JUST ASPIRE : Notes on Technology, Entrepreneurship and the Future


India’s software successes have had a lot of history. However, India’s growth in the IT hardware and mobility industry has not been noticed. In this context, entrepreneur, sportsman, salesman, engineer, educationist, jazz aficionado and investor; Ajai Chowdhary’s book Just Aspire traces the origins of India’s economy through the PC revolution and the subsequent explosion in mobile telephony and fills an important gap in India’s business history.
Just Aspire: Notes on Technology, Entrepreneurship and the Future, is a memoir by Ajai Chowdhry, co-founder of HCL. The book chronicles Chowdhry’s journey from a small town in Madhya Pradesh to being at the forefront of a ground-breaking revolution that transformed India, along with his experiences and learnings at HCL.

Two of India’s leading IT companies – Infosys and HCL – were both founded in the pre-liberalisation era by young engineers from non-business families. They represented the first generation of Indian entrepreneurs who built large-scale global enterprises long before the ‘cool’ factor was enjoyed by founders and startups today. This is an era when starting and running a business was much more complex than in today’s India. This was a time when money was not easy to raise; and politicians and bureaucrats were not expected to facilitate, or even bother to clearly understand what ‘ease of doing business’ meant.

As one of the co-founders of HCL, Chowdhry’s contribution in shaping India’s Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) and hardware industry is unparalleled. Just Aspire provides insight into his personal life, intertwined with the growth story of India’s IT and hardware industry and some important milestones. The author’s passion and commitment to making a difference comes through, as well as his discipline and ability to forge long-term relationships beyond business. The story of HCL is fascinating and, in a way, is a blueprint that has been followed by many entrepreneurs till date. It is like an original movie script that gets remade every decade or two. But at that time, it must have been a decision to leave a stable job and start HCL, and Chowdhry captured whatever was going through his mind while making this decision.

Chowdhry’s life story is inspirational. He is exceptionally humble and grounded as he narrates his story of his time with six co-founders who quit steady jobs to pursue a dream. A team that he calls the ‘Techno Dreamers’. The book has some deep insight into the blue sky thinking and opportunity exploration that entrepreneurs went into in their quest to build a business. No template was found. There is no preference to go. Just instinct and strong will to succeed.

Chowdhry provides an insight into his early life, his childhood in Jabalpur, his fascination with reading, his time in college, and his first job in sales with DCM Data products. The book becomes more interesting as he talks about setting up HCL with Shiv Nadar and the early days of building a new business in a nascent industry. He talks about the challenges that they faced, meeting with the bigwigs of the tech world, and working alongside some of the biggest names in the business.

Chowdhry also discusses how HCL expanded operations in multiple countries, learned to work with the computer technology available at that time, learned hard lessons in management and rode the liberalisation wave of the 1990s in India. He shares an intriguing account of how HCL took its business to China in the early 1980s, which was an emerging market then, with huge potential. Chowdhry became ‘Chow Ta Lee’ for the Chinese market and learned to deal with Chinese bureaucracy and their unique business tactics, and even adapted to Chinese food.

The author briefly talks about HCL’s partnership with Nokia for the distribution of affordable, low-cost mobile phones for the Indian market. While Nokia faded away due to shortsighted business policies and Chinese manufacturers rose to the occasion, dominating the smartphone segment in India today.

When you reach the middle of the book, Chowdhry discusses his plans to move away from HCL and concentrate on his philanthropic pursuits and other goals, which involve supporting tech entrepreneurship by being an investor and mentor, as well as promoting technical education in India. The remaining portion of the book concentrates on Chowdhry’s endeavours and initiatives to establish (and sometimes re-establish and modify) significant institutions, providing guidance and motivation to aspiring entrepreneurs and reading extensively. The description of some of Chowdhry’s major inflection points is worth reading.

Just Aspire is an insightful and inspiring book, with lessons that are relevant not just to entrepreneurs but to anyone who is interested in technology and the future. The book provides a glimpse into the tech culture that prevailed in the 1980s and 90s and how business used to get done. Chowdhry’s encounters with luminaries like Bill Gates and Ray Kurzweil add a nice bit of glow to the book. The word ‘aspire’ highlights the book’s focus on entrepreneurship and the importance of having a strong drive to succeed. The use of ‘just’ before ‘aspire’ adds a sense of simplicity and accessibility, emphasising that anyone can aspire to achieve their goals with hard work and determination.

Overall, the title succinctly conveys the book’s themes of technology, entrepreneurship, and the pursuit of success.
Overall, Just Aspire is a must-read for anyone who wants to learn from the experiences of a visionary entrepreneur who was at the forefront of the Indian technology revolution.

The book provides valuable insights into the mindset and work ethic of a successful entrepreneur, and how one can aspire to achieve their goals by focusing on their passions and persisting despite the challenges. It is a book that will inspire and motivate readers to aim high and work hard towards achieving their dreams.

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