Sam Pitroda takes claim for 'Digital India'

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There comes a time when you have done it all and seen it all, but how would you like your story to be told to the world. “I would rather say it in my own words,” that’s what Sam Pitroda, an inventor, entrepreneur, thinker and policymaker, has done with his autobiography, Dreaming Big: My Journey to Connect India, being launched. Sam meets Entrepreneur to share his views on entrepreneurial ecosystem and on Digital India drive. Edited excerpts from the interview:
Sam Pitroda, an inventor, entrepreneur, thinker & policymaker

Why an autobiography and what it takes us through?

The book is all about my journey right from my childhood. A book about me was written in 1992 by Mayank Chhaya. Then I said if I reached 70, I would write a book about my life because I thought I would live up to 70 years. When I was 70, I had a granddaughter. The day she was born, I hold her and said this child someday would ask who this old man was. More than half of India was born after I finished my work in telecom. I thought it would be good to talk about it.

What it takes to bring about a change?
If you don’t take domain experts’ help, problems don’t get solved. When I look at Indian development in the last 50 years, we had revolutions in the fields of atomic energy, space, agriculture, milk production and telecom. In each of these areas, you had a domain expert – Bhabha for atomic energy, Vikram Sarabhai for space, Kurien for milk, Swaminathan for agriculture and Pitroda for telecom. You need domain experts at every level. In all of these areas, you not only had domain experts but also visionaries with long sustaining power. It takes around 20 years to do something in particular field.

How vibrant you think is Indian entrepreneurial ecosystem?
In software we are getting better. But there also we haven’t done any original work. Many software firms are basically copying what happened in the West. We are Indianising whether it is e-commerce, mobile phone applications or some software what somebody has already done that in the West. It’s different than saying we built software that the world is going to use. It will happen over a period of time. I think these things will take time as it’s an issue related to culture, mindset, confidence and infrastructure..

Let’s talk about your entrepreneurial journey.
I have started a lot of businesses in the US. First business I started was Wescom. I was a technical man and I got money from people who already had ongoing businesses. Then we sold that business for $50 million cash in 1979. After that, I built a business in Milwaukee to build hybrid circuits. I also built a business in circuit board manufacturing in 80s that I sold later. I closed everything there prior to coming to India. I didn’t want to take responsibility, so I never went to a venture capitalist or public market to raise money. I built businesses with my own money. Finally, I started a mobile wallet company, which I just sold to MasterCard.

Share your thoughts on Digital India.
Digital India has been around for a long time. The seed of Digital India was planted in Rajiv Gandhi’s time when we set up the National Informatics Centre. It was the beginning of Digital India.

There is lots of buzz around net neutrality. What’s your take?
It’s a tough question. The debate is still going on. But every country looks at this debate from its perspective. It depends on which lobby is strong. In the US, business lobbies are very strong. So their way of looking at it is very different from ours. Hence, we have to see what is good for India.

(This article first appeared in the Indian edition of Entrepreneur magazine (November, 2015 Issue).