WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Hall of Flags at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Building in downtown D.C., where the U.S. -India Business Council’s India Ideas Summit was being held on June 12, filled up to capacity with several hundred corporate honchos, Trump administration officials, media and think tankers, when it was announced that Google CEO Sunder Pichai would shortly be accepting USIBC’s Global Leadership Award.
Then after he was given a rousing introduction by Jim Taiclet, CEO of American Tower Corporation and the award presented to him by USIBC President Nisha Biswal, U.S. Chamber of Commerce CEO Thomas J. Donohue and Taiclet, Pichai sat down for an armchair conversation with Biswal and spoke of how the scale of India’s market has been an indispensable catalyst in allowing Google to develop innovative products that envisaged it to have a massive global impact.
He said that “we’ve been in India now for a very, very long time, and we take a very long-term view of our investments there.”
“And to give you a sense of the scale,we are very excited to be a part of India’s growth story. I think the Indian government has done a great job of making technology one of the pillars by which they will improve governance as well as socioeconomic conditions there,” he said.
Pichai said, “We are very proud of it and just to give you a sense of how we contribute to the Make in India program, Android virtually powers all the phones in India, and we deeply care about making phones cheaper every year so that more people can afford it and access it. In 2004 there were maybe two local manufacturers who would make devices in India, now that number is up to well over 200 or so.”
The 46-year-old leader of the Internet giant said that "Our products have played a foundational role. But increasingly it's also happening in reverse. The scale of the Indian market, allows us to now develop maybe products there and actually take it out globally as well. So, it's been an interesting trend for the last three to four years or so.”
"Our payments product India was moving towards digital payments, so we thought it was the best market to push the future of payments. We tried it there and it's worked very well. And now that team is taking that payments product and bringing it out of India to the global market," Pichai said."So increasingly we see India not just as, as an opportunity, but you know, building in India and serving the rest of the world as well. And so, it's exciting time.”
When Biswal pointed to what she argued was the “defining issue of the time —the global privacy debate,” and that both in India and in the United States, there are efforts at trying to draft new privacy legislation, asked Pichai to share some of his thoughts on how the U.S.-India and other global systems can try to create an appropriate balance, and if are there ways “that we can have a consensus and a convergent way of approaching this,” Pichai was optimistic that this was clearly possible.
He said, "The free flow of information is essential to digital trade and we all can see the benefits of it. But to ensure that we can actually do it, we need better safeguards around user privacy.”
Acknowledging that “rightfully so, users are increasingly concerned about it,”Pichai asserted that “it is an important moment to create standardized frameworks both for users to have choice, control and transparency and for companies to be accountable as well with a clear set of a clear set of rules.”
"I think it's an area where, both in U.S. and India we have reasonably aligned notions around a free and open internet, both countries have safeguarded principles of free expression. And so, there's enough shared values here, I think, that we can lead in privacy frameworks," he said.
Pichai added, "And, to the extent you can standardize this globally will be a huge factor which drives digital trade. And so hence this is very, very critical to it.”
Asked by Biswal for his take on leadership and what his “views and values are as a leader of a global company like Google,” Pichai said, “There is definitely no single model of leadership,” and quipped, “I wish someone had told me that…it would have save me a whole lot of time growing up.”
“For me,” he explained, “I think there are common attributes that you see across all models of leadership,” and said, “It’s inherently valuing people, driving a collaborative environment around people, and empowering them.”
Pichai observed, “For me, a lot of leadership is about cheering when people around you do well, getting out of the way when you can—your job is to stay out of the way, but help them when they need to remove obstacles, which is standing in the way of them doing well and succeeding.”
“So, leadership, more often than not,” he said, “is about taking a back seat. Even if you are at a meeting, the higher you are…it’s tough actually to understand what’s going on, and so, speaking less as possible, listening more to what is around you.”
Pichai acknowledged that “being tough is important, but equally important is being compassionate and empathetic at the end of the day and so, these are some of the elements that I think about all the time.”
When Biswal asked him about his apparently avowed and much talked about passion for cricket, Pichai’s eyes lit up to peals of laughter recalled that when he first came to the U.S. he had tried to “adapt to baseball and I have to say it was a bit challenging.”
The audience cracked up when he related his first experience at baseball saying that “in my first game, I was proud because I hit the ball on the back. It's a really good shot in cricket. I was like, well look, what I did. But people didn't appreciate it.”
Also, he said, to even more laughter, "In cricket when you run, you always take your bat with you. So, I also ran between bases with my bat as well. So, eventually, I realized baseball was a bit difficult,” and had decided that although “I can adjust on many things, I'm going to stick to cricket.”
Biswal then asked him to prognosticate on what the finals in the World Cup would look like, Pichai said, “I am rooting for India to do well, but there’s a lot at stake here,” but predicted that it would likely be an India versus England final.
"It should be England and India. But, you know, Australia and New Zealand, these are all very, very good teams,” he said.
Earlier, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who was the keynote speaker at the conference, had joked that “I understand that you’ve been having deep, important conversations among you about one of the most important global events of our day, something with major potential to change the world, deep international events that capture the attention of billions and billions of people. Of course, that’s the Cricket World Cup.”
Pichai also at the beginning of his conversation, asked to reflect on his childhood by Biswal, spoke of his growing up in Chennai in a family of modest means, but that “I was privileged to have a culture of knowledge and my parents did a lot to help me get that. I was passionate about technology growing up. I didn’t have access to computing but I read anything I could on it.”
“And, when I came to the U.S.—I came to Stanford (University) in 1993—and the first time I flew on a plane coming to the U.S. and landed in Pittsburgh where my uncle and aunt lived, and then made my way to California just about the time the Internet was taking off and was the first time I truly had access to computing and could see how it changed my life, and I still carry that with me today.”
Pichai added, “Talking about the power of technology, Google’s mission is to help provide people with information and knowledge. I think it’s a fundamental human need…You see it in places like India, when people get access to technology for the first time.”
A gushing Biswal—the former Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia in the Obama administration-- who was as spellbound as was the rest of the audience, ended the conversation telling Pichai that “I have to tell you, I’ve met a lot of leaders around the world and I have had the opportunity and been fortunate to meet presidents and prime ministers, but meeting with you and seeing the impact you have with your peers really is a rock-star moment for us here at USIBC.”
“I deeply appreciate the time you spent with us and look forward to working closely with you in the months and years ahead and wish you the best of luck in all that you are trying to do to change the world through Google,” she said.