Sindhutai Sapkal passed away yesterday.
For those who haven’t heard of her, she was born in an extremely poor family in the state of Maharashtra, India in 1948.Married at the age of 12 to someone who was 32, her husband abandoned her when she was 9 months pregnant. Forced to give birth in a cow shelter, she then went to her parent’s place, but was not welcome there either.
She started begging at railway stations, where she realized there were many abandoned children begging too. So she adopted them as well, and begged to feed them.
Then, in an act perhaps only a higher being is capable of, to avoid partiality between her own child and her growing number of adopted children, she gave up her biological child to a trust.
She later fought against the government for the rehabilitation of 84 villages in forest areas, and for compensation for villagers killed by wild animals! And won!
Over her life, she nurtured well over 1000 orphans (1400 by some estimates!). And she used money from the 700+ awards she won during her life to buy land and build more homes for her children.
She was fondly addressed as ‘Mai’, meaning mother.
If I remember correctly, later on in life, her husband came back and asked for her forgiveness. She said she couldn’t take him back as a husband, but allowed him to live there as one of her children.
When we think about human potential, I hope Sindhutai Sapkal’s higher sense of purpose and selflessness will continue to be remembered.
The battle known as the Siege of Jadotville, is an almost unbelievable story of grit, leadership, of unwavering loyalty and courage, of calm, and of extraordinary strategy and tactics; especially in the face of deceit, death, incompetence and betrayal.
If you haven’t watched the 2016 movie by the same name, you should.
Prior to 1959, Belgium held control of the Congo, with exclusive rights on Copper mining, and probably diamond and other mining interests, by way of UMHK, a mining company.
In 1959, Belgium announced its plan to grant independence to the Congo by June 1960 (as per an old agreement).
In the months prior to the independence, Belgian and British companies and unions operating in the region got concerned about losing their business interests. They bribed one Moïse Tshombe, a Congolese businessman and leader of a political party in the region, so that policies post independence would be in their favour. Right after independence, Tshombe created the breakaway state called the Republic of Katanga.
Congolese politician and independence leader, Patrice Lumumba won the democratically held election, becoming the first Prime Minister of newly independent Republic of the Congo. His vision was to remove all parasitic foreign presence from the region, to give it and its locals a chance to thrive. This made the local Belgians uncomfortable. Through the UMHK, they further financed Tshombe.
A few months later, Lumumba was wrongfully arrested, detained, and for the next month and a half, he was tortured, taken to the Republic of Katanga by Katangan and Belgian officers, and eventually killed and his body gotten rid of. This is despite Soviet pressure on the United Nations to intervene and immediately negotiate his release, the UN lacked the intent to intervene, arguably because individual member countries’ concerns of Lumumba’s increasingly communist views. This surely reminds one of Einsteins thoughts on the infiniteness of human stupidity, where the UN’s inaction traded an opportunity for the region to thrive on its own, in return for continued chaos.
The Belgians then cited unrest in the region, and requested the UN to intervene. This was part of their ploy, with the plan of taking hostage, the UN Peacekeeping party that would be sent. They intended to then trade their release for a way to retain their business interest in the region.
Of course, the past few hundred years have probably seen enough such events, with parties driven purely by self-serving interests, irrespective of the costs. This one also included a morally weak and incompetent Irish UN representative, Conor Cruise O’Brien. The UN chose an Irish military company to be sent as the UN Peacekeeping forces.
This 155-strong Irish ‘A’ Company had never seen combat before; its youngest soldiers probably in their late teens. It was led by 42-year old Commandant Pat Quinlan. The main UN base was in a place called Elizabethville. Yet, oddly, this Irish ‘A’ Company, was asked to create base in a place near a Belgian settlement called Jadotville. The base was in a highly vulnerable location, an open field with little topographical advantage to the A Company. The Belgian settlers were obviously not welcoming, and the Company had limited supplies, and were provided old (WW-II worthy) weapons.
Commandant Quinlan informed his superiors at Elizabethville of the presence of French mercenaries, the lack of supplies, and the high risk of an attack by the local rebels, but was not taken seriously by them. Soon, an unprovoked offensive by another UN Peacekeeping party that took over a Katangese-held radio station in Elizabethville, triggered the larger plot from Tshombe (and his local Katangese rebel forces, funded by the Belgians, and supported by French mercenaries). And strangely, UN representative Conor O’Brien did not even inform Comm. Quinlan of a possible attack in response to the radio station offensive.
So, early on September 13th, 1961, when the Irish troops of A Company were praying in a makeshift church, Tshombe’s men and French mercenaries attacked their base at Jadotville.
Any average combatant might have surrendered on that day, given the overwhelming odds of the attacks, and the fact that Katangan rebels had blocked off all routes that could bring additional troops, weapons and ration for these brave 155 soldiers. But not this Company of Pat Quinlan’s. This Company did not have any average combatants.
Being a great strategist, Commandant Quinlan had anticipated the risks, and had earlier had his troops dig trenches across the base.
Over the next 5 days, countless waves of a total of over 3000 Belgian, French and Rhodesian led Katangan mercenaries attacked the base. And Pat Quinlan and his men defended it, simply because those were his orders. Apart from initial orders from Conor O’Brien to continue to defend the base and the inability to bring in supplies for them, over the next few days, Conor and others at the UN were not even responding to Pat Quinlan’s request for support.
Wave after incessant wave of Katangese rebels, French mercenaries, and others, attacked Commandant Quinlan’s base, which he and his men continued to defend. Amidst quickly exhausting food, water, and ammo. Somewhere during those 5 days, a low-flying enemy aircraft was also strafing their base. And all these 155 soldiers had, were old guns and one transport jeep.
On the fifth day, Pat Quinlan had to make the tough decision of whether his Company dies here fighting, or to take the rebel’s offer to surrender. Seeing that it was meaningless for his Peacekeeping troops to get meaninglessly slaughtered, and with the UN headquarters still unreachable, Pat Quinlan agreed to an offer to surrender.
In those 5 days that A Company defended the Jadotville base against over 3000 mercenaries and rebel fighters, this young Irish Peacekeeping troops defended their base, killed over 300 of the enemy and probably injured over a 1000; while themselves suffering no casualties but only 5 injured soldiers during the entire siege. Such was the brilliance of the strategy, the tactics, and the grit of Commandant Pat Quinlan.
Post the surrender, they were imprisoned for a month, before being released.
It turned out that a Swedish UN officer had submitted a report to the UN asking them to either send backup or supplies as they were at very high risk of being attacked. This was 12 days before the actual attack. And during that entire duration, the Irish representative at the UN did absolutely nothing to act on the precautionary warning.
And if you thought the nightmare of being stuck between the greedy and devious Belgian settlers, shameless French mercenaries, a gutless Irish UN representative, and a dangerous rebel fighters ended there; you are mistaken. It had only begun. The worst came once they were safe back home in Ireland.
Their government and army refused to bestow medals for their superhuman courage. And worse, they were shunned by the army and public alike. The people believed they had brought disgrace to them and the country by surrendering.
What average mortals did not see or understand, was that this was a devious geo-political issue, and that the A Company was sent on a poorly equipped ‘Peacekeeping’ mission (with emphasis on ‘Peace’), and not as a regular army company. And that the A-Company wasn’t hung out to dry, they were hung out to die, and then ostracized simply because they didn’t.
While the late Colonel Pat Quinlan and some of the 155 soldiers were not alive to watch the 2016 movie, or their government creating a small memorial to the siege; the greatness of Pat Quinlan and his soldiers is not dependent on the support, vote of confidence or approval of lesser mortals who were incapable of seeing the situation they were put in, and how they emerged out of, by taking the absolute best path that was humanly possible.
If you would like to read more about the happenings surrounding the Siege of Jadotville, try these two books:
Heroes of Jadotville: The Soldiers’ Story – written by Pat Quinlan’s son (Leo) and niece (Rose Doyle)!
One of my mentors, Mr. Ramesh C. Sarin passed away on the 10th of April this year.
He was already long retired when I first met him. And he had this rare, dignified personality that reflected a wonderful blend of an unimaginably impressive corporate journey that he had had; and plenty of humility and grace. He climbed the ranks at the ITC Group to be the youngest person inducted to the Board, probably at the age of 39, if not a bit younger.
Meetings with him were enjoyable. I wasn’t exactly moving the earth, quite the opposite in fact – struggling to create a niche and presence in the field of innovation and design strategy. My updates to him would be over in a few quick minutes. Then came the wonderful part – a few minutes of conversation with him. While it was no easy task for him to even just entertain me at his age (he was nearing 80 at the time), he would take the effort of not just listening to all I have been up to, but also telling me little stories from his absolutely fascinating corporate life. Like when he was flown abroad on practically no notice for a meeting to discuss a job opportunity; and how the meeting got extended, and how worried his wife had been. Or how satisfying it was, completing the challenging Bhadrachalam Paperboards (it was before he turned 40!). He also kept inspiring, and on several occasions he told me he was glad I held on through challenging times.
There is a very interesting article about him from a few decades ago. It talks about his bold and radical efforts to set Voltas on a more solid growth path. In the article, there’s reference to Mr. Sarin being asked if he had ruffled a few feathers with his shake-up at Voltas. He replied, “Oh by god, yes!” Every time I’ve read that line in the article, I could almost hear Mr. Sarin actually say it. Because I’ve heard him say something along those lines in conversation.
The Voltas article is fascinating in two ways. Despite strong disagreements between him and Mr. A.H. Tobaccowala (his predecessor and then Chairman of the Voltas Board), their interactions and views of each other were extremely dignified. It shows the class of a different time. And more importantly, it offered a glimpse into the clarity of vision, the conviction, and the unstoppable force that Mr. Sarin was, in trying to make whichever company he worked for, the best version of itself. After all, which leader in recent times, has the candour to say something like, “”I have made some terrible mistakes, but I now see growth a head for Voltas: all it needs now for the strategy to work is time.”
[Read the Voltas article here]
He was of the view that good and challenging goals take time, and that it is important to stick with it and not give up. It is from him that I first learnt of the phrase, ‘staying power’; a phrase that continues to be a guiding force for me.
He once suggested I create a brochure for my consulting practice. On my next visit, he sat patiently and reviewed a few drafts I had taken. He also offered valuable inputs with great attention to detail. ‘Excellence’ seemed to be a word close to his heart. I remember him suggesting it as an addition to a draft. One needs to understand, this was not the word ‘excellence’ being dropped by a starry-eyed youngster, but by someone who had built businesses that excelled, before building other businesses that excelled too. So it was not just someone suggesting a word. It was probably him inspiring with words he had proven the meaning of by example.
It has been my observation that Mr. Sarin possessed a supremely important mindset and trait that was in short supply during his time, and that is exceedingly rare today. A mindset and a trait I completely believe in. It is that companies are built for a purpose, and that it is the duty of those working for the company to channel their efforts towards the best interest of the company. Even if that means locking horns with bosses or top management if they might be shortsighted or somehow not aligned with the company’s best interest. He will remain one of the most ideal role models one could aspire to be like – a visionary and a compassionate leader – one who inspired his troops to achieve the seemingly impossible.
Over the years, as I trudged along, I would send Mr. Sarin the occasional update, not wanting to trouble him too much with frequent visits. And twice in the past year, he had replied to my emails, telling me to drop by to catch up over coffee. Obviously I would not dream of risking visiting him in the middle of a pandemic, so I told him I will meet him as soon as things are safe again.
Nothing can describe the loss as adequately as Mr. Kanwal Jeet Jawa did in his obituary, where he wrote, “For those who have not had the good fate of knowing Mr. Sarin, and more so for those who have not had the better destiny of having been influenced by him and groomed by him, you have missed something all along but saved from the pain of losing him today.”
I will always remain grateful to him for inspiring me to keep working on getting better than I was.
Dr. Faqir Chand Kohli passed away today at the age of 96.
Founder & 1st CEO of Tata Consultancy Services (India’s largest software consulting co.), he is considered the ‘Father of the Indian Software Industry’ due to his significant contribution to the field.
Oftentimes legends like him are simply names and a string of achievements, for us humbler mortals to look up to and read or talk about. And many of them remain just that, achieving success and fame via their work, retiring, and receding into oblivion. But Dr. Kohli was very different. Which is why at least I will remember him for a long time, and aspire to be like him.
Two instances come to mind that showed the wonder that was Dr. Kohli.
Apart from consulting companies in the areas of innovation and growth strategy, every once in a while, I do think up either some way in which I can help a particular company, or a service that I can offer to a particular sector. Of course, most times the companies I write to are too big so I don’t expect a response, even though I almost feel like I’m the only one who could help save the company (in the past, I’ve written to & offered my services to Yahoo, HP, a bunch of VC’s, etc.; all in my blissful ignorance and confidence).
Anyway, one such exercise, to a broader audience, was when I sent out letters (the paper in envelope kind) to probably over a 100 b-schools and engineering colleges across the country, offering to help them create or shape their entrepreneurship ecosystem. I think three or four at best responded to the letter, all being top institutes who were already actively building their entrepreneurship cell. One was NITIE, Mumbai, and I had the privilege of visiting and checking out some of the work they do there.
Another response was an email asking me to get in touch with the Director of the institute I had written to, with the Director’s phone number on it.
A little flashback – After having selected those 100 institutes to initially write to, in the mundane task of finding the top person and address, what I didn’t realize, is that one of the people I had addressed a letter to, was Dr. Kolhi (Chairman of the Board of Governors of College of Engineering, Pune). And that email I had received with the Director’s phone number on it, was from none other than Dr. Kohli!
Can you imagine a 90ish year old god of industry emailing you to acknowledge a letter you had written, and guiding you on the steps forward?!
To give you some context to it. From the time my book was published, I have couriered over 60 paperback copies of it to various industry leaders with a letter addressed to them. These are people I felt whose businesses might benefit from the book. About 4-5 of their secretaries responded, acknowledging and thanking me for it. So, a 90+ year old gentleman responding to a letter from just another charged up chap who hopes to change the world could have at best landed in the trash. But that was not who Dr. Kohli was. And it also tells us that we have a choice on the kind of leader we want to be.
The second instance was a year or two after that. I was at an industry awards function with my folks, and I spotted Dr. Kohli. My mother was bored and feeling out of place all evening, so I tagged her along as I went to speak to Dr. Kohli. As I introduced myself and my mother, he complimented my mother on her purse, and my mother was beaming all evening. Just like that, in an event where everybody’s busy talking work and accomplishments and potential business, he made a homemaker feel comfortable and at home. I mentioned to Dr. Kohli about him being kind enough to email me, and he brushed off like it was no big deal, inquiring what happened with the meeting.
There are plenty of industry creators, company builders, the rich and the famous. And there are those that simply thrive under the legacy of those before them. And then there are those rare individuals who are so grounded, that they singlehandedly reinforce the idea of humanity and take it forward.
My friend’s father, Dr. Jagadish Rai, a 70-year old obstetrician and general practitioner passed away recently.
Despite an underlying leukemia, and obviously not officially assigned to Covid duty due to his age and medical condition, he saw patients through the lockdown, many of whom were Covid positive.
Given his keenness to help his patients, he followed several safety measures – restricted social contact, even isolated himself at home, apart from taking the necessary regular precautions.
Unfortunately, he contracted Covid from a 28-year old patient (who came to him coughing blood, and who passed away within a day of testing positive). And despite contracting Covid and being hospitalized, in the days leading up to Dr. Rai’s death, he continued attending to patients on call until he got too breathless to be able to.
For an unknown virus that has kept even far younger and healthier doctors away from the risk if they had that choice, Dr. Rai is from a rare breed of bravehearts whose sense of purpose and duty was far bigger than the virus, bigger than our collective fears, and bigger than our collective carelessness.
So the next time any of you are stupid enough to think it’s okay to step outside without a mask, or remove the mask while in public, whether for a picture or to talk; think of Dr. Rai.
Selfless people like him sacrificed their lives to save us from health issues and the virus; not so that we could be stupid enough to knowingly run toward the virus despite such a great sacrifice.
Now, Jane recently spoke about world maps, racism, and a bit about her childhood. The stuff about maps really shakes, or at least shook my foundation about maps. Like me, you might just ask yourself what in the world is actually true, if something as fundamental as a map could be distorted that much.
Consider the amount of plastic we use in our lives. Getting rid of a lot of it seems like quite a challenge, considering how dependent we and businesses have become on it.
And yet, it is refreshing to see companies like Carlsberg committed to drastically reducing the use of plastics. A few years ago, they took it upon themselves to reduce the use of plastic rings used to keep beer cans together.
With an initiative which stretched over three years, they managed to reduce plastic in their packaging by an impressive 75%!
How? They replaced the plastic rings with dots of glue that now hold cans together. Called Snap Packs, they keep cans in place during their logistic journey, but remain easy enough for consumers to break with a simple twist.
That was 2018.
And they didn’t stop there. They have recently developed two recyclable prototypes of the sustainably-sourced wood fiber bottle. One prototype being tested, is lined with a thin film of recycled PET plastic to prevent leakage. The other uses a bio-based lining for the same purpose.
They seem committed to minimizing the damage they as a business, cause the environment. If a few more large companies could have that level of commitment, it would be so much easier to inspire other companies to do their bit as well.
Not the kind where you are loyal to a company or brand or product line and refuse to buy anything else.But truly revere a company because of their values.
A few weeks ago, I was at the Indian Hotels company to meet a senior gentleman there. Unlike other companies, where either an assistant or the receptionist or a peon might walk you to a meeting room, this person came to the lobby to receive me.
I’m not particularly good with small talk, and almost always jump right to the point. However, I started this meeting differently. I told this person about a story a close friend’s son had shared recently. It went like this.
Many years ago, when my friend’s son was in school, the school bus would drop him off at Kemps Corner. They lived up Altamount Road, quite a steep walk up. Especially for this stocky boy with a big schoolbag, huffing his way up the road. And every once in a way, a Mercedes car would pull up, an old gentleman sitting in the back, would offer to drop him to his building. This boy would sit in front, next to the driver.
The old gentleman would ask some questions about how he liked school, etc. One evening, this boy decided to mention to his family at dinner, that he had been occasionally getting dropped home by a complete stranger. As he narrated the story and described the old gentleman, his granny smiled and said, “that man is J. R. D. Tata!”
For the uninitiated, Mr. J. R. D. Tata is arguably one of the greatest Indian businesspersons.
What’s more, when this boy grew up and shared this story on social media, it turned out that other people who lived in the area had similar stories of their own. It seemed that success didn’t create a divide between Mr. Tata and others, but rather, Mr. Tata chose to use his success to help those around in whichever way he could.
This gentleman at the Taj Group was thrilled to hear this story, but not completely surprised. I guess the values infused into the group are so strong, it’s not something they would struggle to believe.
Rewinding a bit to a little before this meeting of mine…. I reached the Indian Hotels office a little early. Restless as always, I was walking around, admiring the picturesque view of Bombay from the window beside the reception area. I then noticed pillar-like structures just behind where the receptionists stood. There were seven on one side, six on the other. And each one had a name and number etched in. I had a faint idea about what they were. But just to confirm, I walked up and asked the receptionist about them.
And indeed, they were in memory of their brave employees they lost during the 2008 terrorist attack. The last pillar on the right just had a name on it. ‘Lucy’, and no date. Turned out it was a pet of theirs, which was always outside the hotel.
The two stories were truly humbling. Even just a few more companies with the kind of humility, respect and values that the Tata Group of companies has, could truly transform the business ecosystem.
No amount of rules, threats, salary packages or incentives can get someone to do that. It is something much more. And has to come from within, but only when the ecosystem is right. It’s something very human. Something the world needs more of.
In the years after starting my strategy consulting practice, during one meeting with one of my mentors, he asked me how work was.
I said it was good, but had a lot of ups and downs. He said he was really glad that I was sticking with it.
He told me that decades ago, as one of the fastest growing leaders in one of India’s biggest conglomerates, he had once written in an article where he had mentioned a human trait. A trait that he wished more people had.
It was, he said, ‘staying power’. He said it was the ability for someone to know that there will always be ups and downs, and that when striving for something huge, one must have the ability to hold on through the storms. He said the few people who have it, always reach their goals.
I was recently invited to attend the Maharashtra Startup Week, where I was fortunate to attend two sessions by Bala Girisaballa. In one, he perfectly articulated an entrepreneurs journey. He said, ‘the journey for most entrepreneurs often comprises of spending 90% of their time in the dark (business uncertainty), and then there being a flash and the 10% of good times (or less tormenting times), which then takes the entrepreneur to the next 90% dark phase.’
If you think about it, a good life (one committed to striving for tough goals) should be the same too. Between seemingly impossible 90% challenges. For which we need our staying power.
Once upon a time, there was is a man named Arunachalam Muruganantham from Coimbatore in India, who could not bear to see the discomfort and embarrassment that his wife had to go through, just to buy/ wear a sanitary pad / napkin. Risking even his very marriage, Arunachalam’s empathy and resolve lead him to research everything from material to pricing of sanitary pads. And after a long, unrelenting journey, he makes sanitary napkins that become the preferred and highly affordable alternative to what many rural and even urban women were used to for the longest time; cloth. This inspiring story of an Indian hero was recently depicted by way of a Bollywood movie, Padman.
Now consider some Hollywood movies inspired by real-life heroes. Erin Brockovich (played by Julia Roberts), Joy (Jennifer Lawrence starrer), Sully (featuring Tom Hanks), Argo (Ben Affleck playing the cool, brave Antonio J. Mendez of the CIA), etc., etc. Noticed anything in common?
The protagonist always bears the real name of the character it was inspired by. The way I see it, that helps real heroes get the recognition they deserve in their home countries, if not the world. And it helps the masses connect better with the name and great actions of that hero or changemaker. Of course, there are other movies loosely based on some real-world people. In which case, I agree that moviemakers would be wary of incurring the wrath of linked families. And therefore use fictional names. But why the same even with movies completely inspired by one, known person.
Bollywood has been notorious for decades, for being “inspired” by original content from the world over, and repackaging it for our audiences. To add to the plagiarism, is the unimaginative rehashed Bollywood classic songs that regularly make their way back to newer Bollywood movies. The least this multi-billion dollar industry that avoids imagination and innovation like the plague could do, is let real heroes have a share in the limelight. By using the person’s real name in the movie it is inspired by.
They did with Padman. And with Airlift. With Guru, among other movies.
Why do they do it? Are box office proceeds all they care about? Or is it some lawsuit they’re trying to avoid? Or do they want credit for the empathy, innovation and perseverance of another?
‘Arunachalam Muruganantham’ is a tough enough name even for Indians to remember, without it being portrayed by Akshay Kumar but bearing a completely different name. Giving a fictional name takes away the powerful connect it could create among the masses. And this movie could have been the perfect effort to make the real man a household name. To inspire many more such changemakers because of the direct connect to the real person it creates.
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