🎂 Arvind Gupta & Nitin Rao Fireside Chat
2020 marks Cloudflare’s 10th birthday. To celebrate this milestone, we are hosting a series of fireside chats with business and industry leaders all week long.
In this Cloudflare TV segment, Nitin Rao will host a fireside chat with Arvind Gupta, Former CEO of MyGov, Govt. of India and current Head & Co-Founder of Digital India Foundation.
Hello and welcome everyone. It's Cloudflare's birthday week, we're celebrating 10 years of helping build a better Internet and what better way to do it than to engage with industry leaders, folks we respect, to have a conversation about the key issues facing the future of the Internet.
My guest today is Arvind Gupta.
Arvind has a uniquely good understanding of Internet policy in India and around the world and so I'm so excited to have him as a guest.
Arvind currently chairs the Digital India Foundation and previously was the CEO of the MyGov initiative with the government of India.
We have only 30 minutes and I have so many questions but we'll get through questions about Arvind's early days as a grad student, his experiences as an entrepreneur, applying those skills to his chosen field of a political organization, the consumer landscape in India and Internet governance.
So thank you so much for joining Arvind, really appreciate it. Well thank you for having me Nitin and Cloudflare and congratulations on your 10th anniversary so keep doing the good work.
Yeah, thank you so much. So maybe we start with, we'll sort of jump around but if we start with Internet governance, the phrase that I hear people keep talking about is India really being at the fulcrum of Internet policy and the phrase that's repeatedly used is how goes India, so goes the world.
And so for folks who are less familiar, can you maybe set the stage for us?
Why is India so important to Internet policy? Well that's a great question Nitin and I think it takes back to a lot of my background and I mean I'll try to explain to you in a very simple way, that you know the Internet as you all know and you guys are the experts, was meant to be a great tool for empowerment and access to information.
When you go back to you know maybe 30 years ago, the way Internet was evolving was equal right to information, neutrality, transparency, bringing about more transparency and connecting more people.
Now what has suddenly happened is that there is you know and there is this country like India for example which is from you know one-sixth of humanity today and when the original thoughts were there, countries like India didn't figure in those plans.
Today India has about 700 million plus or minus Internet users out of the 4.5 billion on the planet.
That's again one-sixth, almost one-sixth.
So what you're talking about is a very diverse different set of user base coming from India, accessing the Internet at you know at less than two dollars a month and really this is the Internet that you know we never thought of 25 years will be used in ways and manners that we ever you know we ever imagined.
So that's great, that's great you know building on top of what was already existing you know waiting on top of it and solving problems we never thought will get solved using the Internet.
So now when I say that this is the set of people which represents and India you know is 22 different languages, 23 different spoken languages, 1.3 billion people, all sorts of education diversity.
So when I present this alternate thinking is that while you have the global Internet, you have you know a slightly a world garden approach of the Chinese, India is presenting a very neutral, transparent, democratic way of working on the Internet and how it can be used as a tool for empowerment at a very low cost and that's why the policies and views of the largest democracy on this planet should be incorporated while we make new rules, new policies, new governance architectures for the Internet going forward.
So it's a very simple and plain argument of you know inclusion of taking into account one of the most diverse and the biggest set of users on the Internet.
700 million Internet users is a lot of Internet users and every time I pay my T -Mobile bill here in San Francisco, I feel very jealous about just the quantity of data you can use in India and using a provider like Reliance Jio for example who has grown from you know zero to 400 million Internet users in just four years but but also really unleashed so many apps around them.
It's really fascinating. We'll talk a little bit about Internet policy today but I'd love to start with your experiences back at UIUC when the Internet was a little bit different and you know the team was working on projects like Mosaic.
Can you paint the picture of Arvind, the grad student? Well you know I'm typically, my background was that you know you clear high school in India, you clear an exam called the IIT exam and you get into one of the IITs who study there and when I graduated one of the options was to go and then do my master's, the grad studies in the U.S.
I was fortunate enough to get selected at UIUC and then you know and then the great thing that happened to me was I ended up with the professor who was doing research at the NCSA which is the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois where the early works on Mosaic and the graphical user interface around the Internet was happening on the worldwide web.
So I was fortunate enough to work on that team and really work on the first database connectivities with from the browser to the database and you know that shaped a lot of my thoughts in the early days are how a technology platform which was such a small platform at that point in time we had to really call up people to say hey start using this and today has grown into four or five billion users.
So I think and that's been the core of my thinking over the last 28-30 years is that you know how we can use technology to really disrupt at scale and speed whether it be you know financial services or even telecom.
I mean nobody ever thought that Jio would as the example you've given can disrupt you know already crowded field of six or five or six major operators in India and really become one of the top two telecom operators in a very very you know non -innovative area of just providing telecom services.
So I think technology can disrupt many things and that's been a lesson from the grad student Arvind Gupta from then my days at Silicon Valley and then as an entrepreneur and then as somebody who has set up startups as like all inside political organization and inside them.
Sure so we'll talk through each of them maybe just staying for a minute or two more about UIUC.
Can you talk a little bit about what inspired you during that time?
So you spoke about the supercomputing projects how did you spend your time?
I actually was one of the few grad students who was doing two masters. I was studying the business school and as well as computer science.
What was my inspiration out of the grad school was that technology is an important tool but it needs to solve a large business problem.
So the conversions of technology solving business problems was very good.
So because you know the lesson if you learn early on in your life that technology which does not create business value or does not have value creation is not going to be of importance to anybody and a lot of technology great technology gets scanned because either the market is not ready the product is not ready or it's just you know it doesn't solve a key business problem for a great set of users.
So combining technology with business and you know business strategy was something that I you know I've actually built on those pillars for the rest of my life.
So and I was fortunate enough to be mentored and guided in those early days why by people would follow the same path.
So I think that's been that's been another great experience at Illinois and that the fact that you could you know combine both the educations together and I took that those learnings to my early days in Silicon Valley and you know that's been you know that's been the core belief that I have always had.
Now after working in the Bay Area companies like Oracle at some point in time you made the decision to to go back to India.
Can you just talk a little bit about your your thought process through that decision?
What made you do that? I was a pretty ambitious at an early stage in my life to to actually set up some startups in India when India you know India was not really the place to do startups.
You know startups were very difficult but that's another life lesson I had.
My dad said that if you can you know remember if you can drive a car in New Delhi and you can drive anywhere in the world.
So I literally said that hey if I can do a startup in Delhi you know I it probably it's probably going to be easier for the rest of my life.
So in very early days I took that jump and you know started doing some education and analytics startups and you know payments actually very very early days P2P payments.
We actually started something way back in 2001 and 2 and that's where one of the business lessons came into play.
The market in India was not ready. So you know today if you if you have that same startup in India it would probably be what billions and billions of dollars but so it's a so you know basically tried a couple of things succeeded at a few and took a few companies global and sold a few companies and you know that's that was the early 10 years as a startup or 10-12 years as a startup entrepreneur.
Great experience. Would you mind describing the the payments service for a moment?
So what was the payment service that you were building?
Well it was to put it as a micro payments P2P payments you know backed by a virtual card which is called a wallet today.
So the payments loan company was actually called a virtual web card and so it was virtualizing your bank account creating a small wallet if you make a say that on the Internet and using that as a buffer to make payments so that fraud doesn't happen on your main credit card and you know you have you can actually freely use that so really to enable Internet commerce but as I said too early for a very very niche market.
It's perfect you're working on that can so can you one of the things we're doing through this week is really reflecting on the last 10 years of the Internet and so it would be interesting to sort of compare and contrast what is different for someone trying to build that company today versus when you were building it like what is similar what is different?
Well the market is absolutely different I mean that time you had maybe you know 20 million Internet users today you have 700 million Internet users and even in the last 10 years if you go India has grown from almost you know we did a math about 10 years ago India had about I would say 70-80 million Internet users so it's gone tenfold actually from 70 million to 700 million to the economic power of buying has gone up.
Three there is a lot of destinations available right I always give this example that you have the roads which is the Internet highways you have the drivers who drive those cars and but you also need destinations to go to you know 10 years ago probably your destinations were limited to 10 destinations today you probably have a million destinations you can choose from so what has changed in India is number one the market is completely changed the market forces have changed.
Two the mindset has changed for a startup if you look at it from a startup perspective the mindset 10 years ago even was I want to go and work for a already happening startup or a services company and that's my core you know because you know standing in the society I will make good money and that's the safe route.
Today that's completely changed I teach at my IIT in Varanasi the students want to be entrepreneurs from day one I mean they so you know that the whole culture the ecosystem the mindset change that I don't need to go and tell my family that I don't work for a large corporation I actually work for myself and we have two people in my company and that's it has completely changed.
So market mindset mentorship there are a lot of successful mentors out there there's you know a lot of role models you can look at and money there is money both from the consumer side as well as from venture capital.
I think the venture capital side has over the last years last 10 years and then has gone up maybe even more than 10 fold.
So I think it's the culmination of four five things together what makes Silicon Valley successful are happening in bits and pieces in India.
We're almost 80-90 percent there.
There are a lot of other components that are still required more research more innovation but so if you ask me what has you know what has changed over 10 years if somebody wants to start today there's a lot and then there is it's okay to you know like you know experiment a few things fail a few times you know go back and start again.
So I think this is a great time for a startup entrepreneur. So you know I would actually preempt a question and tell you if I want to do this I would love to do this again.
If I was in my 20s late 20s early 30s I would be loving to live in the current startup ecosystem and in India and in many places else in the world.
Sure yeah it's been fascinating to see sort of different friends starting companies and scaling them from you know Bhavish building Ola to the Practo team OYO etc and it's really really interesting to to see the evolution of all these companies.
It also feels like the markets they're pursuing are changing so there's the domestic market but but they also are products that are like I think of Freshworks etc that are they're really selling to the world.
How have you seen you have an interesting you've been a you have a fascinating vantage point you were you're both you know you're on the board of the 20 billion dollar L&T group but also sort of you've seen the startup ecosystem evolve like what's how is tell us more about the startup ecosystem and and how that's changing.
Again this is a great question so you have to understand what is and that was the first question that you asked me India's role in this global Internet when you can solve problems at a very very low cost but the volumes and you can handle volume so you can handle the scale and you are a cloud company a cloud management company you understand that if you can do billions of transactions but still make you know a cent on each of them you'll end up being more profitable than doing you know 10,000 transactions and making a dollar on each of them.
So that's the model that India has thought about right I mean the Indian entrepreneurship is all about volume and that volume also ensures that you're solving problems or you're presenting a better solution to a variety of consumers, different languages, different income groups, different you know literacy levels and these are very complex problems of logistics of everything else so if you take that those learnings and then be able to apply those learnings in other countries as I said if you can drive in Delhi you can drive anywhere else in the world so that same logic applies if you solve this problem in India which is a very complex place to solve a problem you can easily replicate it elsewhere so I think that's what the entrepreneurs have figured out the current set of entrepreneurs and they they're doing pretty pretty amazing work when they take solutions you know with that with that mindset it's not easy I mean it's not easy because sometimes you have to adapt to the local cultures and local you know sensitivities of many other things but but you know a few of them are very successful and I don't see a reason why others won't be successful but the thinking now is solve for India sell to the world also so it's not just looking in words it's also really thinking global once you you know achieve a certain scale in India.
I thought I was reading an article recently that about and you'll of course know this much better than I will but I think about sort of making it easier for Indian companies to list on exchanges both inside and outside of India and so all of that's very interesting as well.
Absolutely and it needs to be because I think capital is global and you know it's finite also so one needs to attract the best capital along with capital it needs to be more strategic capital so I think we need to just I think there's a good movement in India which basically says that startups are going to be the the big fulcrum for a self-reliant India and I think that to recognize that at the top echelons of the government is also very important and I've seen that mindset changing in the government itself that you know startups need their place as much as L&Ts and the reliances needed so the point I'm trying to make is it's important to have the brick and mortar, the infrastructure, it's also important to have the the click companies and the bits and bytes companies together.
Now engineers apply their skills to e-commerce, to health care, to finance not many people go into politics and so that's a that was a pretty interesting journey you took.
Can you describe some of the early days of you know building what you call a sort of mini startup so you're applying.
It's actually a bigger startup than the other startups existing today we had to it was a passion for me that using technology to solve a very crucial problem in something which is unorganized that's what startups do they you know the technology does also start us from technology together so organize unorganized things and you know put put some sense and you know put some structure and policies around it.
So for anyone listening but not familiar so Arvind applied his skills to help the largest Indian political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party with a sort of broad digital effort.
Can you describe both the early days of assembling that team and the initiatives that you worked on?
So basically you know if you may call me the both chief of digital for our tech and technology combined for the BGP from 2010 to 2015 it's the time that basically we took you know a startup I took a startup approach building a team creating resources and using technology to make sure that the party understands both internal modernization and also uses technology data to communicate the citizens engaged.
If the objectives of a political party is even though we were in opposition then I must say is to engage with people over a long term then that engagement becomes a lot more better if you are able to use technology and technology platforms.
So my role was to really you know create a mindset within the party that technology is going to play a very important role within the country that democracies are going to benefit by going a lot digital because digital technology saves a lot of campaign money it's more transparent and it's a it's the way to go in the future.
We're currently realizing during the pandemic that has actually all come true because you know now even the events are virtual.
So even though I'm not no longer associated with the political side and for me the real question that you said is the application as technology as a disruptor was the motivation and I did that with you know and then use the same things to go and do some stuff in the government.
So my Nitin motivation was you know to bring the culture about to bring the DNA within the within an organization where technology can always stay and I'm glad it is it is being done that way going forward.
But really then take those learnings to government so that that can really impact people.
At the end of the day I think if we are not out there to serve people and make sure that people get the benefit of the technology then you know everything else fits.
Now you led the myGov initiative that would you mind just describing both the myGov initiative but also just one of the hard things is really assembling a team so when I guess engineers can join so many different startups can join big companies how do you convince them to to join myGov and work on that?
Yeah it's a that's a very good question again. See I think a lot of people you know you to assemble a team you have to show them a vision and a consistency of execution of that vision.
So I think I've been lucky that I've been able to get good teams assembled both previously at the BJP because we were zero and from zero to build a you know a very world-class team which is not only for the largest political party in India.
I should tell you BJP is the largest political party in the world and so anything in India is the largest generally.
And the same experience was translated at myGov which is Prime Minister's you know citizen engagement initiative.
Prime Minister Modi's citizen engagement initiative and he was driven by the fact that decisions should not be made you know inside a room only.
They should be crowd-sourced. Input should be taken from everybody across India across the world if required and the best you know input should be gathered and you know decisions should be made.
Similarly any government decision should be put to consultation and people should be able to you know tell what's good what's bad and it's you know you've seen this.
This is a great work of the of the digital technologies of the Internet that you know the creative energy of the crowd is so big that if you can harness that creative energy you can really make a lot of good sense out of it.
So myGov is the government's digital arm for engagement with the citizens making sure governance reaches the last mile and similarly the voice of the citizen every voice of every citizen of India reaches the topically on wherever it is what intersection you know.
So I think you know it's typically government organizations are run by by bureaucrats and a lot of them are engineers also but they work in the set system of the bureaucracy.
You know my role in the time I was at MyGov was to to really build that mindset the startup culture the thinking to really you know and I'm very glad that this could happen because at the end of the day if subunits or divisions or projects within a big large government start thinking more entrepreneurially more startup-ish and start excelling in their own you know divide and conquer philosophy right algorithmic philosophy every algorithm works very well so some of all algorithms will be great right I mean in that sense.
So I think that's the philosophy I applied and I was you know I think about being fairly successful at that.
Challenge is always to build the team the challenge is how we get attract the right people and ensure that they they are aligned with your vision but as I said you know if you elucidate your vision if you explain your vision and get the right people together I've been lucky to in all my phases of life to get those teams together and perform at a peak when required.
Looking at the last 10 years what has surprised you the most?
I think there has been what I today say that the acceptance of both in in Shenzhen Valley which is in China and in Silicon Valley of this third view of the world because of shared not just you know the fact that it's a 700 million user base but also the fact that real innovation can also happen at you know which is a bottom-up innovation rather than top-down innovation has not it's not the fact that I should say it surprised me but that's that's something that I've been pleasantly you know happy with that it is surprisingly happy if you can use the term that that has that has been an alternate narrative that has been created and that's the alternate vision that I think is very important for the world that there is there is a you know innovation that is possible anywhere where there are a huge set of problems and it can be done at a very very low cost and it can solve a lot of problems that we had never imagined could be solved.
So through your organization the Digital India Foundation you have the opportunity to continue to shape policy through this think tank.
How do you how do you spend your time these days?
Well you know as I said I everybody should have multiple phases in life so this is my this is another phase in my life that I decided to more spend more time on slightly more higher level think tank advisory looking forward stuff and also educating both the world and students at the same time on on the new data and digital imperatives policy issues and and really shaping the narrative for the next five to ten years I think that's a very long time frame and there is an alternate narrative that is coming up so that's something that I really you know champion that this whole story the whole model of the rule of three being applied to digital platforms needs to be needs to be advocated in terms of you know you have this large what I think the term that they use in the U.S.
is Gafma players the you know the Googles the Alphabets and the Apples and Facebooks and whatever else Microsofts and then you have the BBAT players from China there is this third set of digital platforms coming from countries like India which are public platforms I think I would be failing in my duty if I don't tell your audience about this in the last 30 seconds about public platforms I mean India has built the biggest a billion point two five people use the national identity platform the payments platform and these are all public goods these are not owned by a private entity so how and all innovation and all you talked about geo they are using services of this public platform to enable some part of their business and and that's the reason that they can lower cost and bring down the cost of servicing a customer so I think this is an alternate model to development as well as innovation growth and societal benefit and I think we need to we need to study and propagate that globally great well thank you so much Arvind this has been a ton of fun I really appreciate you making the time thank you Nitin and good luck