Kings & Pawns

Grounded Aspirations

23rd Feb ‘24, 9 pm.  It was a round table.  He was at 10 o’clock, I was at 2 o’clock.  Our host and EY Partner, Arvind Sethi, was sitting between us.  Flanking us were our strengths my Ritu and Aneesh, his Sonali, and Arvind’s Natasha.  I sneaked a peek at him.  We both had similar origins two IT geeks with beginnings in Bhopal. The similarities ended there.  He was taller, older, an IITian with a PhD., the founder of a $5B+ publicly listed company, and had retired from his operational role a few years back.  Till now, a few steps ahead of me.  “Will that hold true tonight as well?” I silently wondered.     

My thoughts snapped back as videos of the finalists splashed on large screens.  We were attending the grand ceremonies of India’s most coveted EY Entrepreneur of the Year (EOY) awards, and Anand was my sole rival in the services sector.  Only one of us was going to walk out with the honours.  I had expressly requested Arvind to ensure Anand sits at the same table.  I had my reasons.

With Anand at EY-EOY Awards
With Anand at EY-EOY Awards

I heard of Anand Deshpande when Cybage took its first breath in ‘95.  His Persistent Systems had a five-year head-start and was already a pride of Pune.  Industry buzz told us that they hired only IITians.  Cybage’s back was against the wall to afford such aspirations.        

Where Cybage’s first decade went into stabilizing, Persistent rode its momentum.  By then, Anand was a brand himself, a NASSCOM Council Executive and an industry thought leader.  In 2004, I invited him for my 10th wedding anniversary.  That was my first exposure to his down-to-earth persona. 

A couple of years later, as we began constructing Cybage’s twin towers, with Anand’s permission, we toured their campus.  The state-of-the-art infrastructure’s windows, intriguingly, had ‘cloth’ curtains!  “Dada (Anand’s dad) doesn’t like the corporate feel,” I was educated.  The executive parking had Anand’s Nano breaking the rhythm of high-end cars.  The thought of his tall frame squeezing into a Nano and driving back to his simple apartment made me smile. 

Shortly thereafter, tragedy struck when my dad was diagnosed with Cancer.  His doctor, Dr. Koppiker, became a good friend through whom I discovered another surprising connection.  The doctor’s NGO, Prashanti Cancer Care Mission, was supported by Anand’s Foundation. 

Then, right before I turned 45, I joined the Young Presidents Organization (YPO).  Anand, already a member, never attended the events.  Rubbing shoulders with Pune’s corporate top brass didn’t seem to interest him.  He was focused solely on taking Persistent public, a dream for many first-generation entrepreneurs. 

Some of my interactions thereafter were hearsay.  My sources were one Persistent employee who was also my son’s TT coach and a mutual friend, the late Mangesh Kale (a protagonist in one of my other writings).  Neither had any juicy gossip.  All I gathered was that Anand is a workaholic and the force behind Persistent’s success.

Sporadically, our paths would cross.  We were keynote speakers at a milestone event for CDAC institutes and council members at a Pune Smart City board meeting.  I would call him, seeking advice on regulatory matters while he’d direct investment bankers to me (I would honour them out of obligation, having no interest in going public!)

Then, in the early days of COVID, I met Anand over a round-table discussion with Uday Kotak.  I learnt that he had stepped down, and a new CEO was at the helm of Persistent.  He said he had raced long enough; it was the turn of life’s other callings – particularly, his deAsra Foundation, which enables first-generation entrepreneurs to grow their businesses successfully.

A couple of years back, I invited Anand to my daughter’s reception and watched him get immersed in the melodies of Sonu Nigam.  He reciprocated last year with a reception invitation for his son, introducing me and Cybage with great pride to his daughter-in-law’s parents.  Persistent’s annual calendar was warmly handed over as a return present.

Back to 23rd Feb.  There was a reason I wanted Anand on the same table.  Why?   Because Anand is an enigma that I wished to decipher.  On one side, he has been very aspirational – from taking Persistent public, diluting personal stake to fuel growth, recruiting from premium campuses, to his thought leadership at national conferences.  On the other side, he has lived an understated life, from simple cars, home, to his vanishing act in society’s influential circles.  Which is the real Anand —  the aspirational one or the grounded one? 

Regardless of who might win the award, I felt the function may reveal insights.  I believe the true colours of leaders don’t come out “after” they win or lose, but rather how they carry themselves right “before” they win or lose.  Will he be excited, nervous, composed or unattached?  Somewhere in his expressions may reside my detective opportunity. 

As the videos of finalists began playing on the big screen, I observed Anand abruptly get up.  “Dada is trying to reach me,” he informed his wife, Sonali before stepping out. No proud dad calls for me, I stole a glance at heavens above.  His stepping out had me worried.  What if his video plays out while he is busy giving updates to his excited dad?  Fortunately, he made it back in time.  I missed capturing his expressions before and after his name was announced as the winner.  I didn’t need to; I had already figured it out.   As if to reaffirm my conclusion, he picked up his phone again right after his awards speech.  You see, it was not to answer any congratulatory call from Persistent executives or social elites watching the live telecast.  Instead, he was redialling his Dada!

Anand hasn’t forgotten where he comes from.  Both his aspirations and grounding originate in the same place the dreams and foundation of India’s middle class.  I believe those who remember their roots always stay authentic.  He gets it; he gets that when the game ends, both the king and the pawn go back to the same box.

leader, Authentic, Original
Authentic, Original, Leader


  1. What a fantastic way you have put this down Arun. This shows how amazing you are as a person and leader, as you do not hesitate to share your admiration towards other leaders from the same industry. There is so much to learn from you.

  2. Very well said Arun sir. You are also a real gem like Anand sir. We are proud of you!!!

  3. Well written Arun. I have met him briefly and can fully understand where you are coming from. you have the very same nature. God bless.

  4. Very well articulated Arun. So much to learn from you as a leader.

  5. Very well said Arun sir, we are proud of you and blessed to have a leader like you.

  6. “No proud dad calls for me, I stole a glance at heavens above” …This line made me weep like a child. Father’s blessings are forever. This is a magical masterpiece, where the ink is in sync. You are definitely a great leader but above all a good human being & that reflects in your musings. We are proud of you!

  7. Such a beautiful narration Arun sir!

  8. Such a beautiful writing!!

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Kings & Pawns - Arun Nathani Blog