First Foundation



Hemant Sonawala

India’s current status as an IT superpower owes much
to the phenomenon of "brain drain"-an extremely sensitive issue with
most Indians, concerning migration of talented manpower to the US. Seen in this
light, any instance of reverse brain drain-of someone coming back from the US
to set up a technology center par excellence here in India-is by all means a
singular achievement. And such an achievement assumes further significance if
the person concerned resists Uncle Sam’s temptations not only on one occasion,
but two, and then comes back to set up a technology company that inspires future
generations. The person concerned is Hemant Sonawala, the founder of the
Hinditron Group of Companies, and the winner of Dataquest’s Lifetime
Achievement award, 2005.

Way back in 1962, Sonawala returned from US after completing
his engineering post graduation studies and a stint with Boeing in Seattle. Back
here, he taught for some time at IIT Bombay, till he decided to head for the
American shores again. This time around he worked in Tektronix for four years
till he decided to pack his bags for good and come back again. Finally, in 1966
he set up Hinditron, a company that from the beginning had a singular focus in
the area of instrumentation and electronic engineering.

Industry’s Views on the Man

"Hemant Bhai’s heart beats for Indian talent, and
CSI"

-Lalit Sawhney, president, CSI

He was the first to encourage foreign hardware houses to open
shop in India. More than mere exports, he was instrumental in getting hardware
manufacturing to India. He made these manufacturers recognize India’s
potential. He brought Digital to India in a scenario where India was just an
export destination, thus laying the ground for Indian hardware manufacturing.

We might not equate him to the Shiv Nadars of the world but he
was beyond them, in a way, in giving focus, direction, and business to the
industry. He has done yeoman’s service for CSI too. He brought a lot of
academicians into CSI, and made it an organized user community. Got CSI to
involve in education, world-class conferences, exhibitions-which have now
become truly commercial and are taken care of by commercial organizations. Under
CSI they were all volunteer programs. He monitored and channeled a lot of
volunteer work, streamlined finance and processes to get the chapters active,
and organized a number of chapters and worked to bring them together.

Even now he is on the organizational front and a member of the
constitution review committee, to look at the mission of CSI. As chairman of the
external affairs committee he looks at bringing other international associations
like the British Computer society, the Australian Computer society, among
others, to work with CSI and benefit the members. He has also looked at driving
relations with organizations like MAIT and NASSCOM to benefit CSI members.

‘Given the socialistic mindset of the government, working in
India needed a pillar of support which we found in Sonawala’

-Harish Mehta, CEO, Onward Technologies

He has a unique combination of marketing, finance and technology-a
less heard of combination, and very powerful. He has been extremely encouraging
to individuals to set out as entrepreneurs and believe in the country and its
opportunities.

That time in the ’70s when many had come back to India from
the US, but were running back within a few months due to the non-conducive
economic situation, he held fort and encouraged a few like us to stay back and
see how things would turn around. There was not a moment of regret, in deciding
to stay back and partner with Sonawala. He started Hinditron Consultancy
Services and gave a free hand to employees to do what they felt right. He made
us look at India in a positive way, unlike a few counterparts who ran back in
7-8 months due to emergency and stuff.

Given the socialistic mindset of the government working in India needed a
pillar support which we found in Sonawala. He is extremely exuberant,
enthusiastic and passionate about what he did and does. It was only through his
exuberance that the doors of the industry were opened.

So, what made him come back to India for the second time?
Sonawala attributes it to the inspiration of Homi Bhabha and Vikram Sarabhai at
the Tata Institute-of fostering in him the interest to understand technology
and use that knowledge to spearhead India’s technical advancements.
Incidentally, President, APJ Abdul Kalam, was Sonawala’s fellow student at
that time. "Subsequently, my motto in life became to share my knowledge and
provide products that would make the nation self-reliant on technology. No
country can ever be totally self sufficient, but it is important for everyone to
be self reliant," says Sonawala.

Accolades

  • Fellow of Institution of Electronics & Telecommunication
    Engineers

  • Fellow of Institution of Engineers

  • Fellow of Computer Society of India

  • Presidential Award conferred by Wisitex Foundation 1990

  • Life Sr Member-IEEE Inc, USA

  • Member-Executive Committee and Past President of
    Indo-American Chamber of Commerce

  • Member & Past Regional President (West India Council),
    Indo-American Chamber of Commerce

  • Past President-Computer Society of India

  • Member-Executive Committee of Federation of Indian Chamber
    of Commerce

  • Life Member-Indian Science Congress Association

  • Permanent Invitee-Asian ICT Confederation Governing Council

  • Corporate Advisory Board of Director-Indo US Indian American
    Chamber of Commerce

  • Was awarded the UDYOG RATTAN AWARD by the Institute of
    Economic Studies

  • Was awarded the IEEE Millennium Model

  • Was awarded the IEEE Bombay Section Silver Jubilee Medallion

  • Was conferred "Kentucky Colonel" by the Governor of
    the Commonwealth of Kentucky

  • The title of Mayor of the City of Baltimore was conferred upon
    him as the "Honorary Citizen of Baltimore City"

  • The Governor and the Secretary of the State of Nebraska has
    conferred upon him as the "Honorary Citizen of the Great State of
    Nebraska"

  • The Secretary of the State of Washington has conferred upon him the
    "Honorary Citizenship of the State of Washington"

Walking the Talk
With Sonawala these dreams have not remained mere words. He
has walked the talk throughout his journey of nearly four decades with Hinditron.
Even as early as 1970 he realized that computers would play an important role in
solutions engineering, and he, accordingly, tied up with Digital Equipment to
bring mini computers to India, for the first time. In the mid 70s when CAD was
getting introduced as a technology, Hinditron started a commercial CAD data
center to create its use in applications like Design Circuits of Transmission
Towers, design of mechanical parts such as turbine shift for the Indian Navy.
For this purpose, Hinditron pioneered association with global vendors like
Applicon, AutoCAD, SDRC, and the like.

Then, following IBM’s exit from India, Hinditron brought in
Digital, and subsequently started manufacturing PCs locally. Sonawala realized
the importance of local manufacturing and, accordingly, for technology transfer,
formed three JVs with Digital, Tektronix (he had brought their oscilloscope to
India earlier) and Schiller AG in the mid 80s. Though subsequently, Hinditron
also ventured into software engineering in applications like diagnostic software
with PCBs, logistic systems, process controllers, fiber optics test equipment,
logic analyzers and micro processor development systems. In fact, Hinditron was
the first Indian company in the US to market its software engineering services.

However, Sonawala does not think much of India’s current
software services scenario-he would rather prefer engineering services to
flourish. "But I’m not undermining the achievements of software services;
in fact it has helped us greatly in building our brand equity in the US,"
he clarifies. In fact, he reminisces that when Azim Premji was starting Wipro’s
software services business, he had wished him luck but he himself had decided
not to go that way. Today, even though financially Wipro is on a much stronger
wicket than Hinditron, Sonawala has no regrets. "My aim was never to make
money but to build engineering, and IT excellence surrounding it in this
country. And, Hinditron has been successful in this endeavor. We must outsource
our brain power, but not technical coolies."

The Inspired and the Inspiration
Talking of legacy, one of his big contribution has been
nurturing a range of talent in India. Harish Mehta of Onward Technologies, Balu
Doraisamy of HP, Bhaskar Pramanick of Sun Microsystems, Pravin Gandhi have all
been managers at Hinditron at one point or the other. He has even inspired some
of them to become entrepreneurs. Besides, he has done some sterling work for the
Government, though, in most of these cases, Hinditron remained in the
background. They developed the online reservation system for Indian Railways
(sub-contracted by CMC), worked on the first simulated landing system for HAL’s
supersonic aircraft, co-operated with the Air Force to build network for ARPA,
and, as the head of CSI, designed the DOEACC accredited program curricula.

Sonawala lists four people as his source of inspiration-R
Narsimhan, who was director in-charge of computing at TATA Institute, FC Kohli,
the grand old man and father of Indian IT industry, Professor PVS Rao, who
inspired and encouraged him to take up initiatives for the physically impaired
(a cause very close to his heart), and Dr S Ramani, who has been associated with
NSCT, HPISO, and Silverline Technologies.

Rajneesh De

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