Rebel to reformer: How Mohandas Pai dons multiple hats

In conversation with Shradha Sharma, IT industry veteran Mohandas Pai narrates his four-decade journey from being a young rebel to joining Infosys and then becoming an investor.

Rebel to reformer: How Mohandas Pai dons multiple hats

Tuesday September 12, 2023,

7 min Read

Key Takeaways

  • IT industry veteran TV Mohandas Pai grew up in a typical middle-class family and is a law graduate and chartered accountant by education.
  • The IT industry veteran joined Infosys in 1994 and went on to become a board member at the company.
  • After leaving Infosys, Mohandas Pai focused his attention on being an investor and mentor to several budding startups in the country.
  • Mohandas Pai says that asking the right questions and drawing attention to public issues will remain his priorities. 

The Amitabh Bachchan-starrer Deewar is a perfect embodiment of India in the 1970s. Bachchan’s Vijay Verma was a victim of circumstances, engulfed in the social-political turmoil of the 1970s rife with unemployment and exploitative work conditions. In the real world too, there was an angry young man like him, called TV Mohandas Pai. The man, Pai, whom we know today as one of the architects of India’s technology industry, grew up in a country that was radically different. This, he says, shaped his world view. 

“I was brought up amidst challenging situations. My parents sacrificed everything to ensure that I had a good upbringing. But it was a time when people like us stayed poor and those in power got richer. Deewar is an apt portrayal of the bubbling anger of my generation,” says Mohandas Pai in an interview with Shradha Sharma. 

He may have had a humble upbringing, but Pai worked his way up the corporate ladder, joining Infosys as a consultant, then taking on a finance role, and eventually becoming a board member at the IT giant. In his second avatar as an investor, Pai became the co-founder of Aarin Capital and Exfinity Venture Partners. 

Today, you may know him for his fiery debates on television channels and social media platforms, but Pai has been a “rebel” from his childhood days. In fact, it was his relentless pursuit of seeking answers and calling out unjust practices that led him towards the corporate world. 

The early days of Pai

Mohandas Pai was born in 1958 in Bengaluru. His mother was a school teacher and his father worked at a private company. 

His parents led a tough life in order to provide a comfortable standard of living for the children. Pai’s paternal grandfather died early so his grandmother took great pains to raise the children. Pai’s father grew up in an orphanage and later moved to Mumbai (then Bombay) seeking employment. He worked as a substitute worker in mills and also waited tables in the Fort area. Later, he met Rangappa Kamat, the founder of the popular restaurant chain ‘Kamat’ and moved back to Karnataka for a job. Pai’s mother faced similar challenges, struggling to even get two square meals a day. However, she excelled at academics and eventually became a teacher. 

“My mother had a strict mandate, she told me to stay focussed and excel at academics. And I followed her advice religiously,” says Pai.

He studied at St. Joseph’s Indian High School, Bengaluru, and was a rank-holder throughout his school years. He pursued a commerce degree programme from St Joseph’s College of Commerce, Bengaluru, where he also excelled in academics and cricket.

“I was an out and out rebel during my college days. I used to go on strikes, protest, and seek re-evaluation of papers from the vice chancellor,” he recalls. 

A commerce degree, however, wasn’t enough. After completing his B.Com programme, Pai pursued an LLB degree, followed by Chartered Accountancy (C.A.). It was during his C.A. programme that his rebellious streak got him into trouble. Pai reminisces how the principal reprimanded him for wearing unwashed jeans for several days. That made Pai decide that he won’t work for anyone else. 

On completion of the CA certification in 1982, Pai started his independent practice, earning Rs 500 a month. 

“The money I earned wasn’t even sufficient to meet the monthly expenses of my Yezdi bike. A friend of mine suggested a job role at his leasing company so I joined,” he says. 

This stint, however, left him with a sour taste in the mouth. The company got  involved in a family dispute and during a heated conversation, a family member used the word ‘naukar’ (servant) to deride Pai. He was aghast, deeply hurt, and quit the job soon after in 1992. 

Around the same period, Pai was starting to get interested in the stock market. He was told about an IT company, Infosys, that was getting listed. He went for the investor meet of Infosys and asked several pointed questions about the company and its future prospects. Infosys co-founders NR Narayana Murthy and Nandan Nilekani were thoroughly impressed by Pai and requested him to join the company in 1993. 

With the wounds of the ‘naukar’ remark still fresh, Pai wasn’t keen to join as a full-time employee. So in January 1994, he joined Infosys as a consultant. 

Infosys and beyond

Upon joining Infosys, Pai faced a personal tragedy. His father was hospitalised and passed away soon after. Even as he was fighting off emotions, NRN Murthy had an offer: Join Infosys full-time. Pai took the offer and went on to head the finance division. 

Under Pai’s leadership, Infosys produced multiple annual reports that were lauded by retail and institutional shareholders for their simplicity and transparency. For Pai, the 1996 annual report with the theme “in pursuit of excellence” is especially memorable. This report acknowledged personalities such as Anil Kumble, JRD Tata, and Madhuri Dixit as role models in their respective fields.  

His tenure was no less illustrious than these celebrities. With Pai as the CFO, Infosys became the first company to be listed on NASDAQ. 

“When we visited the US and did road shows, there was barely any demand for the US listing. Murthy wanted to call off the IPO but I insisted that we go ahead. Eventually, we got a stellar valuation and listed,” he adds. 

Even as Pai strived hard to make his mark, he was moved by the high standards of corporate governance followed at Infosys. 

“Working in Infosys was an unbelievable experience. Leaders such as Murthy walked the talk, working with humility and travelling economy class. The common purpose was to make Infosys the best company in the world and all of us worked towards that goal,” adds Pai. 

From finance, Pai went on to lead multiple initiatives at Infosys including education, research, and human resources. After a long and meaningful tenure of 17 years, Pai quit the company in 2011 to pursue philanthropic and entrepreneurial interests.  

Giving back to the community

Working at Infosys and observing leaders like Murthy made Pai realise that it was necessary to make meaningful contributions to the community. This culminated in  Akshaya Patra Foundation, a mid-day programme for school children, launched in 2000. Pai was associated with the initiative till 2020. 

“I am deeply proud about my work at Akshaya Patra. Through my decades-long professional work, I have given away more money than I earn,” adds Pai. 

Post Infosys, Pai was not just involved with philanthropic initiatives but also became an investor. He co-founded Aarin Capital and Exfinity Venture Partners and is closely associated with the growth journeys of several entrepreneurs in the country.

Simultaneously, he also worked on several tax reforms policies, as a member on several committees at the finance ministry and SEBI. 

So, what’s next?  For someone like Pai, wouldn’t politics be the logical step ahead? He says no. Pai believes you need five attributes to be in politics, something that he claims he doesn’t have. These are: 

  1. Hunger for power. 
  2. A devious mind. 
  3. Perseverance
  4. Persuasive communication
  5. Empathy for the public. 

Perhaps, he is being modest not to categorise himself as empathetic, but Pai has a response. “You need to be with people and listen to them with empathy. I am an introvert, I don't chit chat or go to parties,” he adds. 

He may not spend a lot of time at physical gatherings, but you will find Pai online, debating actively with fellow Twitterati. He calls X (previously Twitter) a great leveller, a space where you can debate with people across political, religious, and economic spectrums. 

“I still have the rebellious streak and speak our mind. I call a spade a spade. However, I will praise you if you do good work,” he adds.

Pai is not satisfied with mediocrity, he wants to walk the extra mile to achieve excellence. For now, he has multiple tasks at hand, supporting startups, mentoring entrepreneurs, and helping the government frame better policies. At the same time, he also wants to have time for himself and his grandchildren. He wants to make the most of tomorrow.