Sanjay Govil is an Indian American businessman and chairman of Infinite Computer Solutions, a company he founded in 1999. He also owns the Delhi Acers badminton team. His passion for education has led him to support causes such as training programs for young entrepreneurs. He also sits on the graduate executive board of The Wharton School. On a recent visit to Delhi, he took chatted with BrainGain Magazine and shared some advice on studying abroad. Edited excerpts:
You went to school in Delhi, and then did your undergraduate degree in engineering at Auburn University in Alabama. What was it like academically, and also to adjust to a new culture?
Grade school was in Delhi – Mount St. Mary’s. My dad was a professor at IIT Delhi. During 12th grade, I moved to the US. I did my undergraduate studies at Auburn, because my father was teaching there. Then I worked at IBM, and did my master’s at Syracuse University. Later I did graduate work at The Wharton School of Business.
It was an interesting experience to move to Alabama. People often think the southeastern US is not very progressive, but I found that people there are welcoming, open, willing to learn. I also found that the education I had got in India was more than sufficient for me to survive in the US. What was interesting is that how we solve a problem in India is very different from how they do it in the US… in chemistry, for example, converting units from grams to ounces. Sometimes I’d get the right answer using the methodology I learned in India, and I could never quite convince the teacher how I got my answer!
How did the move affect you personally?
When you go to the US – I went there in the 1980s – you’re insecure. Your goal is to just finish your education, because your future’s uncertain, you need to get a green card or work visa. You have to be focused.
Overall it was a positive experience, because in India I was a shy kid. But over there, I opened up, because I had to survive in a totally new environment – to excel in a different culture, with its different way of talking, and to keep my grades up.
So after graduation, you worked at IBM and then decided to study at Syracuse University?
Syracuse was a part-time program. IBM used to offer graduate courses at Syracuse, and the professors used to come to the IBM facility near Binghamton, NY. Once in a while we had to go to the campus.
Working full-time while getting a master’s degree in electrical engineering must have left you with no time for anything else.
I used to play cricket for Syracuse University! I went to the campus every weekend. There was a league there – we used to play with RIT [Rochester Institute of Technology], Buffalo [State University of New York]. It was challenging, because I wanted to get done with the degree. I finished it in about three years, I think. The good part is that you can work at your own pace during the semester. We had classes twice a week, and if we missed a class because of work, we had videotapes. Obviously, I didn’t get the campus experience, but I already had that at Auburn. It was something I really wanted to do, because I felt it would help me in my ambitions. It’s important to continue sharpening your skills and adding things to your reservoir.
As an entrepreneur, what advice do you have for students? How can they prepare for their career or business, say, five years from now?
The first thing, which is very critical, is: have some idea of what you want to do. I know this is hard to comprehend when you’re in high school. That’s why it’s important to get exposure to as many things as possible while you’re in high school and in college. Use all the tools and opportunities that school provides.
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I’m a big believer in K-12 education. You can have a great impact on people during that age, and also those who go to college. So we started TiE DC, a young entrepreneur program, which I’ve sponsored from inception. We have boot camps for children… We provide exposure to entrepreneurship, they write business plans, they go and get funding, and if they do well they get an award. The number of letters I’ve got from students who have been in the boot camps, who want to take up entrepreneurship as a result, is just outstanding.
The other thing is to be a good human being, to connect with other people. To be a good entrepreneur, having an idea is one thing, but being able to pitch the idea, get traction, it’s more than just entrepreneurship. A lot of good products fail in the marketplace because they haven’t been able to get the right traction. Knowing your customer, knowing what you are as an entrepreneur, and how to connect with the people you’re trying to make a change for, is critical. So you need to have diverse knowledge, follow the media, be aware. Being good at studies or having a perfect SAT score doesn’t make you a good entrepreneur. Having and executing an idea is one small part of being an entrepreneur. You have to understand the business side, numbers, marketing, strategy, project execution, how to lead teams…
I’m on the board of The Wharton School of Business, and we have an internship program for children. My motto is: exposure to as many things as possible, hands-on, and exposure to things you don’t normally learn in school and college.
Yes, I was going to ask you to tell us about your association with The Wharton School. Could you tell us a bit about that?
Yes, I’m on the graduate board of directors. We have meetings and define the future direction for initiatives at The Wharton School. I’m also involved with students… I’ve always had a love and passion for education.
How often are you in India?
I come to India four or five times a year. I’m here right now because I own the Delhi badminton team, the Delhi Acers. We have a match today!
What’s your advice to students who are trying to choose schools to study abroad?
Don’t get focused on going to an Ivy League school or Stanford. Focus on your interests, and do a match based on that. Somebody might be great at sports, someone else at films, or the sciences, some people want to be well-rounded and have a good time. We all have this idea that there are only five or six great schools, but that’s not the case. Institutions accredited by the appropriate agencies all have high academic standards. Schools like the University of Texas at Austin, or University of Michigan – they’re awesome! They give you a well-rounded education and a great experience.
Every school has a couple of distinct specialized strengths, and they have the top faculty in that area. You have to align your interests with their expertise. For example, Syracuse University is one of the best schools for international business and for journalism. Top journalists have come out of there.
Experience also really matters.
What kind of experience? Do you mean internships?
Yes, internships, and also co-op programs. A co-op program is offered by certain schools that let you work for one semester, and study for one semester. It takes longer to graduate. I think Drexel University is an example. An undergraduate degree takes five years, as opposed to the usual four.
Do non-US citizens also qualify for co-op programs?
Absolutely! There are a few universities that do that. Now, Princeton University, for example, has a program where first-year students get international experience.
Education is more than classroom study. It’s the experience – learning from your fellow students, learning from what’s around you.
It’s a funny thing, you know - I studied under the ICSE board, and we had to study Shakespeare, one book for two years. The meaning of every sentence was analyzed to death, probably more than what Shakespeare intended. But that gave me a great insight – I look at everything from inside the box and outside.