According to Pramath Sinha, founding dean of the Hyderabad-based Indian School of Business (ISB), the single biggest challenge in starting a business school in India was “building a great reputation in a short period of time.” So far, the gamble has paid off: In 2008, ISB became the first Indian institution to be included by the Financial Times in its global ranking of the top 20 business schools — only seven years after the school was launched. Sinha, who served as dean of ISB from 2001 to 2002 and continues to serve on the school’s executive board, went on to become managing director and CEO of media conglomerate ABP Pvt. Ltd., and last year founded a new media company, 9.9 Media. In an interview with India Knowledge at Wharton, Sinha answers questions about the genesis of ISB, what it takes to lead different kinds of organizations, and — in keeping with his latest venture — where he thinks the media industry in India is headed.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows:
India Knowledge at Wharton: As the founder and also part of several successful businesses in India and overseas, which is your favorite and why? And is there one that you wish you had not entered?
Dr. Pramath Sinha: Actually, I have not founded too many businesses. [9.9 Media] is the first real business, and then I was involved with the founding of the business school. So those are two of my entrepreneurial ventures. It is hard to choose between them. I guess till this thing becomes successful the ISB would have to count as the greatest journey, and it has been a fantastic story. When we started out we never imagined that we would have so much success so quickly.
It is like everything we thought of doing has worked, and you can get carried away in the success and say it was easy, but now that I am building this business, I realized that that was also not easy.
And sometimes, when I am getting disappointed in the second stint, I have to go back and remember that there were lots of setbacks even when we were trying to do the ISB, and there still are. I mean, this year’s recruiting has been very tough.
Now Wharton or a Kellogg can afford to say, “Listen, we are a 50-year-old institution and one bad year is fine.” But for us, as a 6-year-old institution, if you hit a bad year where a third of a class is not placed, you have to worry.
So I’d have to say I am very fortunate to have had the chance to do both, and I have really enjoyed doing both. This one is also at a different point in my life. So I am much more interested in issues other than just making the business successful. I have become over the years a big student of leadership, and so one of the things I am spending a lot of time on is how I get the best out of our people and help them grow at the same time. And so the flavor of what I am trying to do now is very different.
India Knowledge at Wharton: How did your role at ISB come about? What is the genesis behind this idea?
Sinha: It all started when I was an associate at McKinsey. I was drafted by Rajat Gupta to put together a plan for an international-quality business school that was supposed to come up on the campus of the IIT [Indian Institute of Technology] in Delhi. And Rajat being alum, the director of IIT Delhi had asked him to help out. So as a gofer in the office I got caught to do some grunt work. And that is how it all started, and then became an ongoing project, and I kept helping out. And then as I grew more senior at McKinsey, my responsibility on the project kept growing. As I became a McKinsey partner, I became the CEO of the project.
And then quite by providence, I think, both Sumantra Ghoshal and Dipak Jain, who were supposed to be the founding dean and the executive dean, respectively, for various reasons, as we got closer to the opening of the school, decided that they could not do it. And so in June of 2001, just before the school was to start, we were left high and dry without a dean, with 128 students, faculty, everything lined up, but no leader for the institution. And given where I had started I was so focused on this thing as a project that actually finding a dean was part of the project. I never realized that I could be the dean.
I was one of the founders and I was setting it up. The dean was always going to be an academic like Sumantra or Dipak.
Suddenly the board turned out and said, “Listen, we have no time, and you know the natural choice is Pramath, because he has actually built the school over these years.” And it was true, I was very involved, and so I knew each of the students inside out, because I had led the whole admissions process, and interviewed all of them, and so on. And the students were happy that somebody familiar was coming into that role, because they were very concerned about what would happen to them after a year.
So that is how I became the founding dean, and that cemented my involvement in a way that continues even today. I cannot not be involved.
India Knowledge at Wharton: What was involved in recruiting Wharton and Kellogg to become partners at ISB?
Sinha: That is an illuminating story and really a great lesson in leadership, what Don Jacobs, the dean of Kellogg [at Northwestern University], always stood for. We were always very keen that we were a bunch of business guys trying to form an academic institution.
Of course, most people who started institutions would start it with their own name or their company name or their parents’ name. So the Birlas and the Tatas were perhaps an exception, but businesspeople did not have a great record of starting institutions. So we knew that one of the ways we could bridge that perceived gap was to get great academic partners. And we also knew that that level of partnership would not be helpful to get from India. You really needed something that was not available, and that was truly aspirational.
So the idea of having a partner was first mooted keeping in mind that, one, we do not have the skills, and, two, if you are starting something new and you have somebody who has a great name, then that helps. So Rajat took on the burden of approaching some of the business schools because he was in the U.S., and as managing director of McKinsey he had direct access to most of these schools.
He started with Harvard and Stanford. He was on the board at Harvard and he very quickly realized that they would never do it and that even today they are much more conservative about lending their name, forget about even a second campus.
So he then went to Kellogg, where he had a relationship, having been based in Chicago for a lot of his life. And Don Jacobs, who was always a very different kind of dean and quite a visionary, who took Kellogg really from nothing to a top school, immediately jumped on the idea. His point was that, yes, we need to have presence in India, but I have all these Indian faculty who really want to go and teach. He saw it as a retention strategy for his faculty.
But then Don gave us an amazing piece of advice, and we always will be grateful to him. He said that if you just partner with Kellogg, you will become Kellogg in India.
We never wanted to be seen as a dependent. We wanted to be an independent institution that stood on its own legs and did not depend on a partnership. So he said, “You should get a second partner.” If you have two partners then people will see you as an independent institution with multiple links rather than just this one umbilical cord.
So he picked up the phone and suggested that … I think he spoke to Tom Gerrity, who was the dean at Wharton at that time, and Rajat of course knew him, and then very quickly Gerrity agreed. Gerrity also came from a corporate background. So he saw this as a positive thing of having an alliance or a partnership and having the partnership with Kellogg, because at that time they were the number one, number two schools. So it was quite exciting for the top two schools in the U.S. to be doing something together in India. That is how it started, and it stood the test of time and continues to thrive.
India Knowledge at Wharton: I also remember there were some issues about the location, where initially there was some thinking about it being based in Bombay?
India Knowledge at Wharton: And then you ran afoul of the Shiv Sena. Can you tell us that story?
Sinha: Clearly, if you looked at the board, it was the “Who’s Who of Indian Business.” Most of them were from Bombay. So the bias was “Bombay does not have an IIM [Indian Institute of Management]. It is the commercial capital. A business school should logically be in Bombay.” And so we never questioned that. We sort of assumed that it was going to be in Bombay. And sure enough we went through looking for land and so on, and, you know, the Godrejs and the Ambanis and the Bajajs, Mahindras on our board had access to … they knew exactly where land was available or not available. So in Navi Mumbai we identified a site. We got the site. CIDCO was the authority that was making the site available and we were almost ready to sign the contract.
In the final form of the contract they applied water and electricity and some other infrastructure development charges that were exorbitant. So in effect you were getting land for a song, but for services you were paying a huge amount of money. So we said, “Listen, this is unacceptable, and these CIDCO guys are just being unreasonable.” At that time there was the Shiv Sena and BJP combined government, with the Shiv Sena being the power behind the scenes. And so our board member said, “Hey we all know Balasaheb [Shiv Sena, founder Balasaheb Thackeray]. We’ll just go and talk to him and sort this out.”
Unfortunately, they went to see him at a time when he was having a big gathering at his place. So there was an occasion to grandstand, and the press was there. So in front of all of these people he made a big deal about how the best business school in the world was going to get built in Bombay, and that they were involved in it and there would be 10% reservations for Maharashtrians by the way, and 50% for employees. And this came off the cuff, from the blue, and it was the next day published in Mid-Day, and it was all over.
This was clearly unacceptable to us. We had always said very clearly that this was going to be completely merit of credit. Can you then support the needy candidates? We will never allow any sort of reservation. So that is how it began and even at that point we were in touch with his sons or nephews or … I do not remember now, and they said, “Listen, we will find a way around it, do not yet give up.” And we also felt if we put a little bit of competitive pressure, this thing will sort itself out.
So it was to put competitive pressure on Bombay, but never really to leave Bombay that we wrote a note to all chief ministers and chief secretaries around the country. Well, not all, but Gujarat, Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Delhi, Gurgaon, Haryana, and we said, “Listen, we are these guys, we have the partnership, we have the school, this is our vision, these are the people on our board,” from Ratan Tata to Ambanis, to Bajajs, to Mahindras, to Parekhs and Kamath, and Lakshmi Mittal. By then the whole board was there. “And please see if you can give us appropriate land. We are looking for 100 acres of land.”
And so one monsoon morning we flew from Bombay to Hyderabad, to Bangalore, to Chennai. But the first place we landed was in Hyderabad, and we were completely floored by the hospitality of Naidu [Andhra Pradesh’s chief minister at the time, Chandrababu Naidu].
Now it is much more built up than then, and amazingly open, and he said, “Two hundred fifty acres is yours,” and, “I will give you plus one of whatever anybody else offers. And we just knew that this was the right place and the right thing to do. And we came back from that trip. I remember we did a teleconference, and the board approved within a few months. We had possession of 250 acres of land which is prime land today for a business school.
India Knowledge at Wharton: Thinking back on the ISB experience, what was the biggest challenge? How did you overcome it and what did you learn from it?
Sinha: The biggest challenge was, “How do you build a great reputation in a short period of time?” I had studied a lot of the history of how our institutions got built. The one that I followed very closely was INSEAD [in France]. INSEAD was actually started in the early 1900s. The germ of INSEAD started then. And it took all the way up to the ’80s and the ’90s until it truly started getting counted among the top business schools in the world.
We looked at the London Business School similarly. We looked at IMD [the International Institute for Management Development in Lausanne, Switzerland]. We looked at Kellogg. There were just no examples of institutions that in a period of two, three, four, five years would really catapult themselves into the world scene. We were very clear that we did not have a generation or a lifetime to realize the fruits of what we were trying to build.
So that was the single most significant aspiration and challenge that we had to overcome. Everything that went into the concept and the execution was really about fast-tracking and leapfrogging the generational time it would take to build a great institution. I am not sure we are there yet, but what we have been able to do we have done in very short order.
So I can talk about all the little things that went in, but the board, the partnerships, the one-year program, the focus on bringing in visiting faculty, everybody shot us down. Building the infrastructure? Big debate. “Why do we need such infrastructure? Let us just take a building and start.” All those were huge trade-offs. One of the most prominent board members left the board because he fundamentally did not agree with the concept that we were going to put in our infrastructure first.
So, there were huge debates and trade-offs. The one-year program [idea] — I facilitated that [discussion] with Kellogg and Wharton. What massive resistance. This is not [what’s] done in U.S. academic circles…
Then, OK, if we agree on the one year, what is the core? Which courses will be taught in the core? Trying to bring about all kinds of other innovations started to become a challenge. How are we going to be different?
Somewhere I feel that on some of those we did not win the battles and we are not as different as I would have liked us to be. You fight those battles as you go along. But I think the fact that we went from zero to, or from nothing to 15th on the [Financial Times’ ranking of business schools] is the challenge we had.
India Knowledge at Wharton: What is the way forward for ISB? Is it going to be one school that has gone from 128 to 400? Is it going to expand in terms of student numbers? Are other campuses being planned across the country?
Sinha: We are going ahead with a campus in Mohali.
Now, given where you are, if you know you are sort of theory-of-theory of constraints, then faculty is the big limiting factor. Students are not. Today we have 560 students, which is the capacity of the current infrastructure. We get almost 4,000 applications and the average GMAT of the applicant pool is about 710. So you could technically argue that there are 3,000 more students out there who we can admit if GMAT were the narrow measure, and I am not suggesting that. So you could really go bananas on the numbers.
If you look at some of the other schools, you look at an ICFAI [Institute of Chartered Financial Analysts of India] business school, they take 5,000 students a year. You look at an Amity or an IIBM [International Institute of Business Management]. They do similar thousands. Of course, we are talking a different quality, but I have no doubt that we can find very high-quality students in those kinds of numbers.
The other way we look at it is that if you look at the top 20 U.S. MBA programs and you say that there is probably an average of 700 to 800 students, then you are talking about 15,000 students. So if there are 15,000 students, even in the U.S., who are good enough to go to the top 20 schools, there must be at least that many in India who are not, and clearly we do not have that many seats at the highest level if you add the IIMs, ISB, Narsee Monjee, XLRI, Jamnalal Bajaj. You would not add up because those kinds are a couple of hundred each.
So the students are not an issue. Jobs, you can argue, may or may not be an issue, but I am hiring people from IIPM [Indian Institute of Planning and Management]. I never imagined that I would hire people from IIPM, but I can tell you I am, and they are very good. And I would hire such people from any such institution. I am sure people will be willing to … There are enough jobs out there. Maybe not of the price that the ISB today commands, but the real issue is at some point if you are going to be serious about giving good management education, where is the faculty?
So we are really limited by that, and I think as long as we can overcome that constraint we will be building more campuses.
India Knowledge at Wharton: How will you overcome that constraint?
Sinha: We are looking at various ways. We now have a pipeline of permanent faculty who want to move back to India. Initially it was tough, but today ISB has some 34 permanent faculty. It is a little bit of an exponential graph if you see at what rate people have come. In the last few years we have recruited five to 10 people a year. So for a 500-odd-student’s class, a faculty group of 40 to 50 is fine, and these are all people from top schools — Stanford, Michigan, Duke. Obviously, they are all Indians. Hopefully the pipeline of people wanting to do Ph. Ds and wanting to relocate in India will continue to grow, so that is one stream.
The other is trying to find gifted students from other disciplines, give them a bridge course at the ISB and then get them shipped off to Wharton or a Kellogg, help facilitate their entry into the DBA or Ph. D. in business program. So we are growing our own timber if you will, and I do not know if that is going to reach some scale soon, but clearly we are able to.
The third thing is that our visiting faculty model has really matured. When we started out, we just got such flak. Everybody criticized us and said, “How can you build an institution like this?” But it has become our biggest strength. Students do not want to let go of these wonderful guys who come from all over the world. Suddenly, what also has happened is, with that model and the interest levels in India, we are getting people from all over. You have people from China coming to teach here, from Australia and Japan. So you are no longer dependent on that NRI- Indian-U.S.-business-school guy who wants to move here.
The final thing is that there are existing Indian faculty who are getting to that age, either because their kids have gone to college or because their kids are getting to that age, who are now starting to say there is a creditable alternative there.
When we did the research in 1998-99, the top 20 schools had a hundred-plus faculty of Indian origin in just the top 20 schools. If you go today I would say that number would be more like 200. You will probably have 10 per school.
If you look below the top 20, and there are some pretty good schools below that, I am sure there are a few hundred — I do not know how many exactly — who are there, who one can tap in to. So in a way that one is a bit of a zero sum in the U.S., but what the hell? The students are here and the jobs are here. The research topics are here. So I think that will willingly attract. If you look at it from a sources standpoint, one is the new graduates, one is the existing faculty, and the third is trying to boost our own. One big challenge is that we cannot do Ph. Ds in our institution.
India Knowledge at Wharton: Why is that?
Sinha: Because of our regulatory. We are sort of under the radar. We are not approved in the true sense. But then that does not really help us because you do not want to inbreed either. You do not want to just create your own Ph. Ds, and that is what the IITs and the others have done.
Part of achieving greatness for us was not just being a great teaching institution, but really to be thought-driven.
Getting research going is a big challenge. So it is that twin challenge of getting faculty and getting research going that I worry about today. I think we are tracking it. I think the people we have are churning out some good research. They are getting some recognition. They are being funded, which is always a good sign. They are publishing in international journals, the top-five-type journals. So they are rightly incentivized. But we have not really successfully brought in senior faculty who can mentor these guys. You really need that whole ecosystem of the gray hair and young minds to make research happen.
India Knowledge at Wharton: In some ways, the challenge in the research front seems to be a little different from the challenge of recruiting faculty in the following sense. You take an institution like Harvard. Thanks to the connections of Mr. Mahindra, they have actually opened an office in India and they do a lot of research right there…. And Harvard would probably not be alone in this as you correctly said. India is now on the global map as an emerging business case to be studied and researched. What would be your competitive strategy in differentiating ISB research from what Harvard or Stanford or MIT or Wharton would do?
Sinha: This is a personal view, not an institutional view, because I have not discussed it with the academics or with the dean. But first, we always felt that the distinctiveness would come from our focus on India and the emerging markets. But as you said, others are also starting to do that. I think the difference is that because of our on-the-ground presence and our network, our access to people and companies is that much better. I think it is borne out by some of the stuff I have seen coming out of some of these research projects. The fact that we have faculty on the ground who are based here rather than people flying in is where the distinctiveness comes from.
I will give you the example of Shamika Ravi, who does microfinance. The way she has gotten plugged into the microfinance companies and NGOs, the way she has done impact assessment of their programs through her primary and empirical research and the way she has plugged into the public policy side in terms of the planning commission on the Ministry of Finance and the RBI and the policy and the planners and the government is the great example of how you can come up with something quite distinctive, which can only happen if you have people down here.
And not just presence here, because I am sure the center has research fellows or assistants, but really in that model the intellectual talent is there. The brains are there and they are using this as a base. That is where the difference will come. The visibility, the networks, the connections, the access to and the ability to influence I think ultimately will be different. And that is another big thing that business research or academic research in business is grappling with, is it not? Particularly in light of what just happened, are we researching real practical issues and what the hell where we doing, creating all these models and bringing the whole world down?
That aspect of it, which is the switch from pure, basic academic research for the sake of research and publishing to somewhat more applied — and I say this carefully because it is still looked down upon.
But I think the stuff that she is doing is brilliant, and I am only singling her out because I am familiar with her work, but you look at a [Dishan] Kamdar or a bunch of other folks. They are doing fantastic work. That is what really makes me feel proud about the school, that we can point to people who now understand India and understand issues and can speak intelligently about it and engage, and it is not purely academic. She has done some work for example on how this National Rural Guarantee Scheme has in fact helped uplift the lives of the people in the villages.
I do not think even the government has evaluated their own program. So when I got it I just said, “Wow, this is great stuff.” I did not know whether this was right or wrong. I am assuming given her intellectual caliber that it is. I just immediately sent it out to everybody I knew in government and said here is something. In fact, I had sent it to the Congress guys and said here is a campaign thing for you.
And you know, on the face of it, it is a little bit applied, but this is stuff that the world needs to know.
India Knowledge at Wharton: You said earlier that you are very interested in leadership. How is it different leading an academic institution compared to an entrepreneurial media company?
Sinha: It is not that different. If you had said something other than media then I would have said it is different. If you had said steel or pharma, I would have said it is different. I will tell you first where the similarities are. The biggest challenge is dealing with a situation where as a non-academic you are the leader, yet you have to be a servant to the faculty. If you do not understand that you are screwed in that model.
I keep repeating this to the so-called business side of the ISB folks. I tell them, “Listen, I sympathize with you, and in fact I was the dean and I came from the other side. But please understand that without these guys you will not be.”
The analogy I often give, when I speak generally on management, is that academic institutions, hospitals, media companies are very similar because the hospitals cannot do without the doctors. Yet you do not want to make the doctor the head of the institute, right? …
Similarly, in a media company, you are there because of the journalists and the content creators and the creative talent. It is too narrow to say journalists, but in what I do today, it is the creative talent and the people who can conceptualize and design and come up with those themes. Managing that creative side is what I enjoy and which is why I am doing media. I think that is why I was able to pull off whatever I did at ISB, because you really need to be a servant to that side of the business, because without them you do not exist.
I think the start-up phase was very similar in many ways. You had to get customers. You had to come up with a product. You had to sell it at the right price point. You had to make sure that the product got sold despite 9/11. The only big difference was that in the ISB case there was a start date and there was a finish date — like you are on this train and once the train left the station … The train left the station the day you admitted 130 students.
In this case, if the train did not get started and you said, “Okay, I will start 15 days later,” or if it did not pick up speed and you said, “Okay, I will sort of, kind of pick up.” You could not do that. You could not say, “We will wait for the faculty to come.” Right, the students will wait, or 9/11 happened so we will delay the start of the semester.… I remember I was in the U.S. when 9/11 happened and two of our faculty said they were not going to come…. And so early in the course, two of your star faculty say, “Sorry, cannot come,” and that is when the visiting model [raises questions]. Who teaches? Do I go teach now? … So that was the big difference. It felt different because of that. You cannot get off that train or slow it down. But otherwise it is very similar, the risks that you have to take, the trade-offs you have to make, the fact that you try 10 things and only eight work, or two work, and the next time you have to again try to do 10 more things to make up for the eight things that did not work, and then again two work and then again you try 10 things. That is how it felt. At every stage there were problems, deadlines, missing people, not turning out to be what they were, under-delivering.
There was a day in October of 2001 when we did not have cash to pay our bills and salaries in the ISB. So that felt … I think I got my training in entrepreneurship there.
India Knowledge at Wharton: The media business today is in such turmoil.If you look at the developed markets, traditional media including well-known publications, companies, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journals, things are in shambles, online publishing is coming up but does not seem to be generating enough revenue to be able to make up for the loss from print. How do you view the media landscape and how have you been trying to find ways of creating and delivering value?
Sinha: This is an industry that is completely getting transformed by technology in ways that people anticipate but not quite imagine. The current downturn is accelerating that transformation while everybody knew that print was going to die, I think. At least abroad it has died, and it is hard to accept. It is really, truly hard to accept that would be the reality, but it is.
This combination of what the Internet has done and technology of handheld devices and accessibility 24/7, plus now I think this whole green movement has killed print forever, I think in the West. I should not say forever; it is too strong. It will become a niche thing and it will survive in small forms for people who can afford it, but those large mega-plays of media companies driving newspapers, the McClatchys and Gannett and the Tribunes and the New York Times, I think we are going to see the end of that.
Quite frankly it is a little bit like the horse carriage. It sounds dramatic to say that, and I am sure it did when people then said it, but I feel that it is going to be tough to recover from this blow. So what? I do think that we will move to very different economies of the business in the near term, where the value will really come from content packaging, content delivering, content in a way that you and I really like to see. So you will see a lot more innovation around that, in just the packaging and the delivery of content. This is a good example of what you are trying to do.
Look at what I am trying to do in a way. I think somewhere in my mind I have already adjusted for that dependence or lack of independence on print even in India. So I actually do not operate in the mass media space. I operate in the niche media space. And the way we look at our business is not in terms of our magazine, but in terms of the communities we serve. And for each of those communities we are totally agnostic about the medium through which we are serving them.
We have a print product and I do look at that profitability and the cost of that print product, but I really measure the overall profitability of my community, not of that print product. And therefore that creates a very different economic mind-set when you are looking at the business. Because now when I think of media for that community I am thinking events online and print, and in fact to enter that community the erstwhile media owner in my space would have said, “Take magazine, that is what we need.” I will say let us go online, let us build the database, let us get online and then we will see about the magazine.
So I think that trying to replace the print with new media is just not going to work out. Unfortunately there is therefore going to be a lot of pain for people who are overcommitted to the print space, and I can see that I have talked to some of my friends over there and they are really struggling with this issue.
I cannot say that I have an answer for them, but I think that we are going to see a fundamental shift where I call it customized content on demand. That is the world that we are moving to. I do not miss a newspaper today because on my Blackberry I have this Mint button, and I can click it first thing in the morning when I am sitting on the loo and quickly scan through the news, and then if I do not see the newspaper, it is Okay. I mean, I have quickly got the gist of what is happening in the world.
That is scary in a sense because it really disintermediates the whole infrastructure of printing, paper. The editorial content is still there. So I go to Mint and not to ET. The question is how will they get paid? That is an open question.