As an Indian business leader, Azim Premji has always punted against the current. He was one of the first, if not the pioneering, leaders of the country’s IT revolution, transforming Wipro from a vegetable oil and other consumer products company he inherited from his father, which totalled $2 million in sales in 1966, to a multi-billion dollar group with earnings chiefly from IT. Steering the group away from a business where margins were relatively secure to what was, in the 1970s and 1980s, still uncharted territory surely requires more than just gumption and a taste for risk—a gift of vision, perhaps? Independent India’s early years didn’t see many second-generation industrialists demonstrate comparable vision. In 1979, a year after India expelled IBM for re-selling refurbished computer hardware at steep prices to government departments, Premji saw an opportunity, and Wipro became one of the first feathers India’s fledgling IT industry sprouted. As technology investments poured in globally towards the end of 1990s, Wipro and Premji, respectively, saw their market cap and net worth skyrocket. In the meanwhile, Wipro and its leadership gathered global acclaim for the high-quality talent hired and the exceptional training opportunities they provided.
There is no denying that Wipro is no Infosys or HCL, but Premji’s leadership is not only about how big he made Wipro. As he steps down as Wipro’s chairman—he will take on a non-executive role on the board—the story of his leadership must also recount what else he did along the way and how. Placing the right bets at the right time earned Premji an enviable personal fortune, but there has never been even an of extravagance in his life within or outside Wipro’s boardroom. Recognised for his modesty and high ethical conduct as a business person—something that can’t be said of all his peers in corporate India—Premji’s defining legacy will be his philanthropy. Having established the Azim Premji Foundation, a non-profit, in 2001, he has already pledged $21 billion of his personal wealth as part of the Giving Pledge which has seen the likes of Warren Buffet and Bill Gates donate significant parts of their wealth for work on bettering the future of the planet. With the Foundation, Premji had intended to improve the quality of elementary education in rural India. The Foundation has now helped tens of thousands of schools in the country access computer-aided education. It also sponsors the Azim Premji University that is focussed on academic work that can help uplift the oppressed classes.
While many business leaders, from India and elsewhere, have committed to giving away large portions of their wealth, Premji remains a singular donor. Even when, in March this year, he bequeathed a fresh chunk to the Premji Foundation, the Indian Philanthropy Report, brought out by Bain and Company, noted that excluding Premji’s donations, large-ticket donations by India Inc had fallen 4% since 2014 even though the proportion of those with a net-worth of over $50 million had grown by 12%. A spotless reputation of leadership and giving aside, Premji has also challenged the paradigm on inheritance. His son, Rishad Premji, succeeds him as Wipro’s executive chairman, but Premji senior largely leaves the latter to create his own wealth.