The man who knew too much

Vivek Kulkarni, Chairman and CEO of BrickWork, has had a career that is undoubtedly different and enriching compared to his peers in the industry.

He has the unique distinction of taking on two avatars: the dominant one being that of an efficient bureaucrat before donning the role of an industry executive.

To his credit, he has handled both the roles with panache, thanks to his attitude of letting his work do the talking. He got into the Indian Administrative Services in 1980 after completing his mechanical engineering degree from BVB Engineering College in his home town of Hubli. After his degree, he joined the Indian Oil Corporation as a probationary officer in Mumbai. Barely a year into this job, he was selected for the IAS.

Kulkarni cherishes the experience of seeing the aspects of the country that people choose to ignore. He recalls the “Bharat Darshan” tour following his training that took him to see for himself the daily grind of Indian soldiers at Rajouri in Jammu & Kashmir, defending the border, and also living in an impoverished village in the North, which follows a rigid caste system.

“As an IAS officer I got to see the country unlike anyone else. City people don’t look beyond their environment and live within a very civilized infrastructure.”

During his services he took on responsibilities such as welfare of Neriya tribals in Mangalore; setting up a 100 acre coffee plantation for the landless poor in Sakleshpur and working in drought-stricken areas in Raichur. A trying moment in his career came when he was the deputy commissioner in Belgaum. A Hindu-Muslim riot had broken out in the city and he thought up a practical way of ending the issue. Typically, during a riot, the police are ordered to round up people who more often than not are innocent bystanders like vegetable vendors or daily wage workers, while the real culprits are left out. Using his powers as district magistrate, Kulkarni ordered the police to release the arrested and announced that the police would arrest the real culprits. His ruse worked and the rioters fled fearing their imminent arrest.

In the mid-90s he worked with the Securities and Exchanges Board of India (SEBI) looking after the primary markets. This was followed by a stint in CRISIL rating agency, where he headed the infrastructure advisory services division. He picked up an MBA degree from Wharton Business School in Pennsylvania during the course of service.

Before becoming Karnataka’s IT secretary in 1999, he served as the state’s finance secretary between 1997 and 1999. It was during his tenure that the massive e-governance project to computerize the treasury department called “Khajane” was launched. He says with pride that the system is working well without any hitch till date.

Ushering in IT’s golden age

The period between 1999 and 2003 (Kulkarni’s term as IT secretary) was when a lot of spadework was carried out to put Bangalore on the international IT map. The dream team of the then pro-IT Chief Minister SM Krishna and his IT “dewan” Vivek Kulkarni assiduously drew up policies to woo investment and more importantly followed them up with the requisite actions. Karnataka’s millennium IT policy was released within a month of Kulkarni’s taking over.

“Whatever was said in the policy was implemented,” says Kulkarni crediting the efforts to a dedicated team that stood by him. As elucidated in the policy, he set up an organization called the Board of IT Education Standards (BITES), which came out with ratings of the state’s engineering schools. The project faced some hiccups since some politicians who owned few colleges opposed the rating thinking it could affect their institutes' reputation. Kulkarni remained unfazed by the political pressures and went ahead to announce the ratings.

Among his achievements, Kulkarni counts the setting up of 220 training institutes called in Karnataka and the decision to take to a bigger level in 2000 among the significant ones.

“We started events such as the Rural IT Quiz and the Students Internet World that was addressed by the President of India APJ Abdul Kalam and Sudha Murthy.”

Kulkarni almost had brush with international terrorism in September 2001, when he was invited to Times Square in New York on September 6th to ring the Nasdaq opening bell, barely five days before the 9/11 Twin Towers attack. Kulkarni and Krishna did numerous road-shows through out the world, dazzling company heads with their presentations and propositions on Karnataka’s intent as an IT destination.

He also recalls how he was able to convince companies that cancelled their participation in in 2001 by coming out with advertisements on CNBC and BBC with the message, “There is more to the future.” The strategy worked and all the companies that had pulled out logged back into the event. This is just one among many instances where Kulkarni’s never-give-up attitude came to the fore.

He was also instrumental in making Bangalore an attractive destination for biotechnology. Kulkarni created the biotech department; created the biotech vision group headed by Kiran Mazumdar Shaw; started BangaloreBio and also provisioned the setting up of Institute for bioinformatics and applied biotechnology (IBAB).

Act II: Enter the entrepreneur

In November 2003, Kulkarni opted for voluntary retirement from services and got into the start-up mode by starting B2K Corp. He explains that he got into the industry by chance rather than design.

“It happened briskly and becoming an entrepreneur was a quick switch. Four of us started it: Latika Pai, a friend Madhukar, Ghosh, an NRI from Denver and myself.

The team acquired Talisma’s BPO division with funding from UTI. B2K started with 110 employees and grew to almost 600 employees in 2005. The company did call center, IT help desk, tech support, research and knowledge process outsourcing.

Late last year, B2K got acquired by Allsec Technologies. While the call center and help desk business was sold off, Kulkarni decided to retain the research team and named the company Brickwork, after the company’s research suite.

Kulkari is well aware of the challenges of being a small outfit in an industry that plays the scale game.

“The margins are less and operating costs are higher. Our manpower cost is higher since we pay 20 per cent more than the bigger companies to retain our staff.”

Kulkarni has taken on interesting projects right from scripting speeches for American Senators to the most recent Build-Operate-Transfer (B-O-T) project for a hospital in Bangalore on behalf of US-based investors. Today, the team is 150-member strong and include a mix of PhDs, IIM graduates, IITians, CAs and social science graduates.

“Our company’s tagline reads “Gateway to the best of India.” We will undertake projects for those who wish to enter the Indian market, and those who want KPO and research services,” says Kulkarni.

Given his track record as a go-getter, one can expect a lot of unusual outsourcing activities and rising growth out of Kulkarni’s stable.

Priya Padmanabhan

©CyberMedia News

I spent some weeks in Bangalore — not so much in a polluted, frenetic, overcrowded urban desert as in that verdant oasis of intellect, the Indian Institute of Science. I avoided venturing too often out of IISc. But I did go out to look for Vivek Kulkarni. Four years ago, when I was doing research on information technology, Kulkarni’s name cropped up everywhere. He was IT secretary to the government; he had started, the annual fair that brought tycoons and ministers from abroad to see the miracle of Bangalore. (Now it is called; this year, with Deve Gowda as chief guest, it was a resounding flop.) Somehow, the entire industry seemed to be in love with him.

I found him, not in the secretariat, but in a small office building close to where the IT industry was. His entire department was on one floor; it could not have employed more than half a dozen people. His own cubicle was hardly large enough to seat four. Having spent some time in the government, I knew that modesty had its uses — that it kept down colleagues’ jealousy. I commented on his unimpressive office; he said that it was big enough for what it was meant for.

I asked him just the question that Deve Gowda is loudly and abrasively asking — why did the government back IT so much? He said that it had just happened. What the government had done was to improve tertiary education. Karnataka was not rich in natural resources; nor could it catch up with Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu which were miles ahead in industrialization. So it decided to make Kannadigas widely employable; it raised standards of graduation and standardized examinations, so that a local student could go to any college and rely on getting a good education. The strategy worked; students from as far away as West Bengal began to come and take examinations in Bangalore. The educated labour force that was thus formed attracted the IT industry. He also mentioned that he was planning to resign from the government and try out something on his own.

So this time in Bangalore, I asked my friend Rajamohan Rao, CEO of UTL and a dozen other companies, what Kulkarni was doing. “Oh! He is in my own office building,” he said; so we went up. He was conferring with American Linux enthusiasts. When they left, he took me around his outfit, which had perhaps a couple of dozen people working that afternoon, and introduced me to some of them. They were doing research for American clients; they were remote executive assistants. Most were graduates of IITs or IIMs. Amongst them was Honey. Vivek was happy because she had just helped someone write an article in Esquire, and got high kudos. “Are you from an IIT or an IIM?” I asked her. She was embarrassed; after some hesitation, she said she was a BCom. “That’s great,” I said, “I too am a BCom.”

And then my colleague Namitha sent me an article by A.J. Jacobs, whom Honey had helped. Namitha said he had read the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica in a year. It all started when he read Tom Friedman’s The World is Flat, and read about work being outsourced by US companies. Why should just these Fortune 500 companies have all the fun, he thought; why could he not outsource his low-end tasks?

So he emailed Brickworks, Vivek Kulkarni’s firm that Friedman had mentioned. Vivek assigned him Honey K. Balani. (He also got in touch with another firm, which assigned him Asha; Asha helped him with personal chores.) He asked Honey to send him material for an article on the woman Esquire had chosen as the Sexiest Woman Alive. Last year it was Angelina Jolie; this year it was to be Jessica Biel. The file Honey sent him had section headers and charts; it described Jessica’s vital figures, pets and favourite food amongst other things. When he opened it, Jacobs’s reaction was: “America is f...ked. If all Bangaloreans are like Honey, I pity Americans about to graduate college. They’re up against a hungry, polite, Excel-proficient Indian army.”

So then Jacobs asked Honey to remind his boss about an idea for an article he had sent him. And Honey wrote, “Jacobs had mailed you about the idea of ‘gold prospecting’. I am sure you would have received his mail on this. It would be great if you could invest your time and patience on giving thought about his plans. Do revert and let Jacobs know about your suggestions on the same. As you know that your decision would be accepted with utmost respect. Jacobs is awaiting your response.”

He asked her to get the Colorado Tourist Board to stop sending him unsolicited articles. She wrote to them, “...We request to stop sending these mails. We do not mean to demean your research work by this. We hope you understand too.”

He asked her to write an entry on him in Wikipedia. It went: “A.J. Jacobs is a not so unheard of international figure, who can threaten the most au courant wizards with his knowledge…..[He] is a writer and editor of phenomenal grey matter.”

He asked her to find Michael Jackson jokes. One of them was, “Why was Michael Jackson spotted at Kmart? He heard boys’ pants were half off.”

Tickled by unfailingly cheerful and competent service, Jacobs set Honey increasingly challenging tasks. Then finally he was struck with the terrifying thought: Indians would be just as innovative and aggressive as Americans, so no job was immune to their competition. Deciding to outsource his worry, he asked Honey if she would tear her hair out instead of him. “She thought it was a wonderful idea. ‘I will worry about this every day,’ she wrote. ‘Do not worry.’ The outsourcing of my neuroses was one of the most successful experiments of the month. Every time I started to ruminate, I’d remind myself that Honey was already on the case, and I’d relax.”

Honey is remarkable, and so is Vivek’s idea of an intellectual BPO. All BPO work is not so interesting. Some of it is depressing or unpleasant — for instance, promotion calls for things no one wants to buy, or reminders about unpaid bills. The hours of work are American; for many workers in India they mean skipping dinner, and going home at an unearthly hour.

From the time when humans ventured beyond fruits and nuts and came down from trees, work has had its trying side. And since they began to work for other humans, there has always been someone to blame for the trials. But the physical working conditions of BPO workers are far better than those of traditional industrial workers. “Cyber sweatshops” is a striking catchphrase; but it excludes the experience of a large proportion of BPO workers. As Honey’s example shows, the work of some must be exciting, stimulating or enjoyable. A few of them have considerable opportunities for self-development, and a handful may go on to compete with Americans in everything they do. It is a chance worth taking. - September 05, 2006