Brilliant Ideas Are Not Enough

Debjani Ghosh, vice president, sales and marketing group, and managing director, South Asia, Intel, reflects on the zeitgeist in Indian tech. 


Debjani Ghosh says coming back to India in 2012 unsettled her, since she had just built Intel’s Southeast Asia operations into one of the company’s best-performing assets. “We were having a magical time,” she says. “So I asked my bosses, why India?”

Three years on, Ghosh has established herself as one of India’s most committed technology evangelists, championing programmes like the National Digital Literacy Mission (NDLM), and now, Innovate for Digital India, to build awareness of technology and its applications ground up. Last month, she was named the first woman president of the Manufacturers’ Association for Information Technology, the apex body for hardware, training, R&D, hardware design, and other associated service segments of the Indian IT industry. Along the way, she has found powerful allies in the government as well as the private sector, which she says is the only way to scale any change initiative in India. “I also had to convince the Intel HQ that they cannot tie us down to quarterly sales targets,” she says. “I cannot project return on investment for market-creation programmes because there are no tangible metrics available.”

What then does she make of India’s frenetic tech startups, which also insist on freedom from RoI, albeit for very different reasons? She spoke to me on this, Intel’s ground-up innovation push, and the value of partnership-driven problem-solving. Edited excerpts:

“In India, we have had a history of sitting back and commenting on whatever is wrong, and placing the onus of change on someone else. But the country is really changing. What our ongoing Innovate for Digital India challenge has shown us is that people have the confidence to speak up and share ideas; they are not worried whether the ideas are good or bad.

The first phase of the challenge, which invited innovators to submit ideas that address ground-level problems, has been fantastic. We got 1,900 submissions; our goal was 1,000. We were pleasantly surprised that the participants did not come from any one predominant group. It’s a healthy mix, though we are yet to crunch all the data. All our partners, from to the Department of Electronics and Information Technology (DeitY), have played a stellar role in spreading awareness about the challenge. Now comes the difficult part: selecting the top 50 ideas. The Centre for Innovation, Incubation and Entrepreneurship (CIIE) at IIM Ahmedabad is working on that. Following that, the participants will go through an elaborate pitching process, where they will present their ideas to an expert panel. The top 20 from there will go through a three-month mentorship programme in Pune.

I am excited that many of the best ideas are targeted at people who do not speak English, and maybe aren’t even literate. If we can pull it off, these ideas can make a big difference. Most innovation challenges in India end with identifying great ideas. They don’t take the ideas right up to the product stage. We are looking at not just how good an idea is but how solid the productisation plan is. We will make sure that the products are tested and are market-ready before we announce them to the world.

We have taken a lot of learnings from NDLM. From a technology-adoption perspective, India has been a laggard compared to even Indonesia or Vietnam. My bosses told me, “go and figure out why”. One of the things that stood out to me was that if you move out of cities like Delhi and Mumbai, the use of technology becomes more and more superficial. Forget computers, that’s the case even with phones, which everyone in India is so crazy about. If I ask a lady in Indore what she uses her phone for, the maximum she might talk about is watching cooking videos on YouTube. Even the teenagers are restricted mostly to Facebook and WhatsApp. Everyone says IT will transform education and healthcare. But how many people are really using IT for all that? If I am a lower-middle class family, is there a compelling enough case for me to spend money on technology beyond such superficial use? The answer is a big ‘No’.

NDLM’s goal was to create awareness about [what technology can do for you]. The biggest learning was, forget sales, this is about market creation. It is not about brand building and marketing, because then you would want to do it alone. And alone you cannot even begin to make a dent.

That’s why with NDLM, we didn’t even use the Intel name. It was a painful decision, because the company was spending a lot of money on the programme. But I managed to convince my bosses. I also told them that we cannot predict RoI for such programmes, because there’s no existing data to prove it will work. It’s all in good faith. In hindsight, it was the right approach to take. The government took it up in a big way because it didn’t threaten anyone.

It also helped us win the trust of industry partners. For the innovation challenge, for instance, we have partners like TCS, Capgemini, Lenovo, and Micromax. These are all innovation leaders in their respective industries. Top leaders from these companies have committed their personal time to mentor our participants.

A second, and related, learning was the importance of choosing the right partners. The government is the best example. A lot of people say public-private partnerships don’t work in India, but we have had a mostly positive experience. There’s no way to scale in India without involving the government. The challenge is to find the right departments to partner. For instance, the Department of Science and Technology (DST) is chartered with innovation. It has great industry partnership models and is a very professional outfit.

[People also say decisions in this government are all driven from the top,] but I think the bureaucrats, at least in DST and DeitY, are quite empowered. They are equipped to react quickly to  new ideas. Innovate for Digital India was a new idea, and DeitY already had its set priorities. But it agreed to come on board and was ready [with the rollout plan] pretty much at the same time as us. DeitY secretary R.S. Sharma has been working on projects like this since his Aadhaar days. Gaurav Dwivedi, the CEO of MyGov, is another extremely tech-savvy leader. I don’t see these people saying no to a good idea.

Yes, the vision is set at the top, but that’s how it is in any corporate setup as well. And you need that: The kind of stature the Prime Minister has, he is the only one who can articulate big goals like ‘Digital India’. Having set the goals he also has to keep talking about them, become its biggest champion. And credit to him, he has been doing that.

There is a lot of buzz about technology in India these days, which is great to see. If you wait for things to happen sequentially, nothing will ever take off. You have to take a leap of faith. But you need to follow certain foundation-building processes. You need to have standards, security, interoperability. This is the conversation I have the most with the government: You have built tonnes of platforms, what if they don’t talk to each other? It’ll be a nightmare. I think the government gets it. The Prime Minister also spoke about these challenges in his Digital India inauguration speech.

An exciting development is, of course, the rise of so many tech startups. But today too many people seem to be talking only about “brilliant ideas”. No one seems to care whether these ideas will ever give returns. It’s all about pushing that next app out into the market. That’s a scary model. I get that this kind of push was needed to stimulate startup growth, but it looks like that stimulus has been going on for far too long. Investment discipline must come back to India.

For companies like us, the challenge is to resist the temptation to do everything, since these days every company is in every business. India is like a toy shop, it is actually some 30 different countries. How do you prioritise where you want to play? That’s going to be one of the toughest questions.”

(Photograph by Bandeep Singh; first published in the August 2015 issue of Fortune India)