Debjani Ghosh: The “Cool” one Steps Outside Intel
Intel's loss, Digital India's gain?
“What you need is a good murder…”
That’s not the sort of response you expect from someone who calls you up when you are ill. But then you do not expect managing directors of the Indian branch of one of the world’s largest companies to check on your health either. Or recommend a dollop of bloodthirsty crime fiction instead of medicine (yes that’s what was meant by “a good murder” – homicide of a fictional sort rather than a real one).
But then, Debjani Ghosh is not your usual MD.
The lady was MD of Intel India (yes, the same Intel that is inside a vast majority of PCs and desktops) and South Asia since 2012. And was acknowledged as one of the most powerful executives on this side of the tech world. She stepped down from her post on March 31st.
And a few days before her departure, she welcomed her successor, Prakash Mallya, to the post by smearing cake all over his face – an event thoroughly advertised on Facebook.
No, Debjani Ghosh is not your usual MD.
Which is why this is not the usual profile that TechPP does. Actually, this was supposed to be an interview. For Tech Talkies, TechPP’s section for longer interactions that attempt to bring out the people behind the technologies that drive our world.
For some reason, it kept getting postponed. Not surprisingly, for Debjani Ghosh is a remarkably active person. For while she was pretty much the face of Intel in India (South Asia, actually – “including Afghanistan” she once pointed out with a laugh)- she was active on many fronts, speaking on the Digital India initiative (in which she is expected to play a greater role) and also being the president of the Manufacturers Association of Information Technology (MAIT). We kept hoping she would be able to take some time out at some stage and talk, but well, it was not to be, as she always was meeting some old friend or the other (and she has a formidable list of friends) as she went on what seemed akin to a “farewell tour” after more than two decades with Intel. This is not to say that she will never feature on Tech Talkies (we don’t give up that easily), but she is unlikely to be speaking in her Intel avatar.
[pullquote]”Success, if I have to define success, is basic education for all – it is important if you want to include every citizen in that valuable process.”[/pullquote] What her new role will be is anyone’s guess. The official line is that she will be devoting more time and energy on the Digital India initiative. And that is not really surprising given her enthusiasm for the project and her concern for connecting India digitally. At a time when most tech CEOs seemed to focus on the vast potential of the Indian market, Ghosh always seemed more concerned about those who were not really being able to make the most of the technology. I was once speaking to her about the Digital India initiative and she said, “Success, if I have to define success, is basic education for all – it is important if you want to include every citizen in that valuable process.”
Include. That word somehow defines Debjani Ghosh for me.
For some people, she was a business person. I really pity them. For me, and I suspect, a lot of others, she came across as someone much more concerned about people than balance sheets or market shares or even at times, technology. When I had once banteringly asked her why was Intel, a commercial company, so interested in promoting digital education, which was essentially a social task (and generally the preserve of NGOs and the Government), she had almost bridled at the notion that there was a commercial side to her company’s commitment. “Our goal in India? We don’t sell anything in this country,” she had pointed out. “I am one of those few lucky heads in India who doesn’t have a target to go sell something.” She had laughed briefly at that, and then added more sombrely: “My target is a more difficult one; my target is to grow the overall technology adoption. Because if that grows, all our consumption grows, all our market grows, everything grows.”
That sense of inclusion again. Everyone and everything. It was pretty much her trademark. As was her ability to express herself clearly and succinctly, and without jargon. Whenever I spoke to Ghosh, what came forth most was her sincerity and her insistence on putting people first in the simplest terms possible.
This “people first” approach was perhaps best reflected in her relationship with her own team. I still remember members of her communications team seething at her. Not because she had tossed a tantrum or been rude to them (I have heard she could get angry but have never seen anyone who has seen her in the mode, so I wonder about the truth), but simply because she was unwell and had still insisted on attending an event and speaking at it.
“Madam has a pain in the back. Madam has been advised rest. But will Madam listen? No, madam has to go on stage because she made a promise,” I remember one of her communications team seething when Ghosh insisted on attending an event in spite of not being well. As I came to know her better, I realized that disregarding personal discomfort for meeting her commitments was something of a habit for her. We were both part of a panel that participated on a Google Hangout for the Digital India Challenge in 2015. She came in spite of suffering from a fever and a cold, and gave no indication of either on camera. It was only when we shook hands afterward that I noticed how feverishly warm her palm was. “Don’t tell the team. They will murder me,” she entreated me. Of course, I did. Of course, the communications team made a fuss over her. And of course, I got a call from her later, laughing and calling me a traitor. She was still coughing.
It was almost Bonapartean, this affection that she inspired in those who worked with her. I have seen MDs and CEOs who were loved by their teams, but in spite of the affection, there was always a sense of awe and respect that kept them slightly apart. Never have I seen anyone generate the sort of affectionate awe that those in Intel had for Ghosh. She was very much like a Napoleon with his Old Guard, walking among them happily, playfully joking, even pulling the odd prank. It is this crazy affection that came to the fore in one of their final Facebook posts as she playfully slapped a decent amount of cake on her successor’s face. Debjani Ghosh did not just command respect by her achievements (and they are many, as are the stacks of awards she received), she inspired affection.
“She is the MD of Intel India?” I remember Akriti Rana (who was an intern and not our feature writer at that stage) saying when we had first met her in late 2016. She had looked at Ghosh, trying to fit her into the conventional MD mode of someone terribly formal and radiating power. And then she paid the then Intel India MD perhaps the ultimate compliment of them all, one that only a rookie with hardly any corporate experience could have:
“She is so COOL.”
Yes, Debjani Ghosh is cool. Not in the sense of a lack of temperature or an excess of reserve or in the sense of the coldness of rationality, but in the simple, hip sense of the word. This was a lady who kept reminding everyone of her love of the Game of Thrones and who once apologized for giving away a twist of a particular plot on Twitter. This was a lady who was as at home with an urchin as with a Prime Minister. This was a lady who I have seen being happiest when listening to one of her favorite thriller writers, Hakken Nesser, at a literary festival in Delhi. And yes, this was also the lady who called up a mediaperson and recommended that he read a blood-curdling mystery when he was ill. She loved referring to herself as the Khaleesi (a formidable, dragon-toting character in the Game of Thrones series), liked nothing better than a lot of Scandinavian crime writing and wore her relative lack of height (she always described herself as “five foot nothing”) like a badge of honor. She did don rather steep heels, which were the despair of many of her colleagues, who felt they contributed to frequent back aches.
Some accused her of being publicity hungry. And she did appear frequently in the media – but then, she WAS MD Intel, South Asia, not exactly the lowest profile designation in tech town. And unlike many senior executives, she did not ration her appearances or turn up only for the “big” brands but made it a point to even come to events from relatively lesser known brands, especially if they were Indian ones. And for someone who was so frequently quoted in the media, it was rare to see her repeating herself. If she had a script, she rewrote it every time she spoke to someone. But I do not think she ever sought the limelight – the fact that we could not get an interview with her because she was busy meeting her colleagues in her final days at Intel should provide an ample answer.
No one knows exactly where Debjani Ghosh is headed next. One thing I can safely predict: wherever she is, she will make a difference. To a lot of people. Because she does not believe in walking alone.
Which is why she will be loved by those who walk with her.
Aye, she is like Napoleon in his pomp (the citizen emperor, not the man who bowed to ambition later).
Not the tallest in physical stature, and yet dominant, and in a manner that is ever so gentle, affectionate and most important of all, inclusive.
She is not Inside Intel anymore.
But Debjani Ghosh remains… COOL!