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Plain Talk on Education and Social Entrepreneurism from One with Humble Beginnings

IITAGH President Witty Bindra (left); Asia Society, Houston Director of Development, John Bradshaw Jr.; an Asia Society Houston staffer; Naveen Jain; Roopa Gir and Shantanu Agarwal at the talk by Jain at the Asia Society’s auditorium in the Museum district. Photo: Jawahar Malhotra

By Jawahar Malhotra

HOUSTON: As he paced back and forth across the stage, Naveen Jain spoke confidently about the future societies that he envisioned and the evolution and processes that would take us there. As a successful business executive– in 2000, Forbes ranked Jain’s net worth at $2.1 billion – he expected risk takers to also be social entrepreneurs who would herald in this vision. He was in Houston at the invitation of the Indian Institute of Technology Alumni of Greater Houston in its continuing efforts to foster education initiatives.

According to Jain, the future hinged on thinking outside the box and an education system that would engage students as they learnt rather than by filling schools with expensive gadgets and new large buildings.

Jain knew all too well that the recipe for enlightening minds and upward mobility lay in motivating students, not in surrounding them with the staid teaching methods and ideas that would stifle them. His own childhood was testimony to having to do without and still having a desire to excel. “I grew up very, very poor,” Jain said without any hesitation as he addressed the audience at the Asia Society’s auditorium last Friday night, September 21. “Most of my young life, I didn’t have trousers that fit and I had to wait for my father’s hand me downs,” he added.

Jain grew up in many villages in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh and even in New Delhi as his father moved from one position to another as a civil engineer in the Indian Government. “You see, he wouldn’t accept any bribes, which constituted 90% of the income that most government employees received, as he was an honest man. For this he became labeled as an outcast,” Jain explained, “and was transferred many times since contractors couldn’t get around his scrutiny of the materials they used – like substituting sand for cement.”

Inspite of the intense poverty and hurdles to get through school, Jain preserved and went to on to earn an engineering degree from the Indian Institute of Technology Roorkee in 1979, and then moved to Jamshedpur, where in 1982 he earned his MBA at XLRI School of Business and Human Resources. His brother and sister also excelled by earning advanced degrees and the entire extended family eventually settled in the US.

Jain joined Microsoft in 1989 in Redmond, leaving it in 1996 to form Infospace, a metasearch and Internet search service company for consumers and businesses. He left the company in 2003 to form Intelius, a Belleuve, Washington based web security firm. In 2010, he co-founded Moon Express a private company that aims to build and launch a robotic spacecraft to the moon.

Jain’s experiences as a child and then later as a successful business man and entrepreneur formed the nucleus of his observations on how to reform education and the learning process in this, his adopted country. He believes in the power of communicating with the growing child and native bilingualism in developing the concept of abstraction and to think outside the box.

“The education system is designed for the industrial era, but in today’s world, everything becomes obsolete so quickly,” explained Jain. “Fifty percent of today’s jobs didn’t exist 20 years ago. So we have to teach the children how to use facts to learn better.” He added that what is required is software that adapts to the way the child learns.

Jain also has personally moved far away from his core engineering discipline to other areas of science, especially molecular biology and genetics, as he explores avenues for his social entrepreneurism and philanthropy. “I think that more creative ideas come from the disruptive efforts of people who are outside the field,” stated Jain as he gave the story of the mechanic, tattoo artist and dentist (“sounds like the beginning of a dirty story, huh?”, Jain chuckled) who came up with an idea for collecting the oil spill from the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

Jain concluded his talk by speaking of his wide array of interests in medicine, health care, energy, clean water and offered some advice on the excitement and challenges facing entrepreneurs, answering questions from the 200 plus people who attended the talk. For a person with such drive and success, he was remarkably chatty and approachable, often lapsing into jokes and bits of humor that betrayed his still effervescent boyish energy and inquisitiveness.

The event for the IITAGH was organized by Shantanu Agarwal, a young member and Jain’s trip was coordinated by Roopa Gir, another member. The group’s President, Witty Bindra thanked them for their efforts and presented Jain with a plaque on his visit, handed to him by Asia Society, Houston Director of Development, John Bradshaw Jr.




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