Vijay Govindarajan, a
shy Harvard student
who became one
of America’s most
Arthur J Pais
about turning the
on its head
‘I almost felt ‘I almost felt
the weight of the weight of
India on my India on my
Arguing that the gap between rich nations and emerging economies is clos- ing, the authors of Reverse Innovation: Create Far From Home, Win Everywhere set out to show that ‘no longer will innovations traverse the globe in only one direction — from developed nations to developing ones.’ Innovations will also flow in reverse, they show in their book, a bestseller on lists compiled by leading publications like The New York Times.
Authors Vijay Govindarajan and Chris Trimble of the Tuck School of Business at
Dartmouth say their book is not aimed solely at the business world, for it celebrates
innovations carried out with limited resources, be it in Thailand or India. It also explains
where, when and why reverse innovation is on the rise, and why the implications are so
profound — for nations, companies and individuals.
For Govindarajan, one of the most highly rated and admired professors on top
American campuses, reverse innovation is a life lesson that began under the tutelage of
his grandfather in a small Tamil Nadu town. He brought the lessons to the United States
as a student and has incorporated it at every step of his career.
What are the highlights of your student life in America?
When I arrived in the US in 1974, it was quite a culture shock. Through some luck, I
ended up at the Harvard Business School to do my MBA.
The pedagogy at HBS is case method. In India we are used to the lecture method,
where the teacher gives the lecture. Students passively listen to the teacher and repeat
the answers in exams. In the case method, you put your opinions to public scrutiny —
180 degrees different from what I was used to.
Being shy, I had not participated at all in the first few months of my MBA program.
Then I looked around; my American friends were talking non-stop in class. There was a
time in my student days, I wondered, ‘How can I be so bad compared to my classmates?
Perhaps when HBS decided to admit the 900th student, perhaps they admitted me.’
Then one day I was talking with a classmate of mine who I thought was very smart
based on his class contributions. He told me, ‘VG, I am lost. I am afraid I might flunk
out.’ Then I realized that every HBS student was insecure.
Complicating matters, I was and continue to be a vegetarian. I grew up on South
Indian vegetarian food. Those days, being a vegetarian was much more difficult. I could
only identify bread toast as vegetarian. I was sick of eating toast for breakfast, lunch, and
Though the initial adjustments were challenging, I soon found America to be a true
land of opportunity. If you have talent and you are willing to work hard, the sky is the
limit in this country.
As a student at HBS, I was exposed to great teaching and great teachers. That is what
motivated me to become a teacher.
What is it you enjoy most as a teacher?
I am blessed to be on the faculty at the Tuck School at Dartmouth. There is nothing
more enjoyable than teaching highly motivated, hard working, and an intelligent group
of students. I learn from them as much as I teach them. Being a professor, I get a larger
platform to address bigger issues.
A few years ago, GE’s CEO Jeff Immelt asked me to be GE’s first professor in residence
and chief innovation consultant. I spent 24 months in GE. What an incredible experi-
ence! I got a front row seat to watch real people make real decisions in real life. As a
direct result of that work, I co-authored a Harvard Business Review article with Immelt
on reverse innovation. That led to the book on the same topic.
In the US, there is a close collaboration between industry and academics. I love that
Above all else, I enjoy research and writing. Every book is an interesting journey. I
especially enjoyed writing Reverse Innovation. Growing up in India, I was firmly con-
vinced that the only way we can solve India’s problems is through innovation. Reverse
Innovation has brought me full circle since it is about innovation in poor countries.
When I joined Dartmouth, I was the first Indian faculty on campus. I still remember
telling my wife with a great deal of excitement, ‘Guess what, I am the first Indian
Dartmouth has hired.’
Her response was, ‘VG, don’t blow it. If you do a lousy job, they will never hire anoth-
er Indian ever again.’
I almost felt the weight of India on my shoulders. I have been at Tuck for 27 years.
Today, we have over 70 Indian students and six Indian faculty. For a small business
school, we are very well represented.
It is one thing to be a good mathematician in India and be a good mathematician in
the US. After all, mathematics is context free. To be excellent in business, one has to mas-
ter the context of US business. It is a real accomplishment that so many Indians are
doing so well as business school professors.
Tell us about your family.
I married a fantastic person, Kirthi, in 1980. She has been my best friend for the past
She was a gold medalist (in microbiology) from Bombay University. She got her MBA
with distinction from Ohio State University. She was the chief of information and cost
systems at VA Hospital until recently.
She did the opposite of what most married women do. She worked when our daugh-
ters were growing up. She left her job when our girls went to college. Our daughters need
her more now. She keeps all of us anchored.
My older daughter, Tarunya, graduated from Dartmouth, worked for a few years in