IIT Global Convention Serves Up the Best of India with Texas Sized Hospitality

Organizers and volunteers at IIT Houston Convention.

Organizers and volunteers at IIT Houston Convention.

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By Pramod Kulkarni and Jawahar Malhotra

HOUSTON: The most frequent questions overheard at the IIT 2013 Global Conference held for the first time in Houston—Which IIT? Which batch? Wasn’t it a great session? Held Friday, December 6 through Sunday December 8 at the Hilton Americas in downtown Houston, the conference provided an ideal venue for IITians to network with long-lost batch mates, make new friends and engage in the conference program that was true to its theme of “Inspiring Innovation for Tomorrow.”

IIT Houston Chairman Witty Bindra at the closing of the IIT Global Convention with his team of organizers and volunteers.

IIT Houston Chairman Witty Bindra at the closing of the IIT Global Convention with his team of organizers and volunteers.

The unexpected winter weather caused a few hiccups. The golf tournament at the Wildcat Golf Club happened to be scheduled on what was a cold, rainy Thursday, December 6. With lackluster participation, golf caps with the IIT logo were given away on the last day. The cold, snow and ice snap in Dallas also prevented Miss America Nina Davuluri from reaching Houston for the Sunday morning session much to the dismay of the teenagers who had been busy selling convention merchandise to amass points that would allow them to be photographed with the beauty queen and also the conventioneers who had paid and come long distances to have breakfast with her. Davuluri did, however participate via a conference call to audience questions moderated by Sandy Srinivasan.

But the warm Texas hospitality, created by the conference committee chaired by Witty Bindra and with Pratish Kanani as vice chair, more than made up for the inclement weather.

Thursday night, the Chairman’s reception took place in the exotic setting of the Asia Society Texas Center in the Museum District and featured a beautiful dance performance by internationally renowned local artist Ratna Kumar’ s Anjali School of Performing Arts to a select list of invited guests.

As was to be expected, the IIT convention was big on the use of technology to guide registrants through the packed and hectic schedule of Friday and Saturday, with an ease up on Sunday as they left and the programs concluded in the afternoon. Many commented on the high degree of organization and punctuality of the convention and that is was the best IIT convention they had been to.

The program committee led by Pradeep Anand and Sunil Pangarkar, jammed each hour with multiple activites, interspersed with plenary sessions and sumptuous meals. The conference program, adhered to five tracks of Sustainability, Technology, Education, Energy and Life Sciences (STEEL).There were breakout sessions on all the subjects that would appeal to IITians, on education, sustainability, energy, innovation, life sciences and the future of India. In addition, there were business plan competitions, soapbox sessions promoting projects run by other IITians and evening entertainment events.

Apart from these, several prominent speakers addressed the conventioneers, ranging from Houston Mayor Anise Parker, Indian Consul General P. Harish, University of Houston President Renu Khator, Andrew Gould, Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen (see box on page 3), Rice University President David LeBron, former Mexican President Vicente Fox, many corporate leaders and successful IITians.

Keynote speakers during the banquets on Friday and Saturday evening were Blake Irving, the CEO of GoDaddy who spoke about “Mashing up the future of Technology” and Gene Kranz, NASA Flight Director for the disaster ridden Apollo 13 mission delivering a rousing speech on “Failure is not an option”. While Irving emphasized how the future is focused on delivering the services and products from the brick and mortar landscape fast via the narrow information pipeline, Krantz explained to an attentive and curious audience how NASA narrowly averted a disaster and brought the three Apollo 13 astronauts back to earth alive.

Friday’s session began in the morning with campus and chapter president and alumni meetings for several of the campuses At mid-day, the plenary welcome and lunch took place in the grand ballroom, featuring Houston Mayor Anise Parker, Indian Consul General P. Harish, UH President and Chancellor Renu Khator and British Gas CEO Andrew Gould. The session began with a touching lighting of the lamp ceremony by the oldest IIT graduate, represented by 85-year-old Kashinath Patil, IIT Kharagpur, M. Tech, 1955, and the youngest prospective IIT student, represented by 8-year-old Tegh Bindra.

Mayor Annise Parker welcomed the conference delegates to Houston and pointed with pride to city’s status as the energy capital of the world and home to the Medical Center and NASA. Consul General P. Harish praised the contributions of the IITs, but also brought up their shortcomings in the small number of PhD scholars and patents filed in comparison to China and the U.S. University of Houston Chancellor Khator underscored the value of IIT education in the academic world as well as at home (as her husband Suresh is an IIT graduate). Khator explained how she was able to advance the university to Tier I status through partnerships with the city and the community. She urged the delegates to enhance IIT contributions to the country through public-private partnerships that have helped U.S. academic institutions to prosper.

British Gas CEO Andrew Gould, who was formerly CEO of Schlumberger, explained to the audience the challenges facing the oil and gas industry through trends such as the concentration of resources with the national oil companies and the steady transfer of research and development from the operating companies to the service companies. During the Q&A session, Gould suggested that the oilfield technology advantage that the West has could be transferring to the East because of negative perception of the oil and gas industry. “When we recruit at universities in the U.S. and Europe, the graduating students think of oil and gas as a dying fossil fuel industry,” Gould explained. “On the other hand, students at universities in the Middle East and Asia are eager to participate in the oil and gas industry.”

Friday also featured awards given out to IITians who have excelled in their current fields of endeavors and some like Vinod Khosla and Desh Deshpande were unable to attend but send their acceptance speeches by video. Others like Arun Malhotra were delighted and surprised by the honor.

The Saturday night banquet dinner and entertainment was exceptional. IIT techies as well as their guests were at the edge of their seats as NASA Flight Director Gene Kranz, recited without notes, the gut wrenching saga “Failure is not an option” of how his team overcame numerous technical challenges to bring back the Apollo 13 crew after an oxygen tank explosion as the spacecraft was orbiting the moon.

Comedian Dan Nainan brought the house down with jokes as a result of having a Keralite father and a Japanese mother. Rock and Blues singer Usha Uthup, whose association with the IITs began with an open-air performance at IIT Kharagpur, had the audience leave their banquet tables and flock near the stage to clap and dance to her hits such as “Dum Maro Dum”.

The conference ended with a concluding speech by Deshpande on the value of social entrepreneurship and how to measure its relevance and impact. He cited a non-profit that he has been keenly involved with for several years, Aksha Patra which provide free hot meals to millions of young kids in public schools in several states in India and showed a video clip on the program. Deshpande also explained how he had setup the Deshpande Center for Excellence at MIT and his efforts at social innovation in India.

The convention ended after Sundy Srinivasan asked all the committees which had worked hard to pull it together to come onstage for a final bow and a ceremonial passing of the baton by Chairman Witty Bindra to the 2014 Convention Chair for the event to be hosted in New Delhi, India. The regional convention will be held in Toronto, Canada in June.