Of Mirror pools and the leap of faith…
Catching up with the Founding Class of ISB 15 years on, this article has been written by Reshma Krishnan Barshikar, Class of 2003. She is a travel writer and the author of Fade Into Red (Vintage Books, Random House India), which debuted in the Top 10 Amazon new releases in 2014.
Not many people know this, but ISB actually gave the 130 students of the Founding Class a choice to opt out. ‘Realising the school wouldn’t be ready in time, they chose to be transparent with us and invited us to see what they actually had in place,’ says Vinay Krishna, a Founding Class member. He remembers driving into a building site through concrete pillars that would eventually become the large ISB gate we are now so familiar with; nothing was ready. They learned they would be taught at the luxury hotel, Taj Krishna, for the first month or so. It was a testament to those backing the school—Sumantra Ghoshal, Rajat Gupta and Deepak Jain—that only one student dropped out after that visit, along with two more during the first three months, culminating in a final batch number of 127. Fifteen years on, we ask some members of that group of pioneers to look back in time through French windows that opened out to mirror pools — pools that reflected both the deep blue Hyderabad sky and the collective dreams of a class that took a wondrous leap of faith.
Andrew Poon - Partner, Insurance Practice Leader Asia Pacific, Egon Zehnder
Andrew Poon’s first day at ISB was memorable, to say the least. After a layover in Delhi, where he slept on an airport bench for four hours, he was picked up and taken to Taj Krishna since campus accommodation was still under construction, only to find that he was the first and only international student in the Founding Class, something that he gets emotional about to this day. He recalls his year at ISB, including the three months spent on exchange at London Business School, as the most unique experience of his life. Born and brought up in Hong Kong in a largely homogenous culture, he was astounded by the diversity of his class. ‘They were all Indian, yet no one was the same. It was a truly international experience,’ says Poon. Everyday was a revelation, be it the food (fish mouli!) or the life stories of his motley classmates. He remembers long evening walks and ‘twisting his legs’ to blaring Bollywood music. Post-ISB, he returned to Citibank and got back-to-back promotions but couldn’t shake the seed planted during his favourite ISB course—Transformational Leadership. He fulfilled his ambitions by joining Egon Zehnder in 2007 and making partner in 2014. Despite never having gone back to ISB after graduating, he hosted two batches of students at Egon Zehnder and continues to sift through the ‘most complete’ set of Founding Class photographs, which he promises to share during his first Solstice later this year.
Vinay Krishna - Co-founder and CEO, Jigserv Digital Private Limited
On August 1, 2011, Vinay Krishna fulfilled his long-standing wish of becoming an entrepreneur by founding Jigserv Digital. On August 11, 2011, he attended an ISB celebration, and Ajit Rangnekar (ISB Dean, March 2003-December 2003) asked him whether his 10-day-old company could possibly help ISB figure out their digital marketing strategy. ISB became his second client and remains an important one to this day. ‘ISB has been a great catalyst in my life,’ he says, talking about the confluence of events that led to the formation of Jigserv, itself a collaboration between four ISB classmates. Having grown up in Allahabad, Vinay's wish to go to IIT and become and engineer was de rigueur. However, having no inclination to trudge the beaten path and head stateside, Vinay began working right out of college and built an enviable resume, despite having to resign from his first-ever job at Shaw Wallace when he refused to compromise himself ethically. By the age of 27, he was heading the Sales and Marketing business at ITC Infotech and subsequently spent a couple of years at SAP. Aware that the lack of an MBA might hamper his career in the future and knowing it would come in handy if he ever became an entrepreneur, choosing ISB was a no-brainer. As one of the more senior students at ISB in terms of work experience, he was often sought out for advice. He also prides himself on hosting the first-ever ISB mirror pool party. But his proudest moment came when he lit the lamp at the school's inauguration. To stand on the same stage as Deepak Jain, Sumantra Ghoshal and the then Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu, he says, was not just one of the best of his ISB days, but of the whole period.
Mehul Bhatt - Senior Vice President, Equities, HSBC
Mehul has only one word for his first day at ISB: ‘insanity’. Nothing was ready, ‘ceilings were falling’, he recalls, but he wouldn’t change it for anything. He credits ISB with preparing him for a career in investing, saying, ‘the degree opened doors for me like engineering never could.’ Having studied in Matunga, Mumbai, all his life, he began his career at Kodak, working in supply chain management until he came across an advertisement for ISB. Knowing no one on Dalal Street would hire an engineer, he decided to take the plunge along with a ‘bunch of risk takers.’ His fondest memories seem to revolve around his professors at ISB, and he rattles off names like Raghuram Rajan, Sunil Chopra, Zed Catalan and Bhagwan Chowdary as though he’d taken their classes yesterday. ‘I think out of the six cases we did, four were wrong just to catch us on the backfoot,’ he laughs, and adds, ‘I owe them a huge intellectual debt. I remember every case like a photograph.’ Like everyone else, ‘dunking’ has become the activity that bookends every ISB memory. He thinks the school has ‘pounded the table hard,’ acquiring a vintage and pedigree that is unheard of for a 15-year-old school. He is proud that it has garnered a reputation he could have only dreamed of as he sat around a mirror pool 15 years ago, eating Maggi and discussing the nuances of crystal ball forecasting at 2 a.m.
Divya Kapoor - Consultant, Program Evaluation, Global Environment Facility
With a Bachelor in Design from NIFT and an MA in English Literature and Economics under her belt, Divya Kapoor was already on a corporate track with Madura Garments and was considering further studies later in her career. But one meeting with Sumantra Ghoshal had her enthralled and inspired her to dive right in. She recalls walking into the ISB roadshow in Bangalore ‘a designer and a dreamer’, and walking out having realised her calling in that brief interaction. In over a decade, Divya has leapfrogged from strategy planning at Piramal Enterprises in Mumbai to the African Development Bank in Tunisia, and is currently working at the Global Environment Facility in Washington D.C., contributing to global efforts towards sustainable development. Her focus on innovation has served her well as she pivoted from a mainstream corporate career to one in economic development and policy. While others count the decision to go to ISB as a risk, she, true to form, takes a contrarian view that it was a somewhat risk-averse move and an honour to be part of an initiative backed by such stellar faculty and a pre-eminent board. The first designer to ever be admitted to ISB, Divya’s fondest memories comprise studying corporate finance with Raghuram Rajan, marketing with Dipak Jain, Vijay Mahajan and the present ISB Dean, and, most of all, inspiring coursework in leadership and change management with Sumantra Ghoshal that encouraged her to welcome new experiences, such as living in Tunis where she witnessed historic changes unfurl in the Arab region. Fluent in French, she has also recently completed a mid-career Master's in Public Policy from the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.
Mayank Bansal - Principal, A T Kearney
When I ask Mayank about landing at ISB on the first day only to find himself at a hotel, he responds, ‘I never cared about infra. I cared about the people — my classmates and the faculty — and on that front, they really delivered.’ In fact, Mayank revelled in the incipiency of it all, the ability to influence key decisions, create communities and streamline the placement process. ISB resonated well with his core philosophy of enjoying things as they are. ‘Don't fret over what you don’t have,’ he says, and adds that the flexibility was liberating: ‘I don’t like being told what to do; what I did with my year was completely up to me.’ While IIT was largely homogeneous, the diversity of ISB, especially the time spent with the families of his classmates, is something he cherishes to this day. While others remember partying or studying, Mayank recalls playing with the children of his classmates, who he says grew up in front of his eyes, and kicking the ball at twilight in the football ground, the only recreational facility actually up and running at the time. While his heart was set on finance, a chance meeting with Pramath Sinha (ISB Dean, June 2001-June 2002), prompted him to apply to McKinsey, and he’s been in consulting ever since. ‘I have to blame ISB for a life in consulting,’ he laughs. He is proud to lead the recruiting at ISB for AT Kearney, and while he had a few misgivings about the class sizes, he’s happy to say that ISB remains their top choice during placements.
Manojit Bose Senior Director, Smart Cities, Domestic IT & eGov. at NASSCOM
Manojit’s voice breaks a little as he says ‘family’ when I ask him about what his most lingering ISB moments were — memories of his toddler shaking hands and beaming up at Sumantra Ghoshal and weekends spent making dinner with his late wife Shoba in their family apartment in SV2. Today, Manojit is a Senior Director at Nasscom overseeing Smart Cities, Domestic IT and governance, but his journey was in many ways spurred by the self-belief he gained at ISB. While he mentions ‘faculty and peer group’ as the highlights of the year, pride and vision are the gifts he left ISB with — the ones that have been imperative to his achievements ever since. Though he arrived at ISB a seasoned global professional with almost 10 years of work experience under his belt, including stints at both L&T and TCS, ISB was a revelation of what was possible when smart minds came together and worked towards a singular vision. This inspired him to lead the development and implementation of eDistrict in Ranchi, which received two national awards in 2013.
Sumeet Salwan - Partner, KPMG Management Consulting
Sumeet Salwan has a lot of firsts to his name. He was the first of his class to be dunked in the mirror pool, but more importantly, he was also part of the ‘first couple’ of ISB. When I ask him about the madness surrounding leaking pipes and fallen ceilings, he laughs and says, ‘I had already connected with Shalu within a month and I had far more wonderful things on my mind.’ Growing up in a small city with limited exposure, Sumeet’s expectations from an MBA school were limited to the academic. While ISB more than delivered on that front, his fondest memories, apart from evening walks with Shalu, were his interactions with the who’s who of business—icons of the likes of Narayanan Murthy and Anil Ambani. He is proud of his classmates, all of whom he says have done ‘phenomenally well’ because ISB made each and every one of them a little bit of an entrepreneur, less by design and more due to circumstances. The entire class was instrumental in setting up the school, which has made them extremely close as a group and forged a fierce sense of ownership of the school, something that drives him even today. For instance, Sumeet joined KPMG almost seven years ago and has been the company’s placement representative at the ISB , increasing their intake from zero five years ago to 16 last year across their five practices. He has also taken part in the admissions process for the last three years, gaining insights which will come in handy in the future. ‘I am so happy about the school that I won’t be averse to having my daughter go there’, Sumeet says. There can be no greater testimonial for ISB than that.