Ratan Tata, in visit to MIT, offers advice and encouragement to students looking to make an impact in the developing world.
This week Mr. Ratan Tata visited MIT and made time for an intimate, casual chat with students and staff from the MIT Tata Center, which was created in 2012 to facilitate MIT research making an impact in India and the developing world.
“What started as a dialogue with [former MIT president] Susan Hockfield has developed much further,” Mr. Tata told the group of 30-40 crowded into a conference room at the Sloan School. “The projects you’ve chosen have taken local problems and applied technology and relevant solutions. You all have understood the problems far, far better than other institutions working from a distance.”
“I wanted to come and recognize and thank you for what you have done, and your commitment and dedication to this,” he added.
Tata Center director Rob Stoner, along with Academic Director Chintan Vaishnav, responded by conveying the group’s gratitude to Tata for making this work possible, stressing that his support for the MIT Tata Center has created new avenues for applied research not previously available.
The conversation then turned to a Q&A between Tata and some of the Fellows, MIT graduate students who were palpably excited to be sharing a room with their benefactor. As chairman emeritus of the Tata Group, one of India’s largest and most influential corporations, and the current chairman of the philanthropic Tata Trusts, Mr. Tata is a national icon in India. Despite his status, however, he is known for a demeanor of humility and warmth. That was on display as he listened and replied thoughtfully to each student.
Guillermo Lankenau-Diaz, a first-year Tata Fellow working on design of affordable tractors for small-scale agriculture, asked if Tata had any suggestions for doing an even better job of tackling problems in India.
Tata replied that “taking a good idea from concept to production and possibly into the commercial area,” was important. “Many of your projects are much more innovative than we could ever have imagined. It would be a shame to let them die as academic projects, and not be able to make a difference and have the satisfaction of having something you did change the face of agriculture, or bring prosperity to people.”
Wardah Inam, a Ph.D. student whose team is developing a microgrid system to help electrify rural villages, said, “One of most fascinating and challenging things about our project is that we’re trying to tackle one of the biggest problems in the developing world, lack of electricity.”
Tata said, “There’s no doubt that India today has to scrap its earlier electrical model of building multi-gigawatt power plants. I think the answer lies in distributable power to villages, maybe individual dwellings, bringing light into the homes of people whose day ends at nightfall. Even if it’s three lights in a residence, it changes the way those people live.”
After fielding these and several other questions, Tata closed with some words of encouragement. “Let me just say how proud we are of having you in the Center doing what you’re doing. As time goes on, I hope we can look back and say we really achieved something. I’m sure that will happen.”
Photo by the author
Watch an extended conversation with Mr. Tata from an earlier visit to the Center in February 2014.