India. Land of sage wisdom, mythical maharajahs and a modern day financial powerhouse on the rise. Over one century ago a man dreamed of a revolution - to give India its own 'wings'. This is the story of a charismatic visionary and discerning adventurer, India's epic J.R.D. Tata...
Paris, France, 1904.
In 1904, the 'conqueror of the world' was born in Paris, out of the great love of a Persian man and a French woman. The little boy was given an identity that proved prophetic for his noble character and achievements - Jehangir - meaning 'conqueror of the world' in Persian - Ratanji Dadabhoy Tata. The young Jeh, as he was called by those close to him, or JRD as he was more widely known to the world, grew to become a restless seeker of adventure, an intense lover of life and a striver for business excellence.
Our journey takes us back to the dawn of the 20th century. It was still a time of kings and emperors, a world on the verge of exciting beginnings, revolutions and a society in search of new identity. Naturally, JRD was a cosmopolitan blend of two continents that were worlds apart. His early life was shared between Paris, which was a cradle of culture and the upheaval of arts, and the exoticism of diverse Bombay.
In the middle of happy summer holidays in Northern France, a dream hatched in the mind of the young boy - to live the thrill of flying in the skies. Louis Bleriot, the legendary aviator who was the first man to fly across the English Channel in 1909, was also enjoying summers with his family at the same resort nearby the Tatas. JRD shared a friendship with his son, and from then on he got hooked watching the landings of Bleriot's plane on the beach. The decision was definite – he would become a pilot himself.
Dreams and youth fuse into an explosive combination, and fortunately the outcome of the 'experiment' changed a whole nation. Nine years later, after the first seed of curiosity was planted in his mind, Tata joined the Flying Club in Bombay and at the age of 24 he proudly became India's first licensed pilot. His lifelong passion for flying gave birth to the first national commercial airline, and India acquired its own 'wings'.
Tata Airlines, which later on became Air India, was thus the brainchild of a daring dreamer and sophisticated entrepreneur of never ending endeavors to expand the horizons of the Tata Group, and re-model the financial and social fabric of India.
The legacy of the House of Tata is traced back to Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata [right]. It was that great visionary that in 1868 laid the foundations of an empire which evolved to become one of the world's largest conglomerates. Jamsetji Tata was an archetype of global citizen and a man of many interests.
The most precious heritage that he endowed to his successors was non-negotiable belief in certain values. The crest of the House of Tata as designed by its founder, depicts symbolic words in the ancient Avesta language from the Zoroastrian tradition: Humata, Hukhta, Hvarshta – which mean Good thoughts, Good words, Good deeds. In 1938, the torch of the Tata legacy was passed on to JRD Tata and he made sure that the light will live on.
Mahatma Gandhi, one of history's most emblematic symbols of social betterment and empowerment, encapsulated in a Spartan but nonetheless meaningful way the Tata empire in all its glory: "Tatas represent the spirit of adventure." And, that is precisely how JRD Tata passionately lived and breathed his whole life.
One surely wonders why JRD Tata was recorded in history as a hero of entrepreneurship? How has his story evolved into a myth straight out of One Thousand and One Nights?
Those were times where the skies were still blue and uncrowded, and a fearless aviator would fly equipped only with a pair of goggles and a slide rule for navigating. In 1932, Tata personally piloted the inaugural Karachi – Madras flight of Tata Airlines. Lucrative deals were signed with the rich and powerful of that era. Maharajahs might had mythic wealth and glamor, but there was one thing they were missing – since magic carpets only fly in fairy tales – 'wings'! So, Tata went ahead to give the maharajahs the luxury to fly their precious cargoes. A Times article from 1935 reports pretty intriguing cargoes carried by those first flights – pearls from the Gulf, mangoes of the best quality and even papadums sent all the way to London.
JRD Tata was not just the father of India's civil aviation industry. He was on the helm of one of the largest industrial Houses for fifty years. He took on a group of 14 companies and turned it into a global conglomerate of 95 enterprises, currently valued at $117.9 billion. He lead the diversification of the Tata Group to include a wide range of activities and operations and created an immense success story of ethical entrepreneurship.
"To be a leader, you have to lead human beings with affection" - that was the beacon which oriented his whole journey as a discerning entrepreneur. Free spirit, deep consciousness, concrete identity - these are the materials out of which leaders are born and Tata was gifted with them all. The heart of his business philosophy lies in passion for excellence, affection for the diversity of human beings and pro-activity in fostering future leaders. His leadership model is a blueprint for globalized entrepreneurial endeavors, idealism, business ethics and corporate responsibility.
The foundations of his business mentality were connected with his perception about the significance of fairness and employee wellbeing. He consciously acknowledged that many of his achievements were down to the unity and active support of his team of employees. He was a genuine leader that lived by the values and principles that he was endorsing, and employees deeply admired Tata. One of his executives remarked that "We had to give so much of ourselves because he gave so much of himself."
"Always aim at perfection for only then will you achieve excellence," was his famous motto. Indeed, one of his most distinct traits was his passion for quality and attention to detail. As much as he had a business mind geared for strategy and risk taking, on a personal level, Tata practiced his whole life humility and down to earth simplicity. He was a noble individual that valued life-long learning, loved the beauty of music and poetry. But above and beyond all, his big passion was up there in the freedom of the skies and flying. He treasured the "thrill of living a little dangerously!"
JRD Tata has been the recipient of multiple prestigious awards for his immense contribution to expand the entrepreneurial horizons in India, as well as his devotion to social betterment and advancement. He was a philanthropist and true visionary who wished India to become "a happy country". Yet, his highest 'reward' is that for millions of young and aspiring leaders across the world, JRD Tata remains eternally a symbol of integrity, a fiery adventurer of life and big dreamer.