A Life Well Lived: Sudha Murty, Founder And Chairperson, Infosys Foundation Insights and inspiration from the Indian educator, author and philanthropist, and the co-founder of the Infosys Foundation.
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When one meets Sudha Murty (née Kulkarni), one may be inclined to look at her as a kindly Indian grandmother, and while she is indeed that, one would be very mistaken to construe the 72-year-old as being only that- she is also a path-breaking engineer, an acclaimed educator, a celebrated author, a renowned philanthropist, and, yes, an entrepreneur too.
She also happens to be the wife of Narayana Murthy (the difference in their surnames is because Murty believes her spelling of the name is right), who is the co-founder of the Indian information technology multinational, Infosys, which, in its 41st year of operations, is a US$17.94 billion enterprise, with a market capitalization of about $75.39 billion. Besides being the founder and Chairperson of its philanthropic arm, Infosys Foundation, Murty was also one of Infosys' early employees- and she was one of its earliest investors as well. In fact, the company owes a lot to her for getting itself off the ground- but I think I am getting ahead of myself here. As an homage to Murty's storytelling prowess (indeed, I got to meet her because she was a guest of the 2023 Emirates Airline Festival of Literature that happened in the UAE in February), I believe that I need to start telling her tale from the beginning- and that starts in her hometown of Hubli in the Indian state of Karnataka.
Born in 1950 to a middle-class family, Murty remembers that once she finished her schooling, she was expected to follow the path of most other Indian women in that era, which was to get a basic higher education degree, and then, well, get married. Most of her peers were seeking liberal arts degrees, and there was a fair bit of interest in the field of medicine as well, but the sector Murty wanted to pursue an education in was one that had scant interest from women at the time: engineering.
And when Murty announced her intentions to the world, she recollects the general reaction to have been as through she had dropped a bomb- that's how unusual it was for a girl in her family (and the wider community) to pursue an engineering degree. "My father was a doctor, and he asked me why I wanted to study engineering," Murty recalls. "I told him that I always believed that humankind progresses with the applied science. Applied science can change our life- look at computers now, or automobiles then. [I told him] these innovations are nothing but an application of science, and that's what I want to do- and to do that, I need to study engineering."
Sudha Murty at the 2023 Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in Dubai. Image courtesy Emirates Airline Festival of Literature.
Her family acquiesced to Murty's ambitions in the end- but she had more hurdles to get past to realize them. The educational institution that Murty was aiming to attend -the B.V.B. College of Engineering in Hubli- had no female students on its roster then, and it too tried to dissuade her from joining its classes, with worries galore about, say, how the male students would respond or react to her being their classmate, or, well, a more practical issue in that there was not a single toilet for women in its premises. "But even with all of this opposition, I still wanted to study engineering there," Murty says. "And so, they put three conditions on me if I were to join the college: I should wear a sari, I should not go to the canteen where a lot of boys come, and I should not talk to boys. I agreed to all three."
And thus began Murty's four-year stint studying engineering, and she readily admits that she found college life very hard at the beginning- although that had nothing to do with the curriculum. "The boys would not talk [to me], nobody would share their notes [with me]," Murty recalls. "And there was no toilet… But I trained myself in such a way that I'd not have to use the toilet during college hours." Murty has a matter-of-fact tone while telling me all of this, and she adds that today, she looks back on all of it as having been a pivotal learning moment for her. "All those experiences really ended up helping me in the long run," Murty says. "When you look at difficulties, yes, they are hard, but they also teach many things. For instance, in my case, I realized the importance of toilets- and in my later life, I built more than 14,000 ladies' toilets in rural areas in India through my work at Infosys Foundation."
Plus, Murty points out, she was very good in her studies- and she found herself getting the first rank continually in the exams at her college. "That's when I realized it was so easy," she recalls. "Who says engineering is a man's domain? Knowledge is no gender's domain; it's a seeker's domain… Also, I became so independent, and dependent on no one else except me. So, I became autonomous in myself, in the sense if I have any difficulties, I know that I have to sort it. I learnt that if I face an issue, there's not somebody else who will come and help; it has to be all me. That gave me a lot of confidence in life, and that has remained with me since."
Murty ended up getting her engineering degree with flying colors (she was actually awarded a gold medal for her academic performance), and she then secured a scholarship for a master's degree at Bangalore's Indian Institute of Science, colloquially known as the Tata Institute, given that it was set up with the active support of Jamsetji Tata, the founder of what is today one of India's biggest conglomerates, the Tata Group. When she was about to complete her education there in 1974, Murty was eyeing a Ph. D. degree from outside of India to add to her educational laurels- but that was when a recruitment advertisement on the Institute's notice board caught her attention.
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Sudha Murty at the 2023 Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in Dubai. Image courtesy Emirates Airline Festival of Literature.
Murty remembers it as seeking engineers to join one of the Tata Group's companies called Telco (now called Tata Motors); however, a line towards the end of the ad stood out to her. "It said that lady students need not apply," Murty says. "As I've said, I've always believed that knowledge is no particular gender's domain, and I felt the same way about jobs… So, I was like, how can you say that women cannot apply? That's unfair, I thought. You interview her, and if she is not capable, then you can always say no. But you can't make use of a difference in gender to deny someone a chance at a job or opportunity."
The discrimination was too much for Murty to take this time around, and it irked her more given that it was being done on the banner of the Tata Group, which was (and remains) one of India's most respected business enterprises. Murty decided that a complaint needed to be made to the upper echelons of the Tata Group- however, she didn't know who exactly in the company should she address it to. But in what was perhaps an indication of the daring of youth, Murty chose to direct her grievances to the man at the helm of the Tata Group then, Jehangir Ratanji Dadabhoy Tata (more popularly known as JRD), a bona fide legend in India's business landscape. And Murty did so by penning a strongly worded note on a postcard, and sending it to what she thought was JRD's address in Mumbai, and then forgetting about it.
As it turns out, Murty had got JRD's address wrong- but the man was so well-known that the Indian postal system got her postcard to him anyway. And when it did, Murty's words were enough for JRD to demand the concerned teams at Telco to remove such gender-centric barriers to its job offerings- and this plucky young woman from Hubli found herself getting called for an interview in less than 10 days after she sent that postcard. Murty aced that interview (of course), and she ended up becoming the first female engineer to be hired at Telco, with her going to have a fruitful career at the Tata Group for many years.
When I ask Murty if she ever got to meet JRD and discuss the aforementioned episode with him, she confirms that she got to meet the titan of Indian industry quite a few times during her years at the company; however, their conversations never touched upon the matter of her postcard until, funnily enough, she was getting ready to exit her employment at the Tata Group in 1982. By then, Murty had gotten married, and she had had her first child, Akshata Murty, too (yes, she made sure her children got the right spelling of their surname!), and she was working out of Telco's Mumbai offices at the time. Her resignation was prompted by the fact that her husband was, at the time, setting up an entrepreneurial venture called Infosys in a neighboring city called Pune, and she was going to join him there.
Sudha Murty with Entrepreneur Middle East Editor in Chief Aby Sam Thomas. Image courtesy Entrepreneur Middle East.
And on the day Murty wrapped up her final settlement at the Telco office in Mumbai, she ended up running into JRD while there. "He was coming down the stairs, I was going up," Murty says. "He used to call me by my maiden name, and he said, 'Kulkarni, what are you up to?' I replied, 'Sir, my husband is starting an adventure called Infosys, I don't know whether it will be successful or not, so I have to leave my job, and I have to go to Pune, because they're starting in Pune.' And he said, 'You fought your way in, and now you're leaving?' That was the first time he indicated to me that he actually knew how I had made it into his company."
Murty has a beautiful, broad smile as she shares this memory with me, and she goes on to tell me that this chance encounter with JRD had a lasting impact on her life. "In reply to his question, I said, 'Sir, I have to help him out. Otherwise, I would not have left,'" Murty recalls. "He said, 'Okay. But, Kulkarni, why start with diffidence? Start with confidence.' He was then going to leave, but then he turned back, and said, 'Kulkarni, what will you do when you are successful, when you make a lot of money?' I replied, 'Sir, I don't know if we will make money.' And he said, 'When you make money, please remember that our society is giving you so much, and so, you have a duty to our society. You don't own that money; you are just a trustee of that money, and you are to give it back to people.'" Murty remembers this as being the last time she saw JRD alive, and his words to her then have never left her. Indeed, JRD's advice to her formed the basis of what she ended up launching and building several years later with the Infosys Foundation, and those principles continue to drive her philanthropic work to this very day.
Now, the Infosys story is the stuff of legend- its journey from being a fledgling software startup to becoming a global leader in next-generation digital services and consulting is something any tech entrepreneur out there would want to follow for their own enterprise. As the co-founder and first CEO of Infosys, Murthy's role in its roaring success is widely celebrated, and rightfully so- but one should also highlight his wife's contribution to it. And no, I'm not talking about her role just as Murthy's spouse- as it so happens, Murty was also Infosys' first investor.
That's right- the INR10,000 (equivalent to $250 at the time), which is famously known to be the capital with which Infosys was set up with in 1981, came from Murty. You see, Murty was in the habit of saving money for "emergencies" back then, and that's the "fund" her husband requested her to make use of to invest in the company he was launching. "I remember thinking, what if I don't give the money to him?" Murty tells me. "Then, he may not start it, and he may go on to regret it. I thought regret is worse than failure. Failure is okay- I tried, I failed, what would I lose? There was nothing really for us to lose- for two, or three years, we could try, and if it didn't work, we'd come back to what we were. But I never wanted my husband to regret… I had ₹10,250 in my savings then. I kept ₹250, and I gave him ₹10,000."
Sudha Murty, Founder And Chairperson, Infosys Foundation. Source: Infosys Foundation
And the rest, as they say, is history- Infosys went on to become the success it continues to be today. Murty herself was one of Infosys's early employees, although she decided to exit the enterprise following a decision made jointly by her and her husband that she'd focus on taking care of their two children (her son, Rohan, was born in 1983), while he would train his sights on building the company, which had shifted its base from Pune to Bangalore by then. Murty then took on a role as a professor at educational institutions in the city, and then, in the 90s, when Infosys came into its own, so to speak, Murty started a new chapter of her career as the founder and Chairperson of the Infosys Foundation.
As an enterprise centered on "supporting the underprivileged, creating opportunities, and striving towards a more equitable society," Infosys Foundation has supported a multitude of social projects across India, which range from the construction of libraries (and toilets!) in the country's villages, to the donation of funds for, say, scientific research, cancer treatment, or even mid-day meals at schools. Murty, who was 45 years old when she founded the Foundation, says that she was driven to launch it following an argument she had with her then 16-year-old daughter over the matter of social work.
This episode is recorded in Murty's book of short stories, Here, There and Everywhere- in it, Akshata is quoted as saying the following words to her mother: "Amma, when an educated person like you, well-travelled, well-read, and without love for money, does not help poor people, then don't expect anyone else to do. Is it not your duty to give back to those unfortunate people? What are you looking for in life? Are you looking for glamor or fame? You are the daughter of a doctor, granddaughter of a schoolteacher, and come from a distinguished teaching family. If you cannot help poor people, then don't expect anyone else to do it."
Akshata's words resonated with Murty, and she tells me they also reminded her of JRD's words to her all those years ago in Mumbai. "I was sleeping, and my daughter woke me up," Murty says, and the Infosys Foundation came into being shortly after. The work Murty has led at the Foundation has earned her plenty of accolades from around the world; earlier this year, she was also presented with the Padma Bhushan, which is India's third highest civilian award. Murty is today one of India's most also prolific authors as well, especially with her non-fiction, which is built off the experiences she has had through her lifetime.
At this point though, given all of the achievements Murty has had through the course of her life, one would certainly not mind if she were to, well, just withdraw from everything that she does, and, well, just sit back and relax. But Murty doesn't seem to even have entertained such a thought in her mind- after all, she has a purpose learnt over the course of a lifetime driving her. "When I look at poor people, I feel like I have a duty towards them," she explains. "That keeps me working hard, that keeps me traveling and touring, that keeps me writing my experiences, that keeps me wanting to share my experiences with the next generation… Because I have a duty."
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