A Fistfight Inspires A Revelation

It is 1989. India is on the cusp of the ‘Liberalization, Globalization, Privatization’ reforms that would throw open the economy and unleash a consumer revolution.

It is placement season at the country’s premier management school, the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. Student and placement coordinator Sanjeev Bikhchandani is witness to a dogfight between two marquee recruiters—Hindustan Unilever and Citibank.

Unilever’s HR head has come upon the idea of locking-in candidates by asking them to sign the offer letter immediately. Students, feeling the pressure and perhaps thinking a bird in the hand is better than two in the bush, start signing for Unilever and dropping out of the recruitment process.

Expectedly, the Citibank recruiter is not amused—he feels that Unilever is not playing by the book. Students can typically interview with several companies and then pick one of the offers after taking a few hours to mull over the pros and cons.

The Citibank recruiter decides to take the fight—literally—to the Unilever recruiter. The war of words escalates and the recruiters from the two companies actually come to blows!

Sanjeev has to firefight and plays mediator. While doing so, a realization dawns on him: these are the lengths top companies are willing to go to hire the best talent. The seed for Naukri.com has been sowed. 

Sanjeev recently narrated this anecdote in the second installment of Harappa’s Visionary Speaker Series, where he was in conversation with Harappa chairman and founder Pramath Raj Sinha.

Sanjeev is the founder and vice-chairman of Info Edge Solutions, which entered India’s fledgling consumer internet space in 1997 with Naukri.com, an online job portal. On the back of Naukri’s success, Info Edge became the first internet company to list on an Indian stock exchange in 2006.

Sanjeev's advice to young people is very reassuring: “If you’re young and clueless, it’s okay. Keep on drifting, keep on searching, keep on seeking, find your calling. It’s a part of growing up.”

Naukri’s success inspired a generation of young entrepreneurs, giving them hope that it is possible to build profitable and stable consumer internet-based businesses in India. It also inspired Sanjeev to venture into online classifieds in other areas. Today, along with Naukri, Info Edge runs websites that are household names among India’s internet users: 99acres, JeevanSathi, and Shiksha.

The Path To Entrepreneurship

Sanjeev’s own path to entrepreneurship was not straightforward. Career options in the 1980s were limited—medicine and engineering were the obvious choices in middle-class families like Sanjeev’s. His father was a doctor and his extended family was full of government employees without any background in business or finance.

He recalled that one of the things his parents constantly told him was: “Son, there is nothing to inherit, no family money. The only thing we can give you is an education. But the doors will open, only if you work hard enough.”

In those days, it was a given that every “bright Indian boy” would attempt the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) entrance examination. Deep down, Sanjeev already knew that his heart was not in medicine or engineering. From the age of 12, he had a sense that he would start his own company someday. He got through the IIT exams twice, but still chose to go to Delhi’s St Stephen’s College to study economics.

Already, Sanjeev had started bucking the trend and making decisions that were not expected of him. Soon, he was faced with another big decision that would shape the course of the next few years of his life: to do or not to do an MBA right after graduation? 

Sanjeev’s brother had graduated from IIM-A. A chance meeting with his brother’s batchmates left him with the feeling that he should collect some work experience before deciding whether he wanted to do an MBA. So, after graduation, he joined a well-known advertising company called Lintas as a management trainee.

It was only after working in advertising for three years that Sanjeev wrote the CAT and joined IIM-A.

But was he confident about taking all these calls? By his own admission, he isn’t a natural risk-taker and generally preferred the safe option. However, he is a believer in taking calculated risks: “What I do is I try and understand a risk, mitigate it, measure it, reduce it, break it down and then, if I’m comfortable with it, I’ll take it.”

Breaking The Mold

Sanjeev’s innings as a financial investor in some of India’s hottest internet start-ups reflects his penchant for calculated risks. Info Edge’s investments include two “unicorn” start-ups (companies with a valuation of $1billion or more): Zomato and PolicyBazaar.

Sanjeev, 57, also brings the wealth of his experience to the boards of many of the start-ups he invests in, including Zomato. He was on the board of online travel portal Make My Trip (MMT) and helped Info Edge book a profit on the sale of MMT shares when it successfully listed on the Nasdaq in 2011.

Sanjeev, who won a Padma Shri this year, has an instinctive understanding of the dilemmas young people face when it comes to career choices and switches. He knows how crucial it is to find one’s purpose. He has personally lived through the rollercoaster journey one must undertake to eventually get there.

Always one to put his money where his mouth is, Sanjeev played an integral role in the founding of Ashoka, a liberal arts-focused university that takes a unique approach to pedagogy and education. His advice to young people is very reassuring: “If you’re young and clueless, it’s okay. Keep on drifting, keep on searching, keep on seeking, find your calling. It’s a part of growing up.”

That’s the big message from the life and times of Sanjeev Bikchandani: When you’re faced with a decision, take a leap of faith. But before leaping, know what distance you have to clear and make sure to do your homework to predict what is on the other side. 

Like Sanjeev, you too can learn to cut through the clutter of uncertainty by learning to make correct decisions for yourself. Check out Harappa’s Making Decisions course to learn more about the tips and tricks that you can use to improve your decision-making and crisis management skills. 

Shubhayan is an Associate Specialist in the Curriculum Team. A graduate of the Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts, Shubhayan enjoys laughing at his own jokes and playing the bass guitar.

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