A dialogue between Cornell President David Skorton and industrialist Ratan N. Tata '59, B.Arch. '62, headlined Cornell's first annual Entrepreneurship Summit in New York City Oct. 12.
Skorton and Tata, Cornell's Entrepreneur of the Year, talked about India's economy, opportunities entrepreneurship makes possible to give back to society, and Tata's upcoming retirement as chairman of the board of directors of Tata Sons. His companies employ more than 400,000 people in India, and under his leadership annual revenues have grown to about $100 billion.
When Skorton noted Tata's accomplishments -- 20 plus years at the helm of 84 companies and transforming that group into a modern, streamlined corporation with revenues that have grown 12-fold -- Tata pointed to the winds of change in India's economy during his leadership that unveiled many opportunities for innovation.
"I was fortunate to have a change in India's economic scene," he said. "It happened at same time when I took over as chairman. After several years of a controlled economy, India decided to open up to the world. Protection was removed, and you were able to operate on your own merit. I had the opportunity to do things that earlier wouldn't have been permitted. I was fortunate, and the world outside was very big."
Tata has been chair of the board of directors of Tata Sons, the holding company of the Tata Group, since 1991. He joined the Tata Group in 1962 and transformed the holding company into a strategy think tank and a promoter of new ventures in high technology businesses.
Tata recalled some of the more challenging moments in his career, such as when he faced criticism for his decisions, including a move to streamline operations and acquire auto and steel businesses: "We're not astrologists. There was no way we could know what would happen. While steel still suffers, Jaguar and Land Rover, after going through a dip, have emerged stronger than ever before."
Following their talk, Skorton presented Tata with the Cornell Entrepreneur of the Year award. Cornell and Entrepreneurship@Cornell give the award annually to a graduate who exemplifies entrepreneurial achievement, community service and high ethical standards.
"Cornell has benefited from Ratan's enormous generosity," Skorton said. "He has committed $50 million to establish two projects that benefit India as well as the university: the Tata Scholarship Fund for Students from India and the Tata-Cornell Initiative in Agriculture and Nutrition - each at $25 million a trust." Skorton said the university is proud to enroll 23 Tata scholars.
In addition to giving back to advance education, Tata's entrepreneurial history includes many business decisions aimed at addressing poverty and malnutrition of India's youth. When Tata retires in December 2012, "not surprisingly, he won't be simply relaxing," Skorton said. "In his role at the helm of Tata Trusts, he plans to continue efforts to benefit India's poor, with a focus on rural development, water conservation and child nutrition."
The daylong entrepreneurship summit attracted more than 350 attendees and featured 21 speakers and panelists. Andrew Ross Sorkin '99, a financial columnist for The New York Times, moderated some sessions. Other speakers included Andy Kessler '80, cofounder of Velocity Capital; Jules Kroll '63, founder of Kroll Inc.; and Jay Walker '77, entrepreneur and founder of Priceline.com. Each speaker gave a short "TED" style talk focused on advice for entrepreneurs.
In addition, Cornell NYC Tech Dean Dan Huttenlocher and engineering Dean Lance Collins gave updates on their colleges.
The summit is an extension of Entrepreneurship@Cornell's annual celebration event, which brings more than 250 alumni entrepreneurs to campus each spring. John Jaquette, director of Entreprenuership@Cornell, said there is a good chance the New York City summit will become an annual event.
"We received more comments than ever from alumni who said that this event was one of the most useful conferences they have ever been to - Cornell related or not," Jaquette said. "It provided them with the chance to experience the size and scope of the impact of Cornell entrepreneurs in the New York City area."
Claire Curry is a freelance writer in New York City.