Not the Graduate
How important is a college degree to be successful later in life? Neha Tara Mehta speaks to five achievers who walked out of top institutes to script their own success stories...Updated: Jun 14, 2008 23:55 IST
If you are a drop-out, drop in.” In the summer of 1990, this was the sign that hung outside the People Tree on Parliament Street, a studio-shop run by National Institute of Design (NID) drop-out Orijit Sen and his wife Gurpreet Sidhu, his senior from NID.
For someone who has dropped out of the rat race more than once, Orijit (aka Orgy, Oji, O.G.G., etc) started out as an academically bright, “model child”, brought up to become a doctor. “But when I went to a medical exhibition and saw a dissected dog on display, I decided I could never be a doctor,” he says.
Then, teenage rebellion happened. Inspired by hippies and his older brother’s Jimmy Hendrix and CCR LPs, Sen became what he calls a “bad boy”. He reminisces, “I stole The Drifters by James A. Michener from my school library, thinking it won’t make sense to all the squares in school. I was suspended.” His grades plummeted. “By the time I was in class XI, my parents were convinced that I would grow up to be a pauper.” Looking back, Sen says his teen rebellion was an unfocussed, inarticulate reaction to the system that tells you that your objective in life should be to do something that doesn’t necessarily inspire you, but gets you money.
Dropping out of class XI, Sen decided to pursue his passion for art by studying at NID. “I was lucky that NID was flexible enough to accept me back then. Five years at NID helped me define my rebellion into something focused.” But Sen never got his diploma, dropping out just before graduating to take up an exciting job offer in Russia. “A part of me knew that I could be messing up my future…But I have no regrets.”
He was to drop out for a third time: of being a ‘designer’ in the conventional sense. Gurpreet’s grandfather ran a pathology lab on Parliament Street, which lay vacant after his death. On a friend’s suggestion, the couple dusted the place, had a party, painted T-shirts, and started selling them. The aim? To set up a place “remarkably free from the impositions and demands of heartless markets and artless clients”. People Tree went on to become an institution for other ‘active dropouts’ — who would drop by and spend the day creating inventive and irreverent samples of urban-folk, industrial-pop design as “alternatives to globalised monopolies and branded hipness”.
Along the way, Sen published the award-winning collaboration Trash!, The River of Stories and Imung. And in the end, the “model child” who became a “bad boy” succeeded in making his parents happy. “They are very proud that I have been successful in a conventional sense, despite taking an unconventional path,” he says.
Publisher, not a physician
HE was brought up being told to become a doctor. Instead, he dropped out of college to start his career as a clerical officer, and went on to become the CEO and President of Penguin Books India.
Though Mike Bryan grew up in North West England, his story — as he himself suspects — could be that of a child in India pressurised by his parents to get into AIIMS or IIT. “My father was an aeronautical engineer and any career-related advice I got as a teenager was science-related. It was my family’s aspiration that I become a doctor or a dentist.” So, Bryan threw himself “blindly into sciences” — though English, history and geography were what he was really interested in. Somewhere along the road, he decided that medicine was not for him, and pre-thinking the global warming scare in the 1970s, he enrolled himself into a BSc in Environmental Science at De Montfort University, Leicester. “But the course wasn’t what I had expected it to be. When I topped in environmental studies and came at the bottom in chemistry, I decided enough was enough.”
Bryan quit college and got off to a “false start” in his career in the Nuclear Power industry and the Anti-terrorist department as a clerical officer. The chapter of good fortune in his life opened when he switched to selling books. At 24, he was headhunted by Penguin. “My only qualification was that I managed my shop well,” says Bryan.
What followed was a territorial conquest. He started Penguin companies in the Netherlands, Germany, France, Italy and Spain. His area of responsibility grew to include Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Asia. He became the senior VP of Penguin International for both Penguin UK and Penguin U.S.A. He also launched Penguin Singapore and Malaysia. And ten years ago, Bryan’s soaring career graph finally impressed his parents enough to believe that he had “a proper job.”
Did Bryan ever regret dropping out? “No. It’s terrible — you see in the papers everyday how kids are getting stressed out about exams and committing suicide. I certainly never felt suicidal — I was too busy playing cricket and rugby to worry about anything else.”
Not so bakwaas ads, first-class business
At times, I do cock a snook at those who study too much. I started making money at 20, and can't understand why someone who is 35 should still be studying for a doctorate. This is, after all, a commercial world.” That’s Equus Red Cell CEO Swapan Seth for you. Seth, a school topper, can afford to be privately proud of not hanging around in college to finish his BCom: he started working as a copywriter at 20, bagged awards at Cannes, Clio and the Golden Award of Montreux at 21, addressed IIM students older than him at 23 on career and leadership, and started his own company at 28 — with Rs 7,000 in the bank. Within six months, international advertising giant WPP was impressed enough with the advertising whizkid to buy a 30 per cent stake in his company.
The brain behind Harvest Gold’s stupendously successful ‘Bakwaas advertising, first class bread’ campaign does anything but bakwaas advertising. Seth’s agency launched Kingfisher Airlines, which was voted amongst the top three brand launches of 2005 and the second-most buzziest brand of 2007. Equus also launched Barista coffee bars, which went on to be rated by ORG-Marg as the No.1 teen icon brand. With the agency’s Max New York Life launch, the Indian business overtook Mexico to become New York Life's largest market.
Looking back, Seth says he was lucky to have “rocksteady” parents. “I had a choice between taking my first year exams and going for a once-in-a-lifetime conference for my company HTA’s biggest client, ITC. I chose the latter. My mother told me — ‘Never look back and don’t come back disillusioned.’ Very few parents would do this back in the 1980s, when entrepreneurship wasn't seen as a career option.”
Seth tied the knot at 28, just before starting his company. “My in-laws’s relatives would gasp in shock when I told them poker-faced that I did nothing for a living —just before starting Equus. But everyone was exceedingly supportive,” he says. What helped was a “terrific personal and professional understanding” with Big Brother Suhel Seth, managing partner, Counselage. “Many may consider it rare for two people who are extra egoistical, arrogant and opinionated to work so well together. We work as colleagues and equals, and if there is any deadlock, I tell Suhel, ‘You win because you are the older one.’”
Taking the road less travelled can come with some bumps. “Filling in forms that ask for your educational qualifications rankles — as it must,” says Seth. But he wouldn’t mind his kids, aged 9 and 10, treading his path — provided they top school first. “I am one of those terrible fathers who believes that 90 per cent is important. If my kids top school and then give me a fantastic reason why they shouldn’t go to college, I would consider it.”
There is, after all, the greatest classroom called life.
From Stephanian to Naxalite
Generations of Indians have been taught as children that studying at St Stephen’s is the passport to all good things in life. But English literature student Ajoy Bose chose to walk out of the elite college — and plunge himself into the Naxal movement in Bihar.
Ironically, Bose had been sent to St Stephen’s by his father to escape the Naxalite turmoil in Calcutta’s colleges. Back home, Bose had rejected the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’. But his first encounter with “social snobbery” at St Stephen’s, combined with his peers in the Stephanian Naxal group got him to embrace the romance of the extreme Left.
Over three decades later, Bose, who was a consultant to Sudhir Mishra’s Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi remembers, “I had contempt for armchair Naxals. I decided to go to Bihar and join the movement.” But his Bihar stint ended disastrously. “I found Naxal groups completely disorganised. The movement was dangerous and suicidal without serving any political purpose.”
He quit the movement and became a daily wager in a Ballabgarh steel factory, to work with the labourers there. But that too, ended disastrously — with his health taking a beating. After a short clerical stint in Allahabad — where he had gone to recoup — Bose began his journalistic career with the Patriot newspaper and Link magazine. Glory came with the Emergency, when his reporter’s diary grew into a book — For Reasons of State: Delhi under Emergency. At 24, Bose was a star. He was recruited as The Guardian’s India correspondent at 25. “It was a huge honour, and also a huge amount of money — Rs 5,000, which came in handy as I had just got married,” he says.
He went on to become the resident editor of the Sunday Observer’s Delhi edition, the New Delhi representative for the Khaleej Times, and the executive editor of The Pioneer.
As we catch him soon after the launch of his third book, Behenji — A Political Biography of Mayawati, Bose reminisces, “My learning curve was incredible after dropping out.” His post-drop-out days — spent on the run from the police and landlords, might just end up as a book — that “has been struggling inside me for the last three decades”.
‘I am proud not to be a graduate’
I loved studying, and was the sort who would wait outside the library before the librarian opened it. Jesus and Mary College (JMC), where I studied, was lovely with beautiful grounds. I topped in English literature the first year, became the vice-president of the college union, and was Miss JMC’s first runner-up. And yet, I am proud of the fact that I never got a graduation degree.
Some people think I was thrown out of college because of useless rebellion. But it was actually a very nerdy sort of a problem — of wanting to study too much. In the third year, we had a paper on Olde English and Chaucer. I didn’t think it relevant and didn’t want to study it. There was an option to do a paper on contemporary Indian literature instead — and I chose that. Since I hadn’t attended the Chaucer classes, I was marked short of attendance — 6 per cent in the tutorials! More than 120 other students were held back from sitting for their exams because of attendance. We all went to court. Though I was finally allowed to write my exams, I never got my graduation degree.
Many others who didn’t get their degree went on to repeat the year. I didn’t. Instead, I started Super, a film magazine that was highly successful. My only act of rebellion was that I did not want to go back into a system that had rejected me. In my first book, Paro, I was able to throw off the burden of Eng Lit academia and conditioning. Yet, I carried the sense of hurt to The Book of Shadows, in which the main character is a college lecturer in JMC, who has acid thrown on her face.
Had I got a degree, I might have ended up as an academic. I wanted to study philology. But I decided — if this is what academics is all about — I don’t want to be part of it. I turned my back on any system that could behave like this. At that time, it looked like the end of the world. But in retrospect, not getting my degree was perhaps one of the best things that has ever happened to me. I got into the real world much quicker because of it, without academic insulation. It led to my always questioning the value of very obvious labels and prepared me for all the unexpected things that happened in my life later on. Also, I did my best to stay out of jail — since I had been warned that non-graduates go to B-grade jails!
After seeing one of the worst that the system can throw up, I’m sceptical of academic success alone. I have realised that a lot of institutions are rigid and tend to support a mediocre, rather than creative attitude. I did try harder than the others, but got a big, fat kick for it!
My case became a Gabbar Singh sort of cautionary note for DU students. When my daughters went to LSR and St Stephen’s, they were warned — “Don’t be short of attendance like your mother.” The irony of all this is that despite not being a graduate, I continue to be associated with education — with close involvements in various projects at IP College, Meerabai Polytechnic, IGNOU and Jamia.
Life has come a full circle. I gave up my studies over contemporary Indian literature. In 2005, we started Yatra Books, and have already co-published over a hundred books in Hindi, Marathi and Urdu in collaboration with Penguin India. I keep getting mail addressed to Dr Namita Gokhale, although nobody has given me an honourary degree — yet. But I am pretty sure that someday, someone will.
(As told to Neha Tara Mehta)