What IIT Kharagpur Means to Me By: Vinod Gupta
After my parents, IIT Kharagpur had the single biggest influence on my life. I will be forever indebted to this holy place!
I first heard of IIT Kharagpur in March of 1961. My father and I were walking in my village of Baraut in District Meerut in U.P. During our walk, he met a friend of his, who was also with his son. His son’s name was Sant Sagar Jain (an alumni of IIT — KGP first batch). During our conversation, he asked me what I planned to do after 12th grade. I said, “I will try to enter Roorkee University.” Mr. Sant Sagar Jain said, “Well, I suggest you go to IIT Kharagpur because that is the best Engineering College in India.” I had no clue where Kharagpur was, but his words stuck with me and thus began my love affair with IIT Kharagpur.
In November 1961, an ad appeared in the national newspaper for a joint entrance examination for IITs. I took this ad to my Dad and he promptly sent out for the application for admission and also enclosed our self-addressed postage-paid envelope. Within a few weeks, we had the application. We dutifully filled out every part of the application and enclosed a bank draft in the amount of 11 rupees. The entrance examination was to be held in April at Delhi University. I appeared for the exam along with hundreds of other bright students. Coming from a village and not being very fluent in English, it was not an easy task to answer all of the tough questions in the entrance exam. I felt in my heart that I would get into IIT, despite my good grades in 12th grade.
On June 10th, which was the deadline for hearing from IIT, I was at my Grandparents house in Ghaziabad. In the morning, I got a long-distance call from my Dad informing me that I had received a letter from IIT. I was to appear for an interview in Kanpur on June 18th. Of course, I was jumping up and down with joy at hearing this news. When I appeared for my interview on June 18th, I realized that selection of IIT and the major field of study was based on how I scored on the entrance examination. Because I was one of the last ones to get in, I only had one choice and that was in Agricultural Engineering at IIT Kharagpur. I didn’t care; I said yes, I would be happy to study Agricultural Engineering at IIT Kharagpur.
I came home and I told my family that my field of study was to be Architectural Engineering. It was like they got bit by a snake, but I didn’t care. Now I had to find out where Kharagpur was. Someone told me that I had to go to Calcutta, which was a 30-hour train ride from Calcutta to Kharagpur. I bought a ticket on the Howrah Express, which took 30 hours, and I was on my way to IIT Kharagpur.
I left on the 29th of June, 1962, for Calcutta. After a 30-hour journey and reaching Calcutta in the hot and humid weather, I had to take another train for 4 hours to Kharagpur. Upon reaching Kharagpur, I took a rickshaw to IIT. I finally reached my place of utopia, which was short lived. As soon as the rickshaw came to Patel Hall, I met the worst ragger at IIT. It happened to be J.S. Khurana shouting at me with bulging eyes and voice of an Army General. And so began my ragging. Incidentally, J.S. Khurana is my closest friend for the last 41 years. (I am glad ragging is discontinued. There are many ways of bonding without ragging).
My first week at IIT was an awakening experience for me. I met people from all over India. They spoke different languages and ate different foods. Patel Hall Mess, was like the United Nations in India. Hot and muggy weather didn’t help my cause either. I thought I was on a different planet. After growing up in a village in U.P. and seeing all these students speaking different languages, having different customs, it gave me a feeling of how immense India was. The first week at IIT was like an eternity. I could not wait until the Puja vacations started in October. When I came home during this time, I realized that my home was not as interesting a place as it used to be. Being at IIT had put me in a different league all together. So I couldn’t wait to get back to IIT Kharagpur at the end of October.
After the first year at Patel Hall, I moved to R.K. Hall and made a lot of friends from all different parts of India, despite the horrible food. We had no chapattis for three years.The next five years went by in a flash. I was not a good student, but I definitely enjoyed the social life at IIT.
At the same time, I made friends at the Indian Air Force Base in Kalaikunda, which was nearby and had plenty of booze and good food. I did manage to earn passing grades in my years at IIT. In my fifth year at IIT, I happened to meet a professor from the University of Nebraska who was at IIT under the PL 480 Program. His name is Dr. Bill Splinter. He was there for three months to help India solve their agricultural production problems. He and I became friends. He encouraged me to apply to U.S. universities and further my education. He assured me that I would feel quite comfortable in the U.S. since I had acquired a flavor for the social life at IIT.
In November of 1966, I started applying to U.S. universities for my Masters in Agricultural Engineering. Eventually, I was lucky to get admission at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, with an assistantship where Dr. Splinter was to be the Chairman of the Department. In effect, Architectural Engineering turned out to be a lucky choice for me. That was another turning point in my life. IIT Kharagpur was instrumental for my ticket to heaven, i.e., a student visa to the U.S.A.
The next hurdle was to go to the U.S. Consulate in Delhi to get my Visa. I met the Visa officer who asked me a few questions including my intention of coming back to India. I dutifully said, “Yes sir, I plan to come back after my Master’s Degree in Agricultural Engineering and help my country in its agricultural production.” The Visa Officer’s name was Mr. L. Lesser, and he believed my story and approved my student Visa. Incidentally, I met with Mr. Lesser in 1988 in New York, and he and his wife have become my very close friends since then. We now meet frequently. There is a lesson here, please don’t forget your U.S. Visa Officer, I call them “the angels from heaven.” If they say no, there is no appeal either. Coming to the University of Nebraska was like coming to heaven. My education at IIT prepared me for surviving anywhere. If you could digest the food at IIT for five years, you could eat anywhere. Starting my Master’s program at the University of Nebraska was like a new set of education. The professors were very good, very friendly and very dedicated. Even though I had to live on $183.00 per month, it was not bad. Dr. Splinter took me under his wing and become my Godfather. I finished my Masters and then I joined the MBA Program. Being a “Bania”, I took to the MBA Program like a fish to water. Upon graduation from my MBA, I took a job in Omaha, Nebraska with a mobile home manufacturer as a marketing analyst. During this time, I started the seeds to InfoUSA with $100 and a garage full of telephone books. The last 31 years have gone by in a hurry. Today InfoUSA is a leading provider of consumer and business databases in the U.S. I have three wonderful sons. I became very close with Former President Bill Clinton and enjoyed some of his generosity such as staying in the Lincoln bedroom and staying at Camp David. He also nominated me to go to Bermuda as a Consul General. I was confirmed and ready to go and then he asked me to go to Fiji as U.S. Ambassador to help the local India community. I decided not to go to Fiji due to business pressures. Starting in 1986, I began visiting IIT on a regular basis and enjoyed it immensely. I noticed that most engineering colleges in the U.S. also have business schools. It became obvious that a business school at IIT Kharagpur would be a wonderful addition. Students with an engineering degree and work experience, make excellent managers if trained in a business school. In 1993, I had some cash after our successful Initial Public Offering (IPO). I wrote to Professor K.L. Chopra who was the Director, that I would like to set up a School of Business at IIT Kharagpur. Promptly, he wrote me back that he would love to help me and that he would take care of the IIT bureaucracy. So, we conducted our agreement with IIT in a matter of weeks. One of the biggest challenges was how to get national media attention and also get the Government to participate in providing some money. I went to my friend, A.D. Sharma, because his father, Mr. S.D. Sharma was the President of India. Incidentally, Mr. S.D. Sharma had gone to school with my father at Lucknow University. I talked to Mr. A.D. Sharma to see if the President of India could come to IIT and inaugurate the business school. He said that it would be no problem. He also had me meet with Mr. Arjun Singh, who was the Minister of Human Resources to get some extra funding for the business school. Mr. Arjun Singh promptly agreed to give $500,000 for this cause. On July 24, 1994, it was a very auspicious day when President S.D. Sharma came to IIT Kharagpur and inaugurated the School of Management. It received national and international media attention. Until this time, the concept of giving money to our alma mater was not a popular concept in India, especially in the government-financed universities. My concept of a business school at IIT Kharagpur started a chain of events for business schools at other IITs also. I am proud to say that I started a trend in India, which has been growing ever since. During this time, I also met Rajat Gupta, Chairman of McKinsey & Company, and he also got excited. He set up the India School of Business. He also advised the government of India on increasing the capacity of IITs and upgrading their standards of education to meet the growing demand. Of course, coverage of IIT on “60 Minutes” in the U.S. gave them worldwide notoriety. Today, when I see the contribution of IIT graduates to the world economy, I can’t help but give credit to IIT Kharagpur for being the first IIT. Since then, due to the generosity of Mr. Suhas Patil and Arjun Malhotra, IIT Kharagpur has been judged as the best IIT for the last four years.
Going to IIT Kharagpur is like going home. I feel like I know every inch of that soil. Hindus go to Rishikesh for pilgrimage, Muslims go to Mecca and Christians go to Jerusalem to pray. I just go to IIT Kharagpur as my holy place. Today on its 50th anniversary, I owe my deepest gratitude to this wonderful institution
~Vinod Gupta 1967 AgE