A Business Tycoon and Philanthropist
Azim is a very skilled and intelligent individual, so much so that he has been twice included in TIME Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World. His company has also made him a leader in the software industry, not just in India but also worldwide.
Aside from being a powerful businessman, Azim is also a dedicated philanthropist, having established the Azim Premji Foundation, one of the largest charitable organizations in India today. Through the foundation, whose focus is to achieve an equitable, just, sustainable, and humane society by providing quality universal education to youth, Azim is able to reach out to thousands of Indian youths who are at risk of becoming juvenile delinquents and give them something that could turn their future around.
Through the influence and success of the Azim Premji Foundation, the Azim Premji University was established, which offered post graduate programs on the area of education and development. Since its inception, the university has developed numerous programs that revolutionized the method of education in all school levels, and has successfully promoted modern methods of educational programs all throughout India.
Azim is also the first Indian billionaire to participate in the Giving Pledge, a movement that aims to encourage the richest people in the world to donate a large portion of their wealth to charitable causes. In an interview made with Azim regarding his decision in joining the Giving Pledge, he stated:
“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.”
Throughout his career, Azim has received numerous honors and awards for his achievements in both the business and charity world. He has been included in several lists by business and lifestyle magazines on the most successful or most influential people in the world.
He also holds several titles and honorary degrees from different universities not just in India but also in other countries for his service through his philanthropic work. He was honored in Stanford University, where he received his university degree. For over 50 years, Azim has been recognized as one of the leading businessmen and philanthropists in the world.
Born to Do Business
Azim Premji’s extraordinary and successful life had humble beginnings, way back into the time when India was still under the British rule. He was born in the Bombay Presidency, a province of British India in 1945, towards the close of the Second World War. He was born to a Gujarati Khoja Nizari Ismaili Shia Muslim family. His parents were devout Muslims, and as such, Azim grew up learning much about the Muslim traditions and culture. His father, Mohamed Hasham Premji, established their family’s company the same year Azim was born. He named it the Western India Products Limited.
Even in his young age, Azim already exhibited exceptional intelligence and leadership skills. He was well-known not only in his Muslim community, but also in school and was often praised by his instructors for being a bright and excellent student. Aside from studying, Azim was also trained by his father in the operations of their family business, believing that one day Azim would take over in the management of the company.
Upon finishing high school, Azim went to the United States and entered Stanford University to study Electrical Engineering. While he often states in interviews that he was not cut out to be an engineer in the first place, Azim did very well in his studies at the university, so much so that his professors were very impressed with Azim’s skills.
Although he was determined to finish his studies that time, Azim received devastating news that compelled him to stop his studies and return home to India—his father, Mohamed Premji, had passed away, and willed the leadership of the company to his son. And so, in 1966, at 21 years old, Azim returned to India to mourn his father’s death and to make preparations for taking over the company.
Prior to Azim being promoted as chairman of Western India Products Limited, the company specialized in the transformation of peanut oil and the manufacture of vegetable ghee and vanaspati. When Azim took over the company from Mohamed a few weeks after the latter’s death, Azim started to shift the company’s focus from manufacturing oils to designing and developing electronic devices.
Turning Wipro Around and Starting a Family
He also changed the name of the company to Wipro, which was an abbreviation of the company’s original name. Under Azim’s leadership, Wipro became a very profitable and diversified corporation, developing and producing new products that met the very needs of the ever-changing modern society.
Azim married Yasmeen Chinoy in 1970. She is a strong-willed and independent woman, yet at the same time very polite and reserved. Prior to meeting Azim, Yasmeen travelled across the European continent all by herself, something that was quite unusual for a woman of her age, especially in the strict culture of India. Upon her return to India in 1970, she met Azim, and after some time of dating, the couple decided to get married. The wedding celebration was done simply, with the couple giving their wedding gifts away to charity. Yasmeen bore Azim two children: Rishad and Tariq Premji.
In the 1980s, Azim discovered the extraordinary potential of information technology, and started shifting his company towards the growing industry. At the same time, the company continued its growth and also diversified its product line into producing heavy duty industrial cylinders as well as mobile hydraulic cylinders. The company grew steadily, and by the 1990s the company was already manufacturing various products, such as bakery fats, baby toiletries, lighting products, and hair care soaps.
As the increasing demand for information technology grew further in the late 90s, Azim saw this as a good opportunity to transform Wipro into software developing and information technology. By the early 2000s, Wipro became the very first Indian IT company to be ISO (International Standardization Organization) certified, establishing their reputation in the software industry.
Putting Up the Azim Premji Foundation
In 2001, Azim and his wife Yasmeen launched the Azim Premji Foundation, a non-governmental organization dedicated to make a significant mark in the lives of India’s youth by providing quality, universal education. The APF focused its efforts in the area of elementary education, piloting, and developing ‘proofs of concept’ that could potentially create a systematic change in the government-run schools in India.
Initially starting out in the modernized cities, the APF shifted its focus into rural areas where most of the government-run schools are. Using the experience that he gained in the many years of serving as Wipro’s chairman, Azim steered the organization into becoming one of the most successful charitable organizations in the country.
In 2005, Azim was honored by the Indian government and awarded him the title of Padma Bhushan, the third highest award given to civilians. The title was given to Azim to recognize his outstanding work in the area of trade and commerce, as evidenced by the amazing growth of his company.
In 2010, Azim and Yasmeen pledged to give two billion dollars for the benefit of improving school education in India, the largest ever donation to be given for such a cause in India. This was made possible by transferring the ownership of 213 million equity shares of Wipro Limited, which was held by several entities under the control of Azim, to the Azim Premji Trust. The trust was created a few years ago to serve as the financer of the organization Azim established.
That same year, the Karnataka Legislative Assembly granted charter to the Azim Premji University, which was established to help develop the educational system in India. The university officially started its first academic session the following year.
In 2011, Azim was awarded the title of Padma Vibushan, the second highest award given to a civilian in India by the government. Azim received the award from the president of India in recognition of his accomplishments not just in the business world, but also in his endeavor to provide quality education to the youth of India. This not only gave great honor to Azim, but also put him among the ranks of people, such as Satyendra Nath Bose, Zakir Hussain, and Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman.
In spite of all the wealth that Azim has accumulated all throughout his career, it is amazing to discover that he manages to keep his life as simple as possible. For someone of his standing, it is surprising that he never lost himself in wealth. In fact, many find it difficult to believe that Azim, who chaired a company so successful today, drives a Ford Escort, sits in the economy class when he goes on a trip overseas, or prefers to stay in three star hotels when on vacation or a business trip.
His simplistic lifestyle has impacted his children as well. During his son Rishad’s wedding, the elite members of the society were served their food in paper plates. And while it may seem that Azim is quite stingy with spending his wealth due to his preferences, he often explains in interviews that he prefers to live a simple life and use his wealth for the benefit of many.
Currently, in spite of being beyond retirement age, Azim still actively participates in the growth of his company Wipro by constantly making the company open for further development and improvement. He also continues to work through his charitable organization, and passionately devotes a portion of his time into ensuring that the next generation has a secured future by giving them good education.
Organizations and Programmes Supported
- Azim Premji Foundation
- Wipro Foundation
- Institute for Assessment and Accreditation
- The Giving Pledge
Awards and Achievements
- 2003: Included in the 25 Most Powerful Business Leaders Outside the U.S. by Fortune Magazine
- 2003: Included in the Ten People Globally with Most ‘Power to Effect Change’ by Forbes Magazine
- 2004: Named as the Business Leader of the Year by The Economic Times
- 2004: Included in the 100 Most Influential People in the World by TIME Magazine
- 2005: Conferred with the title of Padma Bhushan for his outstanding work in trade and commerce
- 2006: Received the Lakshya Business Visionary Award from the National Institute of Industrial Engineering
- 2006: Named the Corporate Citizen of the Year by the Economic Times (for the Azim Premji Foundation)
- 2011: Conferred with the title of Padma Vibhushan, the second highest civilian award in India
- 2011: Included in the 100 Most Influential People in the World by TIME Magazine
- 2012: Named as the Outstanding Philanthropist of the Year by Forbes India
- 2000: Honorary Doctorate from the Manipal Academy of Higher Education
- 2008: Honorary Doctorate from the Aligarh Muslim University
- 2009: Honorary Doctorate from the Wesleyan University