I am good at saying one thing and doing another, but I did a lot of work on this blog post, so please bear with me. I promised not to cover the PM visit any more, but this one I need to write up. I must also warn you that this post will be long (4000+ words), so grab a cup of coffee. There may be a few typos as well, so I apologize. Finally this has taken over 2 hours to write, so please do share with your friends if you like it and ask people to share (if they like it as well).
Over the weekend I had a chance to be a part of the Prime Minister’s Silicon Valley outreach program, where I had a chance to meet with over a hundred technology luminaries and billionaires from the technology world.
I was keen to learn their impressions of the Prime Minister and since they were all champions of technology and business, I was also interested in learning about what they felt after meeting him. I would LOVE to put names against each and every one of these quotes, but I am not sure many of them would like the attribution. Where possible I have provided names.
Many of the quotes are verbatim and in a few instances I have paraphrased since I forgot the exact words they used. I am very aware of the controversy surrounding the past of the PM, and am very ambivalent about my own position on him “the individual” versus his position and power. Here are the 27 impressions across a cross-section of people. This is purely anecdotal evidence, and writing as opposed to the data driven posts that I like to write.
- “He means business“. This was the dominant impression and the exact words from 3 CEO’s. The interesting part of what it signifies to “mean business” is not commercial, but that his attitude is “very dhandha like” at times and “sometimes strategic business development like” said 2 people. I think we can attribute the “Dhandha” part to his regional and cultural roots, but that does not explain it all. He wants to trade and expects to give you something in return for something you will have to do. There is a sense of short-term and some longer term benefit as well, is what I hear. When I asked how that was different from their impressions of previous leaders they met from the government, they explained that there was a large dose of “preaching” about how they should give back to their motherland and country, but no commitment to give something in return for their efforts. Which to me is not surprising, given these titans are used to “give and take” as peers.
- “He gives you confidence“: The PM makes you want to believe. Even though we know that the reality may be otherwise, and change is hard to effect in a place as diverse as India. “You can make change” is the underlying theme, and he gives you the impression that “he has your back” if you run into issues. This was a very senior and respected CEO of a large company and I am not sure what “has your back” means, since I did not get a chance to ask him, but 2 other CEO’s mentioned that “retroactive taxes” and “surprising and unexpected” tax regimes were going away.
- “He is an attentive listener“. Unlike most politicians who are good at “giving bashshan” and lecturing business people on how they should be socially responsible, create jobs and save the environment, he was asking questions, probing and requesting clarification. This was a CEO of an education company, and I only got 2 minutes with him (the CEO), but I do remember another Managing Director of a large company in India, who was there as well, mentioning the same. Listening does not come naturally to people in power, so I was pleasantly surprised on this one.
- “His grasp of issues faced by startups is very good”. This was unexpected and the person mentioning this is someone I know for a long time and trust a lot. Startups are a strange beast to most people. They ought to be – they are like children who start “taking when they are born”, have an opinion even before they have a well formed mind and always interrupt the “adults” and talk about disrupting the “adults, or larger companies” all the time. The clarification I got from this quote was about how he was willing to accept ideas that were alien to many politicians regarding startups including easy bankruptcy laws and automating many of the clearances they required. Not sure any of these will actually get incorporated into law, but he understands that those are top of mind for startups.
- “His understanding of nuances in new technologies and their “grey area” is very solid.” This was an American CEO, who has been trying to push his technology company in India with some tough push back from local governments. He is fairly young, so that’s the reason for his choice of “solid”. I think what he means is that the PM’s basic understanding of the fundamentals and the levers of new, unproven technologies was on firm ground. Many new technologies start in largely the “grey” area, and some are downright “illegal” by existing legal definitions, so I suspect he was hoping to influence the PM to help ensure that the government does not block new technologies under the pretext of “existing” norms being flouted, which he felt were wrong in the first place. He gave me the impression that after a 12-15 minute conversation with the PM, he felt that he would be heard and people he was trying to influence would get the word to go easy on startups with innovative new models.
- “His appreciation for the power of technology is very commendable”, said Reid Hoffman, who had very little time with him, but left impressed and appreciative that a global leader, running the largest democracy was thinking about using the power of technology instead of trying to get it under government control. Reid was on stage with the PM for quite a bit of time, and had an audience afterwards as well. Reid had a chance to talk to many other world leaders about his books and meet with many young people as well, so I respect his perspective on the use of technology to empower the disenfranchised. He seemed to give me the impression that the PM understood how to use technology to “scale” not just to get started.
- “He is insightful.”This was from a woman who had 5 minutes with the PM to talk about the issues of women in technology. I was surprised she took her time to talk about the larger women’s cause, rather than her own company’s agenda, but she is nice that way. The “insightful” part I gathered later was something was a byproduct of the PM, surrounding himself with really good people who could quickly distill the issues and replay back, in their own words, what needed to be done to help women, at technology companies, in India.
- “He is a pretty charming guy, both in person and in a larger setting”.I heard this from the person seated next to me during dinner on day 1. This individual was the technology head of a large company and had flown in just for the dinner at the request of his CEO, who was at the main table with the PM. Throughout the speech that Mr. Modi gave before dinner there were many topical references and subtle acknowledgments of trends. While we realized that those were written by the speech writer, the PM’s delivery style was personable and real, which seemed to indicate that he was delivering it impromptu, not rehearsed. One in particular that stood out, was (I am paraphrasing here) “Good to meet you all here, in person, after meeting on FB, Twitter, Instagram”. It was as if he was continuing the “conversation” from a previous time.
- He has a measured speaking style, not going into extremes of praise or chiding. This quote came from Venkatesh Shukla, who is the President of TIE, Silicon Valley. He was in multiple sessions with the PM and had an opportunity to meet with him the most during this event. I think Venk (as he’s called) had the chance to see the PM in many circumstances and during the entire day at times. Which gives me the sense that the PM is very even keel, calm and those “temper tantrums” and “bouts of anger” which he is apparently known for are reserved for “special occasions”, or not a part of his “game face”, especially when meeting top CEO’s.
- He is keen to engage in dialogue. His listens, but also interrupts when he thinks you did not clarify a statement. We all know of people who say a lot and others that “talk less, do more”, but he seems to be finding that balance and wants to get to the root of the issue quickly. This quote was from a startup CEO who had a few minutes, with the PM.
- He is relentless in his pursuit of economic and social impact in India. During day 1 at the digital dinner, the PM actually came out of his way to come and say hello to the CEO of this large Indian technology company, so I know that this person has met with the PM several times. The PM actually mentioned him by last name. Asked to clarify, he said that in many meetings with the PM, he gets a document about how that conversation could help one of the PM’s top agenda items – Digital India, Smart Cities Initiative, Swacch Bharat, etc.
- He has an agenda for every meeting but is also flexible to listen to alternate outcomes. This was from a woman who was a fund raiser for the PM. I dont know her too well, and met her briefly for a few minutes, but she was all praises for the PM’s “flexibility” and his focused approach to meeting. I think she giving him a lot more credit and I would say this is something that his team and office of the PMO does, but I do admit that the PM sets the tone for his team.
- He is respectful and not dismissive. I forget who mentioned this, but this was at the reception before the digital dinner. This person had just finished a meeting with the PM and his CEO and apparently the meeting was a little “tense” since they have been trying to resolve an issue for a long time. I was surprised to hear that the PM did hear alternative options and while I am not sure anything came out of this meeting, (I dont know actually), the fact that the CEO and team felt they were listened to gave this person the impression that the PM respected their opinion.
- He is very crafty in his use of the news and media, which most tech CEO’s tend to not have. This was mentioned by a young lady who I met after dinner, at drinks with a lot of us trying to form impressions of day 1. There is some controversy about the video with Mark Z, but I am not sure what to make of it. First I laughed, then I felt a little weird and then was not sure if the PM really likes the press and media, or he is just savvy and most of us (Mark Z, including) are not. Most people, including this lady, gave him the benefit of doubt, saying that the PM knows that the press, media and through them the rest of the world was keen to watch and learn. The press, though, loves Mr. Modi and has a sense of national pride, when they cover him was the impression this lady gave us.
- He is an excellent orator, very powerful in his use of gestures and body language. BVR Mohan Reddy, the Chairman of NASSCOM was the one who observed this. He intently watched the PM using his hands and gestures to make a point and came away telling me that he learned a lot. Mr. Reddy had a part in the Startup Konnect program and he pulled it off pretty well, but you could tell that he was very impressed with Mr. Modi’s stage presence.
- He allows you to create a good sense of visual imagery in his speeches. This was the CEO of a Iceland “glacier” water company, who sat next to me. He was born in Bangalore, where I lived, and he spent most of his time in Chennai. He was the last person I expected to listen to the PM’s speech given how far away from technology he was, but he said that the PM’s speech gave him the ability to visualize how smart cities would be in 20 years. He also felt that the vision that the PM had set had very grounded intent.
- He has immense energy. I am not sure what he drinks or eats. Rajan Anandan, the MD of Google India, and I spent a lot of time together. Rajan was also with the PM and the Google CEO Sunder Pichai and others at Google on Sunday. Rajan was so impressed with the PM’s energy that he wanted to know what the PM ate. (P.S. I do too). “He was always turned on, asking questions about the Loon technology, wondering if they had cameras, what their span was, what the battery life was, etc.”Rajan said he never saw a yawn, a sense of fatigue or boredom from the PM throughout the sessions he was with the PM.
- He did not seem tired at all even though there was repetition of issues faced by several people in different meetings. Many people mentioned this to me. One very prominent VC from the bay area, who mentioned this to me said the same issue was “beaten” to death by many people – taxes and easy of buying Indian technology companies by US corporations. The PM, though, was patiently listening to the same issue, asking different questions and trying to “scope the surface area” of the problem, said this VC. This VC has been an operating executive and a very successful founder before, so he has working knowledge of the fact that most people were haring on the same issues.
- He has a sense of dressing is keen, he wants his clothes to create a good impression as well. Before you dismiss this as a stereotypical comment from a woman, this CEO is an extremely accomplished woman, who has started and founded a great company and sold it as well. Her impression was that the “dress” portrayed a sense of “attention to detail”, which the PM is known for. This is not new, since the PM is known for his sense of dressing up. The thing that I underestimated was the impression that it had on people. I am not one who cares about dressing or what I wear, but it creates a sense of confidence among many folks.
- He understands that people like him and I think that’s what helps him drive his agenda forward. KB Chandrashekar was the founder of Exodus and a now runs Jamcracker. He’s a very good friend as well. The thing that he mentioned to me was that the PM has been able to build an image (through the press, etc.) that has people thinking he is a focused and decisive person. This makes many business people “like” to do business with him. KB pointed to me again, that when you like people, you are going to make a few more concessions, Unlike previous leaders, he said, where there was “respect” and maybe some “admiration”, there is a deep “liking” for Modi, which the PM uses well to his advantage.
- He is more of a leader of the youth than a “youth leader”. Most Indians will understand this well. We are used to seeing 50 year old leaders projected as “youth leaders”. This observation that he is a leader of the youth was done by a very young CEO who recently moved to the US from India. A “youth leader” is someone who is young and is a leader, whereas the leader of the youth is someone the youth aspire to be like. I am still not sure what part of the PM’s personality or behavior or traits do the youth want to emulate, but there’s enough fodder in his persona for the “youth” to look up to. The CEO I said, spoke about 3 things that the PM had going for him – a superb command over the use of technology, a deep sense of national pride and an ability to connect with people to get business done.
- He seems to have a good memory. He did not remember my name, but he remembered that we met him 4 months ago at another event. R. Chandrashekar, who is the President of NASSCOM has been in many events with the PM (and has a selfie to prove it as well), was the one who said this. When I talked to one of the officers at the PMO, he said the PM meets about 25 new people one-one daily. That’s a lot of people. To remember RC and mention to him that he was pleased that he came from India to be in the valley was a big deal. He remembered that he met RC a few months ago and took the time to talk about one incident from that previous meeting. I don’t think I remember some meetings or people I met from last week.
- He is a great ambassador for India. He gives me the desire to want to engage with India. This was a comment from a high profile American CEO who I have met once before. After his meeting with the PM (which was his 3rd meeting), he said he always felt optimistic and energized after meeting Mr. Modi. I asked him which other world leader made him feel that way. He said he met with US President Barak Obama and felt the same way. He could not think of another person who made him feel the same way. That’s saying a lot. Either I put him on the spot, and so he was trying to be nice (and he’s an extremely nice person) or he genuinely felt that way. I will give him the benefit of the doubt.
- He seems to say the right things, but I am not sure yet if he will follow through. This was a comment from an Indian VC (who lives in the bay area) and I have translated it from a Hindi quote (“Kaam Kum, Baateyain Zyada). I heard this from others as well, who are still waiting for the PM’s reforms to happen. They are the ones who possibly understand the realities on ground in India and having done business there, they believe there’s not much change except for people’s more optimistic perspectives over the last year. To be fair, over the last year, the drop in oil prices and no major terrorist activity has contributed to the optimism and economic uplift than any other thing, but this VC said he felt the PM was making many promises, but unable to deliver on many of them.
- He has surrounded himself with some very smart people, who I have been talking to and they get it. Many of the folks in the organizing committee were dealing with the PMO more than the PM himself, and they gave me the impression that his staff is very plugged in. They are willing to do away with some red tape, are able to modify and think on their feet and happy to make up things on the fly. This was different from my own experiences with the security and PMO teams though, which I can understand. The security teams were pretty anal about my choice of location to stand, my use of certain words or phrases and seemed to be rather heavy handed, but I understand they did not want to embarrass the PM at all.
- He is not afraid to tell us what we don’t want to hear it seems. He asked us to step up the efforts to get more technology in the hands of remote villages instead of only focusing on top metros. This was a comment from a person who was at the Facebook event, and spoke to me about how some of the privacy issues and the data security (NSA stuff apparently) were things the PM brought to the FB folks attention. I was told that this was one of many such instances, when the PM was asking folks to invest in “Bharat” and not only “India”. He said the payoff would be in the very long term and may be much less, but the opportunity to capture the minds and hearts of Indians, who are the most loyal starts in the villages.
- He seems to be constantly selling himself and India, which at times seems good and other times seems perturbing. I got this comment both in positive light and sometimes negative from many people as well. The folks who considered this to be positive, claimed he was a great salesman for India – progressive, articulate and energetic. They want the impression that most foreigners have – one of snake charmers or crimes against women and low cost IT tech resources – to one of a growing nation, which has a host of problems, but has diversity and youth as its biggest advantages and cause of most of its challenges. The sales pitch was, according to one CEO, tremendous number of youth, large and aspiring middle-class population with excellent disposable incomes, relatively well educated metros and untapped rural areas, with opportunities in Internet, Communications, social and digital media.
So there you have it. 27 impressions from many CEO’s and business leaders on the Prime Minister and his visit. Now I will give you my take on the impressions from Americans who were at the event alone.
There were many parts that resonated more with Americans than Indians about Mr. Modi.
First, most had heard of the issues at Gujarat, and were not clear on the details, but felt that everyone has flaws and the PM does as well.Most Americans in the bay area form their impressions of Indians either at work or those they have to work with in India (offshore). They see our families stress education and see the impact it has on our kids – both positive and otherwise. They realize the stereotypical nature of our impressions – yet they feel Indians “fit in” more than any other group. Or they try hard to at least. They believe that the PM was representative of most Indians they have met, more than other leaders they see. Sometimes charming, oftentimes confusing, occasionally boorish, but largely nice.
One American woman who was at a table next to us said it best – “We love a leader who has made mistakes, since that reminds us that they are like us”.
Second, they realize we are more like them – We eulogize heroes and are willing to give successful people the benefit of doubt, sometimes to our own detriment. That’s something uniquely common to Americans and Indians.
The most important comment I heard from a gentleman sitting a couple of tables away from me about this was “I always thought of India as socialist. This guy (the PM) is a sure sign that you are not. This PM signifies an end to socialist India to a capitalist democracy. That makes you guys more like us”.
Finally, most are not necessarily changing their opinion on how hard it is to do business in India or with Indians. They believe it is hard to do business in China, but it is harder in India. Many gave me the impression that you have to be very patient and “find your way” in India. The fundamental reasons are their impression that even if the leader and PM wants to move to a more “capitalist” form, the rest – Indians and the bureaucrats are not – Yet.
One person who was waiting in line at the lunch table said to me about the not so great “following of the rules” by many Indians in the line – “If this is how the most educated and richest people end up in social situations, I suspect most of them to be similar in business”.