Please state your current profile. Where do you work? How is a typical day at work for you?
I am the Head of Innovation Office, Telangana State Innovation Cell, Government of Telangana. I focus on policy needs, strategy formulation, and external partnerships in the field of innovation for Telangana.
We wanted to have a state based on the philosophy of innovation and entrepreneurship. Then we thought, “Okay fine, let’s try to make everyone an innovator, a change-maker, thinker, coming up with startup ideas, and things like that.” So that’s when the Telangana State Innovation Cell came into being; a dedicated office that only works at promoting innovation and creativity. It could be in schools, it could be in colleges, it could be in government departments, startups, and make more women entrepreneurs, and beyond. The Chief Innovation Officer basically handles this office, and there are Innovation Fellows who work under him. I precisely work on the grassroots innovation and rural innovation domain, where I try to see how we can create more solutions for Telangana’s rural areas. There are problems for agriculture, fishing, horticulture, and what not; all the problems you can relate to rural areas. Their problems, we can’t rely on the urban citizenry to solve. What we thought is, let them become these problem-solvers themselves. They could bring change and positive energy into the ecosystem. I worked towards nurturing that idea itself; how can we create more and more grassroots innovators, how can I create a value chain of grassroots innovation for them where they start from innovating.
They get the money, they make the prototype, they make the product, they sell it to the market, their IPs are protected, and they get their limelight before the world, they are recognized, and they eventually become an MSME or an enterprise. I also work with international organisations like UNDP and with whoever is interested in partnering with us.
Nowadays, most people are looking to climb the financial ladder, attain corporate success. What inspired you to contribute towards improving government strategies when most people are looking the other way?
I have a very personal philosophy that we actually chase money beyond reason. We may need X amount of money to have a fulfilled life, but we actually chase 10X. Just to be very very sure, just to be very very comfortable, just to not be at risk of anything. But right from college I would always be ready for challenges or risks. If I need X, I would not amass more than 1.1X. That’s it. The current scheme of jobs that I’m taking, they are providing me enough money to be sustainable, take care of the people around me, and be economically stable. I’m not looking at 10X to ensure that my next generation will also be stable. I should have enough, I should be able to help people whom I really want to help, and that’s it. Let me do something that is more meaningful. And for this value, as per the Maslow’s pyramid, I am already past the three horizontals- and I’m on the top. I’m working on self-actualisation as to what I really need to do.
After graduation, you worked in L&T for a year. Then you started working under the CMGTA, and now the TSIC. So how do you tell, what the differences between a corporate and government jobs are? Which do you think you prefer?
The distinction between government job and corporate job for me was the kind of impact I’d be able to bring, not the culture. The corporate culture might be lucrative, the offers by a corporate job might be more lucrative, and the government may fail there. The amount of impact I’d be able to bring while working with the government is simply unmatchable. Going back to college days, I was working, when Sudarrajan Sir was the Director of NIT Trichy, I was one of his interns. As a director’s intern, Sundarrajan sir with this very fantastic senior of mine Srinivas, had envisioned that let’s have certain areas of intervention in college where we can actually help the infrastructure, where we can actually give strategy to certain aspects of the campus. We got together as a team, at least 10 or 11. We got one of the A halls, we would sit together and strategise as to what we can do for the campus. I was working on the signages and sign boards; how we can maintain mobility around the campus. For example, the campus is a big campus, right? Anybody who comes from outside really does not know where to go. I remember during Festember people would ask, “where is the barn hall?”, “where is Buhari?” So I was thinking, let’s solve this problem. They’re not very intuitive, the signages, so I started working on that. The kind of impact I could envision my work would have was tremendous, very tangible. When I went to L&T, I was working as a Procurement Executive, I was actually dealing with crores in terms of money. But the impact I wasn’t able to see/feel. For example, I was procuring bitumen from all these major power- petrochemical companies like MRPL and BPCL. Crores and crores of money was going below my hand to the people. But the impact was not there at all. I thought I had already understood there could be something better. When I went to L&T, I thought “No, this is not what I mean to do. I want to do something similar to what I did in NIT Trichy under director sir.” Then I started exploring opportunities and I got CMGGA, and I thought, “Okay fine. You could correspond.” Director was CM sir here for me. How director sir works for the campus, CM sir works for the state. This very much brought in the idea for the first set of interns, and I appeared for the process and I got through. Coming back to the question as to how do you compare, which one do you like, I think I like the scale of impact as working with the government, I really love that scale. After I worked with L&T, and coming from a college that talks about professionalism all the time, I do bring that professionalism as well in my government working. It’s a very inductive effect, all the people around you will also start copying small things, because everyone is positively influenced as well, and so much so themselves negatively. I would say that the scale that I like about the government, and the culture that I bring from the experience of college and L&T.
You said that when you were working for L&T, you thought your calling was somewhere else, so you started looking for other opportunities, how exactly did you come to know about the CMGGA programme? What were the various steps towards applying for it? What do you think a person who’s interested in that should go towards?
In college, I used to be very energetic; I wanted to be everywhere. I remember when I was in college, Sudarrajan sir made a Facebook post. He wrote in that Facebook post that he met this girl at Delhi airport, and she’s currently a fellow at Young India Fellowship. That’s when I came to know about the Young India Fellowship and I started checking on the internet on what the Young India Fellowship was. Back then I wasn’t eligible to apply for the Young India Fellowship. But then, I was so moved by the idea of the Young India Fellowship that I thought the people who are graduating from NIT Trichy should get to know about the Young India Fellowship, and they should apply and go there. I spoke to the YIF fellows, the programme team, and I became the campus ambassador for NIT Trichy, and I convinced YIF guys to come here, to NIT Trichy and give a lecture to talk about their programme. Then I spoke to the Dean of Infrastructure- who helped me in booking the A halls. I spoke to them and I got the YIF fellows on campus, and got a bunch of students also whom I thought would make great YIF fellows to attend the session. Because of my correlation to YIF, I had already enrolled in their e-mailing programme. They keep e-mailing me whatever they do. What had happened was, when I was at L&T, I think they sent me an e-mail about the Chief Minister’s programme, because Ashoka University is also an academic partner for CMGGA programme. I started browsing through it, and I found the idea to be really noble, interesting and impactful. Then I thought of applying.
The process of application- how did you go about it? What kind of preparation did you undergo; like exams and interviews, and so on?
Applying for CMGGA programme was pretty much a simple process where they ask you to write essays on three questions, which majorly revolves around “what is your prime motivation to be at CMGGA? After you come here, what do you plan to do?”, and one question around personality assessment as to what your strengths and weaknesses and how do you see yourself as a CMGGA fellow. I started doing a lot of introspective exercises, where I thought about my reason for being there, what I wanted to do all the time. A lot of thinking went into it before I wrote the essays. Once the thinking has already been done, the interviews, the telephone interviews, the in-person interviews were already taken care of, because the thinking happened before applying for the programme. There were so many people who came in and helped me out in the process of preparing for the interviews as well. Some of them were notably from my class as well, civil engineering.
Moving on, can you tell us about your experiences working with the CMGGA programme? You talked to us about TSIC and what you do there currently. So, how was your experience with CMGGA?
It was an eye-opening experience, I would say. Anyone who really wants to understand the intricacies of governance at large can say that CMGGA would give a very encompassing view. At CMGGA, I was working with a particular deputy commissioner. My day to day job would be around welfare schemes like Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao, Swacch Bharat Abhiyan, Ease of Doing Business, and all these mandates are there. I was working on a day to day basis and helped my district achieve those goals. That would be starting from strategizing, doing root-cause analysis, coming with recommendations, helping those recommendations get implemented and monitor the implementation. It was quite the spectrum by itself. After every 6 weeks, we would meet the Chief Minister of Haryana-all the CMGGAs, we would meet the chief minister and he had certain mandates for the state, and he would give those problem statements to us. We would use those problem statements and give him recommendations as to what we think will work. If he agrees on implementing some of the recommendations that we had proposed, he would give us the “go ahead’, and we together with the district administration and the CM’s office or the relevant office will start executing those changes. That was an overall experience for me. You could say that starting from the Chief Minister’s office to going to the Gram Panchayat office, we interacted with everyone in a very rigorous way. I think it’s a very encompassing experience.
Coming to TSIC, what exactly is TSIC doing for the state of Telangana right now? What are the different ways in which somebody can get involved with TSIC?
As I mentioned, TSIC is at the work of nurturing innovation and creativity among the masses of Telangana. The aim is that- how can we have more and more innovators coming out of Telangana. I’ll take you through an example. There’s this programme that I led at TSIC where I organized something called Intinta Innovation Exhibition, where I worked with 33 collectors of Telangana to exhibit grassroot innovators, or rural innovators, in every district during Independence Day. What happens is, a lot of these innovators are already there in public but no one gives them the recognition. Even if they get the recognition, they’ll get the recognition somewhere in the Rashtrapati Bhavan in Delhi, or they’ll get somewhere in Hyderabad. But what about local recognition? So this was a problem that I was able to identify. I was also able to see that the district collectors or the district administration is very unknown to the perils or the ideas of innovation. How do I sensitise them as well? Because of that I came into this programme where I said, fine, let me integrate the idea of independence with innovation. During Independence Day, the collectors already hold a flag- hoisting. I thought, let’s also have an exhibition of innovation of the people who are innovating who are from the particular district, and let them get exhibited. A lot of people come to these exhibition stalls, see them, ask questions, and that’s when the recognition will happen. At the end of the programme, I ensured that at least all the innovators got a T-shirt. All the innovators got a certificate from the district collectors and a lot of local politicians met them. There were purchase orders that came out of that programme. That’s one of the ways we encourage more and more innovation coming out of Telangana. That was the core of TSIC.
I think there’s only one way to get into TSIC. We have a yearly fellowship programme, it’s called TSIC fellowship. The application process ended on the 10th of this May- we concluded our application process. That’s the way to get into the programme. You get in as an Innovation Fellow. After one year of your fellowship, if you want to continue and if the administration feels the same, then you get another year extension, and you become senior innovation fellow. Had I not gotten this position of Head of Innovation Office, I would have been working as a senior innovation fellow. But the entry way is through the fellowship programme itself. In the organisation you can grow from here to there. For example, first you can grow to be a senior innovation fellow, from senior innovation fellow you can grow to be anything, like a programme manager, etc.
Right now, how do you think TSIC is now engaged in the entrepreneurship domain, under such strenuous conditions amidst the pandemic. How would you consider the innovation policies that are helping to stabilize the economy right now?
I think we were caught off-guard. To be honest really, our policies were never designed for a pandemic and crises. It’s like when we create a dam or a sewer system, we create for the worst rainfall that has happened in the last 100 years. But I don’t think the policies were created that way. They were created with a very short vision, if I may use that word. I think we weren’t prepared, but what we have done is we have started doing a lot of course corrections. We have tried to adapt very fast to the new terms. For example, all of our meetings happened virtual, we actually worked even harder than we used to work in offices, we hold the same amount of meetings that we hold in office, we still interact with all our innovators, we still hold hackathons, we still are holding webinars. All the routine work is actually going on, but it did take us some time to get here. First few days were in either complete denial- this can’t be happening.
And then we realised this is a way of life and let’s get used to it. I think policies- I see a lot of key changes will come in time, where some of our policies will be kept in mind, sorry, will be created with a mind that a pandemic like corona might come again and how we’d prepare for it. We’ll see a lot of policies coming from the government in terms of how do you regulate the labour who work from home, what are the new working timings, how many hours a person can work. All that will come in picture going forward.
How do you think it’s important for engineering students in colleges around the country to contribute to innovation initiatives by the government? How do you think it benefits them?
For a while let’s just think that we ought to be innovative just as a citizen. If we really want to be America, be South Korea, be Japan, or even be better than them, and I aspire that we become better than them, we ought to be very very innovative. We just can’t lead the same old processes, and keep using their products, let’s not be really flooded by other’s innovations. We ought to create our indigenous innovations as well. I don’t think these should be hijacked by a certain institute, be hijacked by certain research institutes as is currently the state in India. Every one should solve their own problem, every girl should solve their own problem, everyone ought to be an innovator. Only when everyone becomes an innovator, that’s when you’ll see a cultural change and mindset change. That’s when we’ll become the next destination of innovation. College finds a very pivotal part there. Because at college, you have the labs, you have the soft infrastructure, the software, you have a decent faculty to guide you, and those decent faculties can help you reach even higher faculties across India or across the world. Right now, to be honest, if I tell you, all the brilliant minds that I engaged with happened just because I shot them an e-mail telling them this is what I am, this is what I need, would you be willing to help? And more often than not, they are willing to help you. At college, you have that space, you have that infrastructure, you have that liberty, you have that impressionable mind to do all this. I think it ought to start at college if not before. Ideally it should happen from an early age, but if not, at least from college it should start. There’s no reason that it should not start, everything is provided for at college. I think institutes like NIT Trichy should take it upon their shoulders that 700 engineers that graduate every year at undergrad, all of them should be called an innovator.
How do you think your academic exposure at NIT Trichy, along with your projects and interns- how do you think this has shaped your career? Do you still implement your core subject knowledge at this stage in your career?
To be honest, not directly, but indirectly I can’t cease to be an engineer. I have been trained formally as an engineer and I will always continue to be an engineer. Once when I was giving an example as to how our policies are not framed with a pandemic in mind, I told how we design a canal or a sewer system for the worst that could happen- or has happened in the past, or that how buildings are created for 100 years of life. The examples are civil engineering examples, even though I haven’t been doing civil engineering for the last 3 years of my life. What I’m saying is, subconsciously you are what you’re trained for. Engineering is engineering, you are going to use it. People might say that you don’t use it, but if you really think through, they are what they’re trained for. I do use the engineering- I was in love with physics at one point of time, and I still can’t think anything apart from physics when I think about academia. I still solve HC Verma problems, just for the fun of it. I solved them in class 11 and 12- you can keep solving them just for the fun of it. I still talk about Cannizaro’s reaction, and Aldol condensation, and HVZ reactions, just for the sake of it. Of course I’m an engineer, but for an even bigger impact, I’m doing this. That has become like a hobby for me, what I used to do- engineering.
Is there anything you wish you had known when you were graduating college, anything you would have done differently?
There are two things- one thing that I really knew in college was let’s enjoy college, and I did it. What I wish I would have known is that the amount of time that you have in college, in terms of doing things which requires vigorous thinking, in terms of things that require time to do it- that would probably never come again in life, if you’re not doing research. Your efforts are directly linked to the output and not the process time that is linked to the output. In that process, you tend to lose on quality thinking. But in college you had ample space where you could do a lot of thinking, tinkering, discussions, focus group discussions, we can reach out to stakeholders, get them to collaborate with us, and do some amazing things. Once you graduate from college, you’ll never have that much time to be able to do that. You’ll always be in pressure to create output, or deliver output. In college, I wish I had known that I had that sort of time, and let me use it in a better way. In college of course I used to do a lot of writing and reading. I read many of the library books. I don’t think I read like I used to read in college.
What soft-skills would you recommend students to gain in following a career trajectory that is similar to yours? What kind of skills do you think a student should start developing if they’re looking to go into a similar field?
One is problem solving skills. I want my college students to think of problems they can solve and start thinking about how they can solve it. This is something that can be cultivated over time. For example, what I have trained myself to do is, if I look at a problem, and I see it is a problem, I start thinking as to how I can solve it. I may not go on to solve it, I may not go on to really make a product, or a solution, or a process to solve it. But I start at least thinking as to how I can do it. I keep doing the root cause analysis- okay this is the problem, what is at the root of the problem? If there is an income inequality in the country- okay that’s at the surface, but what is at the core of it? People say- okay- the core of it is the caste system, but what is at the core of caste system as well? Probably the behaviour of people to create classes and distinction- people love to create distinction. What is the cause of people creating distinction? Because they want to feel important. What is at the cause of people feeling important? So, when you dig deeper and deeper, that’s when you know the root. I think problem solving is an amazing skill one should have, and a second thing which I wished all of us followed was to have ground exposure- to really be on the ground, and let’s not solve problems sitting in our AC rooms or college hostels. Let’s actually go into the ground- I’ll give you a brilliant example. I’ve worked with a lot of amazing entrepreneurs, people who have been really, really successful like the founder of RedBus. I’ve worked with many amazing CEOs and Entrepreneurs. I have seen them, the moment they make one change in their startup idea, they actually go into the ground and test it with at least 50-60 people. They will not hesitate to talk to a fruit seller or a restaurant owner. I’ve seen with my own eyes, they just simply love to talk to people. I think that’s at the core of the success of solving a problem. If you don’t know your beneficiary, you can’t solve a problem. If you don’t know who you’re solving the problem for, you can’t solve a problem. I wish our college students would go out and really interact with a lot of people. I think the third one is to have a very precise idea as to why you want to do it. What you want to do can always be figured out, but always think why you want to do it. We think that a software job is what will give them a prestige, but does it ? Let’s question that. Have they really spoken to 10 of their seniors who have actually earned the same amount of money, are they actually happy? So I want them to really think through things, and not just take things on face value or peer-pressure, or anything else.
One advice you’d give a student currently pursuing engineering, one thing you’d really want to say to them. What would that be?
I would say, just take one problem, and try to really solve that problem in the 4 years of your college life. The amount of learning a person would have in going through the entire value chain of solving a problem will make them a complete, all-round experienced human being. Let’s say in 4 years the person decides to solve one problem, that could be as simple as “how can we make our assignment processes paperless in college”. As simple as that. The person goes from solving these- finding the root cause of the problem, then to the solution, then to the implementation of the solution, and to make it sustainable and pass it down to someone else. The entire value chain of the solution, will give you an immense amount of learning. I think if that’s what one could do- as a piece of advice from me, that would be so amazing. That’s what so many innovators and change-makers do.
How do you think the teams you were a part of in NIT Trichy, played a role in your career? Did it impact you in any manner?
I was a part of Aayaam, the NITTFest Organising Committee- whatever Aayaam does at NITTFest and NCC. I was also the editor in chief of the Pratibimb magazine of college, the Hindi magazine that Aayaam is giving out. Now, there were different things that I learnt from each one of them. For example, if I start with NCC, maybe the rule of discipline in life, the rule of being on time in life, the rule of sometimes taking something on and saying I can do it without even thinking much- I’m sure there’s this practice being still followed where they say we want volunteers, all of you raise your hands. In a way, if you really look through the process you are actually becoming more courageous. You’re saying, okay fine, what could it be, what could happen, I’m sure they’ll not ask my kidney or lungs (haha), it has got to be lesser than that right? Let me stand up for it and let me see what it is. I think that is a very strong message- whenever, let’s say if you’re in a professional world, there will be opportunities that will come out, and you will think that I’m not adequate enough to actually take on the challenge and solve it. But let’s say if you use the same technique that you used in NCC where you raised your hands and think I want to take it and let me figure out as to how I want to do it after saying yes. More often than not, you’ll actually get the problem through.
In terms of Aayaam what I learnt was that sometimes it’s so important to do what’s fun. I mean, you could do boring things, and after a while you’ll start losing vision as to why you’re doing things. It’s important to do what is fun. Aayaam was one experience which was fun, which was hard work at times, which was absolutely hilarious at other times, sometimes it gave me nostalgia about my mother tongue. It was a bunch of all that. I think it was an amazing experience which I got. When I take up any work, I also think about: how can I make it fun so that I can endure it for a longer time. I think that’s what I learnt from Aayaam.
If we could just ask what are your future plans right now- where are you looking to go from here, what your vision is?
I have been very fortunate to be given the opportunity by the Government of Telangana to head the Innovation Office at Telangana State Innovation Cell. The aim of this office would be to put the innovation ecosystem of Telangana at the forefront of the world, that this is an example worth copying from, worth getting inspired from. It is also aimed at improving the rankings of Telangana’s innovation ecosystem making it more efficient and robust and the startup ranking in India and abroad. This office will become a go-to destination for all the thought leaders or visionaries that are out there in the world to come and work with the government of Telangana as advisors and council members. These are the things that I’m going to lead, and my next plan, let’s say in the next two years, I aim to make sure that our rankings are the best, in Telangana we get a lot of brilliant thought provoking leaders to come and work with us and to make sure our ecosystem is very efficient and robust.
Interview coordinated by Pooja Srinivasan and transcribed by Sunil Jagatheesan.