience for Medianama.

“I told the Medianama team that we could die because of what I’m going to do, but this is worth fighting for because we wouldn’t exist if internet wasn’t free and open.”

There are some great lessons in this podcast with Pahwa. These lessons aren’t just about rightful activism but also offer insights on fighting battles larger than your own, personal existence.

The net neutrality campaign, for instance, had its own moments of existential crisis.

“Nothing was budging, no one was participating. And Facebook simultaneously began this massive “support Free Basics” campaign, putting hoardings all over the country. And we were losing.”

Pahwa is next readying for another challenge in his life: his wedding is coming up soon.

How Infosys founder Narayana Murthy makes decisions

 

Depending who, just the mention of Infosys founder N. R. Narayana Murthy’s name will evoke strong views. Ever since he co-founded Infosys in July 1981, he’s shaped the company with some strong decisions. From walking away from customers such as General Electric, which accounted for over a quarter of Infosys’ revenues in 1995, to making a comeback in June 2013 as the executive chairman –Murthy’s decisions have been bold and at times considered everything from being foolish and old-worldly to self-fulfilling

If there’s one thing that even his biggest critics agree with his loyalists, it’s the issue of corporate governance and personal integrity. As I sat down with him to record this episode of Outliers, I decided to stay away from analysing all the decisions he’s taken in his career and, instead, try and understand Murthy’s decision-making framework.

If there’s one thing that defines all his decisions, it’s governance and integrity.

“Most organisations that have seen a downward slide have seen that it starts at the top. As they say, a fish always rots at the top. Therefore, it’s very, very important for senior people to conduct themselves with fairness, transparency, and accountability,” says Murthy.

“Never look at a ticker tape and make a decision. If you enthused your employees to work hard, if you satisfied your customers with good software, if you followed the best rules and did not violate any laws of the land, and if you used a part of your profits to make a difference to the society, then your revenues will grow and you will provide better and better value to investors.”

“Never focus on the ticker tape, but focus on how can you win better in the marketplace.”

“Anybody who looks at stock price and takes decisions…that person is definitely going to destroy the corporation,” he adds.

On his part, Murthy has always stood firm by his decisions, notwithstanding all the criticism and questions raised by others.

As a journalist tracking Infosys all through my career since 2000, I’ve myself had confrontations and arguments with him on several topics. And, he has had questions about my stories too.

“We should not worry about criticism from people who have no knowledge of the issue. Those are opinions… anybody can give opinion… as long as I have a mouth, as long as my voice box is working,” he says.

“Before we went public in 1993, I sat down with my colleagues and I told them… from today onwards, we are going to be in a different paradigm, which consisted of the founders, their families and the employees. You’re now answerable to the entire mass of shareholders.”

“And there may be a shareholder with just one share, but that person has as much right as somebody with 99% shareholding. So I impressed upon them that only if they’re ready to accept this, then we should go public.”

Listen in to the man credited with creating one of India’s most respected companies.

Sanjay Parthasarathy on how running taught him patience as an entrepreneur

Entrepreneurial journeys mean different things to different founders. For some, it’s a way of creating wealth. Many others do it to achieve their “change the world” ambitions. But at its core, entrepreneurship brings a deep personal transformation. Past Outliers episodes with Kailash Katkar, Aneesh Reddy, Manav Garg and K Vaitheeswaran are among conversations that underscore the personal transformation of entrepreneurs while building their startups.

For Sanjay Parthasarathy, a Microsoft veteran who quit the company to build Indix, an AI-powered catalog for all of the world’s products available online, entrepreneurship is all about patience.

And what taught him patience? Running.

“I used to play cricket, squash all kinds of sports. Now, I don’t play any sport, but run. Running is the ultimate sport for patience.”

“A job at a company like Microsoft or any large company is about career development, much more outward focused. Whereas a startup journey is much more about character development and is much more inwardly focused,” he says. You have to question your core principles, your character.”

Parthasarathy says you can afford to be impatient when at a large company. “You can talk more than listen. When you do a startup, as a smaller company you have to be patient, you have to roll with the punches,” he says.

“You don’t react to every piece of email. At Microsoft, I used to be very proud of responding to an email within few seconds. Now, I just let it lie for a bit to see if it fixes itself.”

“You don’t realise until you do a startup that it takes at least seven to ten years to build something worthwhile,” he adds.

“CIS is like the Kamasutra… a collection of many positions,” says Sunil Abraham

Sunil Abraham of the Centre for Internet and Society (CIS) has been a digital warrior much before online privacy and data security became fashionable battles to fight in India. Abraham founded CIS in 2008 and established the organization as an important voice for explaining privacy in the social, digital age in India.

Over past decade, Abraham has questioned projects — most famously, Aadhaar. Many in the country, especially those in the technology ecosystem, have found him difficult to comprehend. And that has a lot to do with the ironies he lives with. For instance, despite being a vocal critic of Aadhaar, he counts Rohini Nilekani — wife of Nandan Nilekani, architect of the citizen ID project and a passionate backer — among the top donors at CIS. Then, around the time there were raging battles against Facebook’s controversial Free Basics program, which many argued violated Net Neutrality, there were different views within CIS.

“People would ask what’s the CIS position on net neutrality,” says Abraham. “And the answer to that question is always the same—CIS is like the Kamasutra, we don’t have one position. We’re a collection of many positions.”

Abraham’s journey in building CIS and keeping it alive and relevant, after coming out of a near-death experience due to paucity of funding, offers insights about doing business amid extreme polarisation. Most importantly, for anyone looking to build a career in objective research, he and CIS are great role models.

Please tune in.