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How pursuit of excellence made IITs a unicorn mill

Jul 06, 2022

Even though my claim to fame is a book (and subsequently a movie) about what is wrong at the IITs, fact remains I am deeply in love with my alma mater.

While the IITs are by no means perfect, they remain one of the true symbols of Indian excellence even today. We have all seen the news articles: record salaries, record valuations of startups created by IITians, and prominent CEOs worldwide coming from this institution. Some reports suggest the IITs rank 4th among colleges worldwide whose alumni have founded unicorns (companies with $1bnplus valuations). Only Stanford, Harvard, and University of California are ranked higher.

The stated purpose of the IITs was different, and the planning for it had begun even before Independence. When the first IIT was opened in Kharagpur, West Bengal, the reasons were part visionary, part political. PM Nehru wanted an Indian institution to create technology professionals. With Soviet help, and with the logic of being in Bengal because several mining and manufacturing companies were located there, IIT Kharagpur was opened at the site of a detention camp. Who would have thought this initiative would one day help create Zomato, Flipkart, Ola, Policybazaar and many other companies that are household names in India today!

More IITs followed at Mumbai (1958), Chennai (1959), Kanpur (1959) and Delhi (1961). The idea was to give each region – North, South, East, West and Central India – an IIT. More IITs have opened since (there are 23 in all at present), and the brand remains impeccable in terms of what it can do to your resume if you are lucky enough to study there.

There are half-a-dozen unicorns from IIT Delhi alone, where I studied. My sense of inadequacy at being unable to do what some of my college mates have done apart, this a major source of pride for all Indians. It shows how special the institutes are, which have stood tall for more than seven decades and yet are at the cutting edge of innovation. Even those IITians who haven’t created famous unicorns go on to contribute in whatever job or career they pursue, and reach pinnacle positions in their careers. From tech and banking to top IAS officers, IITians are making their mark everywhere. Most large-cap companies in India will have IITians in their top management. There have been IITian researchers and academicians. There have also been IIT politicians, union ministers, RBI governors and top police officers. Yes, some IITians even become writers. How did this happen? Perhaps by design, or partly by chance, the IITs were incentivized to pursue excellence and continue to do so until today. Sure, there’s some politic , but it’s much less than you find in other places. From the selection of the students to the dedication of the professors, to the housekeeping staff that keeps the campus clean – there is a pride in the institution and relentless pursuit of doing things well.

In India, we sometimes ignore or even punish excellence. For we are a democracy, and democracy means inclusion. However, excellence often demands some exclusivity. Excellence means rewarding the best and those who strive to get better. The IITs have been fortunate to be allowed to pursue that exclusivity. And the results are for all to see. As free India turns 75, we need to not only be proud of the IITs, but also learn the broader message – that when you pursue and reward excellence, you create something beautiful.

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