June 7, 2009

Ratan Tata '59 Fields Questions on Business, Politics and Life at Annual Olin Lecture

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It has been over 50 years since Ratan Tata ’59 arrived at Cornell for freshman orientation, but on Friday, the chairman and CEO of the multinational conglomerate Tata Sons Ltd. told students and alumni that the event was still fresh in his mind.

“I was one of about 2,000 people and very frightened,” Tata reminisced. “They told us to look to your left, look to your right … One of you won’t be here in four years.”

This was only one of the things that Tata talked about in the annual Olin Lecture titled “Corporate Social Responsibility in the 21st Century” during Reunion Week.

The family business, which Tata’s great grandfather Jamsetji Tata founded as a cloth mill in Nagpur, India more than 100 years ago, is now a Mumbai-based global company comprised of 114 companies and subsidiaries in seven business sectors with operations in more than 85 countries. From 2007 to 2008, the total revenue of Tata companies was $62.5 billion.

The discussion first featured a dialogue between Tata and President David Skorton, who asked Tata if his company’s benevolent treatment of employees will be harder to sustain in the increasingly competitive global market. While Tata is cognizant of this competing ideology, he believes that this familial relationship with his employees will win out in the long run.

“[Our treatment of our workers] has given us a great deal of harmony,” Tata answered. “We have had no violent strikes. In the long term, our workers have been a great asset.”

Tata also briefly commented on the Tata Trust’s recent philanthropy to the University. The $50 million gift will be split into two projects, $25 million going towards the establishment of the Tata-Cornell Initiative in Agriculture and Nutrition and $25 million to the Tata Scholarship Fund for Students from India. When asked about the donation, Tata said that he wants to give “underprivileged Indians the chance to come to Cornell” as well as foster joint research projects between Cornell and Indian universities in agriculture and nutrition.

While the dialogue’s focus was corporate social responsibility, the question-and-answer session between the audience and Tata covered a wide-array of topics, ranging from his college experiences to global warming.

Audience member Lee Cooper ’89 asked Tata if he was optimistic about efforts by governments, businesses and non-governmental organizations to stop global warming.

“I don’t know if we can get it right but we have to try to get it right,” Tata said. “There needs to be an awareness [that] what we’re doing [is] not just for us, but also for the generations that follow us.”

When asked about the current state of the American economy, Tata said that “he’s not the right person to ask,” but added that “the change of leadership that has taken place has given rise to global hopes. The U.S. will always be the forerunner of prosperity. It needs to get back on track and I know it will.”

One undergraduate in the audience also asked the boss of 350,000 people world-wide for some career advice.

“Do you have any advice for someone who doesn’t know what they want to do for the rest of the my life?” asked one member of the class of 2011[img_assist|nid=37460|title=Tata talks|desc=Last October, Ratan Tata ’59 presented Cornell with a $50 million gift to help bring Indian students to school in America.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0].

“You’re not alone,” Tata responded.

Some audience members left Bailey Hall impressed by the CEO’s eloquence and sagacity.

“Tata is extremely articulate,” Rohit Tonk ’05 said. “He did a great job combining complex topics, spanning multiple domains. I know of few people would could make such insightful comments on the future of India. It was incredibly well-done.”

Some audience members, like Krishna Jayant and Mustansi Mukadam, grads, would have liked it better if the questions remained pertinent to the topic of social responsibility.

“I expected more on social responsibility.” Mukadam said. “The questions were from all over.”

Specifically, Jayant wanted to ask about the Mumbai terrorist attacks that occurred last November at Taj Hotel, which is property of Tata Sons Ltd.

“I would have liked to ask about how to respond to national calamities like the terrorist attacks,” Jayant said. “But I thought that it didn’t go with the rest of the discussion, with all of the alumni there.

While the discussion did not meet Jayant’s fullest expectations, he was happy to finally see Tata, whom he called “the pride of India,” in the flesh.

“It was good to see the man,” Jayant said. “I’ve only ever seen him in newspapers and on television.”