How A History Graduate Became A Big Name In Tech Giants Like Google And Twitter

Posted by Penguin India in Books, Business and Economy
June 22, 2018

One of the remarkable ironies regarding the raging debate over the need for our schools to focus more on teaching science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) is that many of the technology experts in Silicon Valley are sending their children to ‘soft’ schools. Many of these leaders are those graduates of top Indian Institutes of Technology, Indian Institutes of Management and other such vocational universities. Yet they’re sending their children to liberal arts schools. These are schools that emphasize building the precise skills that a liberal arts college education seeks to foster, chief among those being intellectual curiosity and confidence, creativity, strong interpersonal communication, empathy for others, and a love of learning and problem-solving. Perhaps reminiscent of the great quote by the US President John Adams in a letter to his wife Abigail, in which he stated that, “I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture.” Many executives seem to value the humanities. It is, after all, the study of humanity, humanity’s gravest problems, and what actually gives life meaning.

A father, husband, and seasoned executive, in his early thirties, Rishi Jaitly has already achieved more than most people do in a lifetime. He has run policy and operations for both Google and Twitter in Asia, and today is CEO of Times Bridge, a division of Bennett Coleman and The Times Group, which invests in big ideas aspiring to think creatively, not just clinically, about their India opportunity. Though he spends his days with Times Bridge’s portfolio of start-ups, including Uber, Airbnb and Coursera, he’d most likely chuckle if you ask him if he’s a technologist.

Jaitly was personally recruited to Google by then CEO Eric Schmidt, and helped negotiate the end of YouTube and Blogspot’s government censorship in Pakistan and Bangladesh. At Twitter, he was the company’s first hire in Asia–Pacific outside of Japan, and for nearly eighteen months was a one-man operation on the Indian subcontinent. On any given day he’d jump between evangelizing Twitter to developers in Bengaluru’s start-up ecosystem to helping a Bollywood celebrity locked out of an account, to holding meetings with Indian Premier League cricket executives on their approach to social media to sitting down with police officers tracking ISIS. And during election season, he was even pulled into the bowels of national politics, and a controversy or two.

Jaitly’s role, like any high-level job in technology or business, was one that required him to be a chameleon, a communicator, someone deeply versed in and curious about people, media, entertainment, and politics. It didn’t require specific technical ability, but rather soft skills and adaptability, and a sense of one’s own purpose. As a history major from Princeton University, he was well prepared.

The son of two physicians, Jaitly was born in the Bronx, New York, and grew up between Flushing, Queens in New York and the tony suburb of Greenwich, Connecticut. His parents, who had married after three weeks of courtship, had met through an ad in the Hindustan Times. Jaitly’s mother, an accomplished oncologist, was in search of a worthy husband, and she efficiently found him in Rishi’s father.

The Jaitly family had its roots near Srinagar in Kashmir, but his family had long left their native place. His father was born in Kolkata but grew up in Nagpur. His mother, whose family came from near Mathura, the birthplace of Krishna, was raised in Chennai, where her father operated a coffee business before becoming involved in the Independence movement and the peaceful rallies of Mahatma Gandhi. In fact, Jaitly’s maternal grandfather was standing next to Gandhi when he was assassinated.
Raised in the diverse environs of New York, as a child, Jaitly was relatively unaware of his own heritage. In Greenwich, Jaitly felt more American than anything else. But a liberal arts education at Princeton became a time for him to explore his identity. He’d entered university on a path to become a doctor, but once he got to campus he became fascinated by the heritage and history surrounding him. While he’d go to his organic chemistry lectures, he began to recognize that he had far more interest in the great civic speeches of leaders like Gandhi. President Clinton came to campus during his freshman year, while he was running for class vice president; after Clinton’s speech, and the opportunity to greet the president afterwards, Jaitly recommitted himself to a higher purpose of service.

When he went home for Thanksgiving that year, he told his father that he was dropping medicine for history.

The Princeton University motto, then and now, was, ‘In the nation’s service and in the service of all nations,’ and this notion resonated deeply. His intellectual curiosities expanded, and he began exploring his own race and identity. Towards the end of college, he performed South Asian theatre, joined an Indian dance troupe and completed a senior thesis on the US’s South Asia immigration policy during the Cold War. He began to feel comfortable sharing his own heritage with others around him.
Throughout college, he also embraced his newfound interest in service: he won his race for class vice president, was asked by New Jersey’s governor to become a state commissioner of higher education, and, after graduation, won a coveted spot as a trustee on Princeton University’s Board of Trustees. There he sat next to other trustees, one by the name of Eric Schmidt. By exploring his own passions, Jaitly had found a trapdoor to the very top of Google, an iconic technology company in which many of his computer science peers would fight for a job.

After Jaitly delivered an eloquent closing prayer at an autumn Board meeting in Princeton, Schmidt leaned over to him at the table. “We don’t need any more technologists at Google,” he whispered. “We need more people like you.” Google was most in need of communicators, and chameleons like Jaitly whom they could drop into any situation, and who could perform with zeal and autonomy. Schmidt convinced Jaitly to build on his early career at education non-profit College Summit and join Google in the office of the CEO; from there, Jaitly earned trust, and later the opportunity to help Google scale its presence in India.

Jaitly’s career path isn’t the linear one we lionize in technology lore. But Jaitly is exactly the executive top performing companies like Google and Twitter aspire to find.

The magnetism that attracts opportunity—in technology or any field for that matter—is a mix of authenticity, passion, charisma and communication. It was the breadth of his education, and the freedom to carve his own path, that unfurled for Jaitly a set of opportunities that have afforded him every success, and recognition of his own mission—to help people and communities see their own power, including by drawing on the power of technology. Now also an advisor to a variety of Chicago-based efforts that draw on technology to build community, including service as a board member of the Chicago Humanities Festival, Jaitly has become an advocate for a broad liberal arts education.

“I think in India we ought to be doing more to emphasize the importance of this married skill set,” Jaitly said from behind the podium at the 2017 All India Management Association leadership conference. Making the case for blending both fuzzies and techies in education, business, and society, Jaitly hasn’t been alone. Billionaire executive and global leader Anand Mahindra has asked the question before: “Will technology save the world? No,” he’s said. “It will be poets, writers, and musicians.” The question becomes, how can we create an educational system that allows for literacy in technology, and the preservation of the very humanity that can help nourish and shape it?

Excerpted with permission from “The Fuzzy And The Techie” by Scott Harley, published by Penguin India.