You want to hide under the chair when RI Director Elect A S Venkatesh says casually about solving Sudoku puzzles, his favourite pursuit apart from playing bridge. When his wife Vinita says “he is doing Sudoku all the time”, he responds: “But after a point, even the extremely difficult ones you do in 2 or 2.5 minutes. Then how do you challenge yourself, and you always need to challenge yourself, so I give it a break for some time, and start afresh.”
Mulling over the kind of grey matter nestling inside his brain, while comparing the time I take to solve even the ‘middle’ category, I keep a straight face.
Born and brought up in Chennai, Venkatesh’s brilliance was evident when he applied for IIT admission and “could have chosen any IIT, but chose IIT Madras as I lived here.” The same choice was his for an IIM, after his B Tech (1985); he got offers from all the three, but obviously chose IIM Ahmedabad.
Asked why a management course after a coveted IIT degree, Venkatesh says, “I wanted to be an entrepreneur and not work for anybody. I saw myself not as a pure engineer but an entrepreneur, which required managerial skills. And I lacked finance and accounting skills, hence an MBA. But I returned from IIM Ahmedabad (1987) with more than an MBA!
The reference is to Vinita, who is more vocal about why she fell head over heels in love with him. “He was tall, dark and handsome and brilliant to boot. I knew that my mother will love the tall, dark and handsome bit and my father would love that he is so intelligent and a class topper.”
In less than 15 months they were married in 1988; “it was more like a child marriage, I was just 23,” he smiles. They have two daughters; the elder one Varsha did her computer science degree in the US and is now working for Netflix there. Varuna, the younger one, who pursued her higher education in the UK, is also a software professional and now works in Manchester, UK.
We should reach a stage where people choose Rotary and say I want to join it. We should be able to pull them into Rotary rather than push Rotary into the community.
Venkatesh’s foray into Rotary is interesting; with no family member in Rotary, he knew nothing about it. But being in the construction business, he was dealing “all the time with workers, and there came a time I thought I might even forget how to speak English.” With an architect friend inviting him to join Rotary saying he would meet like-minded people, he joined RC Chennai Mambalam in 1998. Not in his wildest dreams did he think he would rise to this level in Rotary, he smiles.
But it took the newly-minted Rotarian a while to really engage with Rotary, even though he had a “cent per cent attendance, having been warned that without that I’d be thrown out.” But by the second year he was a part of some club committees and in the fourth year became the club president. From here to the DG’s post was quick too; “I remained a past president only for 30 months, and in the third year of my being president, I was a DGN,” he quips.
The highlights of his year as DG (2007–08) were the official visits which he really enjoyed, getting to meet so many Rotarians, starting the 100th club in the district, and taking its TRF contribution to the highest ever at $600,000. Till then, J B Kamdar, the previous DG, had set a record of $500,000. “But honestly, I did not push anyone to contribute, though I spoke a lot about the work the Foundation does. And the contributions came in.”
Our region is doing phenomenally well on community projects, but we still need to do a lot of work on sustainable membership growth.
Giving the “perspective of one who sat in the audience at his Rotary meetings”, Vinita says Venky presented a fresh perspective of giving to Rotary — that Rotarians of developed countries had given money to TRF year after year, not a single penny of which went to them, but was channelled to developing countries like India to fund the End-Polio and other projects. “He’d urge: ‘Don’t you think we should also give back, so others less fortunate than us can benefit’, and that seemed to touch a chord.”
So as a spouse, did she resent Rotary taking away so much of his time? “On the contrary, because I was very busy with my career (shipping), I never was at a loose end when he was away. In fact, I was proud and happy that my husband was involved in an organisation with such lofty goals.” Moreover, inspired by his passion and involvement in Rotary, 10 years ago, when she took a break in her career, “I also wanted to be part of the Rotary experience, as Rotary was a constant topic at home and it was inspiring to listen to Venky describing Rotary’s work. He has never pushed any of us into doing anything, but I felt the pull and also wanted to be associated with Rotary.”
She joined a different club, RC Chennai Towers — “because his club did not have any women, and we felt I’d be more comfortable in a club with women members.”
When I ask Venkatesh when the idea of becoming an RI director came to him, he grins and says: “I had never even planned to become a club president in the first place. In 2001, the president-elect unfortunately had some business challenges and pulled out after attending PETS. My club members said you will be the next president and I didn’t object.”
But, as Vinita intervenes to say, leadership qualities were always a cornerstone of Venkatesh’s personality. He was school captain, in IIT Madras had fought an election to be hostel affairs secretary and at IIM he was the general secretary of the student union. Adds Venkatesh, on his present position, “I believe the opportunity evolved through carrying out the assignments that were given to me over the years.”
The incoming director has also made a mark in Rotary as a training leader at the International Assembly in 2016, an assignment repeated, rather unusually, the next year. “Prior to that I trained Rotary coordinators from across the world at Evanston. In 2017 RI President Ian Riseley invited me to train the trainers. That was a great opportunity.”
On the priorities during his year as director, Venkatesh says, “We have to ensure that Rotary becomes an organisation of choice for people to join. Right now we are marketing it. We should reach a stage where people choose Rotary and aspire to join it. We should be able to pull them into Rotary rather than push Rotary into the community.”
A few things are required for this. “The size of the projects we do should be so impactful that they are totally visible. Or if we get a huge recognition, a Nobel prize for instance. I dream of the day when anybody who wants to volunteer choose to join Rotary.”
As far as zones 4, 5, 6 and 7 are concerned, “in our region, we’re doing phenomenally well on projects, and are among the best in the world for community projects. But we still need to do a lot of work on sustainable membership growth. Growth we have, but we need to make it sustainable.” His analysis shows that “in a 7–8 year period we lose as many members as we add. Had we not lost anybody we would have doubled in eight years. This is something we are not yet addressing. My priority will be to ensure every district realises what is happening on the membership retainment front and addresses the issue.”
He was tall, dark and handsome and brilliant to boot. I knew my mother will love the tall, dark and handsome bit and my father would love that he is so intelligent and a class topper.
– Vinita Venkatesh
So why do people leave, I ask him. “Because of inadequate orientation when they are inducted. In a lighter vein, let me add that I’ve heard that when asked to join a club, some people have asked, does it have a swimming pool? So training at induction is very important.”
Laying emphasis on strengthening the clubs, he adds: “Everything happens at the club. Members join a club, projects are done by the club; there are no two ways about it.”
A great votary of doing everything “the scientific way”, he says, “When I was an RC for a three-year term (2010–13), before (PRID) C Basker, my analysis showed the interesting fact that about 80–85 per cent of people who left Rotary had not even contributed a single dollar to TRF. “If one contributes even $100, he has a sense of ownership and will bother to find out what has happened to his money, how it is being spent. He becomes a stakeholder. So I tell club presidents, make everybody contribute at least $100, and your membership will sustain.”
His constant refrain is that this may be a voluntary body “but that does not mean it should be run amateurishly! A voluntary body can be professionally run. Professionalism is not only for our business, let us extend it to Rotary. All of us are capable and do it competently in our professions, but when we come to Rotary we switch off that button. My constant refrain is let’s apply our professional skills to Rotary,” he says.
I quiz him next on the exciting part of his year as DG being actually meeting people, an important hallmark of Rotary. Does he miss it terribly during the pandemic? “Yes, that is a big challenge and we all hope we will soon get back to it. It is a very important component of Rotary’s survival.” He believes that “Paul Harris found the best marketing formula. Human nature needs two things, one is to feel good about yourself which is what you get when he you do charity. The second is socialising. He founded an organisation which addresses both these needs. It is the best marketing formula which one can find and will never go out of fashion.”
On busy professionals like him volunteering so much time for Rotary, Venkatesh says: “It is often said that somebody who is busy will have the time for everything. In fact as Bill Gates once said: ‘I’ll find the laziest man to do the job because he will find the quickest way to do it!’”
Pictures by Rasheeda Bhagat and K Viswanathan
At a glance
Religion: I believe in god; I may not go to a temple for months together but I am a strong believer.
Food and favourite cuisine. Oh, I’m a big foodie. My favourite cuisine is of course Tamil cuisine, because that’s what I have grown up with. I eat everything and love to experiment, particularly with local food wherever I go.
Cooking: Not much. Vinita is a very good cook, but her skills are not best utilised in the kitchen, though. (Vinita adds: There was a period long back when I was cooking every day. One day he sat me down and said what are you doing. You are out working the whole day, and in the evening when you are back home, all your time is spent in the kitchen, neither I nor the kids get to see you. Please get a cook!)
Music: I like fast beat music — it energises me. Whatever be the language it doesn’t matter… Indian, Western, fusion, but with a catchy rhythm.
Movies: I used to enjoy movies once upon a time but haven’t watched a movie in a long time.
I have lost interest. I like comedy. If you ask me to choose a movie, I would choose a comedy. Again, language doesn’t matter.
Reading: I like biographies… if you come to my office you will find biographies from across the world.
Favourite writer: I read Lee Iacocca’s biography, and Akio Morita’s Made in Japan in the formative years of my career and they have left a deep impression on me.
Venkatesh has never pushed any of us into doing anything, but listening to him was inspiring and I felt the pull to become a Rotarian.
– Vinita Venkatesh
Bridge: I am a serious bridge player. At one point, I represented Tamil Nadu and was the president of the Tamil Nadu Bridge Association.
Travel: Both of us love to travel to parts of Europe, be it Greece, Switzerland or other European countries. I like Asian countries too. We must have travelled to 50 to 60 countries but we both love Europe.
Relaxing: I love to play bridge and I enjoy trekking.
Fitness: I work out on most days, sometimes on the treadmill at home, other days walking or jogging.
Dream: Personal dream — simply to be happy and healthy. The journey may be different but the destination is that! I am a man of few needs so money is in no way a motivator — new life experiences are! That’s my philosophy. Coming to Rotary, our region is doing great — I am proud of our Rotary work, but there is huge unharnessed potential for membership growth, which we’re not really addressing.
Leadership: It’s a process of evolution… you handle responsibilities and as you discharge those responsibilities and get feedback from people on how you have performed, then comes the realisation that you can contribute, your contribution is good. An image is formed, even among your seniors, that this is somebody who will work hard and deliver.
Importance of training in Rotary: Very important. All those who are in Rotary are already very successful in their own vocations but very few know what to do in Rotary and how to do it. They have the potential and skills to succeed, provided they channelise those skills, and that is where training comes in. There is random talent all over the place; it has to be spotted, and channelised. Fortunately, that is what is happening in Rotary.
Values that have shaped his life: I can say with full confidence, I have never tolerated corruption in my business. And I am in a business like construction! For this reason I’ve turned down assignments and projects. I get good sleep at night and enough business to keep me going and happy. Is it all I can do? No, I can do more. But do I want to do it? No I don’t, because doing ethical business is something I hold very close to my heart and will not compromise on it. Another core life value is that I never look back and regret anything… I learn my lesson and just move on.
Recognising talent: I believe everybody has a talent. If one can understand, appreciate and spot that talent and make them contribute, we can get the best from everyone. Somebody’s skill may be different from mine, that doesn’t mean he is better or worse. We should use him for that skill. As a leader if I can open my eyes and recognise that everybody has some talent, then I can put her in my committee. Several of my committees have members who are much better than I in certain things and I am happy to have them. They are not competing but complementing my skills.
Increasing women’s membership: Again it goes back to the club. People don’t join RI, they join a club. When Vinita joined Rotary, she didn’t join my club. Why did I suggest another club? Because I felt she would be comfortable there as it had women members. The culture should be such that the club members should be welcoming of women and make them feel comfortable. I encourage every governor to include women in committees, give them leadership roles. That will inspire other women to join. Coming to all women’s clubs, which we see in India, it is better than not having women members. But that may not be the best way to go about getting more women into leadership positions, and for two reasons. It is still a single gender club, and as bad as a man’s club. And it is a disservice to women themselves, because in a club of 40, only one woman can become a president in a year. But if the same 40 women were in eight different clubs then five can aspire every year to be president first and then contest for governor’s post. That is how you generate women’s leadership.
She has played a very important role both in my career and Rotary. In Rotary, a major problem is that you will never get true feedback for anything. Everybody, even if you mess up something totally, will say you’ve done a great job. But for me, the way she tells me when I mess up, is very important. It is not just critique, but finding the right time to tell me. She has the uncanny ability to know the exact time when I will accept objective and critical feedback. Very often, after I’ve come home after finishing an important programme, I am floating because everybody has said what a great job you’ve done. She won’t say anything then.
A few hours later she will suggest what I could have done differently. Apart from other things she has played that very important role. And she has been absolutely supportive. Right from 2010 I have been missing from home every Sunday because of Rotary and she has never complained. But then she is also busy and travels a lot on work.
This whole emphasis on ethics, about which you were asking Venkatesh, and the way Rotary has influenced our lives… because of him our entire family has been impacted by the principles of Rotary. A small example; as the corona pandemic started, we were very anxious about our daughters’ safety and whether they have enough provisions. In the UK, our daughter Varuna was going out every week to buy provisions and anxious about her safety, I suggested that she buy a month’s supply. She responded that if I do that I will be denying somebody else who needs that particular item, because in the beginning of the pandemic there were shortages. I was so taken aback by the concern she exhibited for the community at the expense of her own safety and comfort. These are the principles they have imbibed from him. He is not a preacher — never will he say do this or don’t do that but he has taught them much more by his own example.
So as a spouse how does she feel about his Rotary achievements? “Oh, I am infinitely more ambitious for him than he is… in both Rotary and beyond — because I truly believe that he has what it takes. In Rotary, I believe, posts or positions are opportunities to serve and those opportunities are god given. There are so many people who work so hard and aspire for so many things in life. But unless you have that one blessing from the Almighty, it doesn’t happen. We are very fortunate that he has reached this position and got the opportunity to serve, and he does his best.”
So is he very hardworking? “He is very smart working. What any of us would take 10 hours to do, he has it done in one hour… so if he works for all the 10 hours, his productivity is much higher. And I don’t say it because I am his wife. I am of course incredibly proud of him, but you will hear this from everybody who he interacts with, including his parents.”