Azim Premji: An ‘Iconic Indian’ who is extraordinary businessman, philanthropist

Excerpt from ‘Iconic Indians: 75 Extraordinary Individuals Who Inspired the Country’ by Sanjeev Sanyal and Rajesh Singh

GN Bureau | October 13, 2022

#policy   #governance   #economy   #business   #Azim Premji   #society   #culture  
 Azim Premji at World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos in 2009 (Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)
Azim Premji at World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos in 2009 (Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

Iconic Indians: 75 Extraordinary Individuals Who Inspired the Country
By Sanjeev Sanyal and Rajesh Singh
Rupa Publications, 360 pages, Rs 695
As India completes 75 years of Independence, this book offers short biographies of 75 iconic Indians who moulded our nation with their contribution in the fields of politics, entertainment, science, sports and more. The list begins with the first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and ends with the current PM, Narendra Modi, introducing a range of extraordinary individuals in between – Homi J. Bhabha, Raj Kapoor, J.R.D. Tata, Arjan Singh, P.V. Sindhu, Amitabh Bachchan...

“As we look back over the last 75 years of our country’s independence, we recall the remarkable men and women who gave India the identity it has today. This was the source of the idea behind writing a book containing the biographies of 75 great Indians. It is our small homage to them. The biographies are far from comprehensive but written in a lucid style that a general reader can easily follow. We hope our readers dip into the book and read a piece or two at their leisure,” write Sanjeev Sanyal, a member of the Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister, and Rajesh Singh, a freelance analyst of politics, governance and public affairs, in their introduction.

Through the short biographical sketches, the book also tells the wider story of how India traversed the first 75 years of Independence. An excellent primer on the stalwarts who have made the nation what it is today, this book is a must-read for every person interested in the past, present and future of India.

Here is an excerpt from the book, the chapter on an extraordinary Indian:


Being rich ‘did not thrill’ him. Azim Premji, among India’s richest businessmen, had once said so. He did not lose sleep over the fact that he went down to the seventeenth position (in 2019) from the second spot he held in the Forbes India Rich List. It was because he had donated huge sums of his wealth to charity. [See footnote: 1] By April 2013, he had given away more than 25 per cent of his personal wealth. [2]

But before Premji became the country’s leading philanthropist, he had managed yet another amazing task: turning a soap-manufacturing firm into one of the country’s leading and globally respected software companies. At the age of only 21, he had to take over the reins of his family business in 1966 after his father Muhammad Hashim Premji’s sudden death. He was then studying electrical engineering at Stanford University, USA. He returned to Stanford 30 years later to get his degree.

Premji was born in Bombay to a Gujarati family on 24 July 1945. His father was known as the ‘Rice King of Burma’, as he was a leading rice merchant and commission agent dealing in rice supplied to Burma. He turned down Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s appeal to relocate to the newly created Pakistan, saying that he would prefer staying in India.

Premji’s father established Western India Vegetable Products Ltd in 1945 in a small town in Jalgaon district of Maharashtra. It manufactured cooking oil under the hugely successful brand of Sunflower Vanaspati, besides laundry soap, which went by the name of 787.

At the first annual general meeting of the company—the company his father had founded—a shareholder expressed doubts about Azim Premji’s ability to handle the business, as it was he who had now taken charge. He was advised to sell off his holding and hand over the management to more experienced hands. The young Premji resolved to prove the naysayers wrong. [3]

After his father’s death, Premji diversified the products to toiletries and hydraulic cylinders. Business was good, and he continued to expand the profile of the products. But he spotted a bigger and brighter future in an unrelated area—software development. He decided, probably against the advice of several well-wishers, to shift from soaps to software. One of the reasons for the plunge was the vacuum created with the expulsion of International Business Machines from India in the late 1970s by the then government. The IT sector was still in its infancy stage in India, and Premji felt it was the right time to truly diversify. He changed the company’s name to Wipro and got into the hi-tech sector by manufacturing minicomputers in collaboration with the US-based Sentinel Computer Corporation. [4]

Under his leadership, Wipro changed from being a Rs 7-crore company [5], manufacturing soaps and fats, to a leading provider of integrated business, technology and process solutions on a global delivery platform. Over time, Wipro Technologies became the largest independent research and development service provider in the world. Its revenue in 2021 stood at around Rs 79,090 crore; net profit was close to Rs 12,220 crore; and total assets were over Rs 83,000
crore. [6]

In 2010, Premji was named among the 20 most powerful men in the world by Asiaweek. [7] On two occasions, he was listed among the 100 most influential people by TIME magazine. [8] His estimated net worth, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, was $25.2 billion. [9] From 2001 to 2003, according to a Forbes list, he was among the 50 richest people in the world. He was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 2005 and the Padma Vibhushan in 2011. In 2018, Premji was conferred the Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur (Knight of the Legion of Honour)—the highest French civilian distinction by the French government.

Premji was the first Indian to sign up for The Giving Pledge, a campaign led by Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, among the world’s richest men. The aim of The Giving Pledge was to encourage the rich to commit considerable parts of their wealth as a philanthropic act. Premji was the third non-American, after the British businessmen Richard Branson and David Sainsbury, to take the pledge. He kicked off by donating $2.2 billion to the Azim Premji Foundation, which works in the area of education.

Premji topped the list of ‘India’s most generous’ released by Hurun India and EdelGive on 10 November 2020. [10] He had donated Rs 7,904 crore in the financial year 2019–20, which was a 17-fold jump from the Rs 453 crore donated in the previous year. [11] Premji was cited by Forbes magazine as one of the ‘Heroes of Philanthropy list of 30 Altruists’ in the Asia-Pacific region. In May 2020, the Azim Premji Foundation collaborated with the National Centre for Biological Sciences and the Institute for Stem Cell Science and Regenerative Medicine in Bengaluru to augment infrastructure testing to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.

Premji has viewed his wealth as a means to better the lives of millions of people. He once said, ‘I strongly believe that those of us, who are privileged to have wealth, should contribute significantly to try and create a better world for the millions who are far less privileged.’ [12]


1. ‘Forbes India Rich List: Azim Premji Drops from 2nd to 17th Position after Huge Donation to Charity’, Business Today, 11 October 2019, Accessed on 16 June 2022.

2. ‘Already Given 25% Wealth to Charity: Azim Premji’, BusinessLine, 12 March 2018, Accessed on 16 June 2022.

3. ‘The “TWIT” Who Changed a Country’, The Times of India, 19 December 2001, Accessed on 16 June 2022.

4. S.V., Vikas, ‘From Soap Company to IT Major: Azim Premji’s Amazing Journey’, One India, 7 June 2019, Accessed on 16 June 2022.

5. ‘Azim Premji’, The Times of India, Accessed on 16 June 2022.

6. ‘Wipro Q4 Results: Net Profit Rises 3.9% YoY to Rs 3,090 Crore; Revenue Up 28.5%’, News18, 29 April 2022, Accessed on 1 July 2022; ‘Wipro Total Assets 2010-2022 | WIT’, Macrotrends, Accessed on 1 July 2022.

7. ‘Azim Premji’, The Times of India, Accessed on 16 June 2022.

8. ‘The 2011 TIME 100: Azim Premji’, Time, 21 April 2011, Accessed on 16 June 2022.

9. ‘Bloomberg Billionaires Index: #47 Azim Premji’, Bloomberg Asia, Accessed on 27 July 2022.

10. ‘Azim Premji Tops EdelGive Hurun India Philanthropy List 2020, Shiv Nadar & Mukesh Ambani Follow’, The Economic Times, 10 November 2020, Accessed on 16 June 2022.

11. Mishra, Anwesha, ‘Wipro’s Founder Chairman Azim Premji Emerges as the Most Generous Indian in FY20’, Utkal Today, 12 November 2020, Accessed on 16 June 2022.

12. ‘I Believe Those of Us Who Are Privileged Should Contribute Significantly to Try and Create a Better World: Noble Words and Noble Deeds of Azim Premji’, India Today, 23 February 2013, Accessed on 16 June 2022.



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