BIG IDEA: To supply India’s booming economy with millions of young workers who come from rural and disadvantaged backgrounds. Bhatia’s company, Aspire, trains high-school and college students to become English-speaking, tech-savvy, problem-solving whiz kids ready for hire. The company then connects students to jobs, often in the technology and service sectors, at major corporations such as IBM, Accenture, Wipro, and Infosys. This year, Aspire will work with roughly 33,500 students at 45 universities and institutions across 25 Indian cities. “About 600 million Indians are under the age of 25,” Bhatia says. “And there are 40 million unemployed people, with the largest share being high-school and college graduates. Clearly, the students are crying for employability.”
CREDENTIALS: Bhatia has tons of them. He built the McKinsey Knowledge Center in Delhi (a hub for the consulting behemoth’s top researchers and analysts) and led a division of WNS Global Services Research and Analytics, expanding it into a 1,200-person, $30 million venture. In 2006, the Aspen Institute came calling with a leadership fellowship that gave the 42-year-old time to develop the ideas behind Aspire.
SCORE ONE FOR SOCIAL GOOD: “One of our first students was a girl from Haryana,” he says. “This was a family where the girls had never worked or done professional studies. For the first two weeks of class, the girl’s mother sat outside the classroom every day to make sure the daughter was in good hands. Now the daughter works in an outsourcing firm answering global calls.”
MISSIONARY ZEAL: Bhatia infuses his startup with methods gleaned from his elementary-school teachers: Catholic missionaries. “I tell my trainers, ‘You’re empowered. Go out. You have impressionable minds before you,’ ” he says. But it’s not just about finding new students to train. He also wants to do good. “If we don’t have an egalitarian, equitable, and peaceful society, being very wealthy isn’t worth much. If I can make a little bit of a dent in addressing this issue, I’ll have done my service.”
FAILURE ON THE JOB: “Here’s what my CV usually does not say: I was trained as a teacher. My first job lasted less than 60 days. I was an assistant professor at a good college at Delhi University, but I found it very political, very suffocating. At the age of 23, you’re not very tolerant of those things.”
BACKUP PLAN: “I write poems like some people sing in the bathroom,” Bhatia says. Topics range from nature and love to friendship and peace. “I’m an introvert. I get my energy by spending time alone. I need that hour or two to myself every day.”
GOA, GOA, GONE: In a move of managerial benevolence, Bhatia once organized a retreat for 600 WNS employees to the Indian seaside resort town of Goa. “Even now, when I go back to visit the WNS offices, they hide people — thinking I’ll sweep them away.”
MORAL INSPIRATION: “In India, it’s hard not to have Gandhi as a hero. To give up everything — including power and money — and to live for his countrymen, that beats everything else. He’s a role model of selflessness.”
FRIENDS IN HIGH PLACES: “In all of my career, I’ve been a big beneficiary of people from the past helping me out and supporting me.” Of Aspire’s 28 angel investors, half are former colleagues and a quarter are Aspen Institute fellows. “A network that comes to help you out is something you cannot replace. Without it, I don’t think I’d have ventured out to take such a risk.”
BIGGEST WORRY: Bhatia wants India’s next generation to relate to the environment in the same way he does and to be sensitive and feel from the heart. Bhatia calls Indians born after 1991 the “instant-gratification generation.” Too many students, he says, want everything now without going through character-building sacrifices or struggles.
BUSINESS INSPIRATION: “Steve Jobs is the guy. During a commencement address at Stanford years ago, he said, ‘Stay hungry, stay foolish.’ That’s clearly the best lesson.”