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October 5, 1999


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The Call of the Alma Mater

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Special to Rediff

Kanwal Rekhi Kanwal Rekhi gets a bit embarrassed when the talk about his $ 2 million contribution to the Indian Institute of Technology in Bombay comes up.

"It is not such a big amount," Rekhi, a venture capitalist and president of The Indus Enterprise, says, adding that each IIT in India should be able to raise about $ '100 million from alumni donations

"There are nearly 30,000 IIT alumni in the US alone," he continues. "If you take a handful of IIT alumni from Powai who are in America, their net worth would be $ 5 billion."

Rekhi is "shamelessly" asking other IIT alumni to give back.

"Indians are ashamed to ask for money," he says. "But this is a shameless business -- and I believe those who of us who have lived in America for many years should try to help our alma mater in India, just the way alumni help Harvard, Princeton or Stanford universities raise money."

Last week when about 200 alumni of the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, who live in the United States, got together for their reunion, the talk of giving back could not be missed.

The meeting, on October 2 at the Seton Hall University, was addressed by Professor Suhas Sukhatme, director, IIT, Bombay. During his two week-long visit to the US, Sukhatme also met alumni in Bay Area, Los Angeles and Chicago before coming before the largest gathering of IIT students, in New Jersey.

"The idea is to provide an opportunity to the alumni to be in touch with what's happening at the Institute and cultivate a relationship which is mutually beneficial," he said. "While the government still largely funds us, funds are not easy to get and resources are constantly needed to maintain high standards.

"In the US for example, leading universities like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology raise 25 to 30 per cent of their expense through endowments.''

Professor Sukhatme's visit and the efforts of the alumni could yield at least $ 1.5 million by the end of the year, according to Sandeep Pandya, treasurer of the Heritage Fund in California. The fund, started in October 1996, has collected a little under $ three million.

It has already assisted in the creation of the latest departments to IIT, Bombay -- the School of Management Studies and the School of Information Technology.

There are about 5,500 IIT graduates in America who studied at the Powai campus. Big names abound: Rakesh Mathur who sold his Internet site,, to for a reported $ 180 million is an IIT Bombay alumni from the class of 1978. Narayana Murthy, co-founder and director of Infosys, and managing director Nandan Nilekani are both alumni and have been major benefactors to their respective IITs. Other benefactors include Vinod Gupta from American Business Information and Arjun Malhotra, co-founder HCL.

Other high-flying IIT graduates in America are Rono J Dutta, president of United Airlines, the world's largest airline; Victor Menezes, co-CEO of corporate and investment banking at Citigroup; Vinod Khosla, co-founder, Sun Microsystems; Rajat Gupta, managing partner at international consulting firm McKinsey & Co; Rakesh Gangwal, CEO and president, US Airways; Suhas Patil, founder of Cirrus Logic; and Shailesh Mehta, chairman of Providian Financial.

Professor Sukhatme on his current visit met with several high-fliers, including Victor Menezes and Shailesh Mehta, at a summit in Chicago.

Pandya said they have pledged "a phenomenal amount", which will be revealed in a media blitz at the end of the month.

AsiaWeek, the Hong Kong-based publication, in its annual survey ranked IIT- Bombay sixth among all top science and technology schools in Asia. IIT-Delhi and IIT-Madras ranked 4th and 5th respectively. In India, the IITs are the most prestigious institutions in science and technology.

IIT alumni across America are aware of the clout they have in mainstream business. They also want to use this clout to groom a generation of younger entrepreneurs.

"When we talk about giving back, we are not talking purely in terms of money," says Rekhi. "We often help some top entrepreneurs guest lecture at the IIT in Bombay."

One of those entrepreneurs is Hemant Kanakia, the founder of Torrent Networking that was sold to a Swedish multinational recently for $ 450 million. Kanakia has not only guest-lectured in Bombay but has also spoken to a number off IIT gatherings across America.

The IIT evening in New Jersey began with a video presentation by Professor Sukhatme, who pointed out the key areas where the Institute needed a helping hand and the plans for the coming years.

While the current enrollment figure for IIT, Bombay is 3,900, he said efforts would be made to increase it to 5,000 students. The number of female students, which is currently 10 per cent, should be increased, he said.

The tuition fees that were "ridiculous" at Rs 200 per annum in 1991 were now Rs 22,000. They would be further hiked, he said.

"It's a fallacious argument that this deprives poor students," he continued. "While 20 per cent are unable to pay these fees, the majority can afford the top quality education. Besides we have provisions for loans and scholarships to meet the needs of the 20 per cent.''

Professor Sukhatme presented the Alumnus Award to Professor Ravindra Kannan for his research in applied mathematics at Yale University where he teaches. The award is given annually to commemorate the institute's Foundation Day. An independent committee reviews the nominees' work and makes the selection.

Apart from contributing money towards their alma mater, the gathering pledged to keep in touch and network. "Alumni from the top institutes of the world do it and gain a lot from it. There is no reason our students, both past and present should not profit from this bank of resources,'' said Professor Sukhatme.

The organizers of the event, alumni Vikas Tipnis and Yashodhara Pawar, urged members to tune into the institution's web site,, to volunteer expertise as well as network.

"The idea is to create awareness and leverage the brand name of IIT,'' said Pawar. The Heritage Fund welcomes cash donations, stock options as well as volunteers for their various projects.

For details, write to IIT Bombay Heritage Fund, 10489, Rampart Avenue, Cupertino, CA 95104.

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