“I strongly believe that those of us, who are privileged to have wealth, should contribute significantly to try and create a better world for the millions who are far less privileged.”
– Azim Premji
These words of wisdom come from one of the world’s wealthiest as well as benevolent business tycoons. As of June 2021, his net worth is a whopping US $32.9 billion. He lives by the belief he uttered in the quote above, having signed the noble Giving Pledge in the year 2013 where he committed to giving away half of his wealth. In fact, he is the very first Indian and the third non-American to join the club. Needless to say, in the world of philanthropy, Azim Premji is a trailblazer.
1. Illustrious name
This 75-year-old has the unique distinction of being listed not once but twice among the 100 most influential people by TIME magazine. Respected publications such as Financial Times, Forbes and Fortune have all bestowed him with similar accolades, because of his business acumen, altruism and contributions to improving education. He is The Journal of Foreign Policy’s top global thinkers. Most recently, EdelGive Hurun India Philanthropy List 2020 ranked him as the most generous philanthropist in India. Last year, he had donated a total of Rs. 7,904 crore for charitable activities.
Being the founder chairman of Wipro, he was formerly called the Czar of the Indian IT industry. For four decades, he was leading the company with his astute vision into a force to reckon with. By the start of the new millennium, this tech magnate was one of the world’s richest people. Azim Premji quit his position as Executive Chairman in 2019 to focus on philanthropy. His son Rishad Premji took over the baton with the same humility and rootedness you see in Premji Sr. The confident Harvard grad believes that business organisations must serve a larger social purpose.
2. A simple life
Despite being a tech magnate and business tycoon with enormous wealth, Azim Premji lives a simple and modest life. He was known to fly economy class and stay in budget hotels until recently. If he was travelling with his son Rishad, he would insist on sharing the hotel room. Rather than buying Lamborghinis as other billionaires do, his usual mode of transport was a humbler Ford Escort. This at a time when he had the personal wealth to buy off Ford Motor Company!
3. The beginnings
Born Azim Hasham Premji on 24th July 1945 in Mumbai (then Bombay), two years before India was declared an independent nation, he comes from a Gujarati Muslim family. The same year little Azim came into the world, his father Mohamed Hashim Premji started a small venture for selling vanaspati. It was called Western Indian Vegetable Products Ltd. Little did he know when he was starting the business that his son would diversify it into one of the top software companies on the planet.
The Premjis chose to stay in India rather than go to Pakistan after the Partition of 1947. Azim Premji went on to study engineering at Stanford University in the US, but had to return before he could graduate due to an unfortunate circumstance. His father had passed away unexpectedly. Azim took over the responsibility of his family business on his young shoulders and put his mind to work on growth. From hydrogenated vegetable oil, he started diversifying into soaps, shoes and lightbulbs and eventually computers.
In the year 1977, Western Indian Vegetable Products Ltd. became the more relatable Wipro, which was more tech-driven. The exit of IBM from India two years later gave a fillip to the expansion of Wipro. Premji went about strengthening his computer business, and entered many new partnerships as a computer hardware company in the 80s decade. Astute businessman that he was, he knew that computers were the future and expanding in this sector would only reap rewards, as they did!
Apart from having his finger on the pulse, he also was a good employer. He became known for scouring for the best talent and putting the new hires through world-class training. He started focussing on developing custom software over time. He had the vision to dip into India’s growing pool of software engineers before Americans could lay their hands on them. Wipro went on to become a world leader in the 90s due to this foresight.
Having successfully built his company into a world leader, Azim Premji felt the need to contribute to society and address the developmental challenges facing his homeland. In 2001 he established the nonprofit Azim Premji Foundation. Dileep Ranjekar assisted him in setting up the foundation. The nonprofit organisation started off primarily for the purpose of quality education in rural India. The Foundation works with over 3,50,000 schools.
Azim Premji University originated in response to the challenges that Azim Premji Foundation came across in over a decade of work in elementary education. It is contributing to the Education sector and overall development of India through its courses and need-based scholarships. Azim Premji University makes an explicit commitment towards social change using the vehicle of education. The programmes are in the service of building a just and humane society. The values are liberal and humanistic but the intent is the political and social development of the country. The mandate of the University is not limited to school education. It includes other allied fields such as livelihoods, health, governance, and sustainability which contribute to human development as a whole.
In 2014, the Foundation built a third significant thrust to its work by setting up the Azim Premji Philanthropic initiatives (now called the Philanthropy). It is a grants organization which provides financial support through multi-year grants to nonprofit organizations working for the upliftment of the most vulnerable. The Philanthropy also engages in systematic collaboration with State Governments and not-for-profit organizations to address large scale humanitarian and development challenges.
Azim Premji refuses to conform to notions of how billionaires should behave. His disinterest in holding positions of power or showing off the usual trappings of wealth are proof. He believes in simplicity and generosity, and has lived by those beliefs since his youth.