In his 2016 book Alibaba: The House That Jack Ma Built, author Duncan Clark wrote about how the founder of one of the world’s biggest e-commerce companies hires.
When building up his team Jack preferred hiring people a notch or two below the top performers in their schools. The college elite, Jack explained, would easily get frustrated when they encountered the difficulties of the real world.
Hiring strategies at Indian companies couldn’t be more different. Not only do they want to hire the top performers, they want to hire them from elite colleges such as the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) or the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs). A top e-commerce firm in the country is even notorious for hiring its early team from a specific hostel at IIT Delhi.
All over the world, employers like to hire people who are similar to them. In India, however, they do so without an iota of guilt or embarrassment. Most tech founders, often graduates of top schools themselves, publicly and proudly declare that hiring from an IIT is the “most natural thing” for them to do.
Part of the bias comes from years of brainwashing by Indian middle-class parents, who convince their children that their success, self-worth, and marriage prospects are directly tied to the college they attend. As a result, it is not uncommon for college elites to suffer from a massive God’s-gift-to-capitalism complex. As an extension, they tend to trust, invest in, or mentor only people like themselves.
While there is a widespread perception that institutes such as IITs and BITS Pilani celebrate meritocracy, it may not be entirely accurate. Where and to whom one is born often plays a role in deciding where one studies, especially since the route to top universities is paved with expensive cram school fees.
Given the competitive selection processes they undergo, engineers or managers from premier universities do bring a lot to the table, from academic excellence to a strong alumni network. They also typically have sharper soft skills, especially fluency in English, still critical to success in corporate India.
However, those who go to non-elite schools tend to bring to the table something else of great value: a need to prove themselves.
“Graduates from tier 2 or tier 3 schools have a hunger to over-compensate for what they perceive they lack,” says Dinesh Jain, who has been CEO of organizations such as Nissan Motor-India and Zee Turner. He now runs IndianMaze Advisory, a strategy firm, and wrote on LinkedIn recently about the benefits of hiring from smaller towns and colleges.
“They have seen their counterparts from larger cities with ‘privileges’ and they want to achieve all that and more. Therefore, they are far more driven,” he wrote.
Hiring from lesser-known colleges can benefit companies in surprising ways. Those from better schools are usually uncompromising about the types of jobs they want: well-paid, intellectually-stimulating, cutting-edge. That leaves plenty of lower-level roles available for their less academically advanced peers, who can make productive use of the opportunity. “After four to five years, the grassroots level worker has a superior understanding of the ecosystem and can make a significant contribution to the company’s overall strategy,” writes Jain.
More importantly, as Indian startups expand into markets beyond major cities, the experience and knowledge that people from smaller towns and colleges possess becomes arguably more important to a company’s success. By hiring only from elite colleges, which have severely skewed gender and caste ratios, companies are unlikely to get on board diverse perspectives.
“You cannot continue to hire people based on ‘feels’,” says Apurv Agrawal, founder of workflow automation platform Squad. “You cannot build a large business based on inputs from just one section of the society,” adds Agrawal, who graduated from Vellore Institute of Technology.
This realization is creeping up on bigger companies as well.
“Companies like Flipkart…have a very diverse customer base. That means we have as many women shopping through e-commerce as men. We have as many from a tier-3, tier-4, or a village, shopping as a metro. The same sort of diversity in our employee fabric becomes critical for our success,” says Phanimohan Kalagara, senior vice-president of product and engineering at Flipkart Online. He did not go to an IIT, he adds.
How can employers become better judges of talent? Fighting years of conditioning and biases at the time of recruiting is hard, yet rewarding. I spoke to a few entrepreneurs about some practical measures companies can take while hiring.
Ask “out of syllabus” questions
Anirudh Pandita, founder of digital entertainment company Pocket Aces, likes to ask candidates about things completely unrelated to the job profile in question, querying prospective coders, product designers, or scriptwriters on topics like:
- How does an elevator work?
- How will you explain this technology to your grandmother?
- What will happen in the future if cloning becomes a reality?
The intent is to see how candidates react to unexpected situations. “Even if they don’t know the technical answer, I just want to see how they behave,” says Pandita, who has an MBA from The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. “It helps me figure out if they are the right cultural fit for our organization or not.”
He looks for people who have the humility to receive feedback and know it when they are wrong, a quality some top academic performers may not possess.
Look for spikes in the resume
Given the rapid changes in technology and an evolving business world, what one learns in college can be outdated even by the time of graduation. It is important for employers to gauge an applicant’s curiosity and willingness to learn by looking at other activities on their resumes. Look, for example, at the quality of the internships or online courses a candidate has participated in.
“No engineer can say, ‘I can’t write as good a code as an IIT-ian’ now, because of online learning,” says Squad’s Agrawal. “I have met candidates from unknown colleges in places like Bareilly who have read more books on physics and philosophy than anyone I know.”
Find people who have failed
New entrepreneurs told me about a lesser-known problem with good students, especially those who have been top performers since kindergarten: They don’t know what it is to fail. To build something truly big, a startup founder needs a team that can handle failure. As Alibaba’s Ma told an audience in Nairobi: “If you cannot get used to failure—just like a boxer—if you can’t get used to (being) hit, how can you win?”
For those who’ve found professional success despite graduating from less-famous colleges, there’s a way of giving back: become a brand ambassador for your alma mater.
Go back and mentor students and let them know about the expectations they will face in the modern Indian workplace. “When I graduated from IIFT in 1986, it wasn’t what it is today,” notes Jain. “Not many blue-chip companies recruited from there. It would be a similar story for colleges like IMT Ghaziabad.”
The investment is worth it, for you and your company, because these graduates will remember that you picked them when no one else did.