‘Dream the Impossible’: Life Lessons from Keshub Mahindra

Keshub Mahindra, the senior-most Wharton alumnus in India, is chairman emeritus of India’s Mahindra Group, a $20.7 billion conglomerate. His father and uncle founded the company in the mid-1940s. Mahindra joined the business soon after its inception, took over as chairman in 1963, and retired in 2012 after leading the group for five decades.

For Mahindra, who is widely respected for his philanthropy, values such as being honest, compassionate, respecting everyone, and giving back to society are very important. In a conversation with Knowledge@Wharton, Mahindra, 95, discusses what life has taught him and lessons he would like to share with younger generations.

This conversation is part of an ongoing series of interviews that Knowledge@Wharton is producing in collaboration with Wharton Magazine.

Excerpts from an edited transcript of the conversation appear below.

On Mentors

I have had mentors all my life. I describe mentors as those whose qualities I admire. These are people whom I respect and would like to learn from, but I wouldn’t like to ape them. I am what I am.

If I had to name a couple of my mentors, from the business world I would pick J.R.D Tata, [the industrialist], and from the social and political world, Nanaji Deshmukh [social activist Chandikadas Amritrao Deshmukh]. One common thread among those I admire is their passion and dedication to providing support to unfortunate people, who have not had opportunities to do something in their lives. Nanaji Deshmukh, for instance, was a stalwart of the Bharatiya Janata Party [now the ruling party in India]. At a point in time when he could have had any position within the party, he gave up politics and set up a charitable organization to create a model for development.

“I am a great believer in people.”

On Meaningful Books

I am very fond of reading. I read three or four books at a time. If I had to choose books that have influenced me the most, it would depend on the environment in which I read the book. My mood would influence my judgment. Old classics continue to impress me. Among new generation writers, Yuval Noah Harari — author of Homo Sapiens — is profound in the breadth of his coverage.

The subject of human growth has always intrigued me. For instance, why is it that after nearly 70 years, we have not been able to economically develop our country as we ought to have? Why is there still poverty? Why do so many people lack housing and water? This is not acceptable. Much to my surprise, no business school seems concerned over such issues.

I like to read about history and culture. In the 15th and 16th centuries, India was the world’s largest trading nation, accounting for some 28% of global trade. And look at us today. One has to wonder why — it is fascinating to speculate.

My love for learning led to my association with the Ahmedabad Institute of Management where the government appointed me chairman of the Board of Governors, in which capacity I served for nearly 10 years. This gave me an opportunity to interact with the faculty, the students and the public at large over many years of learning — a life different from my corporate one. 

On Aspirations and Regrets

When we were in our teens, around 15 years or 16 years old, my father asked all the children in the family, particularly the boys, to write down what we wanted to become. Many years later, he gave us a copy of that letter. My first choice was to become a farmer. Why? I don’t know. My second choice was to become a soldier. I did not think about business at all.

Fate intervened to make it possible for me to spend my teenage years being educated at one of the world’s finest universities. My years at Penn shaped many intrinsic values of my life. The American Constitution calls for the protection of the fundamental rights of its citizens, a life of freedom and liberty. Equal laws for all. These are admirable qualities for any nation to pursue. My years at Penn were wonderful years. We do not have the time to talk about my American years, but they were happy years for me.

At my age you don’t have aspirations any more. You may have regrets – and they are not necessarily of your own making. Regrets about why have we not moved forward. My deepest regret is that we still see poverty on our streets.

When I graduated from Penn, my family had just started this company. My father was working in Washington but was planning to return to India soon, and they were thinking about what to do. I had an offer of a job in Brazil and so I told my father that I would be going to Brazil. My father was a very kind, wise man. He looked at me and he said, “Fine,” and he added: “You’ve not been home for six years; why don’t you come back for some time and then go to Brazil.”

Foolishly, it didn’t strike me what it would mean to go back to India. So I agreed, very happily. I came back to India and of course that was the end of my plans for Brazil.

At one stage I had some feelers from the government — to inquire if I would consider joining them. I may have got a Cabinet post, but I declined. I felt that government positions were temporary; what would I do if the government suddenly decided to fire me? I couldn’t have gone back to business. Transition from public to civil life is not easy in our society. To some extent, I regret that decision because my personal interests lay in upholding the dignity of individuals and supporting their growth.

“My aspiration has been to help those who need help. I am not being saintly. I genuinely feel for people.”

It is important to provide opportunities for people to grow. Of course, we do this through our various foundations and charities. We focus very heavily on educating girls; we are helping educate more than 250,000 girls a year. In addition, we set up vocational schools and provide scholarships.

Dealing with People

It is important to connect with what is going on around you. I am a great believer in people. I tell my friends in academia that you teach wonderful technology to people, but one element you don’t concentrate on is how to deal with people. After all, what are you doing all this for? You are doing it for people.

Many years ago, the government asked me to help set up what became the first housing finance scheme for the poor. I set it up and ran it for six or seven years. During this time, I visited some of the most deplorable slums in India. I would come home and wonder how people could live like this. That had a huge influence on my life.

My interest in housing continued. I was vice-chairman of HDFC, a leading company in housing finance for 25 years. That gave me tremendous insight and information. Our own charitable organization also focuses on housing. But, compared to the need that exists, what we do is minimal.

Another thing that is very important in life is to respect people. No matter who they are, what they do — we should respect them. I also believe — and this is reflected in the way we conduct our business — that a man’s ability is limitless. You need to encourage him. You need to give him freedom to think and act. I like to think that we do this in our own organization. When my father and uncle set up this company, they issued an ad in the paper as to why they were setting up this company. They did this on the day the company was established. It was like a mission statement. It was unheard of in those days. That, of course, influenced all that we have done.

One incident which affected me deeply was the Union Carbide tragedy. The issue is pending hearing in Court and is a matter of subjudice. It was regretful, remorseful and painful.

Life’s Mission and Purpose 

My goal has been to help those who need help. I am not being charitable. I genuinely feel for people. But I am also in a dilemma about what one can do, because there is a limit even to charity. So, one despairs. These are the areas one regrets. Could I have done something different? Perhaps I could have spent more time in public affairs? But that would have meant involvement on the political side, which I wasn’t keen on.

“Happiness is an attitude of the mind.”

I don’t know what my ideals were when I was younger. I didn’t think much about these things. When you are in your 20s, you don’t sit down and say, “This is what I want to do.” You take life as it comes. I think your choices begin at about age 30. By then it is too late to change. Only the brave have the courage to transform their lives.

Life Lessons

I tell my children and young people two things. One, dream about achieving the impossible — because impossible things do happen. Two, be compassionate. Think about others. Money is not everything.

My children and grandchildren are all involved in different careers but are all deeply motivated to affect social change whether it’s towards education, health or the environment. Recently, my eldest daughter set up an NGO that also provides free housing to cancer patients who are undergoing treatment in Bombay. [My children] are fortunate, and I would like them to continue working and spending their time in these meaningful ways.

I believe happiness is an attitude of the mind. I tell my children, be happy in whatever you are doing, but I also tell them, be tolerant, be open, be honest, and transparent. That is how you should be. Take joy in the happiness of others.

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