A Modern Ghandi

N.R. Narayana Murthy believes in simple habits. The 58-year-old lives in a middle-class Bangalore neighborhood, in a 3-bedroom house that he and his wife bought in 1986. Despite the fact that he's built up a personal net worth of more than $750 million.

Mr. Murthy is chairman of Infosys Technologies Ltd., a company he started with a $250 investment in 1981. By tapping Indian software talents to write code for multinationals, it became a trendsetter among Indian technology companies. Mr. Murthy built it into one of India's largest private concerns, creating some 145 millionaire employees along the way -- many of whom, it's a safe bet, live more extravagantly than Mr. Murthy himself.

But Mr. Murthy finds happiness in other ways. One is by having a larger mission in life. Since the early '80s, he's been trying to demonstrate to his country -- through the example of Infosys -- that it can lift itself out of poverty. "I am very happy we have created a [role] model which has enthused literally millions of entrepreneurs, to show them it's possible to run a business legally and ethically ... in India," he says.

Choosing this mission wasn't easy. Upon graduating from the India Institute of Technology in the 1960s, Mr. Murthy was, like many of his fellow college students, a "strong leftist" who believed "that all rich people were out to exploit the poor in all circumstances." But after working for a time in Europe, he began to have second thoughts. The problems of Indian poverty, he concluded, "had to be solved by creating more jobs, creating more wealth. The only way to do that is entrepreneurship."

India's closed economy of the 1980s created problems for entrepreneurs, however. Government restrictions placed roadblocks on the importation of foreign products, for example. In the early days of Infosys, Mr. Murthy had to wrangle with government officials -- and travel 25 times to distant New Delhi -- simply to get the proper licenses to import a computer.

But ultimately his wife, Sudha, convinced him launching the company was worth the gamble. "She said, 'Don't worry, no matter what happens, at the end of the day, as long as we have simple habits, it doesn't really matter.' "

Today, Mr. Murthy's wife performs home duties, and their two children, who grew up without pocket money, are now university students in the U.S. And whether it's watching a movie about Gandhi, reading a book or listening to traditional Indian music at home, Mr. Murthy's habits remain pretty basic.

"My father was a high school teacher, lower middle class, and he told us all the time, 'You must have such habits that you will be able to continue even if you have no money,' " he says. Playing outside, visiting the library, listening to music in public parks and "having pleasant conversations with good people" was his father's prescription for fun. "And that's what we did," he says.

As chairman of Infosys, Mr. Murthy runs his company with the idea that if you give employees greater opportunities to fulfill themselves, they will be happier. That doesn't mean coddling employees not doing their job. "I am a stickler for perfection, for excellence," he says. "When I see people not living up to their potential, it makes me angry."

Improving lives through his company is a source a joy for Mr. Murthy. "Beyond the hygiene factors -- the basic factors that keep your body together -- what makes human beings happy is the fact that they are able to make other people around them happy."

He appears to be doing something right. The company consistently ranks as one of the best companies to work for in India, according to an annual survey done by Hewitt Associates, a human resources consulting company; meanwhile, Mr. Murthy himself also consistently ranks as India's most admired businessperson. The fount of his happiness is not so much receiving more respect and money -- it's seeing his mission accomplished.

But he is reminded daily of how far he and his mission have to go. "Naturally, I do lapse into moments of anguish," he says. "Leaving the warm embryo of home every morning, passing through all the pollution and poverty of the Third World, then [having to] get into the office and in an instant be prepared to get through the most stringent demands of our First World customers."

Looking toward the future, he handed over the reigns as CEO in 2002 and took the title "Chief Mentor." Now, he spends more time and effort on nurturing employees and on groups aimed at improving education in India. "Ideally," he says, "I would [like] to be a professor, a teacher, when I retire from Infosys."

via Roger Simon

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