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IIT meet: A star-studded affair

Last updated on: October 16, 2009 21:23 IST

IIT meet: A star-studded affair

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Arthur J Pais in Schaumburg, Illinois

The delegates at the Pan IIT Global conference heard Swami Vivekananda quoted several times on making India strong, Well, that invocation should not have surprised anyone. For, the conference which drew 2,000 people, including many non-IITians, was taking place in Schaumburg, close to the windy city where the Indian monk had addressed the World Parliament of Religion in 1897 and made history.

The 7th global IIT conference with the theme -- entreprenurship and global economy -- took place from October 9 to October 11.

The conference, which was giving out for the first time a number of awards, saluted the late Rajeev Motwani, Stanford Professor and an entrepreneur with a vast clout and also to a handful of current IITian leaders, including Padmasree Warrior, chief technology officer of Cisco. She was recently declared one of the 50 top women leaders in the world by the Financial Times.

"It was a sold out event", said conference chairman Ray Mehra. "This was one of the largest professional conferences of its kind attended by professionals as well as students."

"We were able to energise the alumni group and the community in the Midwest to work as a team and put on a great conference and build stronger ties", he added.

"Its was not easy organising an event like this and yet we were able to find a broad-based support of sponsors amid one of the deepest recessions. Speakers ranging from Bill Clinton to Jim Rogers showed that we were able to attract indicates a growing level of respect for the IIT alumni."


Image: Daggubati Purandeswari, minister of state for human resource development, India, lights the ceremonial lamp.
Photographs: Paresh Gandhi
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The first PanIIT conference was held in San Jose and it celebrated the 50th anniversary of IIT Kharagpur. It was inaugurated by Bill Gates and had wide coverage, including a segment on CBS 60 Minutes. Since then, the conferences are held alternately in India and the US; the next one is scheduled to be held in New Delhi.

Among the many issues this conference addressed, Mehra continued, were sharing new trends and developments in healthcare, energy, education and infra-structure; networking for business relationships, connecting with other alumni and community leaders and addressing the issues facing the educators not only in India but also in the US.

The conference also reinforced the importance of IIT as a brand. "We wonder if there is any organisation like ours, with active chapters across the world, he mused,  connected not only to our alma mater but to also to entrepreneurs that emerged from the IITs.

It was not just a celebratory event, Mehra and many other participants said.

Though the IIT alumni group is a tremendously powerful human resource for the global community , they said, it is very much underutilised. A common refrain at the end of the conference, especially among the younger IITians was that the alumni community worldwide needs build more on it's successes and galvanize to achieve socio-economic goals for its members and the communities they are part of.


Image: Bill Clinton addressing the IIT meet.

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IITians can improve the education and job opportunity in the US too, said Aneesh Chopra, federal chief technology officer of the United States, who was one of the best-received keynote speakers.

And Ray Mehra agreed heartily. The alumni collectively and singularly can make a difference in the lives of people in India and across the globe, he mused. "We need to become more organised about community service projects of high priority."

The conference meant, at least forex-IITians, an opportunity to reconnect with their classmates and fellow IITians. "It is like a reunion of Ph.Ds, said one attendee, speculating at least one third of the guests had a Ph.D. Others also saw it as an opportunity to connect to their alma mater, and talk to their present and past directors and professors.

To many young people, it was an opportunity to shake hands with IITian legends, including Gururaj Desh Deshpande, and seek a few minutes to hear their pitch for business projects. And to dozens of non-IITians, the event offered opportunities to interact with some of the big names in the IT industry, including Rajat Gupta, retired managing director of McKinsey.

Deshpande, who serves as a member of MIT Corporation, and spends much time in social entreprenurship and helping the young entrepreneurs, declared that anyone who thinks of starting a company as a sacrifice will not succeed.

There should be a thrill in starting something new and staying put despite initial setbacks, he said. He dwelt on the same issue when he moderated the panel at the conference on Identifying New Business Opportunities.


Image: Sam Pitroda at the IIT meet.

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"I could not get into an IIT in India," said one young, would be entrepreneur.

"But being here makes me feel I am learning something. Besides, I have made many good contacts. Surely one of them could be my mentor, if not an angel investor.

The event not only heard call for action from three Indian government officials, practical counseling on starting businesses and talks on conservation and alternate energy programmes but also from top American academics and entrepreneurs on enhancing India's free market programmes.

President Bill Clinton, founder of the William J Clinton Foundation and a keynote speaker who received the maximum applause hailed IIT alumni for impacting millions of lives in positive ways across the world.

Apart from citing the work of the IITian Deshpande in backing Akshya Patra organisation which feeds about one million school children across India, he praised the IITians contribution to the society in India, America and elsewhere through with jobs creation through innovation. He also said the young entrepreneurs should not be discouraged by the slump in the economy.


Image: Gururaj 'Desh' Deshpande explains a point to the IITians and guests.

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Many IITians did not know that Akshaya Patra was started by an alumni who, while studying civil engineering in 1981, got interested in Swami Prabhupada teachings and his movement, ISKCON. At 24, the IITian decided to be a full-time monk and took on the name Madhu Pandit Das.

Other prominent keynote speakers included Aneesh Chopra who asked the help of IITians to help him and the educators locate and nurture talent in the depressed neighbourhoods in America.

Entrepreneur Nathan Myhrvold talked about an area which is relatively new to India: creating patents at the universities and selling them to giant corporations worldwide. This can be a great source to income to Indian educational institutions, he said.

Myhrvold, CEO of Intellectual Ventures, has a doctorate in theoretical and mathematical physics. A renaissance man, he is also an affiliate research associate of paleontology at the Museum of Rockies in Colorado; he funds and participates in paleontological research and yearly expeditions that take him from Utah to Mongolia.


Image: Keynote speaker Aneesh Chopra, Chief Technology Officer, United States.

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At such a conference, Indian universities and professors can learn a lot about how the professors and students at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard and many other educational institutions have created patents and earned millions, he said.

Ro Khanna, deputy assistant secretary in the Obama administration, too addressed the conference but requested media blackout, as an organiser at the conference informed he was speaking from his heart and not as a policymaker.

The list of speakers included Jim Owens, chairman and CEO of Caterpillar and Jim Rogers, a colourful and highly risk-taking entrepreneur and the CEO of Duke Energy, who travelled across the world on a motorcycle, and later in a car with his fiancee stopping over in 166 countries.

Tulsi Tanti, CEO of Suzlon, was another popular speaker. Of many distinguished academicians at the conference was Mohanbir Sawhney of Northwestern University.

Indian government was represented by the minister of state human resource development Daggubati Purandeswari, ambassador to the US Meera Shankar and the innovation advisor to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh Sam Pitroda.

Participants also heard a comment made by the Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh when IIT Impact Study was released last year: 'The IIT community can help translate the emerging wonder of India at 60, into the embodied success of India at 75.'

Subjects like electronic medical records and affordable healthcare were discussed by US director of health systems Vish Sankaran and PanIIT Board co-chair and founder of Public Health Foundation Rajat Gupta.

A fresher at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne, who had accompanied his mother, an IIT alumna, to the conference, said he was pleasantly surprised to know that many IIT graduates in India, and some from the US, were running macrocredit organisation, starting schools in villages and working on water supply projects in rural areas.

"Mom, I would like to spend a month with one of these NGOs", he said. "Are your friends running any of these NGOs?"


Image: The IIT meet in Schaumburg drew 2,000 people.

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