“I MEASURE MY LIFE IN TERMS OF WHETHER OR NOT I’VE MAXIMIZED THE IMPACT OF MY IDEAS”
In 1975, with $11 in his pocket, Vijay Govindarajan hopped on a plane and left India for America.
He was eager, curious, and college-bound, inspired by the boundless opportunity he saw in his new home.
Unbridled and ready to learn, Vijay was on the cusp of what has become a four-decade crusade of research and teaching on the fundamentals of innovation. His focus: how to employ creative business strategies to elevate our world’s four-billion poor.
Over the past forty years, Vijay (VG, as he’s known by his colleagues and students) has become a New York Times and Wall Street Journal best-selling author, an ongoing contributor to Harvard Business Review and Bloomberg BusinessWeek, an advisor to Fortune 500 business leaders, and an esteemed teacher, guide, and friend to thousands of students at Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business.
As a professor, VG inspires his students to aim high—to go after impossible-seeming goals. In doing so, he explains, one’s level of experience and performance will rise, regardless of whether the specific goal is reached.
He is charismatic, friendly, and highly energized. He’s a great storyteller and a venerated mentor. And one can’t help but feel uplifted by his presence.
Above all, his life’s work is a testament to the potential influence of a bold and open mind.
THE JALEPEÑO: Can you talk about your coming to America?
VIJAY GOVINDARAJAN: I came from India with $11 in my pocket. The flight stopped in London. I saw Cadbury’s milk chocolate, which I’d never had before.
It cost $6 and I bought it. I spent 50% of my money on chocolate.
The very first week, I got a letter. On the envelope it told me I had won $10 million. I said “I love America! One day I had $11, now I have $10 million!”
Jokes aside, I love this country. I’ve met people from all walks of life and there is tremendous opportunity.
THE J: How did your upbringing in India influence your trajectory?
VG: Growing up in India makes a deep impact on who you become. I saw lots and lots of problems and very few resources. The only way you can solve your problem is through innovation, there’s no other way.
You can’t throw money at the problem because you don’t have money.
That’s how I got interested in innovation.
I came to this country and devoted my life to understanding innovation. That’s what I’ve done in the last 40 years.
THE J: Was there anything that shocked you, coming to the U.S.?
VG: Everything, really. I grew up in a very small town, a protected environment.
What was quite strange, when I went to get breakfast and asked for toast, the waiter asked me what type of bread I wanted. I have a choice? A choice in bread?
THE J: Was there anything holding you back from excelling?
VG: I had limited resources and was from a lower quality of life in India. When you come here, motivation automatically comes to succeed. You have the opportunity to make something of yourself.
There’s nothing that stops you in this country. That hunger itself was a phenomenal force. There was nothing putting a bottleneck on me.
I had to succeed, set a good example. If I went back to India as a failure, I almost thought the U.S. would not take any more Indians.
THE J: Do you have a personal philosophy?
VG: I’ve been operating with this philosophy my entire life:
You always are pursuing some goal. To get a job, a degree, marry the right person, build a house. You’re always moving toward a goal.
The metaphor I think of is: you’re in a carriage and you’re riding the carriage to the goal and the carriage is driven by two horses. Two equally powerful horses. One you cannot control, one you can.
Your job should be to only focus on the horse you can control.
Ride it as efficiently as you can. The other horse may fall in line and you will or will not reach your goal. That’s the best you can do.
We tend to focus on the horse we cannot control.
The paradox is, exactly in moments when you have to focus on the horse you cancontrol are the moments you tend to focus on the horse you cannot control.
During hard times, your first instinct is to blame the horse you cannot control. You become miserable, skeptical, low energy, unhappy.
When you focus on the horse you can control, you see new possibilities, you feel liberated, you’re happy, you’re optimistic.
Someone once asked me if I’d ever been discriminated in this country. My answer went back to this metaphor.
I came here in 1975. The day I landed I told myself I’ll never be discriminated because of the color of my skin. Maybe I don’t get promoted because I don’t do a good job, not because of my skin color.
I eliminated the horse I cannot control. I only see good things that happen. This doesn’t mean I don’t think discrimination exists, but I’m not going to let the horse I cannot control guide my life.
If you shift failure onto horse you cannot control, you feel helpless and unmotivated.
THE J: A lot of your life has been around education. As a professor, what do you hope to draw out of your students?
VG: Exactly what my grandfather did for me, I try to do with my class. Everything in my life, I owe to him. I never wanted to let him down.
He pushed me to higher levels of performance.
Even though he’s no more, his spirit is always with me. I almost feel like he is listening in on this conversation, telling me: “VG, you can do better.”
When I teach, I don’t believe I’m teaching innovation or strategy. I’m helping students increase their aspiration level.
I want them to think bigger, bolder. I’m teaching them to achieve something they didn’t think was possible.
Ambition is most important. Without competence, nothing happens. But you need ambition.
Without ambition, competence doesn’t get you very far.
That’s what I try to instill. You have to think about something bold to change the world. You have to set very high goals. If you set very high goals, your performance rises.
THE J: You focus on the question of how to empower the world’s four-billion poor. What about education? We have easy access to information and education in the west. What needs to happen for those four-billion poor to make educational gains?
VG: Key question. My life’s work is to focus on the four-billion poor, who I call non-consumers. They don’t have access to healthcare, clean water, housing. They don’t have access to good education.
This problem requires breakthrough innovation. Access to good, quality, affordable education is the most important thing.
The power of education has given me what I have today.
How do we make it available to those four-billion? We have to fundamentally rethink our educational model.
To get a Dartmouth undergraduate degree costs $75,000 a year. Very expensive, only the very rich can afford it.
If you take a loan for $300,000, you’ll be paying it back for the rest of your life.
If you don’t give access to good, quality education to the four-billion poor, they’ll be mired in poverty.
THE J: Can we make it more affordable? Why is it so expensive?
VG: Three things.
One, we bundle teaching and research and sell that. Teaching brings in revenues, research does not. But the student is asked to pay for both.
For instance, I only teach one class at Tuck and it only meets twice a week for four-and-a-half weeks.
99% of my time is not spent teaching, but the poor student pays for 100% of my salary. I’m only giving them one percent of my salary value.
The second is: we do everything residential. You have to build dormitories, labs, classrooms, you have to have money for the football stadium.
The third reason why the cost is so high is that we admit students in the principle of exclusion, not inclusion.
Colleges are ranked based on how exclusive they are. Dartmouth claims it only admits 10% of students, can’t accept 90% of applicants.
Can you think of another company that throws away 90% of the customers who want to pay for the product?
To shift the scene for the four-billion poor, this model cannot work. Not only is it exorbitant, but we need to use a principle of inclusion.
We have to completely turn the American educational model upside down.
We’ll need to think radically differently to bring down Dartmouth-level education to $500. If we can do that, the four-billion poor can afford it.
Once they can, they also get the chance I’m having. And they deserve the chance.
THE J: In The Other Side of Innovation, you mention Thomas Edison’s point that “Genius is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration.” In the context of this quote, why do so many ideas not get off the ground?
VG: People get so wrapped up in ideas. Just coming up with a brilliant idea like creating an education for $500 is just an idea.
That idea means nothing unless you can build the infrastructure, the curriculum, the technology, the platform to bring to students. All of it is hard work.
Idea generation doesn’t lead to failure. We say, in brainstorming, no idea is a bad idea. Only when you execute an idea is failure visible.
People mistake innovation for creativity. Innovation is commercializing creativity. Creativity is about the idea, the 1%.
99% of innovation is hard work. People forget about that.
THE J: And it requires long-term commitment.
VG: Exactly. It’s dull and boring, there’s long, drawn-out, many painful years. Building the infrastructure is hard work.
Every person that I teach hopefully can go do something from my ideas.
THE J: You discuss the idea of managing tension between short-term and long-term priorities and how that can be a challenge for an organization, about implementing behavior now that’ll facilitate change in 2030. What about on a personal level? Are there tangible things you do to practice this mindset?
VG: The key is to be aware that future is not about what you have to do to the future, the future is now. That is the main message we are to remember.
How you conduct your life today is how you will be in 2030.
Come to terms with that, then you can deal with the short-term and long-term trade-off more meaningfully.
A good example would be doing exercise. If you do exercise every day, you have good health in the year 2030.
But today you may wake up and say: “Oh, I’m kind of busy, I‘ve got to talk to VG, I cannot do exercise today.”
When you don’t do exercise today, your health doesn’t diminish today. Your health diminishes in 2030. That’s why it’s very easy to push off because when you push off long-term investments, it doesn’t feel like it hurts you today. Therefore, you don’t see the decay in your health.
The decay is so small today you can’t notice it. It is very easy to slip.
Future is now.
If you remember that, then every day you‘ll wake up and say “I have got to invest in the year 2030 today.”
If you live every day only focusing on the short-term, one day will be June 10, 2030. That’s a lousy way to live, because you have forgotten to invest in the future.
THE J: You’re a gifted speaker and storyteller. You package complicated topics very succinctly in a way that’s easy to follow. Why is storytelling important?
VG: In India my family told me a lot of stories. I like storytelling as a way to influence people because stories are memorable.
Stories go to your heart. If you just do logical analysis, it only goes to your brain. Stories hit your heart. Stories are enjoyable.
You can reduce complexity and make lessons stand out. Parables are very powerful that way.
And you can become better at storytelling. I encourage fellow teachers to craft their lessons as a story. That way they remember it and people they teach remember it, too.
THE J: If you were starting out in a career today, what areas would attract your attention?
VG: Three industries that are phenomenal opportunities: energy, health, and education.
Digital technologies are playing a huge role. The bulk of the world lacks access to these three things, which I think are basic needs.
THE J: What are you working on now?
VG: An article will come own in Harvard Business Review in July or August of 2015 that I’m really excited about. I’ve been writing with a professor of mechanical engineering at MIT.
He was designing a product and was following the principles of Reverse Innovation (one of the 11 books VG has written) without knowing what the term was.
He described to me what he was doing, which was mind-boggling because I am not an engineer. I brought the business management lens and he brought the engineering science. We married the two.
THE J: Why do you do what you do?
VG: I have a very simple purpose in my life. That purpose goes to the question of why.
The purpose is to increase the reach and impact of my ideas, to increase the reach and impact of my intellectual capital in the area of innovation.
I’m not doing research and writing articles for the heck of it. It’s to change the world. It’s to reach as many people as I can and have maximum impact. That’s why I write books, that’s why I work with companies, that’s why I teach.
Every person that I teach hopefully can go do something from my ideas.
I measure my life in terms of whether or not I’ve maximized the impact of my ideas.