Ratan Tata Kicks Off ‘Engineering Icons’ Series

Nov 08 2013 | By Melanie A. Farmer | Photo: Matt Lenz

Ratan Tata, chair emeritus of global conglomerate Tata Group, was the guest of honor at the November 7 inaugural Engineering Icons event, the first in a planned series of conversations with pioneers and leaders in engineering and applied science. Tata and Dean Mary C. Boyce discussed his recent inventions and philanthropic efforts in front of a packed audience of nearly 300 students, alumni, and faculty in Lerner Cinema.

Ratan Tata in conversation with Dean Mary C. Boyce

Under Tata’s leadership, spanning more than three decades, the Tata Group has evolved to one of the world’s most important industrial conglomerates, producing everything from tea to steel and food to automobiles. Its businesses include Jaguar Land Rover, NatSteel Holdings, and The Indian Hotels Company, to name a few. It was recently announced that Tata Consultancy Services will become the new title sponsor of the New York City Marathon, taking over after ING’s decade-long run.

In introductory remarks, Donald Goldfarb, Avanessians Professor of Industrial Engineering and Operations Research, underscored Tata’s impressive business feats, adding, “What impresses me most of Ratan Tata is how people who know him or know of him, speak about him. They invariably use the adjectives esteemed, visionary, and honorable.”

Dean Boyce led the discussion by asking Tata to talk about his motivation behind the “bold” and “risky” idea of developing the world’s most affordable city car, the Tata Nano.

“I get excited over trying to do something that people say is not possible,” said Tata. “It brings out [my] stubbornness and desire to prove somebody wrong.”

The Tata Nano is an engineering marvel; Tata engineers were able to bring to market a car small enough, safe enough, and affordable enough to help a huge slice of the Indian population that, for many years, only had access to unsafe or unreliable modes of transportation. And, while the Tata Nano overcame many obstacles in research and design, Tata was open and candid about the company’s production hurdles and sales and marketing pitfalls. Ultimately, the car did not perform as well as anticipated, he said.

Tata’s honesty and openness about the development process of the Tata Nano—from concept to design to consumer market implementation—offered a realistic view of what it can be like to come up with innovative ideas.

Dean Boyce also engaged Tata on his focus on philanthropy and how he has incorporated engineering in his efforts to give back.

“We look at identifying providing technical inputs into projects that improve the quality of life or earning capability of the rural population,” said Tata. Now retired, Tata has begun focusing more on examining the malnutrition crisis in India, particularly how to help the country’s malnourished children. “What we want to do in the area of nutrition, safe drinking water, and education, is try to see whether we can bring technology, which would include engineering, and to fuse that and make it the driving force of rural development and welfare in the areas,” he said.

During a question-and-answer period, Tata, who graduated from Cornell with a degree in architecture in 1962, shared how he greatly benefited from studying abroad as a college student.

“Leaving India and coming to the United States and being in an American college was a great equalizer in many ways [and] was one of the most profound things that I should say happened in my life,” he said. The experience instilled in him a great sense of self-confidence “because you are really on your own,” he said. “You were in a meritorious kind of rating. You either made it or you didn’t. You succeeded or you didn’t … Going back to India, it gave me an ability to reflect the same independence that I had gained being in the United States.”

Co-hosts of the Tata discussion included Columbia Engineering’s Office of Alumni and Development, the Engineering Student Council, and Club Zamana, Columbia's South Asian Student Association. The next Engineering Icons event will feature NASA astronaut Mike Massimino BS’84, a visiting professor at the School, which is scheduled for February during Engineering Week.