In Conversation with
Shantanu Agarwal and
Shantanu Agarwal and Neeraj Gupta, the founding fathers of IMG, helped ease the life of the populace of IITR through their numerous contributions to internet/intranet facilities of the institute. After graduation, both of them went on to become highly successful entrepreneurs, and were recently invited to IITR to speak to the students. GG had a chance to catch up with him.
GG: How does it feel to be back in the campus?
Shantanu: It always feels good to be back in the campus. I am a part of TIDES and it is very dear to me because of the fact that I was an accidental entrepreneur. IMG was much like a startup.I came back from Sweden to apply for a PhD and ended up working in a startup. There was no ecosystem back then, we didn’t have the kind of support that the students have today. I am always happy to come back to Roorkee, it feels like home and initiatives like TIDES give me many more reasons to come back.
GG: You founded IMG back in your day. How did that happen? Can you recall a funny incident from those times?
Shantanu: Back then, we had a 28 KBPS internet connection and 5 computers in a small room which you had to book three days in advance for a half an hour session. The official website of the university was in a very primitive state and was in no way comparable to the standards of international universities. So we went to the director of the university and told him that we weren’t happy with the current state of the website and that we’d like to help. He was open to the idea and offered all the help that we needed. We started collecting data related to faculty profiles, courses offered and history from all the departments and started working on the code and design of the website. The website was launched by the governor of Uttarakhand on convocation. The director was pretty happy about it and provided us with computers and other much needed resources. Initially a large part of the team was responsible for collecting data and only a few team members handled the technical aspect of the website and we felt that the team needed more coders, so for the next edition of the website, many coding oriented students were recruited. As a consequence, we were able to make the website more advanced. That’s when we changed the name from web management group to Information Management Group. We soon incorporated a registration portal and an automated notice board in the website. The team expanded and developed a structure in the years that followed and soon evolved into a self sustaining system. We were involved for a few years even after we graduated to ensure smooth functioning of the group and it was the combined effort that helped IMG grow into a system that is unparalleled across the globe. No other university has a student run organisation that manages the intranet like IMG does which makes the group one of a kind.
GG: How do you feel the group has evolved when you see it today?
Neeraj: Technology has advanced a great deal and it has affected the group in a very positive way. Another interesting aspect of IMG’s development is its recognition as a group of proficient programmers around the world. People acknowledge the presence of such independent ecosystems in the university where students can learn valuable skills. It has become a great platform for learning programming as well as managerial skills. Furthermore, the culture of the group has played an important role in its development and needs to be nurtured to help it flourish. For future, the way to go is to retain the DNA and look for constructive directions where the group can be further evolved.
GG: Now, if you had to extrapolate and compare the Indian and Western premier education institutes, where do you think we stand? What changes should our system undergo?
Shantanu: To compare the two, you have to establish the parameters first. In terms of infrastructure, research and projects that students are pursuing, institutes like MIT are heads and shoulders above IITs. The papers that they publish even at the undergraduate level are of much higher quality. In terms of the quality of students, I think we go hand in hand in that aspect. MIT just does a better job at nurturing the talent through better infrastructure and exposure. We have to change the way we teach as well. The professors know that most students don’t have academics on top of their priority list, and if the students aren’t serious, it affects the professors too. We lag behind world’s premier institutes in many aspects right now but eventually, we’ll catch up. We have plenty of financial support and many initiatives by the administration and students alike and I think IITs are changing for the better.
GG: You were active in Sports, there was IMG of course, as a student of IITR. At Harvard you became the Energy Club President. Being someone who’s active in extracurriculars, how different were the group cultures in these two systems?
Shantanu: Cultures at both the institutes have their differences. The bonds that I built at IIT are stronger, there were no facades. Once you graduate and start working, your perspective changes and you start thinking about networking opportunities when you talk to people. Most relationships are built because of selfish reasons, even if we aren’t consciously aware of it. It isn’t necessarily a negative trait, it’s just human nature. I made some very good friends at Harvard, but the relationship with them was more professional. That’s why I cherish IIT more than Harvard.
The other difference is resources. At Harvard, you have access to all the resources and financial support that you ask for. You can ask the CEO of a Fortune 500 company for a conference and they’d turn up. At IIT, I once spent 8 days in Delhi searching for sponsors for a conference. If we compare the two conferences, one of them was supported by Harvard with practically infinite resources at my disposal. While for the other one, I had to raise money out of nothing but the memories made were so much more precious.
GG: What are your opinions about the Indian startup scene? Has the bubble finally burst? How far are we from our Silicon Valley counterparts?
Neeraj: Silicon Valley is a very different kind of place altogether, it’s a multicultural space. We keep saying that Bangalore is the Silicon Valley of India. Maybe, it’s true in some aspects, but I personally believe that we are still a little far from it and I say that because when one goes to Silicon Valley, they can find all kinds of people from different parts of the world coming over, and thus the best of the brains working there. In Bangalore and Hyderabad, I have noticed a few Australian and Swiss companies trying to establish themselves in recent times, but there is still a long way to go. In my conversation with the global managing director of a Swiss pharmaceutical company, I realised that there are a lot of filings and a list of procedures to be followed before setting up a company in India. So when we consider an SME that will have to go through the same long procedure, we have to realise that they do not have the required money or resources and thus, the will to invest. The point being, there are issues in India. But the good thing is that despite all, a lot of people are scaling up. There is nothing called as a “bubble”. There is no bubble, and it is not going to burst, the marketing industry is very stable. To improve the current scenario, there is a need to open up more enterprises. Enterprises and MNCs play a very important role. In USA, they recognise start-ups and work with them. I believe our attitude to M&A is what’s holding innovation at ransom. A robust M&A market is essential for fair valuation of start-ups. M&A activity is picking up in India, but it will take a few years. Startup culture will not go away and will only be corrected. Two years back people used to invest all their time in raising funds. But things are changing and people are slowly growing to understand the role of each and every stage.
GG: A few years back globalisation was at its peak, but now we see a lot of Rightist ideologies coming up. How is technology and innovation affected by the Leftist or Rightist ideologies and propaganda?
Shantanu: A lot of it is happening and the reason I believe is that to move forward in the right direction, sometimes one needs to take a step back. We can’t grow linearly. And right now, this is that one step back. I believe what it will create is opportunities and more robust forward steps in future. It is going to create a more stable equilibrium. That’s true that we have rightist governments and we have moved towards the right of center. Also, there is a lot of terrorism as well. And thus the people want security. They are concerned about their homes, family, their community and their state. We are insecure people, every one of us. I think the role technology plays here is that it provides the solution. It is trying to make our lives better, whatever may the lives be. Today, the lives are insecure, the lives are intolerant. We are living in the scenario of fake news. It’s solving these problems. Our goal should be to continue and develop new solutions and stay on the exponential growth curve of technology that we are on since last few civilisations. From locomotives, to computer revolution and to the recent internet revolution, things are happening and changing in very short time periods. And we need to continue on this path.
GG: One glance at your LinkedIn profile and anyone can say that you are someone who likes to give back to the society they grew from – TIDES, IIT Roorkee Heritage Foundation, IIT Mentors – Pan IIT Global Mentorship Program, ECM and Treasurer. There are only a few who would do this. What inspires you for the same?
Neeraj: Well, we are fortunate enough to have good set of advisors and mentors. There have been many people in my life who have helped me in more than one way, and the only thing I can do is to continue the loop. I have always felt that if you are generous and genuinely help others around you, there will be some days in your life where people will help you again. A good deed done always comes back. When IITR Heritage foundation began, I was happy to be a part of it and that I could help and interact with students directly. TIDES is an initiative where we can provide a physical space and an ecosystem where we can support students not only financially, but mentor them as well. PAN IIT Chapter is a project I took us because I wanted to connect to other IITs as well. The idea was to provide any kind of mentorship, not limited to entrepreneurship, and connect students to right people. The other thing that happened is that now I know and am connected to many people from different IITs who have been successful in life. I think giving back to society always gives you something back, be it your personal satisfaction. I am doing my bit and will continue to do so.
GG: You’ve accomplished a lot in a few years. What is the rule that you live by and any advice that you would give to the students?
Shantanu: My principle is to not run after money. I have tried to control myself to not run after it and that has been difficult sometimes because that’s what the hype is all about. Instead, I have tried to always be on a learning curve and learn as much as I can. Professionally when my learning curve becomes constant, I have taken what some might say, naive decisions that completely changed my path and started from scratch which did work out in the longer run. But as soon as I was stabilised, I tried something different again. It is a tough decision each time but I think that is the only way to live and breathe, otherwise one stagnates. Keep learning, keep doing something that challenges you otherwise it is difficult to grow as a person. Secondly, within reason, and while being accountable to the basic responsibility that you have towards your family and yourself, help everyone around you. Help as much as you can, help whoever you can. I think similar to Neeraj, this attitude has helped me too. There is a story which my father told me when I was young- When you are in trouble, and if somebody comes and helps you, you remember that all your life. And if you help everyone around you, there will be a time when you are in trouble, and people will come to help you. It almost sounds selfish, but faith in yourself and people around you does give something back to you.