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IIT alumni meet: Biggest and the best

May 20, 2005 23:18 IST

Over the past 18 months, the Global IIT Alumni Conference chair Suresh Shenoy and his core group of lieutenants, comprising the likes of Hiten Ghosh, Ashok Siddhanti, Sushma Shenoy, Santanu Bhattacharya, have been virtually maintaining a 24/7 schedule to cross the t's and dot the i's so they can lend credence to their boast that this meeting held in the Washington, DC area for the first time -- will be the 'biggest and the best.'

They say the Global IIT Alumni Conference to be held from May 20 to 22 would attract the largest number of participants, eclipsing the San Jose conference two years ago that drew over 2,200.

Unlike San Jose in 2003, there will be no Bill Gates to keynote the conference, but there will be the mercurial Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, to get things started with his address on 'Technology Without Borders' and its global impact, followed by the likes of Larry Summers, President, Harvard University; Arjun Singh, Indian Minister of Human Resource Development; Kapil Sibal, Minister of Science and Technology; KV Kamath, CEO and Managing Director, ICICI Bank; Bob Brown, Provost of MIT; Jerry Cohon, President of Carnegie Mellon University; C K Prahalad of the University of Michigan and acclaimed management guru; Lord Kumar Bhattacharya, Director, Warwick Manufacturing Group; and the directors of the seven IITs. Indian Ambassador Ronen Sen will deliver  the closing keynote.

There will also be the distinguished IIT alumni from the US who have  been catalytic in driving the various sectors they have been involved in and who are veritable household names in the corporate and information technology sectors: Ramani Iyer, CEO, The Hartford Financial Services Group; Victor Menezes, retired vice-chairman, CitiGroup; Raj Gupta, CEO, Rohm & Haas; Desh Deshpande, chairman, Sycamore Networks; Umang Gupta, CEO, Keynote System; Praveen Chaudhuri, Director, Brookhaven National Lab; Uma Choudhry, Chief of Research & Development, Dupont; Pradman Kaul, chairman and CEO, Hughes Network Systems; Purnendu Chatterjee, CEO, Chatterjee Group; and Raj Singh, chairman, LCC, among several others.

The estimated cost of the conference is $650,000 but it is expected to pull in over $1 million with a record number of registrants and platinum sponsors like the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development that has kicked in with $100,000, gold sponsors Capital One, The Hartford, and IMC, contributing $50,000 each, and silver sponsors Fairfax County Economic Development Authority kicking in with $25,000, besides several other sponsors chipping in with smaller amounts.

Shenoy said helping to put the conference together and nail down all of  the programs and speakers was an IIT alumni volunteer force across the world. "And you wouldn't believe in how many countries we've got IIT volunteers -- we've got them in Dubai, South Africa, the UK, Australia,

Canada, even in Venezuela and of course in India and the US."

"At last count we had over 150 volunteers working all over to put this together," he told

Shenoy, an alumnus from IIT-Mumbai, Class of 1972, in echoing the sentiments of all convenors and co-chairs, said in holding the conference in the Washington DC area, "We intend to show people in the US Congress and other branches of government, as well as academia, business and so on, that IIT alumni have come to represent more than just the IITs. They have come to represent in many ways, India's potential for human capacity."

"At last count in the US, we had a list of 60 plus CEOs and COOs from IIT controlling over $30 billion in assets," he said

Shenoy, in explaining one specific facet of alumni services that this conference hoped to brainstorm on, said, "While we don't have any hard evidence, about 20-25 percent of IIT graduates who are out of the system for more than 25 years are marginally employed."

"That doesn't mean they are economically hurting. They just don't have a full-time job. They are independent consultants -- they might have sold their company, made a few million dollars and they are in the 54,55,56 age range. They are not old enough to retire and play golf but they are not young enough to start a new career."

"There are similar people in mid-tier range -- in their mid-40s maybe, who are going through a career change. These are people who have done very well in corporate America, but they are saying, 'Hey, I need to do something else -- start a company or do something,'" he added.

Shenoy acknowledged this "is not unique to IIT, it's the same with some MIT alumni too."

"So when we started our whole planning process, we committed ourselves to provide alumni services and that we need to help these people who might be going through their mid-life career change or whatever and demonstrate to them that there is value in networking, but by the same token we do want to make sure that we brand the IITs as being symbolic of India's capacity for human capital."

Shenoy said, "We don't want India to be viewed only as a source for cheap labour. When you say outsourcing, the argument is cheap labor and there is a lot of animosity towards that. So we want to showcase that IIT graduates have actually invested in America and are generating employment -- they have created more than 150,000 jobs in the US and if you look at Silicon Valley today, 60 percent of the companies that are start-ups have at least one IIT graduate in the start-up ranks."

In terms of branding the IITs, he said it is imperative that "everything we do has to enhance the image of IITs, and by IITs we mean India."

In the meetings with US lawmakers and at the Congressional receptions being hosted by Congressman Tom Davis and Senator George Allen, Shenoy said, "We also want to make sure the US lawmakers and the public are made aware that the IIT engineers are among those who have pioneered cell phone technology in the US -- like Raj and Neera Singh of LCC -- those who have pioneered HDTV -- like Arun Netravali -- pioneered automobile manufacturing in many countries. This is meant to be more educational than lobbying."

Shenoy acknowledged that whether it is advocacy related to the US Congress or discussions with the directors of the IITs "on how they can adjust their curriculum to reflect workforce demand designed to reflect globalisation, we surely are not going to make a difference in one conference, but at least we can get a dialogue going."

He said hopefully two outcomes from the conference would be the proposed launch of an IIT Review, along the lines of MIT Tech Review and an IIT affinity card so that IIT-ians across the world would be able to contribute to their alma mater each time they use this IIT-issued credit card. Shenoy predicted that "given the spending habits and disposable income of IIT alumni, we could easily raise over $500,000 annually for the IITs if this card catches on."

IIT Review, he admitted, would be more ambitious because this could "showcase the work IIT professors are doing so that companies here would know for example that IIT-Mumbai has a nanotechnology lab and some American company can sponsor some research. This will be a magazine of a very high calibre and we are going to see how much money and backing we are going to get."

Besides a newsletter, "which is essentially a web clipping telling you what the IITs and IIT-ians are doing and whether there is an IIT-ian in the news," Shenoy said already in the works was also "a virtual resource portal where hopefully all IIT alumni from across the world can log on, exchange business ideas, look for another IIT graduate to work with you -- do mutual research cooperation, whatever. It is patterned after the MIT Resource Center, which does the same thing."

He said these projects would be launched with the $350,000 to $400,000 left over after the conference costs, including a full-time secretariat in India for the Pan-IIT organisation.

"So the conference is not going to be just a good party and then everybody leaves. We want to have sustainable initiatives," Shenoy said.

Hiten Ghosh, national vice chairman of Pan-IIT USA and president of Capital IIT, which is the host chapter for the conference, said reaching out to the younger generation through the connectivity of alumni services "is a major objective we intend to propagate."

Ghosh told, "Through the alumni we've got to nurture the next generation --alumni children -- to make sure they do not lose their roots and there we've got to think about services in the community we live and work. So this is not just thinking only about India. We should think about the community -- how to serve them."

However, with regard to serving India, he explained that "the major task of pan-IIT India is the rural transformation project, which we strongly support and become the mobilisation agency for. More than 80 per cent of India's population live in villages and we cannot neglect them and the project is all about how do we use our knowledge, power, etc for their benefit. So there is a huge plan and we are going to have a session at the convention, workshops, and we will be discussing it with HRD Minister Arjun Singh, and the dominant role we want to play."

Ghosh said, "For many of the alumni today, particularly those in mid-career, they are looking for something meaningful so they can go back, take some administrative job --technical job -- bring the advantages of the city to the villages -- and that's the rural transformation concept."

"That's our big project and through it we can show to the world that India is indeed the solid base of democracy rooted in the villages -- and what better way than for the IIT alumni to be the catalyst of this change! And that is what is called giving back -- not just in money, but time, effort, ideas."

Ghosh, who is also vice president of Hughes Network Systems, said Hughes would use its satellite system to broadcast the conference worldwide -- all the keynotes and panel discussions -- "so that everybody in India and the world over can watch the proceedings, and people who cannot attend the conference can participate virtually."