“If you were a painter, how should you price your painting?” CK Prahalad would thunder in his trademark, booming, voice to room full of software industry leaders. In the next moment, he was giving them a good bashing for not understanding the essence of what he called value minus pricing. The way the software industry priced its output in the 1990s was akin to a painter charging for the oil and the canvas, and then some more for the labour, all at actual. “Going by that logic, how much do you think should be the price of an MF Hussain painting? You need to respect your own work if you expect the world to take note of it. What you are doing today is cost+ pricing; what you need to shift to, is value minus pricing.” Those were the days of Y2K and he went from company to company, industry associations to media interviews, urging Indian companies to go up the value chain. Looking back, he was asking midgets to behave like giants. But today, many of the very same midgets have transformed themselves into giants!
I met him many times after – his was a crusade like no one else’s: he wanted to see his motherland at par with the developed countries of the world that he straddled with the ease of an eagle. Wherever he went, from boardrooms in the US to think tanks in Europe or in his own country, he would ask people to do two things: to look at why something could not be done very differently and two, raise their expectations from their own selves ten, hundred, and sometimes, a thousand times. I have been personally, deeply, impacted by not just his message but the way he would take groups of disbelieving men and women, whipping them into rising above themselves with credible, compelling argument born out of a fine mind and at the end, making them aspire for the higher ground! He invariably did it with the sharpness of a sword, never let his audience feel wounded, instead he let them feel that the future, a higher, meaningful, impactful version of the future, was their entitlement.
CK Prahalad at Nyenrode University addressing a sustainability think
When MindTree was launched in 1999, I met him at a small gathering. I walked up to him to personally tell about the fact that some of us had quit our comfortable corporate jobs and were raising venture capital to build a company. “What took you so long, I was wondering,” he quipped. In front of this giant, good was not good enough.
In the last one year, I have run into him a number of times. First we met at a sustainability think-tank at Nyenrode University in Amsterdam and then more recently, at a CII event in Kolkata where his wife Gayathri was with him. At Nyenrode, he spoke about sustainability with the same ease with which he has been teaching management strategy at class and boardrooms in the same unwavering way as he did two decades ago. At Kolkata, CK was asking a roomful of Bengali corporate bhadraloks as to why the path ahead for revival of Bengal was entrepreneurship and why the time was now. Knowing that only a God could change West Bengal, I was baffled at his messianic zeal. Then it occurred to me, more the disbelievers in some place, greater the need to preach there. Harder the ground, higher the need for the plough! To CK, Kolkata was where he was needed. As I listened to him speak: there was no change in the way he presented his teasers to the audience, there was no change in the way he confronted them, the only thing different now was his view of the next decade or two. CK saw the future like no one did. He was gifted by the Goddess of Learning with the ability to connect the dots, going forward. Most people can do it, only looking backwards.
CK was in Kolkata as part of a larger mission. He had helped CII craft the vision for India at 75! Only the other day, he had presented a document capturing the dreams and desires of people from a cross-section across the length and the breadth of the country to build a nation that would be full of opportunities for every Indian, a nation that would see education, health and infrastructure and concern for the environment
I have personally come to accept life; and in it, accept death. It does not cause me hurt or anguish.
At least, not for people who have given so much more to life than they have taken out of it.
We cannot get him back but we can keep him alive by taking his message and personal example to continue unabated towards creating India@75, the way he would have loved to see!
That said, Mother India, being a Mother, would grieve her loved son forever. For a mother, it is just never time.
Subroto Bagchi is Vice Chairman and Gardener at MindTree Ltd.