What does it take to unite people around a vision for maximum impact?
JP’s latest podcast guest, Nandan Nilekani, is an inspirational business and public sector leader whose incredible success has been driven by his ability to define a vision that is ambitious, audacious, bold and, most importantly, plausible.
Learn more on the Positive Leadership podcast – and don’t forget to subscribe if you haven’t already.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Hello, and welcome to another edition of Positive Leadership, the podcast that help you grow as an individual, a leader, and ultimately as a global citizen. I'm Jean-Philippe Courtois.
NANDAN NILEKANI: I believe in positivity. I believe negative energy is a blocker, negative energy saps you, so I believe in keeping a positive energy in whatever I do. And I believe in radiating that positivity in every forum, in every meeting. Because finally, societies change only because human beings make change happen. If you can use your position to actually impact many, many people to do better than what they were doing, that's the ultimate impact you can have.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: My guest today, Nandan Nilekani, has played a central role in kickstarting India's digital transformation journey, a journey which has had a profound impact on millions of peoples' lives and work. After cofounding Infosys and building a global IT giant, he spent the last 13-plus years creating India's pioneering digital public infrastructure, developing open-source technology to solve some of the most pressing societal problems. He led the rollout of the digital identity card, which has helped millions of Indians get their first official proof of identity, enabling them to open bank accounts, gaining financial inclusion as an example. More recently, Nandan cofounding the EkStep Foundation whose goal is to reach 200 million children in India and improve their access to learning opportunities. We cover so much ground in this discussion – the power of entrepreneurship, what drives him, how to channel your purpose, and the importance of visualising a future that's ambitious. And also what skills you need to develop in order to bring together diverse teams to achieve big, ambitious goals. This episode is really packed with useful wisdom and advice. Wherever you are in your leadership journey, I got so much out of speaking to Nandan and I'm really excited to share the discussion with all of you now. Make sure you stay with us till the very end.
You know, you and I go a long way, back to 2000 when I was in Davos myself; I was running EMEA at the time for Microsoft. And then of course, I happened to run Microsoft Global Business and we met a number of times in that capacity. And I've been also visiting your country for the last 25 years of my life, which has been amazing always to see India reinventing itself. So we'll come back to that discussion. What an amazing ride you had with Infosys, the India tech industry, and with India as a country all your life. So I'd love to unpack all of that together, but let's start at the very beginning, if you don't mind. You were born and living in Bangalore, which today is one of the epicentres of the start-up world, actually, not just in India but globally. I was the recently and I was struck by the big ideas and the global mindset of the entrepreneurs I met. What was life like for you as a child, to start really early on, Nandan, growing up in Bangalore? What were your ambitions? And what values did you inherit maybe from your parents that informed your choices and decisions later on?
NANDAN NILEKANI: The Bangalore I grew up in was what was then called is a pensioners' paradise. It was a retirement city, everything wrapped up by eight in the evening or something. So it was a very different Bangalore in which I grew up. My father was working in a mill; my mother was a homemaker. And I think obviously we valued education. We valued that. Also, both my father and later on my uncle, with whom I lived in a town called Alwar, were very, all our conversations were about global issues. They were not about "What did you eat today?" but it was about how the world can be changed or how India can be changed. I remember when I was a child my father took me to Lalbagh, which is a large park in Bangalore. Jawaharlal Nehru was in the city and he made me wait with him. So we grew up in that kind of an environment. I always believe that... I of course later on joined and became successful at business, but always at the back of my mind I had this thought of doing something bigger for society.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Very clear. And this global mindset, not just India but actually the world and the biggest issues you had around the world. You were accepted onto a course at the India Institute of Technology, Bombay, a much-coveted institution, and thrived both academically and socially. You describe it as being one of the big breakthroughs in your life. Why was it such a big deal at the time?
NANDAN NILEKANI: You know, after my Bangalore stage, I was in this small town called Alwar. And I was very, very keen to get to a place where I could really be with a fantastic peer group, where I could have ample opportunity. And in 1973, in that year, IIT was the best place for young Indians to go. It gave you the escape velocity to get into different kinds of things. I was very happy to go there, and it was in some sense the defining period of my life because I became a mature person there. All my very good friends are still from those days. I'm still deeply connected to IIT in many ways. So, what I am is because of IIT, and it shaped me not only intellectually but also in terms of helping me build a very diverse set of interests which made me successful in business. I really believe that I owe a lot of my transformation and maturity to the five-odd years I spent at IIT.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Very interesting because sometimes people talk about their school, university, or something of course, with some nostalgia, some great memories, but the way you describe it, it seems very holistic in terms of the people, the roots, the social, economic, and business opportunities as well it entails. And actually, you met some of the key people who are still surrounding you in your life. And in 1981, you cofounded Infosys, and over the last 40-plus years, Infosys is a company catalysed I think some of the major trends that have led to India's emergence as a global destination for software development, software services, of course. So I was interested in what you said in your Purpose Statement, that you wanted to create a company that would be a role model in every aspect of running a business: how to treat employees, the way it's a stakeholder in society as well, the way it practices corporate governance, and the way it's also, of course, very customer centric. Before you have a chance to shape it into this global giant, why did you decide in the first place to join a start-up, which was not necessarily obvious, it was nascent company? And what role did your cofounder Narayana Murthy play in attracting you to the job and eventually, I understand, mentoring you as well?
NANDAN NILEKANI: Well, Narayana Murthy was the reason why Infosys happened. He was our leader. And when he told us that he would like to start a company, we didn't have to have a moment's hesitation – we said, "We'll follow you there". I'm there at Infosys entirely because of him. He's an amazingly charismatic and bold leader. We were all from middle-class values. Mr. Narayana Murthy himself had been a leftist. He was in Paris for a couple of years; he worked in Paris. But over time he realised that the only way to change the world was through compassionate capitalism, that you create wealth but then you share the wealth with employees. You have an impact on society. All of us had that kind of an idealistic mindset. Always we were driven by not just creating any other company, but we're creating an agent of change, something that will transform, something that will set new rules of conduct and that will inspire others to do the same. We did that on many aspects, whether it's the way we run the company, corporate governance, the way we handle our finances. Everything was about doing it in a way that we set a standard, set a bar. Infosys in some sense was India's original start-up. Today, it's an $18 billion with 330,000-plus employees, $60 billion in market cap and so on. Fundamentally, we set the tone for how to create a professional start-up company in India and make it huge.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: When Nandan and the other founders started Infosys back in the early '80s, they were all first-generation entrepreneurs and did not have a lot of money, actually. But when they discussed what their vision should be, the word they landed on was respect. If you strive for respect from customers and employees, you will for sure treat them fairly. With investors, you have to give decent returns and make sure you are profitable. And to get respect from society, people need to see a real benefit from the company existing. There was a strong belief amongst the founders that a company has a duty to produce products and services that can improve the lives of ordinary people. And Nandan's cofounder and mentor, Narayana Murthy, was a very inspirational role model.
He did not approve taking lavish holidays or using private jets. He showed the average middle-class Indian that you can success while being ethical. In his journey of over 40 years, Infosys has been incredibly successful. It was indeed the first IT company from India to be listed on NASDAQ. And its employee stock options programme created some of India's first salaried millionaires.
Obviously, an amazing role model for many of your peers now who have created this pretty amazing IT tech industry in India for many decades that we know. Infosys, as you said, scaled very quickly. And I think in your five-year tenure as a CEO, if I'm not mistaken, the annual growth increased by 38%. And you've talked about how you imagine where the company could be one day and then worked on what you would need to do to make that happen. I wonder how important it is for you to be able to visualise or maybe verbalise – some people are using words, others are painting, drawing a picture for others – to really shape the goals and the mission of this company. How do you do that? If you could share that with our listeners, that would be great.
NANDAN NILEKANI: I believe very strongly that part of the role of leaders is to visualise a future, a future which is ambitious, which is audacious, and yet plausible. And then articulate that and excite and energise people towards that goal. That's how Infosys began. But till about the early '90s, Infosys was a relatively small company. But in the '90s, India went through multiple changes. We had economic reforms, earth stations allowed you to do remote software development, the market was liberalised, and so on. And that's when we at Infosys took a big decision that we would accelerate our growth and become a major player in the IT industry. We went public in 1993, we built India's first campus, and we really invested in sales and marketing abroad, and so on. And then the Infosys growth happened. But at every stage we would define a vision of what our future state would look like. And that gave everybody the energy to move towards that. One lesson I've learned in life is always articulate a vision or make it ambitious, make it audacious, make it bold, but make it plausible. And that gets everybody energised to go towards that goal.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: I love the way you've been using multiple times, because I'm with you, the word "energy" right? And I would always add another word, Nandan, positive energy. Because there are different types of energy sometimes you find with people. How do you maintain what we call in this podcast world "a positive mindset"? Basically, a mindset which shows, propagates, positivity not in a naïve way but in a way that really rallies others to work with you, to build a mission, to execute on a vision? How do you do that and how do you maintain energy every day? Because sometimes you have some tough days as well, right, in life and business.
NANDAN NILEKANI: Oh yeah. No, I think sometimes you go through period where you think that it's all over. When an event happens, I analyse it and see how it impacts me. Even if it has a negative impact, I internalise it and then I move on. And I'm also always very forward looking. At this point, I'm not thinking about what I have done in the last 40 years, I'm thinking about what I will do in the next, whatever, 10 years or whatever. This forward-looking thing enables me to be very positive.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: I love that, and the way as well as you say rightly, the way you make a pose to evacuate some of the negativity that you may have from time to time because you've got your leader voice talking to you and JP, "Nandan, oh, this is not good what you did"... and you stop that to focus on what you can do to actually accomplish the mission. So, Nandan, since 2009, clearly India has been rolling out population-scale digital infrastructure, which is delivered at a very high volume and very low costs – free in some cases and paid in some others. And of course, you played a leading role in doing that. One day, I think you get a call from the Prime Minister's Office at the time, and you decided to take a leave of absence from Infosys to join the government to rollout the world's largest and most ambitious digital ID system, called Aadhaar, which was aimed at providing each Indian resident with a unique 12-digit identification number linked to their biometric and demographic information. This was one of the most amazing social projects ever done, perhaps the biggest on the planet, and marked a significant change of direction for you working for the government. What made you want to lead this mind-blowing project, you as a business executive? Or could you see yourself take this call and say, "I'm going to jump there. I'm going to do it".
NANDAN NILEKANI: Well, you know, I was 54 years old. I'd been the CEO of Infosys; I was the co-chair at that time. We had built this amazing company. But as you know, I always had this desire to do something on a larger canvas, on a larger scale. I had written a book in 2008 called Imagining India, where I talked about how an ID can help a country. And that's how I got this call from then prime minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh, "Would you come and join the government?" I had to ask the permission of my co-founders because we had a simple rule that if anybody wants to leave for any reason, they have to get the permission of their co-founders. And my co-founders, they were very supportive and said, "You are going to the national level to do something for the country. That's our spirit", so they let me. Actually, I retired from Infosys. I had a very nice corner office overlooking a golf course. I had thousands of employees. I had a good life. And I said, "No, let me go". So I've moved from Bangalore to Delhi. I moved from a company with 100,000-plus employees to employee number one of a start-up in the government. I had to begin life all over again. But I felt that this was the time for me. And that was a very difficult five years for me because I had to deal with so many objections. So that actually made me even stronger as a human being because I could deal with adversity and setbacks and still move forward.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: I think what's amazing in the decision you made, Nandan, it was like a one-way ticket, right?
NANDAN NILEKANI: Yeah.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: As you said, you retired. You didn't say, "I'm going to leave for a couple of years. If it doesn't work, I'll come back as a...". You were on the mission. Tell us the way you've been able, coming from a very different environment and background, you've been able to share this incredible mission across a gigantic government as well, big services in India. And also the way you've been building what I would call the dream team, right? Because finding the right people from the bureaucracy but also, I guess from very different backgrounds in tech and others is super hard, so how did you manage that huge transformation?
NANDAN NILEKANI: Well, I think there were two or three parts to that, Jean-Philippe. One is that I believe in consensus building and reaching out to people. So I spent a huge amount of my time in the government meeting everybody and aligning them with my vision of what is going to come. And that investment in building that one is to one partnership was very important. Also, the other thing as I discussed earlier, when you set a bold objective for yourself, you attract other people to come. I announced that I will do this ID project, when people saw the boldness of the vision, they came to me; I didn't even have to go out and look for them. I got very good people both from the bureaucracy, like my colleague Ram Sewak Sharma, who was my CEO. And I got very good people from the private sector because I could marry the bureaucracy and the private sector capabilities to create this solution.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: As you know, many enterprises have a huge challenge to build diversity in their teams. You've been confronted with that at the crux of that issue, people having a very different mandate in life, serving their country's government, and businesspeople. How did you kind of blend them together in one team?
NANDAN NILEKANI: It was definitely a difficult thing because both had views about the other.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: I'm sure.
NANDAN NILEKANI: The technology/business guys were informal guys, first name basis, were old sharks. It was a flat infrastructure. And they thought the government guys are all into hierarchy and all that. And the government guys thought these private sector guys are only about making money. Each had a view of the other. But what I did was I defined a goal, a very public goal, to say that before our term is over, which was in five years, we would issue 600 million IDs to Indians. And that was a very bold and slightly, people thought I was a bit crazy to say that. They all said, "Don't open your mouth and make some promises like that". But for me, saying that was very important. And this became such an all-important goal for the team that they subsumed their differences to work for the big goal. The other lesson I have learned of leadership is if you set a big goal, then the goal is bigger than any of us. And our internal politics goes down because we all have to work together to get to the big goal.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: I'd like to just pick up on a lesson from Nandan about goal setting. There's value in going after big goals beyond achieving them. In my experience, the payoff, even when we miss by a mile, is really worth the risk. Big goals stretch what we believe is possible. And like Nandan says, they create a sense of shared purpose, one that helps your team stay focused on what truly matters. But a nuance here is in the world plausible. You want big, bold goals, audacious goals, but not crazy unreachable ones. You need to create an environment where people feel stretched enough to go much further without thinking this is something that is never going to get done. So delivering this project to provide each Indian resident with unique 12-digit identification number linked to their biometric and demographic information was just so ambitious. So I wanted to ask Nandan about the challenges he encountered along the way.
NANDAN NILEKANI: There are two parts to this. One is of course the technology was extremely sophisticated. Because we have to do a biometric deduplication of a billion people records. Nobody had done that before; we were in unchartered territories. And let's say we had 500 million people in our database and a million people enrolled, we had to do 500 trillion matches to eliminate duplicates. So it was a... massively thousands and computers and all that stuff. But the more difficult problem was the politics of it – how do we get everybody in the country to sign up? We built an enrolment system of 35,000 enrolment stations to do 1.5 million enrolments a day. But all of them had be quality managed. Everybody had their software given by us on a desktop so that everything was... very high level of telemetry. We really had to manage a massive system with... we had only 200 people in our organization. In our ecosystem, there were a few hundred thousand people. The only way we could manage that was with data coming from all the operations. We also had to make the ID non-threatening to people. When we first launched it, people said, "I have a passport. Why do I need this ID?" or "I have a driver's license. Why do..." We said, "No, all this ID does is says John is John. Whether John gets a passport, you decide. Whether John gets a driver's license, somebody else decides". So once they realised that we're not trying to take away their role, they were much more supportive of our idea.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: How could you do that? How could you convince, let's say, some of the most remote farmers at the bottom of the pyramid? How did you convince those people that it makes sense for them to go and get an identity?
NANDAN NILEKANI: They were the easiest to convince. The challenge was not that. The challenge was all the guys in the cities who thought they knew everything. Because the farmers and others realise that this ID is an economic asset. They could not fully visualize what all you could do with it, but they realised that if the government is giving you this ID, there's bound to be some benefits out of that ID in the future. So we had no problem in convincing millions of people to enrol around the country. Our challenge was really arguing with people in the decision making.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Decision making.
NANDAN NILEKANI: Yeah. I remember the technical side, I was driving up to Mussoorie one day and I got a call from Srikanth Nadhamuni, who was at that time the CTO. And Srikanth said, "All the experts say this is impossible to do", that "all the computers in the world are not enough to deduplicate a billion records". So I said, "Oh my God, right from day one we have a problem". But we also had very smart people who figured out how to unlock this issue. And today we're able to do all this massive deduplication with comparably a simple infrastructure. Or some people took Aadhaar to the Supreme Court and told the Supreme Court that Aadhaar is against your right to privacy. So that became the second longest case in the Indian Supreme Court. And finally, we won the case.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: How did you win the case, by the way? Because that was also very unlikely, probably, right?
NANDAN NILEKANI: No, no, no. Because we built it for privacy. We collected only name, address, date of birth and sex. We made sure that's only used for identification. It was not collecting data about you. There was no targeting, nothing. So by design it was designed for privacy, and the Supreme Court upheld that. But there were many times in that journey when we had our hearts in mouth as to what would be the decision there. I had to get money from the government.
The whole project would have cost 1.5 billion or thereabouts. But every time I had to go up in the government to get the budget sanctioned, somebody else wouldn't want this draft and would come in the way kind of thing. Fundamentally, you have to fight all these issues within the system, with the lawyers, with activists, with politicians. Then I had to make sure that the idea was bipartisan. So I went to every chief minister in the country and sat with them and told them why this was good for them. And so I was able to create a national consensus around the ID project.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Again, as you said before I think, Nandan, what's kind of remarkable is the way you've been deeply personally involved one-to-one as well with many relationships-
NANDAN NILEKANI: Oh yeah.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Right? Across the bureaucracy, across I'm sure the tech industry as well, and across many other stakeholders. And you spent a lot of your time just convincing them eyes to eyes, one to one, on a vision, I guess. One by one.
NANDAN NILEKANI: Absolutely. It's all about maintaining this huge network, which is very diverse, reaching out to people, getting them to buy in, keeping the idea simple so that they understand it, convincing them about the benefits of the idea. It's how you do anything which is a large chain of management.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: What's amazing about that, what you've achieved, is how much of a low cost it is in terms of investment compared to many other huge IT projects you've been working on, I've been working in my life, which have been wow. Could you share with us some of the units of economy per transaction, whatever, and all up of how much the Indian government had to invest to achieve that?
NANDAN NILEKANI: Well, the total investment was about $1.5 billion or thereabouts. It was about $1 per person. We built everything with an operating cost model. These enrolment agencies were largely private companies, and they were paid only on successful IDs generated. So it became an outcome-based pricing. We didn't pay to buy the equipment. They bought the equipment, and they had to use it efficiently to make money out of it. That's why they would go out and enrol all over the country. And our backend would make sure that a person got only one ID. So they couldn't game the system from the front end because at the back end... if they enrolled the same person three times, only one would succeed, so it's not worth it for them to do that. Architecturally, we put simplicity at the front end, complicity at the back end, and designed it to enrol and set up incentives so that 35,000 enrolment agents would be out there doing enrolment every day. And they could only make money if they did 50 enrolments per day.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Yeah, I think what's quite incredible in your project, Nandan, is again this ability to have this huge return on what I would call social innovation. Because given the cause investment you've made, for our listeners, they may not realise, compared to many governments in the world are spending billions every year on IT or projects that have never achieved anything of that scale, it's pretty amazing. And the other thing I would say is the way you've been also building a hybrid economic model. It's not just public money; you've been also inviting the commercial business world to join forces, and then we'll discuss in a few minutes the entrepreneurship model that you've been able to foster based on that.
NANDAN NILEKANI: Just one thing on the cost thing, JP. The total cost would have been maybe 1.5 or maybe now it would have been $2 billion, but the government has saved $27 billion in making the delivery of cash benefits more efficient. So it's paid for itself.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Huge, huge. Excellent point because it's something many people don't realise about the cost avoided and how much is achieved with technology. I'd like to go and explain a bit more beyond India, Nandan, which we discussed a bit together before. The digital identity solution introduced by Aadhaar proved to be a turning point in the history of India. And unlike social security numbers and other national IDs issued by foreign countries, the Indian government built Aadhaar in a way that it could be easily leveraged and extended by developers. So you did not define a mission to be only a digital ID system, but you envision it as a technology platform with extensibility that eventually became the so-called India Stack and the DPI we will discuss. They are a set of layers of capabilities, such as payment, commerce, data and more, that have been built over the last I think 15 years now, right?
NANDAN NILEKANI: That's right.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: And each of while is at population scale, at very low cost, accessible on your fingertips, on your phone, and all interoperating with each other.
And I know you often compare the India Stack to the internet or GPS, and you said in your book Imagining India that the idea for it came to you back in 2010. So can you work us through what is DPI, Digital Public Infrastructure, is all about and how you've been able to build a public infrastructure that has also enabled an incredible start-up ecosystem, built some amazing innovation we just started discussing together, and eventually had an impact on India's society and economy?
NANDAN NILEKANI: Thank you, JP. If you look back in 2009 when I started the project. We were inspired by two major investments – one was the internet, one was GPS. Both these were actually funded by the Department of Defense in the US. But later on, they were allowed for private innovation. They all had layered APIs, your HTML and HTTP and SMTP for email and all that. And that led to the rise of Explorer and Hotmail and Google, and so on. And similarly, GPS answered the question "Where am I?". Using GPS, then you could have Maps, then you could have Uber. So we said we should build this also like that, where the ID is answering the question "Who am I?" through a standard API and make that API available to qualified companies to use in their own application. And also use it to do what's called "know your customer", which is a prerequisite to get a bank account, to get a mobile connection. So this authentication plus KYC opened up to private innovation was part of the original design.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: What Nandan says there is so, so powerful. I love the fact he's pointing to this model of public innovation opening a platform and some protocols for the IT industry and others to jump in and create a viable business model. It is so transformational. A few months back, at the India Global Forum, the Indian Minister of IT, Rajeev Chandrasekhar, said the India Stack today represents an enormous opportunity for Global South countries to rapidly climb up the ladder of digitalisation. But these countries are so different in their economic, social, political models, across Asia, across Africa, across Latin America. Can they really replicate the model that Nandan has built in India? What would he do to digitise the Global South?
NANDAN NILEKANI: It does not cost that much money, but it requires more than deep pockets; it needs deep conviction, then you can make it happen. And I think all the technical issues have been sorted out. We are ready to work at that scale, so any country can adopt it. I would really create a huge global movement around it. I would use the pulpit of the job to get all the countries and the leaders excited about DPI, and I would come up with an implementation plan to take it everywhere. By the way, only now we are talking to the UN. Recently, the Deputy Secretary General, Amina Mohammed, came to Bangalore. I met with her. World Bank, Ajay Banga is very keen. IMF, Kristalina Georgieva. So I think know we have global leadership around the world thinking about it. And that's why we are confident that we will be able to have at least 50 countries in the next five years implement one or more of the digital public infrastructure that is there.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: You also have to work bottom-up, working at a country level. What would be your advice for any listener – we have some government leaders, business leaders, listening to this podcast as well – who want to take a shot at that in their countries? What are the key criteria of success that would be needed for any given country to make it happen?
NANDAN NILEKANI: Sure. Sure. I think ultimately all this happens with both top-down and bottom-up. I agree with you completely. I think first of all there has to be a belief that digital public infrastructure can make a difference, that it can lead to better economic growth, more equitable growth, that it can lead to better revenues, better expense management. I mean, people believe that it's possible. And I think then they need to have the political will to get a group of people who don't work in any specific ministry but work directly perhaps at the head of the government level to put in place a plan. And then piece by piece, layer by layer, they can build it with ID or payments or whatever they want. And there's no particular sequence. You can do any sequence that you want. Each thing should bring tangible material benefits to the people because that gives you the political momentum to do more of this. So I think there is a playbook that is there, and we can easily take the models we have done so far and take that playbook global.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Yeah, I love that. But can you explain just a little bit on the entrepreneurship part of the model? Because we didn't discuss much of that together. I was in India again a couple of months ago, I met with some amazing start-ups that have built on top of Aadhaar a number of very innovative social but also commercial opportunities for all citizens in India. Can you develop a little bit that?
NANDAN NILEKANI: I think it goes back to our model of looking at internet and GPS, both of which had APIs and protocols that allowed huge private companies to come up. This Aadhaar KYC has essentially enabled bank account opening very quickly. And Prime Minister Modi when he came to power launched a financial inclusion programme called Jan Dhan Yojana. And India went from 20% bank account penetration to 80% bank account penetration in nine years, a dramatic thing. But they could do it because you could do Aadhaar KYC and open a bank account in one minute electronically. The same thing happened with mobile phones. When Jio was launched, Jio used Aadhaar e-KYC to get a million customers a day and got 200 million customers in six months. That's a good example of a private company entering the mobile revolution and setting up a brand-new 4G network and using the power of DPI to build a very large business. Or what happened in the payments area. Companies like PhonePe and Paytm have come up, all of whom use the UPI infrastructure. These are all multi-billion-dollar value companies that have come up. But essentially, they're built on top of this infrastructure. Private innovation, competition, is a big part of the story.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: It's a wonderful example again, as you peel the onion together, Nandan, to add up to the retail investment. We talk about I think you said 27 billion of efficiency savings for the government of India because of Aadhaar. But if you were to add on top of that all the economic value created by all those start-ups that are building on the APIs, for payments, for all the rest, it maybe be, I don't know what the number would be, maybe you've done the business case I'm sure all up, but it must be gigantic in terms of economic value.
NANDAN NILEKANI: I think so. I don't know exactly what it is but certainly it runs into tens of billions of dollars.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Nandan, I'd like now to shift gears and talk about your amazing leadership journey. We discussed a little bit of that, and I want to come back. I was just wondering, as you took on those leadership roles for Infosys, and then for the Indian government, did you get a chance to reflect and write down your personal mission, your personal purpose as a leader? Would you mind sharing it with us and how you made it resonate again with a mission of two huge organizations like Infosys and the Indian government itself. So, your purpose, and the way you connected that to the bigger mission of Infosys, the bigger mission of the Indian government.
NANDAN NILEKANI: Well, I guess my personal purpose is to have the biggest positive impact possible in my lifetime. Because of that, I have very clear priorities of how I spend my time. I don't do too many things. I do a few big things which over time deliver a lot of impact.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Love that clarity and the way you've been actually wearing that as well into the organization you've been leading of course for many years. Back in 2015, you founded EkStep Foundation with your wife and Shankar Maruwada as well, with the goal of improving literacy and numeracy and enhancing access to learning opportunities for 200 million children across India. A goal this audacious needed of course an equally audacious solution: to build a solution for scale, one with a potential to reach I think 200 million students, 10 million teachers covering more than 20 languages and more than 60 educational boards. And to reach this goal, you had to find a way to enhance and amplify the efforts of educators by making high-quality resources accessible and cultivating a space where they can connect with and learn from one another. In a way, you had to find another way to restore the agency of all within the education system by solving it with the platform way, as a platform as well. Can you walk us through the aims of your foundation and how you see EkStep helping make a breakthrough for education in India? And what is your boldest goal? Again, because you've got bold, audacious goals for that foundation.
NANDAN NILEKANI: I think our goal was, "How do we educate 200 million children?" Our first step was how do we make sure they have access?
So we created a digital public infrastructure called Sunbird, and that was used by the government in the DISHA programme, so millions of teachers have access to the latest teaching content, the latest quizzing, the students have it. All that has been rolled out. But now we are very excited by the possibilities of AI and generative AI and so on, and we think that we now probably have the tools by which learning outcomes can also improve.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: I'd love to actually double-click on that, Nandan. You and I are kind of the same generation. We've been living through the last three tech inflection points over the life, which have been amazing. 1983, with the birth of the personal computer, and Windows coming of course on top of that. Then clearly as well we got later in 2007 the launch of the smartphone coupled with the beginning of the Cloud as well coming together. And now late in 2022, this ChatGPT launch, we've witnessed the fastest adoption ever, 100 million users around the world in two months. Where do you see the biggest potential generative AI innovation for your foundation? And I would say as well for India all up.
NANDAN NILEKANI: Well, I'm very positive and bullish with what we can do with ChatGPT. For example, one area which we are very deeply focused on is every child should have a very empathetic AI tutor, somebody who will sit with them, does not make judgement about them. In the privacy of the app, they can learn better to speak or to do math or whatever. So there's a whole learning part. Another thing which Satya Nadella has demonstrated is an app called Jugalbandi, where it uses ChatGPT, it has all the information for the farmer, which is ingested. It uses a language AI we have built in IT Madras called AI4Bharat. So a farmer can ask a question in Hindi on some information on farming, then it gets translated to English, it goes and hits the ChatGPT, gets the answer, answer is then converted back to Hindi, and the computer speaks to him. And suddenly, the knowledge of the world has been made consumable and palatable to that person, even if he's not literate, doesn't know how to operate a keyboard. So I'm actually very, very passionate about it.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: And I do see the service here as you know in our company as well, Microsoft. Jugalbandi was a wonderful kind of a showcase, use case of scenarios, that could be replicated across the world as well, by the way. It connects back to our discussion on the Stack and DPI. That should be part of the DPI end-to-end platform for the world. It's very exciting. And I know these days, and we should as well, many people are worried, anxious about the bad side, potential bad side of AI. But I think we should be so energized about the way it could be used for good purpose and good outcomes in the world.
NANDAN NILEKANI: I'm totally of the view that we have to obviously put in place the appropriate guard rails on this technology because it can be very powerful, but we should not hesitate to apply it in a good way. With the safeguards, make it a responsible AI, put the safeguards, but make it useful to really change the lives of billions of people.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: 100% with you. So to finish with, Nandan, I'd like to pick your mind and wisdom as a coach. And I think you've been a coach along your life of many people that have been lucky to meet with you, either through your foundation, the government, Infosys, entrepreneurs, and many others, many others. If you were mentoring a young graduate from the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay graduating today, what would you advise her or him to do?
NANDAN NILEKANI: Well, first of all, I would say that they're very, very lucky because they are coming of age at the most exciting time ever. You and I have been in this business for 40 years, but I'm even more excited today by the possibilities than I was 40 years back. So I think they are very lucky to be starting at that young age. We are all fortunate to be in technology. Technology is the instrument of change. It is a multiplier of change. It has high impact. And I would recommend that they use their privileged position in life to make a difference, either by building a great business or by solving a great social problem and doing something meaningful for the rest of their lives.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: I love what Nandan says there. I'm also deeply involved in positive impact entrepreneurship, which I believe is a big direction for any start-up or any enterprise in the world. Nandan is such a unique blend of a thinker and a doer at the same time.
His work in the private sector and the public sector at scale and his passion for advancing the lives of others comes through so strongly in our discussion. And his passion and energy is something that is really contagious. As a leader, he's been amazing at bringing together large and diverse teams, working with politicians, technical teams as well, getting them onboard and aligning them to the bigger mission. Given his unique leadership journey and skills, I wondered what he would like his legacy to be.
NANDAN NILEKANI: I guess the legacy is that I never stop trying to make a difference. I get up every day saying, "What else can I do to make the world a better place?"
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: You've been listening to the Positive Leadership Podcast with me, Jean-Philippe Courtois. If you'd like more great tips to help you grow as an individual, a leader, and ultimately as a global citizen, head over to my LinkedIn page to subscribe to my newsletter, Positive Leadership & You. And if you've enjoyed this episode, then please, do leave a comment and rating and share it with your friends. In the next episode, I will be speaking to Reeta Roy, President and CEO of the Mastercard Foundation, one of the largest private foundations in the world, about her leadership journey and her positive impact. I hope you can all join us. Goodbye.