A Harvard Professor Speaks Out on What It Means to Start Up!

Imagine being squeezed within two feet of space whenever you step out of your berth. Not to mention- the 7 a.m. wake up calls, followed by a jam-packed day and topped off with 475 enthusiastic faces walking into share deep conversations towards sundown for 15 days.

Kishore Mandhyan, who has worked with the United Nations Civil Affairs and has been a professor at Harvard University, took up the daring task happily.


If you could compress a lifetime’s worth of anecdotes into 45 minutes, Kishore certainly seems to have mastered the art. Kishore has worked out of war zones in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Cyprus and Amman and as political advisor to Ashraf Jehangir Qazi, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy to Iraq. Who better to tell us how a stubbornly ambitious adolescent with the guts to change the world ended up working as a member of the U.N. Secretary-General’s team!


While I was in school-my elder brother was the star child of the family. I, on the other hand, was always a confused soul. There comes a time in every child’s life when they simply have to take the plunge and decide exactly what they want to do in life. The tenth grade exams was that moment for me.

My not-so-impressive marks sheet was just delievered home and I walked into the living room seeing father pouring over it. The next day, we were all summoned to school to be boxed into either the Science,Humanities or Commerce departments based on how well we did in the exams. I was handed a sheet with my stream allotted to me. And he looked at it. “They want to meet you and suggest a career path.” He looked at it, he spat on it and said, “You will make your own path.” And that coming from a father who was a refugee. This was the single biggest contribution he made to my life- to give me the confidence of taking my own route.


The next anecdote is about Ms. Gonsalves, my eighth grade teacher. She had a wonderful way of teaching us English handwriting. She would come into the class and without a warning would declare, “if winter is here, can spring be far behind?!” One day she came and said, “wherever dark clouds loom, the United Nations is empowered to resolve the crisis and dissect the problem.”

She continued, “go the U.S. library, go to the British Council library, research it and write it.” That’s where I discovered the enterprise of peace- the enterprise of unarmed soldiers, unarmed dimplomats, living between hostile lines in the Suez, the Middle East, in the Congo asnd Africa-separating the forces,patrolling the zone of separation and rebuilding the State and stabilising the patient in the I.C.U. That is how I discovered peace from my school teacher. That is how not only would you discover confidence, but also ideas and approaches from each other.

The third moment is that of resistance, of rebellion-to differ openly and transparently-even when nobody’s watching. Resistance matters. It empowers. Resist even if it’s your father. After topping the I.I.T entrance and proving himself intellectually worthy, my brother was even more convinced that he simply could not go ahead and pursue Artificial Intelligence without concurrently immersing himself in philosophy. And he had the confidence and courage to not choose an I.I.T.

The next significant moment of my life was after my Bachelor’s in Law School-here in Bombay. I wanted to do a Ph.D. in Political Science and International Relations at the University of Bombay. They did not allow me, despite a First Class, because my first degree was in Physics and Chemistry. I was frustrated- because I wanted to be here. I wanted to be a part of this enterprise called India, but I also wanted to read about the world. So, I had to cope with this frustration. The coping strategies of your own being have to be developed.

When this door closed, I chose to take the IAS exams in History, Political Science and Geography-challenging myself further, given my background in the Sciences. I wanted to make it to the Foreign Services and then work for the United Nations. But my father said I wouldn’t be able to make it because I had chosen subjects that were qualitative and not quantitivate. He was right, I did not make it to the Foreign Service and qualified for the Civil Services in the country. But you always get a second chance at mending your mistakes. We all make mistakes, big mistakes, but you can see them both as a challenge and an opportunity.


I worked for five years in India during the Emergency with a wonderful set of people-but I still hated it. Because of the inherent nepotism, I decided that no son or daughter of India should serve an unfair system. Sometimes, you have to walk away, actively asserting yourself without harming anyone.

Then I told myself I would only go to the best school- which led me to the top Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Boston. There I studied Peacekeeping and made great friends-the most important of whom is my lifelong mate Shashi Tharoor-who went on to become the Under Secretary-General of the United Nations. You can see how destiny stashes the moment for you- nothing is lost in the process.

At the Fletcher School, they take young people, like the Jagriti Yatra, between the semesters, to meet the alumni in different parts of the world. So they took us to New York to see the United Nations. There, for the first time, I saw the U.N., I was with my wife and little daughter. I looked up at the beautiful building designed by Le Corbusier and I said, “Shobha, one day I will work here, you will live in the flat opposite, you will tie a red scarf when the lunch is ready and I will come and have lunch with you. My father thought I was mad-to go to conflicts on all continents of the world-helping establish peace in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Anti-Piracy operations in Somalia, the reestablishment of the Iraqi Government after Saddam’s collapse. I couldn’t have dreamt that as the son of a refugee, after having myself lived in a camp in Ulhasnagar-I could even dare to dream of this. It started in Grade VII, when my IQ was 52 -the IQ of an idiot.

Twenty-five years before I stood in front of the U.N. building in New York was the first time I saw Shobha in college. From the moment I saw her, I was in love. I walked right across to her and said, “I want to marry you.” She’d never seen me before , she was sixteen and I was eighteen. So, you see, you have to take risks-not only in business, but also in life!

You have to take a risk, a considered risk. Now, when I look back at my career at the U.N.-fifteen years under bombs, suicides, mines, militants, rapes, trafficking, organised crime, cholera, malaria, massacres, earthquakes, floods-fifteen years in the field-but it toughened me. You have to pay your dues-you have to go through the grind. You cannot be victimised with the kind of thinking where you say, “Arrey, traffic signal toh sab todhte hain! Mein bhi rules kyun manoo?!” (Everyone breaks traffic signals anyway, why the hell should I follow them?) The thinking that says, “Tax mat bharo. Yeh toh ek chhoti rishwat hai aage badhane ke liye. ” (Evade taxes. This is just a small bribe to speed up my work)

If that’s the way you think, then you’re on a slippery slope. You aim to be entrepreneurs- but you have to balance feasibility with equity.Personal profit with social good. You need to strike that balance. But you must remember that unless you take care of yourself with integrity, you cannot share freely with integrity and accountability with the best of the people you serve! That means that you must make yourself strong-you can buy a lawyer, you can buy a doctor, you can buy a professor, but you cannot buy the feeling of having conquered hatred, envy, fear and of having infallible integrity. The cream rises to the top and curd also rises very fast-but don’t be carried away by the apparent similarities. The management of risk is this fine balance between integrity and the urge for profitability. That is the central question you will have to grapple with.

Now I would like to leave you with some questions before you board the train-for you to think about when you cross the numerous rivers and lie under the stars of this sacred and ancient land. I really like what Marx used to say about choosing a career- “How can you differentiate between when you go to work or when you go on vacation”-there should exist a complete fusion of work and leisure. You should be so passionate about what you do that you don’t even recognise the difference between home and work. So, here are my questions-

a. How can I live seven life times in one?

b. How can I bring my inner journey and my outer journeys together?

c. How can I reconcile my material journey with my social journey?

d. What is critical thinking-how can I see through the ‘Third Eye‘, how can I awaken?

e. How do I see in three dimensions with a 360 degree perspective and realise that intelligence is composite?

Today we have parcelled intelligence into IQ, social and emotional quotients- Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra. I say-no, we are one human being and intelligence is only one- it is humane intelligence. You cannot break it up artificially.

f. How do I look at the cost-benefits, trade-offs and contrarian perspectives-be alone in a crowd and yet feel the company of the world when I am alone?

That moment- when you overcome loneliness-when you overcome the need to be in a crowd, to be able to be alone when you want to be alone, is a moment to cherish.

g. How can I be a thinker and a doer?

One time when I was working some top consultants- they said, you must have some thinkers and some doers in your team. But I said, how can anyone think without doing and do anything well without thinking?! So you got to be both-thinkers and doers. So, I’m asking you not to separate the two.

h. How can I become the master of my own destiny?

Sometimes, you have to be your own Guru– to be able to read yourself. Today, the internet, books, libraries and friends are there to teach you. You should avoid leaning back on degrees for everything-for that is a symptom of the commercialisation of education.

i. How do I avoid the Steve Jobs syndrome?

That there is absolutely no need to study and that you can drop out and become an overnight success? Nonsense-talk to Abraham Lincoln– a man who might have read every book of his time and who went on to become one of the greatest leaders the world has ever seen.

Make Yatra a habit- your life is a perpetual journey. End every day with three things you want to do-one which is left over from yesterday, one which comes to you today and one that you want to do tomorrow.


Look at Mt. Everest with your feet on the ground- not above the ground-you must be anchored. Look into the eyes of people when you talk to themand stop this Sir Ji and Guru Ji. It’s one of the most disgusting traits of our culture-we’re equal human beings. Respect can be shown by performance, by excellence, by responsibility. Follow before you can lead- sabko leader hi banna hai (everyone wants to be a leader). There are only leadership programmes, there are no followship programmes!

Integrity and nobility can never be taught- they are within you. When I was doing my first yatra, after college, I wanted to avoid paying bills at night and so I went to sleep at the railway station, on my way to Pilani in Rajasthan. My train was at 4 a.m. and I couldn’t find a place to sit. Finally, after hopping over several people, a man gently lay his hand on me to guide me to a tiny place next to him. He said, “Yahan aa jaye, mein jaga bana leta hoon. (Why don’t you come sit here, look, KI’ve made space for you). This man was above eighty, and somehow he had nudged people here and there, and created some space for me. Then he said, “aap thake lag rahe ho. Aapki gaadi bohot subah ko aaegi. Abhi so jaao. (You look tired. And your train arrives really early next morning. Why don’t you sleep now? I’ll wake you up on time tomorrow). He took out his turban and made a pillow for me. I was astonished- who was this man. So I asked him, “Aap kaun ho?Kahan jaa rahe ho? (Who are you,Sir, and where are you going?). He said he was going to Delhi. I probed further-why? What he told me, I will never forget in my life. His son, who worked as a driver, had met with an accident and he was going to immerse his ashes in the holy Ganga. I told myself, this man who had lost absolutely everything- had given me space, a bed and a pillow. So, in life, to give, you don’t have to ‘have‘. Let me tell you, our country has a million such people.


My last story is about when I was in South Bombay. A little boy-nine years old, walked up to me one searing hot day in April. His feet were burning because he was standing bare-foot on the  asphalt. He had a can of polish in one hand and a kapda (rag-cloth) in the other. I was coming out of Rhythm House when he said he wanted to polish my shoes because he wanted to buy himself some food. I was in a rush and gave him a hundred rupees and told him to get himself something to eat. He refused my offer and said, ‘nahin, mujhe paisa kamana hain. Aapka shoe polish karna hain.(No, I want to earn my own money. I will polish your shoes). I handed him the hundred-Rupee note and after he polished my shoes, I said, “Chhutta rakh lo.” (Keep whatever is left over). But he retorted, “nahin sahib, mujhe do rupay hi chahiye aur mujhe aapko paisa lautana hi hai.” (No Sir, I will just keep the two Rupees that is the price for my service and return the ninety-eight Rupees I owe you!).


Can you believe that in today’s India, in 2014 Bombay, where multi-billion dollar corporations evade domestic taxes, wheer the rich are incessantly clamouring for tax breaks and decrying subsidies for the poor, and where the city can be a pitiless ditch for the millions of migrants pouring into its slums every year- you get to see such true stories of the genuine magic of our people!


Photo Credits:
Ishtaarth Dalmia

Saransh Arora


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