Venkata Narasimham Peri: The Fortune Intellectual

His very demeanour gives a vibe of intellectual dexterity. An early riser and a man of his principles, Mr. Venkata Narasimham Peri, is one of the Partners at Pricewaterhousecooper. With his infectious enthusiasm and strong willingness to bring about a change, Mr Peri can transform your life by just giving a talk.

Team MM caught up with this gem of a man who is very fond of poetry as well as entrepreneurship. 

MM: Now that the institute is not getting the required amount of funds, what can all of us do for our alma mater?

V N Peri: I think there are three fundamental constituent in an institute. First, the teaching fraternity, the second, the students themselves and the third is the alumni. All the three of them should work together. If you looked at the developed world, the institutes generally generate their own funds. The main sources of funding are the admission fee structure, which is obviously not enough in India owing to several subsidies, the second source would be close participation with the industries. You start taking up more and more projects for the industry. They pay you for the work and it helps you to do two things: tap into the pressing problems of the present industries and gives both the students and teachers alike, an opportunity to come into contact with real life problems. It can also become a very steady state revenue for the institute. Broadly speaking, that would become the biggest source of revenue for any institution. The third source would be an extension of the second one at the students’ level. The institute can start setting up incubators. We have to bring about a start-up culture. After graduating, instead of looking for a job, they must seek entrepreneurial activities and help in generating jobs. Apart from creating jobs for a larger society, they can also repay some of their institute for shaping their career. 

Most of the educational institutes around the world are going through a crunch, owing to the pulling back of funds from the government. They have to look for means to generate their own money and of course put the fiscal house in order. You cannot live beyond your means. 

MM: How do you think the institute has changed since the last time you came you here?

V N Peri: This is my second visit within two years. It has changed dramatically, in terms of size and structure, the number of departments, the new courses and the curricula, and the focus on research. The focus on academic research has gone up and that is a significant achievement. But, we must go beyond these numbers and find out how many of these numbers are doing cutting-edge work, what is the value addition of our PhD scholars to the society. The infrastructure, the visibility of the campus, the confidence level of the students has definitely gone up by a few notches. The institute continues to grow exponentially. Kudos to the Director and his administration for doing such a great job.

MM: How do you think that the institute can attract more MNCs to participate in the recruitment?

V N Peri: I am here to meet Professor Biswal and look at the portfolio of some companies that visit us. I can tell you from a company’s point of view: we all look for the same set of skills. It doesn’t matter whether we are a domestic company or an MNC. We look for sound academic foundations in the subjects that you have undertaken, problem solving skills, general problem solving skills in the aptitude tests and proficiency in expressing thoughts, without fumbling and getting confused. Finally, we look for people with strong personal integrity. They must take ownership of problems and acknowledge the failures and correct it. It is a misconception that MNCs look for different skills. These are the skills that we look for, campus after campus, students after students. 

I am worried that NIT Rourkela may face problems due to lack of air connectivity. It is very necessary to get into the place easily. I think the major roadblocks are the visibility and the physical infrastructure that is required to get into Rourkela more easily. It takes us an inordinate amount of time and a painful process to get into Rourkela. In practical reality, it’s not about us travelling, it’s about time. When we can get 20-30 students per branch in campus where we have to spend just three to four hours, why should we spend a day and a half getting into Rourkela? So, we have got to back and put this into our priority. We have got to have air connectivity from Ranchi and Bhubaneswar. We need to increase to our visibility, whether through academic research or through incubation, we need to identify certain areas that are relevant and helpful for the larger society. I think we need to back and start solving these problems and go beyond the CGPA. 

MM: Since you are one of the partners at Pricewaterhousecooper, can we expect more campus placements from NIT Rourkela?

V N Peri: Yes, you can. In fact, we have already initiated that. From next year onwards, NIT Rourkela becomes one of the allowed campuses and we have already taken care of that. We are also starting a new Centre for Advanced Analytics after Lakshman Rao Peri, my father. There is another partner who is also from NIT Rourkela, Mr Tripathy, who looks after analytics for healthcare, and he is dear friend. So, we will continue to work to make sure that you not only get the placements but also internships and get a shot at PwC. 

MM: How do you think that the alumni can help in the improvement of curricula that is followed in the institute?

V N Peri: I think the curricula should be revised every two to three years. I will have a talk with Professor B Majhi (Dean Academic). You see, the world is changing very fast. New concepts and ideas are coming up. Everyone in the campus should be taught about the impact of the social media. Everyone needs to be taught about the concept of business analytics, no matter the stream. Everyone must know about the Economics fundamentals, at least for a couple of papers. It is fundamental to the way the society works. For example: some people with Master’s in physics have no idea what GDP means. This is what you have to work with for most parts of your lives. About what you can put in your academic curricula, is where the industry helps. There can be a committee, which can tap into what the industry is thinking. 

“Transforming the students from being very good academically in theory to practical problem solvers, should be the guiding principle of the academic curriculum.”

So, you cannot just have a number of teachers sit together and start designing the curricula. You must involve the industry, understand its needs. And this where the alumni can help. They are the ones who are in the proximity of the needs of the industry and markets. We have to bring them on board and take in their opinion about the theory and practical courses to be introduced and enhance the opportunity to allow them to go out and spend solving the real life problems out there. Alumni is the most important constituent to be able to make this happen. 

The curriculum should be redeveloped to address the most pressing problems of the society. More electives should be introduced and allow the students to decide for themselves. 

I will tell you one example. When I was being driven from Bhubaneswar to Rourkela, near the Rourkela Steel Plant, I could not help but observe that about hundreds of women, were riding the bicycles, with bundles of firewood in the carrier and at least 4-5 bags in the handles. I could not help, but ponder about the lives of these women. I want to challenge the students of NIT Rourkela to find out ways to make their lives better and safer. We can surely provide them with electric scooters, or perhaps reach out to the RSP and negotiate bus services for them. 

We don’t think. We do not look outside for problems to solve. We are not inherently used to looking at practical problems.

This culture has to change. 

MM: What is the vision and target that you have set for resource generation as the Chairman of the Resource Generation Committee?

V N Peri: Now, that’s a tough question (chuckles). My goal is to raise a million dollars in the very first year and I am not kidding. I haven’t figured it out yet, though. If I fast forward to 2025, the alumni fund should have at least 50 million dollars. That may be very tall goal, but not insurmountable. And each one us, me and you, are accountable for it, since you will become an alumnus in a couple years’ time. You must shoulder the responsibility. 

MM: We are technical students. What should be the benchmark to be the favourite of the current market situation? 

V N Peri: The way I look at it is that there is no ideal student. Let’s face it: we consciously realise that you have just four to five years of experience. We don’t expect you to be rocket scientists. We don’t expect you to be walking on the water or walking on the moon, or anything like that. We look for your multi-dimensional problem solving ability. Most of the problems do not come to us in the form that we expect. It’s not a logistical regression algorithm that we can pick up and solve a problem. The real-life problems come with multiple dimensions. So, the more multi-dimensional problems you can solve, the better you are. 

We must understand the economics behind our day to day problems. For example: why is the government trying to cut costs? What is the national deficit that the Finance Minister keeps talking about? Why is the government trying to privatize the institutions in a rapid spree? Is it the right thing to do? 

The problems that you will face outside are of very different nature. 

The more educated you are, the more aware you are about the society around you and the better problem solver you are.

Those are our darlings and we want them with us. We look for not only the depth of the subject, but also the breadth. They must move beyond the standard and tap into the multiple dimensions and bring up alternate solutions to a problem. And they must have insatiable thirst for learning. 

MM: What message would you like to convey to the current students of the institute?

V N Peri: The students must enjoy the time. It’s a very wonderful time of the life. I would like to tell them three fundamental messages: one, try not to fall into the crowd mentality. Have your own individuality. Pick up the subjects that you like to study. Just because you are a major in electronics or computer science, you need not have a job in electronics or IT. I challenge that you can become a professor in Economics. As you grow, you start to have likes and dislikes and you develop the passion. Be passionate about what you love and pursue it. It does two things to you: you get to work and start solving problems with greater vigour. There are bad days, but you learn to overcome them.

Two, I love the journey as must as the destination. I want to love the journey. I want to enjoy the process of reaching your destination, the successes, the failures, everything. The failures teach more lessons than the successes. 

Three, being driven in a Mercedes to a job that you don’t like is no more pleasant. I would rather go in an ambassador to my job that I love. Don’t run behind money or position. They will come automatically as you become better. It may sound clichéd, but that’s very true. You think the teacher is tough to handle, wait until you get a boss. You can’t replace that person either (Chuckles). 

If you want to do something, you will find a thousand excuses. But if you want to do it, one good reason is enough.