It was the summer of 1979 when on a hot day in May, advocate TS Srinivasan, boarded an unreserved compartment on the Rockfort express to Tiruchi from Madras. His single purpose was to meet with PS Manisundaram, the legendary founding principal of the erstwhile Regional Engineering College (REC), to tell him that his son, Shyam, had top-notch marks in his pre-university exam, but hadn’t got an admit card to the REC even though he had applied.
In the event, Prof Manisundaram was impressed by the marks and Srinivasan returned triumphant to Madras (now Chennai) with an admit card. “That act of perseverance by my father perhaps changed the course of my life or I would have joined a lesser-known college in Coimbatore,” says Shyam Srinivasan, Managing Director of Federal Bank. Srinivasan, who recalls his five years at the REC (renamed as National Institute of Technology in 2003) fondly, went on to IIM Calcutta and after long stints in Citibank and Standard Chartered, has been the MD & CEO of the Kerala-based bank since 2010.
“I joined REC when I was 17 years and spent five formative years there. It was character shaping, you discover where your interests lie, you build networks and at a subliminal level, your ability to analyse things deeply also develop,” recalls Srinivasan.
Like Srinivasan, NIT Trichy has graduated some of India’s top CEOs, a little known fact. Several of the Tata group CEOs are from this college in southern TN; none bigger than N Chandrasekaran, Chairman, Tata Sons. Also, TV Narendran, CEO & MD, Tata Steel; Rajesh Gopinathan, CEO & MD, TCS; Revathi Kant, Chief Design Officer, Titan Co; and Saumen Bhaumik, CEO, Titan Eye, are alumni. TN’s finance minister PTR Palanivel Thiagarajan is also a graduate of NIT Trichy as is City Union Bank’s MD, N Kamakodi.
There are many more, such as Anurag Behar, CEO of Azim Premji Foundation and Ravindra Sannareddy, co-founder of Sri City, Satya Prabhakar, founder, Sulekha, among others. Few alumni such as Jayshree Seth, Chief Science Advocate, 3M, and KR Sridhar, founder of Bloom Energy, have made it big abroad as well. Many have also made their mark as top administrators and in the defence forces.
NIT Trichy is perhaps not as famous as the older IITs or a BITS Pilani but has a stellar record. The RECs were established in the early 1960s as a Central and state governments’ venture to create the tech manpower for industrial projects envisaged in the Second Five Year Plan (1956-61). In 2003, the RECs were taken over as fully-funded institutes of the Central government and renamed. Among the 20 NITs, NIT Trichy has been ranked as the top NIT in the NIRF.
Bhaskar Bhat, Director, Tata Sons, and Chairman of the Board of Governors, says NIT Trichy has been below the radar but has exceptional talent. He points out that many of the alumni who are at the top today are the students who stayed back in India and worked in the corporate sector for long years instead of going to the US and have seized their chances and become CEOs.
Prof G Aghila, Director, NIT Trichy, agrees that historically while the IITs ‘exported’ their graduates abroad for higher studies in large numbers, the erstwhile REC Trichy maintained a healthy balance of those going abroad and those building a career in India. “We had and continue to have a home state and other states quota in our intake and we have had a good mix of rural and urban children. This heterogeneity has helped in cross learnings,” she explains.
Former Director Mini Thomas, who studied at IIT Madras and IIT Delhi, says that NIT Trichy always focused on the overall development of students even though it is an engineering institution. And, unlike the IITs, students here are pan-India. “We urge students to take part in extra-curricular activities which helps develop personalities. One of the biggest student festivals in the south, Festember, started in 1975, and today when I meet prominent people, they recall taking part,” she says.
Tata Steel’s Narendran agrees with the view that having students from all over the country made for a holistic experience. “The great thing about an REC is you have people from all parts of the country as there is a quota for every state. So it was a wonderful crucible not only for learning but also for making friends from different parts of the country. It opens your mind culturally too and you evolve not only as an engineer and a professional but also as a person,” he says.
“More than the subjects you learn in engineering, you learn to think in a structured way and the ability to think through a problem or a situation logically is the biggest takeaway for me from those four years” TV Narendran, CEO & MD, Tata Steel
Narendran graduated in mechanical engineering, the most sought-after branch at REC then. “More than the subjects you learn in engineering you learn to think in a structured way and the ability to think through a problem or a situation logically is the biggest takeaway for me from those four years,” he elaborates.
For Revathi Kant, Chief Design Officer, Titan Co Ltd, REC inculcated the habit of ‘work hard, play hard’. “It’s a wonderful institution that helped me to think big, multi-task and to be spontaneous. I remember it as a centre of discipline, with a value-driven culture and a caring entity.”
RECT had an unusual balance of seriousness in academics — not too much and not too little, says Anurag Behar, CEO, Azim Premji Foundation. This created an environment, he says, where one did learn adequately in one’s field of study even if one were an averagely committed student, and much more if dedicated.
“On the other hand it also fostered an environment where there was an enormous amount happening outside the class — which is where we learnt to deal with life. From theatre, debate, quiz, music to sports, social service — the place was just buzzing with activity. It was not only the activities in themselves that made us learn and grow — it was actually the matter of our being entirely responsible for making them happen. That’s where we learnt to manage money, negotiate, hustle, work without heed to day and night, work with people you don’t like and so much more. But let me emphasise: it was the unusual balance that was the key,” he elaborates.
Agrees K Mahalingam, President of the Alumni Association: “NIT Trichy has great academic infrastructure, faculty, sports facilities, auditoria and is buzzing with activity, cultural events, sports competitions, technology fairs, symposia. To top this, an environment which allows students to explore and express themselves, and participate in multiple activities beyond academics. Students also learn skills from organising events such as Festember, which is now on for more than 45 years.”
Prof Aghila says at NIT the belief is that academics would constitute only 50 per cent of learning — the other 50 per cent would be from extra-curricular activities. “This is a conscious call that we have taken right from its inception in the early 1960s. The seeds were sown and a strong foundation laid by the founder Principal,” she says.
The other point she emphasises is that NIT Trichy is in a tier 2 city and not in a metro and the campus too is far from Tiruchi city. “In a way, the distractions of a city and the resultant time and energy at the disposal of the students is being rightly channelised for holistic development,” she adds.
While the earlier set of alumni have risen to be CEOs, the more recent graduates are blazing a trail as entrepreneurs. Ventures like the fintech company Bharat X is by 2022 graduates — Mehul Nath Jindal, Eeshan Sharma, and Shyam Murugan — who incubated it in their second year. Vaibhav Lodha is the co-founder of ftcash, a fast-growing financial inclusion technology enterprises serving the underserved micro-merchants in India through digital payments and loans while HackerRank was founded as InterviewStreet Inc by two NIT Trichy alumni, Vivek Ravisankar and Hari Karunanidhi, and is a Y Combinator-backed company. They should all inspire more to become entrepreneurs from this ‘under-the-radar’ college.