Hard Choices: Wipro's Azim Premji
My father died at the age of 51, when I was a student at Stanford University. As the male head of the family, I had to rush back home. At 21, I was appointed chief executive of the small company he'd formed, Western India Vegetable Products.
I thought I could still graduate, but I got too sucked into the business. At the first shareholders' meeting, someone stood up and said: "Young man, my strong advice is that you sell your shares to a more mature holder. There's no way you can run a complex company like this." I was nervous, but I held on. It was a small company at the time that made cooking fats. We converted it to a consumer care company with branded products. Then we diversified into IT products and then to IT services for the global market.
About 15 years back, I got tired of being a dropout. I petitioned the engineering committee at Stanford to allow me to finish the remaining 21 or so credits by correspondence. They agreed. It probably took me about 300 hours to complete the course work over four or five months, but I was determined not to take time away from the company. I would work very early in the morning, late at night, and on weekends. I wasn't sure I had made the grade. But when a senior electrical engineering professor at Stanford contacted me to say I had, it felt so satisfying to know an incomplete job was now complete. I put the degree in my office.
If I was a young person today, I would still go to a good U.S. school. The Indian schools can be very narrow and technical: It's engineering, engineering, engineering. Foreign schools give you a broad experience with your engineering degree. The cultural experience I got in the U.S. was useful: It's expensive but it's worth it.
If my father had not died, I probably would have stayed in the U.S. and completed a master's degree. Then I would have liked to work for an organization like the World Bank for a few years before coming back. But I have no regrets. It took me a long time, but I finished.