Purpose is the New Tech: A Conversation Balaji Ganapathy of TCS
Show Notes and Resources:
Tata Consultancy Services: https://www.tcs.com/
Balaji’s Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/balajiganapathy/
Balaji’s Twitter: @musafirbala
Welcome to the Purpose, Inc., the podcast where we discuss corporate purpose and stakeholder capitalism. I’m your host, Michael Young. In this episode, I speak with Balaji Ganapathy, the global head of corporate social responsibility for Tata Consultancy Services. In case you’re unaware, TCS is a $22 billion dollar global information technology services provider. They compete with Accenture, Cognizant, IBM, Capgemini. The list I saw from CIO Magazine ranks TCS as second globally behind Accenture. And in his role, Balaji focuses on harnessing the power of purpose, people and technology to advance access, equity and inclusion across society and TCS does this on a global scale. The company has 258 offices in 46 countries and 450,000 employees. And I talked to Balaji about his very large brief at TCS and we get into how his organization thinks about corporate purpose, the programs that it provides that have a social impact focus. And there’s a particular emphasis and what was very exciting and interesting to hear on vulnerable populations, women, young girls, minorities and other underrepresented groups and with a very large focus on educational initiatives that prepare young people for the world ahead, new thinking for a new era. TCS runs programs that teach kids the language of the digital age, design thinking, data structures, algorithms as a means of creating opportunities for those who are disadvantaged. We talk about how TCS has reacted and responded to COVID-19 globally and I was really excited and grateful to have Balaji on the podcast. He’s a true leader in the corporate purpose space. He’s on the front lines of delivering business led solutions that address some of one of society’s biggest problems which is educating women, young girls, underrepresented groups for the digital future.
It’s a great conversation. We wrap it up with a couple of ideas that he dropped on me there at the last minute which are probably episodes in and of themselves. And I’ll just share those briefly here. But one is this idea that purpose is the new tech. Where once everyone wanted to be a tech company, now everyone wants to be a purpose company. But what does that actually mean? And here’s the real punchline he delivers is businesses need to stress test their business models for purpose. So, those two things cannot be disconnected and I think that is a large idea, one that is central to my inquiry on this podcast. It’s something I’ll be talking to some other folks about and I said to Balaji at the end I want him to come back on and talk about that idea again just in and of itself because it’s a huge idea and a very important idea. So, without further ado, here’s my conversation with Balaji Ganapathy from TCS. Balaji, thank you for coming on the podcast.
Thank you, Michael. It’s a pleasure to be here.
And when we spoke yesterday, you said something that really stuck out which is you’re part of an organization, a parent organization that’s been around for 150 years and maybe just the first question is how does TCS think about and define its purpose given that very long corporate history?
Thank you, Michael. It’s a really good question. And at TCS, we are really proud of our legacy and patronage to the Tata group of companies. The Tata Group was founded 150 years ago with the mission to uplift the quality of life of people wherever we live and work and this was at a time when the industrialization of India as a country was being done by Jamshedji Tata, our founder. So, some of the core principles with which the group was founded and the values that it stood for has really helped us flourish and grow and sustain from a business, talent and community perspective for the past 150 years. So, even today, the ownership structure is such that the group, the parent company of TCS is Tata Sons and Tata Sons is in turn owned by majority shareholders with two philanthropic trusts which owns 66% of the company. So, it’s a very unique model of a hundred billion dollar company with over 100 companies across seven different sectors being owned a majority shareholders with two philanthropic trusts. So, it sets the tone in terms of what is the culture, what is the purpose for which we operate. And at TCS, we were founded in 1968 so we are a 51-year-old company with $22 billion in revenue in the last 12 months and we operate in about 46 countries across the world and about 450,000 employees work for us. And at TCS, our purpose is also defined by what we can do in terms of technology and solutions to support our customers, support the community and support people around the world. And that is what really drives what we do to use digital technologies for growth and transformation of our customers. So, we view it as a very inherent and coherent way of bringing value, harnessing the power of technology to bring value to our customers, bring value to our employees in terms of career and growth and fulfillment and supporting the local communities where we live and work by bringing the best of what we have to offer.
And that internal coherence I think is a big idea and I think it’s probably one where a lot of corporations have to figure that out and it sounds like that’s very much embedded in the DNA at TCS. Could you say give us a sense of what some of these purpose-driven programs are that you are specifically working on globally for TCS?
Certainly. My pleasure. So, feeding off this larger sense of purpose that the group and TCS stands for, our vision for CSR is to empower people and communities to create access to opportunities in the digital economy. I say that because earlier this year I had looked back at what the trends were from a purpose point of view in the last few years and things that came to the top where the rising voice of people, the increasing adoption of technology and purpose becoming more central and integral to companies across industries. And for TCS, the mission that we embarked upon is to really build equitable and inclusive pathways for women, youth and marginalized groups by connecting them to new digital opportunities. We live in a world where there is a lot more inequities that have been created in the last several years and further exacerbated by the adoption of technology in everyday life. So, whether it is social inequity, economic inequity, gender inequity, if we as companies don’t do something about it intentionally, it is going to further grow.
So, we see it as our mission and our responsibility to do that and how we go about that is to bring the best of what we have to offer in what I call the four Cs, the four kinds of capital that can really come together to galvanize what we can do for a community. It is our intellectual capital, our technology capital, our human capital and financial capital. And this is what TCS does to really look at community problems where we operate and then create bespoke solutions that bring these four capitals to bear. And in order to connect people to opportunities, it is important to focus on education, skilling, employment and entrepreneurship and those are the top focus areas, our strategic focus areas for TCS. By addressing those needs whether it is in the K-12 system through programs that we have on computational thinking as a foundational skill, whether it is through programs that connect young kids with technology in a way where they are using technology and learning how to use technology to solve real-world problems, whether it is to provide young people and young adults and especially women from marginalized sections of the community to gain the skills that they become employable in these sectors, in digital jobs across industries or entrepreneurs who are in rural parts of the world instead of migrating to the urban spaces and the cities to find new opportunities, how we can use technology and digital to flip the model where they can really tap into opportunities in their own environment and create new economies. Those are the primary focus areas that we have in terms of programs and we have programs like Ignite My Future in school for K-12. We have Go IT which is a program that we run in several parts around the world and in North America, we run it in 77 cities. We have programs like Employability Program which create that bridge between the people who have the interest but not the skills to gain jobs in the digital economy and BridgeIT which brings entrepreneurs in villages and connects them with new opportunities so that they can provide services to people who are part of the village.
You highlight a couple of interesting macro social trends, urban versus rural, gender technology, haves and have-nots. Could you give us a sense of what’s the scope of these programs? You’re obviously a global organization, nearly half a million employees. Help me understand where and how deeply do you go into some of these communities with these programs.
Certainly. Let me take the example of our K-12 education program which is Ignite My Future in school. So, we’ve been working with the U.S. school system for over a decade now trying to understand the different opportunities and challenges that is faced by the system and how to work along with government as well as education system to help in terms of resources and so forth. One of the gaps that we identified is that even bridging the gap from a technology and trauma digital skills perspective is being focused only on computer science and related areas. Whereas in order for human intelligence to inform what artificial intelligence should do, some basic skills, foundational skills are needed for every student who is coming through our education system. So, we identified computational thinking as that 21st century skill, as the creative thinking and problem-solving skill that can help humans tell machines what to do. The understanding of data, algorithms, abstraction, modeling, decomposition. These are all terms that kids should learn and understand.
But in order to do that, it is important that we focus on the often forgotten cross section of our education system which is the teachers. So, rather than looking at teachers as part of the problem, we look at them as part of the solution. How can we empower them, provide them resources so that they can bring these opportunities to students and students can learn in a way that is really transdisciplinary and integrated in nature? So, we started this program two years ago and today we are in over 150 school districts in all 50 states in the U.S. Over 11,000 educators have adopted this curriculum and almost 670,000 students are using these lesson plans in their schools to learn how computational thinking is an everyday skill. But they learn it not as a subject. It is integrated into every subject. So, whether it is lesson plans like emoji essay where students use emojis to create a new language or outbreak which is very relevant in the current scenario of COVID-19 where they learn how pathogens and disease spread in the community and what they can do and what are the different career paths that are connected to that. So, it is programs like Ignite My Future that demonstrate how we work with the system to work along with education system at a national level, regional level and local level to customize what we have to offer so that we are meeting communities where they are at and providing them resources that are valuable. So, that is one program I wanted to highlight.
Another program is called Go IT which we developed ten years ago in response to the call to action that a lot of our young kids often don’t understand the different job opportunities exist within technology. We often think of people who are in tech as geeks and nerds and have a uni-dimensional view that you are sitting behind a desk and doing some coding. While that is one part of a career center available in this sector, today there are a very diverse set of opportunities available. So, through Go IT what we do is to help students get a toolkit of skills like design thinking, human centered design, agile prototyping but all put together as how digital innovation can happen if they identify a problem that they see in the community and want to solve it. So, rather than be consumers of technology, they can become creators and they can solve problems that is here themselves. So, this program is now in 77 cities. So, that’s another example of how we work with the community and the widespread nature of the need and response to the need.
Now, one thing I want to mention in both these programs is that the prioritization of whom we work with is those who are underserved. So, high free and reduced lunch, inner-city neighborhood and more focused on girls and minorities very intentionally. Inclusion and equity is built into the program design.
That’s really interesting. There’s a lot there that you said that I’d like to unpack. But that last point about the intentionality around the most vulnerable I think is a very large idea and one that I think doesn’t get enough attention in sustainability initiatives that we talk about stakeholders as if they’re some homogeneous group. But what I’m hearing and talking to other thinkers about is yes, stakeholders are all important but let’s go to those who are most vulnerable, most at risk and start there. And so, I think it’s very interesting that you’ve built that kind of approach into how you think about these programs and how you implement them. But I did want to maybe just ask you, if I could, about—so, these are very broad programs. What kind of frameworks do you have in place internally and externally to measure how you’re doing? How do you think about that? Because it’s one thing to give time, money, resources, expertise which is all vitally important but then how do you know if you’re making a difference? And that’s another large question. So, could you unpack that? How do you think about that in your role?
Absolutely. I think it is really important that in the sustainability and CSR space, we use the same kind of business sense and business approach that we would do in the line and the delivery space. So, I approach it in that way, that overall we have a measurement and ROI framework that we adopt that looks at all of the elements of input, output, outcome and impact. But we also look at program level measurements that give the program owners and the partners the flexibility and the agility needed in order to identify KPIs and measures that are more contextual to the needs that they have. So, it is a combination of these two. So, at a high level, I may say that my mission and how I will measure against my mission is if people are gaining entry into new opportunities especially women, youth and marginalized groups because those are the demographics that I’ve prioritized and the success factor I have defined this that are they being connected to new opportunities. So, it’s not just enough to evoke interest, provide skills, create pathways but also follow through and make sure that those who want to choose those pathways are able to do that.
But then at a programmatic level, we look at a variety of factors. You always start in the baseline and whether it is the computational thinking program or the digital innovation program, we look at the baseline in the community. So, if you are going into, for example, we are working with the state of Wyoming for a statewide adoption of Go IT to all of their schools, middle schools across the state and there as an example of how we use our measurement model, we started with what is the demographic of students? What kind of programs and curricular opportunities they have today? Who are the ones in need? what infrastructure do they have? So, that before and after the program, we can then look at measurements of not only student interest and student adoption, learnability and learning retention of some of these concepts but we can also look at program partners like a state or a non-profit or a school and look at where they are before and after because we support them with other resource to your earlier point about stakeholders are homogenous. It’s really important to understand the needs of that specific partner. Do they have the resources? Do you have the infrastructure? What other things do they need in order to bring this to life?
We also measure volunteer impact on these programs. A lot of these programs are integrated and driven by our volunteers whom we train even before they interact with students so that we are preparing them to have a positive experience and one that is value-adding. So, we measure that as well. So, a variety of measures we put in place. But at the end of the day, if we are against the mission and the mission that we have, the larger outcomes are also important. So, it’s not just about reach. It’s not just about qualitative metrics. It is also about a combination of quantitative and qualitative at an overall level, at a program level, at a partner level and the different stakeholders, getting their inputs before and after. So, that’s our approach.
Excellent. And I heard in there that you’re not parachuting in and telling communities. You’re also pulling forward needs which I think again is that difference in a mindset that is vitally important across sustainability. You said something about—well, as you were talking about the different kinds of the programs and the training that you’re bringing to young people, new thinking for a new era is what I wrote down and we’re week two or three into the COVID pandemic here. And I think I’d maybe like to hear how has this impacted your organizational thinking and your initiatives? And what are you seeing now that’s different? And if anything, it seems like going to be in for a long haul. So, how has this issue impacted TCS but also your people, but also these specific initiatives that you’ve been sharing with us?
Well, thank you for asking that. First of all, I want to really share my thoughts and honor the health workers and those who are in the frontline who are battling this for us. We really need their service at this moment and hopefully, it gets better as time passes and these proactive and cautionary measures are fully implemented and all of the people in the country follow it and globally also. But in in terms of looking at this challenge three months ago when it started in Wuhan, as a company with global operations, we started to feel the impact almost immediately and the first and foremost thing for us was to ensure the safety and well-being of our employees. So, we put in place mechanisms so that people can if they are not able to move from where they are, they are getting the support that is needed. For those who are able to travel, to get them to a place of comfort where they are with their family, they are able to be safe. And then putting in place precautionary measures to allow for a work from home model where a large portion of our population today, the vast majority of a population today has moved to a completely work from home model which is unprecedented in a sector like ours where there is a heavy demand from customers in terms of security and privacy and all of the data infrastructure and technology infrastructure that comes with that.
So, a huge lift from our internal teams to mobilize and be ready for that and following that was looking at business continuity and how to support our customers because a lot of the work that we are doing is in the essential services space. We support banks, financial institutions, healthcare companies, pharmacies, government agencies. So, it is vital and important that at this time when everybody is relying on technology infrastructure because physical infrastructure is not accessible that we step up and make sure that we are supporting that. And thanks to the tremendous efforts from our teams, we are able to do that. And I’m saying this because this is the same approach that we have used on our community initiative side as well. First and foremost was to connect with all of our partners and people whom we serve through those programs to make sure that their safety and well-being was being taken care of.
As you know, in different parts of the world, the level of awareness about COVID-19 and what precautions should be taken varies and in some places, the awareness was higher than other places. In some places, the acceptance of enforcing those self-discipline and those measures was also different. So, we have constantly been engaged with our partners in the network to share these communications and wherever possible convert it into regional languages so that especially those communities which are vulnerable and people who are underserved have the same kind of knowledge and resources regarding how to protect themselves as those in the urban neighborhoods and those who are safe and secure in their home have. The second thing was to then use the same kind of model that we used from the business side to provide our programs in an online and virtual format. So, the two programs that I mentioned to you, Go IT and Ignite My Future in school are already available in an online and virtual format. In fact, our teams are doing webinars and sessions for educators and schools and nonprofit partners so that they are able to use these resources especially at a time when people are stuck at home and are looking for good programmatic content that is relevant to their needs.
Even in a country like India where we have programs running in about one third of all the districts in the country, we have progressively started to shift into an online model. It’s not as easy in many places where infrastructure, technology infrastructure may not be available but we are working through that one step at a time. And then in response to the larger need of the community whether it is related to healthcare infrastructure, food security, infrastructure on the equipment front, we are looking at what we can do. The Tata Group and the Tata Trusts as a coordinated effort, we have already pledged $200 million to support this effort globally and our researchers in our innovation lab are also working on compounds and molecules that could potentially one day lead to more vaccines and cures to COVID-19. So, it is an all-round effort from our business side, our community partners, our own program teams. My own team has—I mean we travel a lot and we are on the road to meet with communities and partners. Now in shifting to this model has not been easy but we are making it work and most importantly, staying in touch with each other, comforting each other, giving each other hope because we need hope. We need to strengthen our resolve that yes, the crisis is not done. It is far from done but if we come together and stick together, we can overcome this.
Yeah. No, that’s a phenomenal point and an incredible move and pivot that you’ve undertaken at a very, very rapid pace. Just maybe a couple of minutes on if you were to summarize what you have learned in this job, in this role at this organization, what are some of the things that you would share with other leaders who are on this journey and maybe they’ve been on it for a while too or they’re new to it? What have you learned on this road in terms of sustainability and being a corporate participant in the private public move of stakeholder capitalism, of trying to make ultimately, trying to create positive social impact? What are your lessons learned and what criticism have you maybe faced that you’ve dealt with that you’ve overcome? And so, how would you advise others that are on this journey?
Thank you for asking that question. So, first of all, I still consider myself a student. In the past two decades, I’ve that performed a variety of roles but one of the most fulfilling ones has been this particular role of leading our community initiatives initially in North America and now globally. It’s a fulfilling one because the Japanese concept of a ikigai, doing what you love, being able to do that with those who love what you do, having the skills and the capabilities to do it and being paid to do that. It’s a perfect combination. So, some people call it the happy sector or the happy profession where your values, your expectations are aligned to what happens or what you see and what you experience on a daily basis. So, I am really grateful and I take that very seriously, every day as a responsibility that the best of what I have to offer and what my company has to offer, how can I bring it to bear to look at community related initiatives.
So, the way I approach it and the lessons that I’ve learned is that first of all, this is a professional space. So, this is not just to have fun or social events or let’s go clean up a park and take some pictures and post it on the internet and have fun. I’m not opposed to people who want to volunteer and do those sort of efforts and tremendous respect for them. But as a leader who’s driving these initiatives, it is important for the world and the companies to recognize the role of purpose within organizations. I am thankful and blessed to be in a company where it’s been part of the business model and I really have encouraged my peers and others whom we have interacted with over the years to adopt a similar approach in their organizations or share the examples of what we do to help reiterate that purpose as integral to every company’s existence. I always surround myself with people who are more talented than I am and I think that’s a great factor for success because people who have multi-dimensional, diverse talent really bring in the thought process and the capabilities to really look at problem statements from different points of view. And that has really helped us develop solutions that look at the community aspect, look at the business aspect, look at technology, look at other aspects like how can we do stakeholder engagement, how can we integrate business, how can we work with governments and our customer network.
So, that is one way of looking at it that has helped me and is part of my style. And I can go on but I think I should move onto your second part of the question around criticism and I can totally relate to anybody who has a critique about whether purpose has really become center to organizations or is this another form of greenwashing. And I think those questions are important because you have to hold the feet to the fire of anybody who’s a CEO or a board. I hold my feet to the fire. I am a moral beacon and a compass for my board and my CEO and my leadership team. And I think we need to ask ourselves are we walking the talk? Are we demonstrating through our actions? And if we are doing business that is reductive in nature and one side and takes away from resources of people in communities and on the other side, we feed in money and programs to offset that, I don’t think that is something that will last long, not in this scenario, not in this new world order.
So, that is the change that people have to be comfortable with. If your business model has not been stress tested for purpose, it is better to do that now and think through it because at some point or other, you’re going to face a growth challenge if you don’t do that. So, I’m my own worst critic but I am also very optimistic that companies are trying to do this for the right reasons at least the group that I have surrounded myself with which come from some of the big companies in U.S. and around the world. I feel that they are authentic. A lot of them want to do the right thing and are looking to other company stakeholders like investors and the board and government to come together to inform and shape things in that direction. So, I think purpose is the new tech. It’s my favorite line to say these days because it’s very provocative. Every company wants to be a technology company or wanted to be a technology company within the last several years. That was the new fad and the trend. Today every company wants to be a purpose-driven enterprise. It’s easier said than done. But I think that journey will define where we are as a society in the next five to ten years.
All right. So, you just gave us the headline for the show. Purpose is the new tech, quoting you. I love that. And the other point is and this is going to have to be a whole other episode if we’re going to wrap here in a second but what you said about having your business model stressed test for purpose is I think such an important point because there cannot be a gap between say and do anymore. You cannot simply go out there and purpose wash and have some kind of a side hustle with virtue and do different things and have the business model be something different. And I think that’s an episode in and of itself and we don’t have time to get into that. But I want to thank you for making that point because I think if there’s anything I like to hear about from leaders like yourself is that level of introspection and that level of self-criticism and knowing that we are as good as what we are doing, not what we are saying. And I think you’ve put it together very succinctly in how you think about it across the board. So, I just want to thank you really for taking the time to speak with me and to share your ideas and I hope to have you back on the podcast because I want to come back to this.
Happy to be back. I’m happy to discuss this in more detail, Michael, because I think it is going to define which companies continue to exist, which companies continue to grow but more importantly, what those companies and what we as a business sector can come together and do to bridge some of the inequities that exists in society today. So, thank you for pointing that out and elevating that. And absolutely, I would love to come back. But this is such a pleasure to interact with you and share thoughts about a variety of areas. Thank you for having me.
My pleasure, Balaji and great to have you on and very much appreciate your time. And we’ll have to end it there.
Thank you again.
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