By Lachman Balani
TORONTO: It was a power-packed and extremely upscale evening as the Pan-IIT gala evening got under way with brainiacs and achievers from the US, Canada and India descending upon the International Plaza hotel in Toronto.
To start off the evening, Mr. Srinivasan Venkatesh addressed the crowd in both English and French (a first for many attendants – a person of Indian origin speaking French)! Then came the first speaker of the evening, none other than Governor General David Johnston, who gave an excellent speech on entrepreneurship and the ties between India and Canada, peppered with highly detailed anecdotes. He ended with one of George Bernard Shaw’s famous lines, an ode to entrepreneurship, “But I dream things that never were; and I say: “Why not?”
Markham mayor Frank Scarpitti came next talking about his city and his visits to India and his many invitations to companies in India to set up shop in multicultural Markham as it is the number one city for fiscal transparency. He spoke highly of Indian Prime Minister Modi and narrated how he had seen the progress in Gujarat under Modi and how he would do the same for India by creating better business environment.
Another distinguished speaker Susan Fennell, the mayor of Brampton, also touched upon her visit to India and expressed Brampton’s plan to develop two universities, one given to regular education and another complement one given to research and development and invited anybody from the audience to step up to the plate and she would do her level best to see it happen smoothly and seamlessly.
Fennel also commented that in her formative years the emphasis was on ‘get an education and get a job’ but nowadays she sees students with diplomas and degrees more given to entrepreneurship and she will do all she can to prop the trend to continue.
The grandiose event themed “Innovate, Integrate and Transform – Let’s Co-Create Our Future” conferred ‘distinguished alumnus’ awards on five outstanding individuals for their contribution to business, building India-Canada relations and society at large. The recipients included IITians Anand Agarwal, Vasu Chanchlani, Raj Mohan Mathur, Asim Ghosh and Prem Watsa.
The billionaire Watsa was the key note speaker for the evening.
Pasha Prem as he is nicknamed in keeping with alliterations), Watsa, CEO of Fairfax Holdings which is one of the best known and richest companies in Canada’s investment world, took centre stage and recounted his awe-inspiring story of hitting the big time in North America.
Watsa came to Canada with $100 in his pockets in the 70s, more a technical guy from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Chennai than an investment person. In anecdotal fashion, he narrated that after studying in university, he landed a job in the investment world within 18 months of entering Canada, without any related study or work experience in that field, because the other three candidates for the job didn’t show up!
He mastered the subject of finance after many years and in 1985 started his company with the help of a few investors. Today Fairfax Holdings is worth billions and Pasha Prem is now known to be Canada’s equivalent to the Oracle of Omaha, Warren Buffet. He built his empire on three simple principles, looking after his clients, treating his employees well and making money for his shareholders.
He spoke of how he once changed a contract a year after he bought a company because of a flaw in it whereby the seller would have to pay him if something ran amiss but if the opposite happened, the seller would still have to reimburse him. So he changed the contract to make it fair for both parties. Years later, because of this integrity, he needed the services of a company that was headed by that seller and was accorded the same without hesitation.
He runs his company in decentralized fashion with many presidents who are encouraged to think and act independently, much like entrepreneurs rather than job holders. His head office only has 25 employees but his company employs 10,000 people worldwide. Pasha Prem is not only a brainiac but a true dreamer, doer and driver of the world economy!
He then pointed out an IIT alum in the crowd, Mr. Mohnish Pabrai, who has started a foundation to help the poorest of the poor in India to get into IIT. They are chosen through an IQ test in their language, put into the 6th grade and by grade 8, they are proficient in English and by the time they finish school and pre-university programs, 70% pass the IIT entrance exam. So far 100 children have gone through this program and he plans to increase the number to 1500! A genuine program of pure altruism!
After that stimulating speech an excellent repast was served along with entertainment from Brazil, belly dancing, Bollywood and to top it all off Canada’s top Pink Floyd tribute band- Floyd Factor!
“This is not incongruous,” said IIT alumnus Vijay Kumar Nagrare- “Ya man, most of the alumni here are from the 70s and that’s what we listened to. Pink Floyd was huge in India, yaar!” Said another alum, “We didn’t listen to Hindi film music yaar, and Pink Floyd is damn conducive to studying, man!”
And with that, the Floyd Factor broke into Pink Floyd’s immortal lyrics: “we don’t need no education…” (in stark contrast to all that studying the IITians must have done) as several ladies dressed in saris got up to dance.
What an exhilarating, motivational and stirring night!
(Lachman Balani is a financial consultant based in Mississauga. He can be cntacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)