Bhavish Aggarwal: From Ludhiana boy to ‘digital industrialist’ of India
In an exclusive interview with YourStory, Bhavish Aggarwal, founder and CEO of Ola Electric and Ola Cabs, talks about his passion for standing out and the penance that goes into getting there. All marked by strong feelings for his country.
- Bhavish Aggarwal says it is a great time to be young in India today. It is this generation’s purpose to design the country’s future.
- One of Bhavish’s deepest learning moments came from failing his first attempt at the IIT entrance exams.
- The Ola founder’s entrepreneurial journey was driven by a search for relevance within the broader renaissance in India.
- Bhavish reckons if you work hard and stick to first principles, anything is achievable.
- The entrepreneur is going after diverse tech opportunities but with a strong vision for each of them. Dream bigger than what you can achieve in one lifetime, he says.
The first time Bhavish Aggarwal walked into the YourStory office more than 12 years ago, he was still a budding entrepreneur, excited to demonstrate the Cabs app on his phone for me and the team. Today, as he walks me around the campus in Krishnagiri, Hosur, a 500-acre state-of-the-art facility aptly named the ‘Future Factory’, he is every bit as eager and energetic as he was at 24.
Between then and now, the IITian-turned-entrepreneur’s business interests have expanded. From connecting passengers with cabs and offering fintech services, the 37-year-old has ventured into building electric vehicles, making cells, and setting up an AI company. He expects to launch two IPOs next year. Matrix Partners India’s Avnish Bajaj calls Bhavish a “digital industrialist” and it is a fitting moniker.
“I feel very lucky to be young in India at this time when we can truly build the future. This is India’s moment,” he says, in an exclusive interview with YourStory.
Something about Bhavish makes that believable when he says it. His journey advertises his own gumption as well as the opportunity India presents. A young man from Ludhiana can make it big in the country today. Despite a small town, middle-class upbringing and no generational wealth, he has been able to use his tech expertise and resourcefulness to recast the picture of what a successful entrepreneur looks like. He does not need to be compared to other industrialists anymore. Bhavish Aggarwal is the Bhavish Aggarwal of India.
Building ambitious technologies was always part of the plan for the much-admired, much-scrutinised entrepreneur. In the class scrapbook, during his IIT-Bombay days, Bhavish had scribbled the words: “I want to make something for India in India.” He believes it is his generation’s mission to do this. “It is our opportunity, our destiny, and our challenge. If we don’t solve the problems, who will?”
Finding purpose and penance
“Tapasya” is a word Bhavish always returns to. He sets an ambitious purpose and begins building around it with a fast and focused approach.
One can trace this doggedness back to a wake-up call Bhavish got when he was preparing for the IIT entrance exam. He failed to crack it in the first attempt. While in Kota to prepare for the exam, he had enjoyed the thrills of being away from home more than burying his head in books. Back in Ludhiana, he locked himself in a room for a year and prepared studiously. He ranked 23 in the entrance test and got into IIT-Bombay. “That was one of my deepest learning moments. It taught me that if you work hard and use first principles, you can achieve whatever you want,” he says.
Bhavish grew up in Ludhiana among “well-to-do friends from industrialist families”. Although Ludhiana was a business city, and the Aggarwals belonged to the traditional business community, Bhavish’s parents were doctors. They were not flush with funds but never denied him money for books and education. He got his sense of adventure and determination from his father Naresh, an orthopaedic doctor who quit the comforts of his home country and moved to Kabul to treat those injured in the Soviet-Afghan war. Bhavish’s first two years were spent in that city.
The young man grew up wanting to stand out. He shocked his parents when he dropped plans for a PhD and set out to become an entrepreneur — with hopes of digitising the humble and messy taxi business in India. Now, Ola Cabs is worth $4.8 billion and Ola Electric — started in 2017 — is already valued at $6 billion, based on May 2023 estimates.
“From a young age, I was keen to do something of my own,” he recalls. “It was a journey of relevance: How do I become relevant and how do I become a part of the broader renaissance of India?”
India as a source of inspiration
Duty to the country is written deep in Bhavish’s story. An Indian flag flutters proudly on a 25m pole outside the Future Factory. He recently took a journey to Nalanda to learn about the Indian civilisation’s past — he takes one such trip every quarter to fuel his business vision.
“I realised I didn’t know enough about our past. The more we know about our history, the more we will be able to build a stronger future for ourselves.”
During his formative years, a lot of the popular influence was coming from the West. “Now young people are looking inward for inspiration,” he says. “I didn't become an entrepreneur to just have a certain value of my shares. I became an entrepreneur to build an institution, build scale, and build scalable institutions.”
The forward-looking founder’s parents named him presciently. ‘Bhavish’ means ‘future’.
Throughout his journey, Bhavish has received as many brickbats as he has bouquets. “Often, people ascribe motive to you or caricature you. Five-six years ago, it used to hurt me a lot. Over time, I have developed a thick skin,” he says. Naysayers expected Ola Cabs to fail when Uber arrived in India. He had to resist some investors so that he could keep control over his company. When some of Ola’s early electric scooters caught fire, they led to bad headlines, and making Ola Electric a woman-only factory was dismissed as a PR stunt.
Some of that scrutiny may be because of Ola’s fast and furious approach, Bhavish guesses. The Future Factory was built in six months, for instance. “As long as you are not compromising on your vision, you have to do things faster.”
He also has the reputation of being a tough taskmaster. How true is that? “That is a narrative that has built up,” he says. “I am a straight shooter and that may come across as rough or rude.” Some share his sense of purpose and passion, and they enjoy working amid ambition and pressure, he says. Whenever he was bogged down by criticism, his wife Rajalakshmi has been a pillar of support.
More than work-life balance, he prefers the concept of work-life harmony. Although his workplaces have two-day weekends, he believes that it is necessary to work longer during crucial periods of building a business. Rest can come later.
“My day is very exciting. I enjoy what I do so there is no scope of getting tired.”
Bhavish is going after diverse tech opportunities but with a strong vision for each of them. Most of his time is spent with the engineering and design teams of his businesses, the remainder goes to the finance and marketing sides. His job, he says, is to be the instigator.
His dream is for his companies to file 10% of all patents in the country. Last year, Bhavish was a co-author on 20 patents. His firm belief is that India can build things first, fast, and for the world. “I think many Indian entrepreneurs are truly original in their thought process. But because these businesses on the surface level might seem like another — for instance, Ola Electric is compared to Tesla — you miss the nuance and originality when you make that simplistic analogy.”
Bhavish is currently working on a company that will create silicon-based infrastructure for running homegrown AI models. That too led to comparisons with Elon Musk’s AI venture xAI. “But I set up my company first,” Bhavish quips. “So they should actually be saying he copied me!”