Secret Diary of an Entrepreneur / CEO-2018

"Curiosity is the most important personality trait that drives humans to succeed"

Secret Diary of NV ‘Tiger’ Tyagarajan — Part 1

Vishal Koul

I grew up in Bandra, and studied at the same school, St Theresa’s, for 11 years. That’s where I got my name ‘Tiger’. I was in second grade. We had just finished learning William Blake’s poem ‘The Tyger’ and then my classmates turned around and said, “We are calling you Tiger from now on. Anyway, we can’t pronounce your name!” The name has stuck with me ever since. 

I was the eldest of three children. I have a brother who is two years younger and a sister who is ten years younger. Those days, I was totally into academics. I used to follow cricket, football, hockey and tennis closely but didn’t play any of them. We were a classic TamBram family where academics was very important. The value of who we are was determined by what marks we got in exams and our rank in the class. This bias notwithstanding, I used to actually love mathematics and science; I still do! Soon, between the various sciences, it  was clear that I didn’t like anything that had to do with blood, so the choice was clear — engineering. I knew I was headed to IIT. The choice was clear in my head.

While none of my teachers at school left a lasting impression on me, my parents shaped a lot of my values. We were not an overtly religious, temple-going family who followed rituals. We celebrated festivals but never really went overboard. My dad was focused on his work with single-minded dedication. He worked in one company, Parke-Davis, his entire life! Can you believe that? He went to work and came back home everyday around the same time, almost like clockwork. He might have travelled out of Bombay once in five years. Later, when I was working, he was shocked at the frequency of my travels. “I can’t understand why your company spends so much on your travel!” was his favorite line. But I learnt how to do everything on time from him. My parents always said never do anything to hurt anyone and they were very generous with friends and family. If there was anything that they had and someone wanted it, they would give it away without thinking twice. I don’t remember a single incident where they thought about themselves first. My wife and my son are more like that than me. 

Mom was the disciplinarian at home. I started prepping for IIT from the eighth standard and she would always ensure I finished what I had to do. I loved problem solving. I was constantly picking up books to read and problems to solve — Resnick and Halliday’s books and Feynman’s physics problems. Have you ever spent five hours trying to solve one problem? I had a lot of fun doing that too. I loved to read…voraciously!

Television was just making its way into people’s homes and it gave me exposure to new areas, which in turn sparked off a lot of curiosity about all kinds of things. When I saw Jacques Cousteau and the series on his ocean explorations, I went to the library and searched for books to read more about them. Apart from fiction, I devoured the entire series of ‘How things work’, read a lot of National Geographic, Scientific American and The Mechanic. Very early in life, I wanted to know the answer to everything. I believe it has been the single biggest driver of my life. There are those who are desperate to know the answers to a lot of questions and hence keep asking a lot of questions, and those who don’t because they assume they know all the answers. This makes a huge difference in how people go about solving problems.

I finally landed in IIT Bombay. The biggest difference between school and IIT was that at IIT, I made a bunch of close friends. Despite spending 11 years in one school, I never had any close friends in school. The kids at school were more into sports — hockey and cricket — and I was more into academics, so there wasn’t a real connection or competition. All that changed in IIT. I was living away from home for the first time and staying together for five years definitely creates a bond. I didn’t come home every weekend even though it meant missing some great food. I went, at best, on alternate weekends. On the weekends I stayed back on campus at the hostel, my friends and I would get nicely drunk on Friday evenings, and then go for hikes around Powai Lake during the weekend and chill out listening to music. I got into music at that time and discovered Deep Purple, The Moody Blues, Dire Straits, Black Sabbath and the likes. 

In IIT, while engineering was a regimented course, I ended up taking a bunch of courses outside of engineering as well such as economics and business policy. I realised that I liked the combination of engineering and commerce. I was the only one among my group of 15 friends who chose not to pursue a Masters degree in the US. I had secured admission to a bunch of universities in the US but I wanted to go to IIM. The peer pressure was so intense that I still didn’t know whether I was doing the right thing. Before the fifth year came to an end, my friends and I went to Goa for a week. The IIM results were yet to come in. I came back from the trip brainwashed about going to the US. Two days later, the results were out. I had got into IIM-A. I changed my mind right back. I was going to IIM-A!

My classmates in IIM-A were totally different from that of IIT. Most them were from a non-engineering background — from Delhi; from St Stephen’s, Indraprastha, Delhi College of Engineering and Hindu College. So they were an interesting bunch to hang out with! I always knew I was going to join a big corporate. I had no desire to start something on my own, nor did I want to go to the US. I knew going to the US was a one-way ticket because no one ever came back from the US in those days. I am a big believer that life is about creating options and taking the MS-PhD route to the US meant it was a one-way street. To assume one would come back was impractical and that’s why I decided not to go down that road. Flexibility for me has always been very important. That’s why I hate owning real estate because it creates so much inflexibility in life. Owning anything doesn’t make sense. Much before the days of Uber, I believed it was better to rent everything than to own, so that we can pack our bags and go wherever we want. Some of that in today’s Genpact business world translates into believing in ecosystem partnerships versus trying to build everything within the company. 

Those days, Citibank and Bank of America would hire a lot from the IIMs but I was clear that I would stay far away from banking because we would have to do clerical jobs. So for the summer, after a rigorous selection process, I interned with Pond’s. I fell in love with the company’s culture. Sales ran the company and all the people I worked with were smart and result-oriented. In Pond’s, if they liked your work during the internship, they would almost always make a final offer in the next couple of months post summer. I got my offer in September while still on campus during the early part of my second year, and I happily accepted it. While everyone else on campus was going through the interview grind during the recruitment process, I was having fun! Wearing shorts, T shirt and rubber chappals when everyone else around you is in suits and ties is a truly joyful experience!

This is part 1 of a three-part series. You can read part 2 here and part 3 here.


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