In 1975, six twenty-something corporate executives in New Delhi convinced each other that the microprocessor - then still in its commercial infancy - would change the world. They believed a revolution was coming and they wanted to be part of it, and bring it to India. So they quit their cushy jobs to start an information technology (IT) company in a barsati - a garage-sized room on a rooftop of a house - with an investment of Rs 2,000,000 (about S$43,000 today). They chose as their leader Shiv Nadar, who was then on the cusp of 30. From those beginnings emerged India's HCL Group - HCL being an acronym for Hindustan Computers Ltd, which was once the company's name.
Fast forward to 2013 and HCL's annual revenues have crossed US$6.2 billion, more than 10,000 times what they were the year it started. The group employs 92,000 staff and operates in 70 countries, including Singapore, where its subsidiary, Far East Computers, has been around since 1980.
HCL turned out to be a pioneer in its industry. It was the first Indian IT company to have an offshore operation. It was the first to launch an indigenous computer with an 8-bit microprocessor, in 1976. The group started India's first chain of private computer education institutes, using a franchise model. It was also a pioneer of remote IT infrastructure management.
Today, HCL Technologies - which was spun-off from the research and development (R&D) operations of HCL - serves a global clientele. It has written close to 40 per cent of the software for the flight management systems on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. It creates and maintains products for Cisco, builds diagnostic and curative products for medical companies and is one of the world's biggest providers of outsourced R&D. In India, the group is a huge IT distributor covering hundreds of towns and cities, and the largest provider of computer education through its subsidiary the National Institute of Information Technology (NIIT) - which also operates in Singapore.
Although these achievements were a team effort on a huge scale and over many years, nobody disputes that the visionary behind them all, the driving force, the strategist and the mastermind, was Mr Nadar, who still personally owns about 60 per cent of the group. Forbes Asia estimates his net worth to be close to US$6.5 billion.
But Mr Nadar's empire is not all business. In the 1990s, he ventured into philanthropy with the same precision planning, strategising and creativity that he applied in business. That initiative, too, has taken on vast proportions, comprising free schools for the poor, state-of-the-art universities, an engineering and business school that compares with the elite Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and a private art museum. This year, Mr Nadar will spend more than S$125 million equivalent on philanthropic activities; last year he spent around S$100 million. In all, he plans to spend at least US$1 billion.
And so now Mr Nadar has two empires - one business and the other philanthropic - and he devotes equal time to both. Typically, in the mornings his life is all business, and in the afternoons he switches to philanthropy - which, judging from how he talks about it, is his real passion.
A film buff, he says: "My life is like a film script."
Mr Nadar, now 67, was born to a family of land owners in a rural part of India's Tamil Nadu state, the seventh of eight children. His father was a district judge. His early education was almost entirely in Tamil; he never saw a city, or spoke English, till he was 21, when he went to Chennai.
After graduating from college, where he studied engineering, he joined a company in New Delhi called DCM, as a management trainee. Originally a textile firm, it had a fledgling IT division of which he took charge. That was when he teamed up with his five friends to venture out on his own.
The rest is history, but still in the making.
HCL, which is considered one of India's most favoured employers, has a distinct culture. It is known for two things in particular. One is a tradition of "intrapreneurship", whereby staff are encouraged to come up with ideas which, if they pass muster - particularly Mr Nadar's meticulous scrutiny - get funded, with the idea-generators being given free rein and big stakes.
Intrapreneurship was baked into HCL from the beginning. As Mr Nadar explains: "When we started, I was the oldest in the company - I turned 30 in 1975. The people around me were all oozing with energy and ideas. They wanted to start new things. For example, Raji Pawar felt that if we build computer products and there are not enough people to use them, there won't be much growth. So we then thought we should create a training institute. At that time, there was no private training institute for computers. So we launched the NIIT in 1982. It was a brilliant success." Mr Pawar went on to be its chairman and key shareholder - and also the chairman of India's IT industry body, Nasscom, in 2011.
"Our philosophy was, if people want to start something, let them start it. Let them be the entrepreneurs," says Mr Nadar. "That's how companies like NIIT, Comnet, and HCL-Perot systems (all HCL subsidiaries) came about. The key people got entrepreneurial options - not small stakes, but significant stakes. HCL was also the first company in India to issue stock options to staff. We did that in 1986."
As with any entrepreneurial incubator - which is effectively what HCL became - not every venture succeeded, although the big ones fortunately did. HCL made no headway with electronic cash registers and photocopiers in the late 1970s. On a lighter note, it even invested in making exotically-flavoured chewing gum. "That just never took off," says Mr Nadar with a laugh.
The second thing HCL is known for - and which has made it a case study at business schools - is its philosophy of "Employees First". "What it all really means," explains Mr Nadar, "is that an employee at a very low level is really the one who is in the value zone between us and the customer. What he or she does determines how well we deliver anything to our customers. So it is about letting people have a say."
This reflects in HCL's performance assessment, which is a 360 degree system, in which colleagues rate each other and subordinates rate their bosses. "This also helps to discover leadership patterns - who are team leaders, and who are not," points out Mr Nadar. "And we counsel them if necessary. We also put everything on the intranet; everybody in a department can see what is written about everybody else. It may sound radical and may create some discomfort. But it works."
In the early 1990s, while still in his 40s, Mr Nadar started a big new chapter in his prolific life: he ventured into philanthropy. As with business, he did it on a grand scale. He credits his mother for the inspiration. "She was always oriented towards philanthropy," he says. "Even when our family had to go through a difficult phase after my father passed away, she continued to put away something for others. She would say, if we have 10, we can do with nine. That was her philosophy of life, and she wanted me to have it as well. She also said, if you think that by giving, something will reduce for you, just look around and see how many people live with so little; you will also get to see how you feel when you give. Actually, it's not about giving - she always used the word 'sharing'."
Mr Nadar describes his approach to philanthropy as creative rather than corrective. In the corrective variety, the focus is on filling gaps in services neglected by the government - and in India such gaps are huge. But creative philanthropy, as practised by the Shiv Nadar Foundation - Mr Nadar's philanthropic institution, set up in 1994 - attempts to go further, by building lasting institutions that have multiplier effects. "We decided that institution-building would be our approach, because we are good at that," he says. "It's tougher, it takes longer - maybe the results will be slower. It will probably consume much more money than the other approach. But we thought, let's still go that way."
The first institution created by the foundation was the SSN University in Tamil Nadu, named after Mr Nadar's late father, Siva Subramania Nadar. Completed in 1996, it boasts a 250-acre campus and state-of-the-art facilities. It has tie-ups with Carnegie Mellon University, National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan and Aichi Institute of Technology in Japan. "People call it India's sixth IIT," says Mr Nadar. "It's one of the top business schools and engineering schools in the country - it's in both."
Many of its alumni have already achieved eminence in various fields from science and engineering to sports, and indeed, some have endowed institutions of their own.
Boarding schools for poor kids
The last four years saw a series of philanthropic ventures, one after the other. In 2009, the foundation launched boarding schools to educate poor children in the state of Uttar Pradesh (UP, where HCL has its main offices). Called Vidya-Gyan, these were named after Mr Nadar's wife's grandparents, Vidyawati and Gyan Chand Khanna, for whom he had great affection and respect. As it happens, both the names "Vidya" and "Gyan" mean "knowledge" in Hindi.
The three schools launched so far each have 20-acre campuses and are equipped with modern facilities like computer labs, video conferencing, audiovisual equipment as well as full residential facilities and canteens that pay special attention to dietary needs. They are a world away from the small village schools where the kids came from, some of which barely had a classroom. One of the schools' unique features is the focused approach in which they choose their students. The idea was to have a scholastically gifted student body. So the foundation decided to take the two top fifth-grade students from schools covering 45 districts of UP - one girl and one boy. "Early on, with the help of the UP government, we went to 8,000 schools," recalls Mr Nadar. "We got quite far with that. But then we decided to go to schools directly. So this sounds crazy, but we went to 80,000 schools and invited the top boy and top girl from each school to do a test. So 160,000 students were invited and 80,000 students actually did the test. From that group, we picked the first batch of 400 students. They were already toppers, so the group we started with was really solid."
Currently, the schools have a total of 1,400 kids. The target is to have more than 4,000.
"But the most important thing is the inspiration and aspiration that these children transmit to the people in their villages when they go back," says Mr Nadar. "It's touching to see. Each child touches about 1,000 lives, so this has a huge multiplier effect. We expect that 1,400 students will touch some 1.4 million lives. Think of what happens to 1.4 million people whose aspirations go up. This is about creating a million points of light."
Suddenly, wretchedly poor villages where people felt stuck in a cycle of poverty are touched by spirals of inspiration and aspiration.
In 2010, the foundation sponsored the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in the heart of New Delhi. Named after Mr Nadar's wife, it started with her personal collection which she wanted to share with the public, but then expanded, with more acquisitions.
In 2011, came the launch of the Shiv Nadar University, on a 286-acre residential campus 45 kilometres from New Delhi, which offers multi-disciplinary courses. The following year two K-12 (kindergarten to 12th grade) schools were started near New Delhi, which Mr Nadar wants to replicate across India.
His most recent venture called "Shiksha" (which means "teaching" in Sanskrit) is to provide digitally-delivered, primary-level mass education. "We will write the software for people to learn literacy, as well as languages, maths, basic physics and chemistry and social sciences. This is the most ambitious thing I have ever thought of, in any field," he says. The "Shiksha" initiative will get underway this year, starting with four schools.
Whatever may happen to his business empire - for now, it looks good - for Mr Nadar, philanthropy is forever. "These are not things that you can just start and leave. They will also take a long time - 20-25 years, to have a full impact," he notes.
His succession plans are in place: his 31-year-old daughter Roshni, who is CEO of the HCL Corporation - the HCL Group's holding company - is driving many of the foundation's philanthropic activities. "I discussed it with her," adds Mr Nadar. "I said, look, we are doing these projects, but they are going to go on, far beyond my lifetime. You must take them through. They must be a mission of your own."