Arvind Saraf Leverages a Growth Mindset to Embark on Creative Voyages

Monday, April 5, 2021

Arvind Saraf: Journeys from Surat to IIT, Kanpur

The probability of meeting someone like Arvind Saraf is staggeringly low. To give you an idea of how rarefied such encounters are, let me linger momentarily on the statistics. Those who are familiar with the preposterously challenging academic filters that sieve the admitted from the Asian chaff – the gaokao in China, the suneung or CSAT in Korea, and the IIT-JEE in India – can guess what I am alluding to. At the Indian exam alone, nearly a million students attempt the first round, of which only half are invited to participate in the more advanced second bout. After which, only about 10,000 of the top engineering virtuosos are offered placements in the 23 IITs that dot the nation.

In his year (1997), Saraf not only cracked the knotty questions well enough to qualify for a seat, he outdid the nerdy hordes with a dexterity that commanded media attention when the results were published. He was not just admitted, not just positioned in the top 1000, or even in the top 100. His was the photograph, printed triumphantly by the coaching center he had attended for two years, of the nation’s idolized #1, the young man who had topped the sapping IIT Joint Entrance Exam.

His achievement seems all the more outlandish, since he hadn’t even been attending coaching classes or even actively plotting to join any IIT, till the end of his 10th Grade. In India, this would be like attempting to scale the Everest after mildly upping one’s regular gym workouts for a couple of weeks. Growing up in a Marwadi business family in Surat, Gujarat, Arvind hadn’t been sure where his future would lie. Though Saraf had always been drawn to his books and was adroit with numbers – often crunching them inside his head, while others resorted to the crutch of calculators or at least pens and notebooks – most people around him seemed headed into business careers.

After his 10th Grade Board Exams, one of his teachers, who was an engineer himself, lent him a Trignometry textbook by Sydney Luxton Loney, a Cambridge mathematician whose works had inspired the likes of Srinivas Ramanujan. Settling down with the book, as one of us couch potatoes might with a packet of chips and a binge-worthy Series, Saraf chomped through problem after problem, tearing his way through the pages in about a month. And this is perhaps, one of the other remarkable aspects of his feat: he did all this without purpose, not even considering at that point, that such mental contortions might be preparation for something else.

Realizing that he was still an outlier of sorts in Surat, he set out to the Delhi Public School (at RK Puram) in the nation’s capital, for his 11th and 12th Grades. At the new school, a majority of his peers were gearing up for competitive engineering exams. He decided to join the fray, signing up like they did, for coaching classes. After his startling #1 rank was announced, Saraf, naturally, had the pick of the IITs and streams. Since he reveled in Maths and the Physical Sciences, he chose Computer Science, a subject that integrated his leanings. And opted to head to the storied IIT-Kanpur, the destination of most top rankers.

From Connectome: How the Brain’s Wiring Makes Us Who We Are

When you meet someone like Saraf, it feels almost natural to dwell on the fantastic capacities of the human brain, and on the manner in which this organ is differentiated from those of other life forms. More than that, what leads to such startling giftedness in some people, while others struggle with more far more basic tasks? In Connectome, Professor Sebastian Seung, who is currently at Princeton University’s Neuroscience Institute, grapples with exactly such questions, as he shines a light on the mysterious forest of neurons and synaptic connections that make up the human brain. To begin with he defines the “connectome” as the tangled map of neurons and connections that constitute each person. One fantastic attribute of all the seven billion humans that inhabit this planet is that each one possesses a unique connectome.

Unlike the genome, the genetic imprint that you are born with and hence cannot alter, the connectome constantly evolves over your life. As you grow and mature, your personality and abilities are derived less from your genome, and entirely from your connectome – which is, in turn, shaped by your experiences, your upbringing, the conscious choices you make, the skills you learn and so on.

Seung also distinguishes the connectome from the rapid flashes of electrical currents that signify your current activity. For instance, if you are currently driving a car or playing the piano, a particular region or area in the brain will light up. But that is only your momentary or fleeting self, something that will vanish as soon you transit to a new activity. The connectome however holds the sum total of all the activities that you have performed (or have been subjected to) over your entire lifetime – and is hence the repository of all your memories, your skills and your personality traits. The connectome is more closely aligned with who you are. The connectome also makes you distinct from anyone else, be it a sibling, an identical twin, a parent or partner. As Seung puts it, “Minds differ because connectomes differ.”

Einstein’s brain was detached from his body, since rather controversially, some scientists were keen on ascertaining if his organ had any markers that might have alluded to his genius. Though the overall size of Einstein’s brain was not bigger than that of an average human being, the inferior parietal lobe was found to be larger than in most others. This region contributes to visual and spatial reasoning, and Einstein often reported that he thought in images rather than in words. In large part, IQ corresponds with slightly enlarged frontal and parietal lobes. Since IQ has, for many years, been dismissed as an inadequate measure, the focus has shifted to “multiple intelligences,” which also correspond with “the sizes of specific brain regions.”

Arvind Saraf: Embarks on Founder Journeys

With his distinct connectome, Saraf cherished his years at IIT-Kanpur for its stimulating academic environment – its sparky students, some of its legendary professors (whose quirks are perhaps woven into IIT folklore), its world-class books, labs and resources – and for imbuing him with the panache to operate anywhere in the world. But he’s also quick to add that IIT students are just “regular” human beings – who yearn, like the loveable trio depicted in the blockbuster 3 Idiots (based on Chetan Bhagat’s novel), for romance and thrilling adventures that are not all bookish: “We also enjoy the same kind of fun and masti. We also want to avoid studies, want to gossip,” he says.

After IIT, he opted to join the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for a PhD program. As a member of a lab that was unique inside MIT for fabricating real products – a new generation of microprocessors – Arvind further honed his computer architecture expertise.

During this time, Saraf also sensed how technology could play a much larger social role in settings like India. Bristling with ideas and energy, he was no longer satisfied with mere academic pursuits. He sought a long leave of absence from his doctoral program and joined Google in India.

After more than a couple of years at Google, he teamed up with his IIT batchmates to found a healthcare enterprise. “We were 28-29 year olds, and we wanted to take on the hardest problems.” Their organization, Swasth India, intended to make quality healthcare accessible to and within monetary reach of India’s poor. Their mission and youthful fervor were compelling enough to attract funding from Ratan Tata. Leveraging their backgrounds in technology, they built the nation’s first 360-degree cloud-based health system. They also forged partnerships with NGOs to set up clinics inside villages and slums. Some of their clinics still operate inside Mumbai’s slums.

Three years later, Arvind opted to embark on another detour. Quitting Swasth, he returned to his childhood setting, Surat. By this time, he had started appreciating the contributions of small businesses to the nation’s economy. But he also knew that many of these traditional spaces had been “untouched by technology.” He could cast himself as an almost perfect bridge – as someone who had an intimate knowledge of both worlds and cultures. But at first, he chose to acquire hands-on insights into the operational challenges of such businesses. He decided to help run one of his father’s textile brands – Triveni – “to understand the nuts and bolts of traditional business.”

Later, he founded a company, Wishbook, that created an analytics platform for small businesses. He intended to forge a SaaS-based (Software-as-a-Service) market platform to link everyone on the chain – starting with the manufacturer right down to the small brick-and-mortar retailers and everyone in-between. He envisioned fostering transparency across the supply chain, recreating an operational ease that companies like Zara, the Spanish apparel retailer, leverage to boost efficiencies. He noticed that most of the 30-lakh odd apparel retailers scattered across India manage with much dimmer data sets, their growth hobbled by an opacity that is no longer in sync with their smart-phone flaunting buyers.

Even as he created a feature-rich app-based SaaS to streamline distribution links and illumine the foggy webs that connected textile factories with retailers, he realized that driving behavioral change was one of the trickier hurdles. While the technology offered clear benefits, clients were reluctant to shrug off older ways of doing. With time, however, Wishbook did succeed in persuading target clients to switch to the new platform. They were also helped by other shifts in the past decade. For instance, as brick-and-mortar enterprises watched the mushrooming of e-retail businesses, many felt compelled to explore new options.

Modifying the Connectome with a Growth Mindset

After his extraordinary performance at college, Saraf has continued to pursue challenges, subjecting his brain to variegated life experiences. In other words, he has constantly modified his connectome. Instead of settling into an academic pathway, he engaged in the tumult of entrepreneurship.

According to Seung, through such choices, neurons can be rewired, reweighted, reconnected and regenerated. The connectome can not only leverage the strengths of the genome, but can also overcome its deficiencies. If we conceive of our current activities as the stream of thoughts, speech and actions that we undertake from moment to moment, the connectome can be framed as the grooves or channels on which such actions leave their imprint.

And the actions one chooses to take, whether one was a high-performer at college or not, are often driven by mindsets. Originally published in 2006, Carol Dweck’s findings on mindsets is widely known. But just to recap the essential elements of her thesis, one’s perspective or orientation towards one’s abilities can be a more significant predictor of long-term success than the talent one is already endowed with. Broadly, Dweck divides human beings into two categories: those with a “fixed mindset” and those with a “growth mindset.” The former tend to believe that one’s abilities are fixed, and are hence less likely to persevere in areas where they may not already wield an advantage. This set is also likely to be more defensive about their weaknesses, and less welcoming of challenges and setbacks.

The growth-mindset group however, is likely to consciously tackle deficits and augment strengths, while also using hindrances and reversals as learning opportunities. Mindsets also help change the manner in which you frame successes and failures. The fixed-mindset crowd is likely to fear failure, since they are afraid such instances will expose their inabilities. Conversely, those with a growth-mindset are less risk-averse, and hence inclined to pursue a more adventurous and stimulating life.

Arvind Saraf: Consolidates His Learnings As He Plans Future Adventures

After his last venture, Arvind is on a break from being a founder. “I wanted to recalibrate myself,” he says, getting back to exploring cutting-edge technology and platformizing. He currently heads Application Engineering at Drishti, an organization that uses Artificial Intelligence and video technologies to drive efficiencies in assembly lines.

He has also had the opportunity to reflect on his founder journeys. He realizes that teams are a critical piece. Moreover, one needs to partner with a like-minded co-founder. To new entrepreneurs, just setting out on startup journeys, he strongly advocates for people “being on the ground.” As he puts it, “insights come from users. Internalize the problem rather than just relying on research.” Moreover founders also need to pick the right set of mentors, preferably people who have garnered their own real-world, startup experiences.

Leveraging a powerful genome, Saraf continues to modify and expand his connectome with a growth mindset. He realizes that he is someone who enjoys building new products and services. Even as he currently explores novel avenues – for both learning and doing – he is also weighing lessons from his founder stints. “I am also spending time reflecting on my learnings and how I can make them useful to other entrepreneurs.”

References:

Dweck, Carol S., PhD, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, 2006, 2016, Ballantine Books, New York

Seung, Sebastian, Connectome: How the Brain’s Wiring Makes Us Who We Are, Allen Lane (Penguin), 2012 (Kindle Edition).

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