Born in Titilagarh, Odisha, Satyanaryan “Sam” Pitroda is a telecom mogul, inventor and development-thinker. He comes from humble beginnings, born in a family with seven siblings, being the third oldest amongst them. From a tender age, Sam has been deeply influenced by the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi.
So much so that when he was only 8 years old, along with his brother, he was sent to Gujarat to imbibe Gandhian philosophy. Having completed his early schooling from the prestigious Vallabh Vidyanagar, he went onto complete his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in physics from Maharaja Sayajirao University in Vadodra. Sam left India shortly afterwards. But his story brings him back to the homeland and how!
In 1964, Sam came to the United States, a country to which he had never been before. He started his professional career in the telecom industry and hit the ground running. Within less than three years, he claimed his first patent. He was hailed as one of the earliest pioneers in the industry, particularly because of his invention of the electronic diary in 1975, for which he claimed another patent.
Sam has never been far from accepting a new challenge. During his four decades as a professional in the industry, he claimed more than a hundred patents.
But despite conquering and leading this market, he always found it difficult to manage international communications whilst taking trips to India. In 1984, he met with then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and helped start C-DOT – a telecom R&D organization with government of India. He gave up his US citizenship to facilitate this new project. In 1987, he became an advisor to Rajiv Gandhi and was largely responsible for shaping India’s foreign and domestic telecommunication policies. He also led five other technology missions during this time – on water, literacy, immunization, dairy production and oil seeds. This was truly revolutionary. Sam proved to the Indian decision-makers and bureaucrats that India’s developmental philosophy and policies have to rely on technology and provide access to such for positive social change. One could say that the iconic yellow-signed public call offices scattered throughout India were enabled due to Sam’s vision and approach.
In 1994, Sam returned to the United States. Having suffered from a heart scare and then following Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, he launched WorldTel with the International Telecommunications Union of the UN. But his return to India was only inevitable.
In 2005, he was invited back to his homeland to head the National Knowledge Commission of India – a think-tank dedicated to sharpening India’s competitive advantage in knowledge-intensive sectors. In this role, Sam helped create a blueprint for reform for institutions and infrastructure in the 21st century. The NKC started off bright and made quick strides. The brass in India was so impressed that Sam was appointed Chairman of the National Innovation Council and tasked to create a roadmap for the next 10 years that will guide India’s innovation strategies and help implement them effectively and efficiently.
Since the Modi government came into power in 2014, despite doing some stellar work in areas of education, e-governance and entrepreneurship, the NKC is now defunct. As for the National Innovation Council, Sam resigned and that was that.
What fascinates me about Sam is this telepathic connection with India. Over the decades, many people have left India in the search for something better and brighter. Many have successfully gone on to achieve this. Many have done so in countries like the United States. And yes, many have even given back to their homelands in one way or the other. But Sam is different. Sam, to me, is driven by a goal. A definite one.
Sam’s contemporaries too want to improve India. But few have given up lucrative careers and fewer have given up their US citizenship to realize positive impact in India. Sam’s story is one of fast-paced adventure really. But more than that its of conviction. Conviction to use all his knowledge to transform India. Conviction to stand for what’s right. Conviction to fight for what’s right.
And therein lies Sam’s biggest feat – he truly might be one of the few people that hasn’t lost sight of what’s right in his pursuit to do what’s right.