Dr. Deshpande’s Convocation Address

Dr. Deshpande, chairman and co-founder of Sycamore Networks, USA addresses graduands at the 7th Convocation of Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham. Reproduced below, is the complete text of his speech.


An Opportunity to Lead


Amrita WNAPresident, Swami Amritaswarupananda Puri, Pro-Chancellor, Brahmachari Abhayamrita Chaitanya, Vice-Chancellor Venkat Rangan, Respected Faculty, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen: Good Morning. I am honored to appear here today at the 7th Convocation of the Amrita University.

Before I say anything else, can I please ask the parents, grand parents and family members of the graduates to stand up? You deserve the most credit today. Can I request all the graduates to give them a big applause?

To the graduates: As I stand before you, I am looking at the next generation of leaders and entrepreneurs. You are the leaders of the 21st century. You will join the graduates of this distinguished institution before you who have already made a big difference. You, individually and as a whole, have an opportunity to change the world. I believe that and let me tell you why.


India has changed a lot since I graduated in 1973 from IIT Madras. In 70’s India was a young country struggling to find its place in the world. India had missed the industrial revolution and had no exposure to technology.

When you fast forward 37 years to the present you see a very different country and also a different world. In the new connected world, value creation has the same value independent of where you create it. India, with its cost advantage and talent, has harnessed the new situation and has become a key participant in the global economy. India has become home to some of the most respected companies in the world. Indians rank high in the list of the wealthiest in the world. India has revived its arts and culture, found its roots in its ancient literature and the practice of Yoga. India admits its problems with the disparity between the rich and the poor. India has found its place in the world.

Amrita WNAIf we fast forward another 37 years, during the tenure of your professional career, India has the potential to lead the world in several dimensions. The world will and has to change a lot. When I was growing up, the big debate was between Communism and Capitalism. A few years ago, it appeared that the market based economy had won. However, cracks are showing up in this new economic system. The free-market favours the rich, promotes consumption and assumes that natural resources like water and air are free. If all the six billion people on earth consume like Americans, we will quickly destroy the planet.

We need to innovate and find a new way of living. I hope that the new confident India will play an important role in coming up with the solution.

I live in Boston and visit India approximately every three months. A few months ago, I came to India with the President of MIT for a week and got to see India through her eyes. MIT tends to focus on technological innovation. The type of innovation going on in India is of a different nature. India is finding innovative solutions at a very low cost that can be scaled to serve hundreds of millions. Every problem that India solves needs to have scale. Because the affordability is low, every solution has to have the lowest cost in the world. Scale and low affordability also existed in India 37 years ago. However, India now has the new found confidence which rests on demonstrated success, knowledge of sophisticated technology and management skills. With this combination, India can come up with innovative solutions that can impact billions in the world. Entrepreneurship and innovation will be essential to come up with the new solutions.

A Career Built on Innovation & Entrepreneurship

Let me tell you about my entrepreneurial career. I have been very fortunate to have been a part of starting some very exciting for-profit and not-for-profit enterprises.

Amrita WNABefore I do that, let me tell how fortunate all of you are because your institution is lead by the grace of Amma. My wife Jaishree and I spent the last two days with Amma at the Ashram. I found her to be one of the best entrepreneurs I have seen; a person driven by the passion to help those in trouble, has consistently come up with entrepreneurial ventures powered by the simple concept of love for everyone. It is amazing to see that such a university can be built in such a short term and attract such distinguished faculty. You are the beneficiaries of Amma’s entrepreneurial drive with compassion. If each of you can do a small part of what Amma has done, you will transform this country and the world. Let me tell you a little bit of my journey.

I left India in 1973 after graduating from IIT Madras. I spent the 70s as a graduate student and teaching at universities in Canada. In the 80s, I worked for Motorola and rose through the management ranks. It was at Motorola that I got the taste of starting something new. In the 90s, I started my entrepreneurial career and started companies like Coral Networks, Cascade Communications and Sycamore Networks. However, my most prolific career in entrepreneurship has been in the last 10 years. I have started 5 new companies including exciting companies like Tejas Networks and A123 Systems. Tejas Networks is a telecommunications product company based in Bangalore. Tejas is defining, architecting, developing and manufacturing telecommunications products for the rapidly expanding telecommunications networks in India and around the globe. Every time you use your cell phone, 3 out of the 4 times, the chances are that the call goes through networks built by Tejas products.

A123 Systems is a company in Boston that is implementing rechargeable battery technology based on advanced nano-technology patents from MIT. It has developed Lithium Ion battery technology that has the potential to dramatically change the transportation industry by using the power from the electric grid to power cars and buses.

Amrita WNAInnovation is at the core of entrepreneurial opportunities. My wife Jaishree and I started a center called “Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation” at MIT about six years ago. The idea behind the center is to connect MIT innovators with relevance and increase the probability of innovation having societal and economic impact. The center so far has funded 80 ideas and already 20 of them have resulted in formation of new companies. This effort has brought the students from Engineering, Medicine, Management and other disciplines together in exploring ways to find routes to market for new technologies being developed at MIT. This effort has changed the mind set of MIT professors and new courses have been developed to teach ways to harness technological innovation. This has been a very successful experiment and several universities in USA are now duplicating the model.

Problems exist because people don’t see a way out of it. We thought we should bring the MIT model to India to solve the problems for millions of underserved masses. We have started a program called the “Social Entrepreneurship Sandbox”. The Sandbox refers to an area of five districts and head-quartered in Hubli-Dharwad. We have been funding about 60 Non-Governmental Organizations in the Sandbox. There are several young Americans spending time in Hubli bringing new ideas to the effort. We have created a critical mass of activity in the sandbox to create a Silicon Valley for Social Entrepreneurship. Akshaya Patra is an example of a program that was optimized in the Sandbox. Today it serves hot meals in Hubli to 185,000 students everyday and has scaled it to 12 lakh students across India in a short period of a few years.

I have found each one of these experiences to be very exciting and also very satisfying. Every opportunity starts with a vision of what is possible and how that possibility can make this a better world. It is critical that you recognize the core advantage that you and your team possess. However, in each of these journeys, I have found that the path is always harder than what I expected. This is where perseverance and having a good team helps to get over the hundreds of hurdles that one has to get through.

Career and Life Style Choices

Let me next focus on the choices that you have to make in your career over the next few years. At times you may feel like you are not in charge. However, don’t ever forget that you are the CEO of your life. Your everyday choices will decide how you accumulate either assets or liabilities. You will carry your personal balance sheet with you all your life. Knowingly or unknowingly, you make choices everyday.

Amrita WNAThere are some people who enjoy building mansions and others who like living in them. Good managers comfortably live in mansions and manage them. Leaders and entrepreneurs build mansions. Each one of you graduating today has been hand picked and groomed to be a leader. I hope that you will not squander that opportunity during your career.

You have been taught at this Institution to look at situations, come up with options, analyze the options and make the decision. This is a process that works well with routine matters. However, this approach fails when you have to make big decisions in your life such as getting married, having a child, buying a home or committing yourself to a new startup. Taking the plunge is very hard. In these situations the unknown overwhelms the known. If you keep analyzing the situation to become more comfortable with your choice, the opportunity will pass by. If you want to be an entrepreneur, you have to learn to take that plunge and be fully prepared to accept the consequences.

When you attempt to do difficult things, failure becomes a part of the game. Outsiders may look at a company and say that it is a very successful company. However, if you look at the company from inside, invariably it would have gone through several near-death experiences. It is the ability of the leaders to notice the failure, admit it and take a corrective action that makes a company successful.

As an entrepreneur, particularly at the early stages of the venture, it is a very lonely feeling. When things go wrong it is natural to have a “poor me” feeling, complain that the world is unfair and withdraw from the world. It is true that the world is unfair. However, every one in this gathering should never forget that the world has been unfairly generous to all of us. We are fortunate to have been given an opportunity to play the game. If, by mistake, a referee blows a whistle and makes a wrong call, brush it off and jump into the game with all the enthusiasm as opposed to walking out of the game.

All of you must be struggling with how to pick the right thing to do after you graduate. Don’t get trapped into thinking that you need to pick something where you can be successful and happily live ever after. I have found that it does not matter how successful you are, how much money you have, you can never buy enough insurance to happily live for ever after. You have to continuously reinvent yourself. Therefore, even though I am 37 years ahead of you I still go through the same exercise of finding the next exciting thing to do in my life as you do. Therefore accept the process of renewing yourself as a life-long exercise until your last breath.

Concluding Remarks

Amrita WNANow like a good professor let me assume that you slept through this lecture. Like an excellent professor let me give you an executive summary:

During the next few decades of your professional life, the world will face many challenges due to scarcity of resources, geo-political instability and inequality of the haves and the have-nots. At the same time, you will have at your disposal, several mind-boggling technological innovations and a large part of the population of the world available to participate in the economic activity of the world. The world we live in will go through an enormous amount of change. Every change is led by a leader. I hope that each one of you will lead a change that will make this a better world.

Most of you will get good jobs in safe environments. However, make sure that you don’t become too comfortable. Take the plunge, be entrepreneurial and have the courage to fail. When you face hurdles, don’t get paralyzed by the “poor me” syndrome. Use your conviction and your commitment to the cause to gain the strength and overcome the hurdle.

I have no doubt that each and every one of you will be very successful. However, make sure you don’t forget the less fortunate. We need to bring the full power of the technology and the new wealth created to improve the life of everyone on this earth.

Also, don’t forget the AMRITA UNIVERSITY; an Institute that is such an important part of your professional career. I am very impressed with the graduates of MIT, Harvard and Stanford. These graduates continue to stay connected with their Institutions and contribute their wealth, wisdom and time. You graduates are second to none in the world. You should all strive to make sure that your Institution will also be second to none in the world.

Amrita WNAI know you will all work very hard, but make sure you don’t lose your balance. I know several entrepreneurs in the United States who have been very successful, but at the end find that they are left with a lonely life. What I am saying now, may not make that much sense to you. As you get older, it will make increasingly more sense. I want you to keep this picture in your mind. In life you juggle several balls like your family, your friends, your health, your beliefs and your work. As you juggle, you may have to occasionally drop a ball. Work is a rubber ball and it will bounce back, if you drop it. Other balls are made out of crystal and they will shatter if you drop them. If you are not careful, you will be left only with the rubber ball at the end.

I am so grateful for the invitation to be with you today, on this day that celebrates the best India has to offer. Bring with you the enthusiasm and dedication you summoned to succeed here, add to it compassion and commitment, find happiness in your work, and in whatever you choose to do, you will be a leader.

August 28, 2010
University HQ, Coimbatore

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