Anand Mahindra on Culture, Commerce and Community

September 26, 2023
IFC's Makhtar Diop engages in an enlightening conversation with Anand Mahindra, Chairman of the Mahindra Group. They explore the intersection of business, culture and community, spotlighting Mahindra's popular artistic initiatives like the Mahindra Blues Festival and the Mahindra Excellence in Theater Awards.

Season 3 | Episode 6

IFC's Makhtar Diop engages in an enlightening conversation with Anand Mahindra, Chairman of the Mahindra Group. They explore the intersection of business, culture and community, spotlighting Mahindra's popular artistic initiatives like the Mahindra Blues Festival and the Mahindra Excellence in Theater Awards. Additionally, they delve into IFC’s partnership with the Mahindra Group to promote green transportation in India with electric three-wheelers, emphasizing its positive impact on women's empowerment and sustainability.

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Makhtar Diop: Welcome to Creative development with IFC, I'm Makhtar Diop, the managing director of the International Finance Corporation. Today I have the honor of welcoming Mr. Anand Mahindra, to my podcast. Anand is chairman of the Mahindra group whose partnership with IFC dates back to 1963. Under his leadership, the Mumbai based conglomerate has expanded locally and internationally into diverse sectors, from automobiles and agriculture to IT and aerospace. The company is behind many familiar global brands, including the world's highest selling agriculture tractor. Beyond business, Anand is a humanitarian and an art enthusiast. He is also the founder of the Mahindra Blues Festival, the largest festival of its kind in Asia, and an event that has garnered much critical acclaim. Anand, welcome to the show. 

Anand Mahindra: Thank you, Makhtar 

Makhtar: It's really nice to see you again, to have this conversation. You’re among the leaders in the industry in India, you have been leading in the automotive industry, in the transport industry, in the renewable energy and you've been a wonderful partner to IFC. We have been working together since 1963. So people might be wondering why you are here for the Creative Development Podcast. And we will come to that later in our conversation because behind this tycoon of industry in India, you have an artist, and that's a conversation that we will have today. But before we start that conversation, Anand, do want to say a few words about Mahindra for those who don't know it - very few of them - and the cooperation that we’ve had over the last decades?  

Anand: I don't want to begin too prosaically or boringly with giving the spiel about our company. I'll try and zero into what I think goes to the essence of our company, I'm not going to talk about our products or portfolio or what we sell. Because interestingly, when the company was founded in 1945, two years before Indian independence, it was really created by two brothers in a flush of excitement and pride at being part of a freedom movement. And they came together with a Muslim gentleman called Muhammad. So, the company's name originally was Mahindra, and Muhammad. They came out with an ad in the year 1945, their first advertisement, and it didn't talk about products. It talked only about principles about why this company was being created. And it's a document that still gives me goosebumps when I read it. Because in 1945 It talks about neither caste, creed, or color being the basis on which people in this company would progress. It would be solely on merit and ability. It was about respecting the dignity of toil and of labor. It even mentioned that it should not form any cartels, can you imagine? In 1945 people talking about no cartels! I don't even know how many people knew that word at that time, the meaning of the word. And it talked about participating in nation building. So in a sense, we were a company that was born out of purpose. And you know, recently in the last decade or so, as you know Makthar become the flavor of the decade, so to speak, to try and talk about companies with purpose companies that want to make an impact. And here we are a company born out of purpose. We don't have to work at finding a purpose. We were born out of a purpose. And I'll tell you as a leader in business, there is no other resource more powerful that I could have hoped for. Not capital, not human resources, not technology. But to have the DNA of purpose, a culture of purpose built in today, I would say is our most powerful weapon. So let me stop there because that's all I want to say about why the company is so important to me, not about products. 

Makhtar: Yes, but give us just numbers. What is the value of your business, what is the turnover of your conglomerate? 

Anand: You know, I abhor the word conglomerate because we are not many divisions. We are many companies, we call ourselves a federation of businesses. And if you were to do a kind of additive, arithmetic of all the sales of our companies, we would be north of $20 billion. Our market cap though is north of $35 billion today, and that is effectively the size in terms of money of our company. But in terms of businesses, our core businesses which we started with, were automotive and we are the largest SUV manufacturer is still today in India, we are the largest tractor manufacturers not just in India, in the world, agricultural tractors that is. We are the largest three-wheeler manufacturers in India, I am referring to that because that's what brought us together recently. So, we are very strong in mobility, in the Agri-sector. And we have India's fifth largest IT company called Tech Mahindra. We have India's number one rural finance company called Mahindra and Mahindra Financial Services. We are leaders in sustainability and solar development. We have a large stake in a logistics business. And as I said, I might sound very tiresome if I go on, but we like creating businesses, as you can see. 

Makhtar: Let me tell you a confession listeners; we're talking about all these numbers, about $20 billion,  $35 billion. So, you know, Anand was smiling and talking as a businessman to me. As soon as I said ‘jazz’ and ‘blues’, I discovered another color on his face, he was transformed. And we went and had a lengthy conversation about music, about where it comes from for him. So Anand created the Mahindra Blues Festival, which has hosted the best blues players in the world. Tell us a little bit how did you came to organize this festival? 

Anand: You know, most people presume that I did this out of personal passion. And I will not deny that I'm an enormous fan of the blues. I love the music. If you asked me what I would instinctively and reflexively play on Spotify in the morning, it would be blues, it would be Howling Wolf or Muddy Waters. But that's not the reason that I started it Makhtar, the festival, because it was not a personal project, it was something the company has started. 

So our governance is such that obviously, I'm not going to use the company's funds, simply to indulge my predilections or my passions. But where I saw a grand convergence in what I was passionate about, and what would serve the company well, was the fact that we are, in our segment of agricultural tractors, the third largest players in the United States. It's our biggest market. And we thrive, in fact, in the blues belt, in America, we sell in places like Louisiana, we sell in Texas, we sell all throughout the places where the blues were born and thrived. And I've always believed that in accordance with our purpose, our core purpose, which is to enable our communities, the communities in which we work to rise, you have to give back, you have to connect, you have to enrich the community that you are selling to, or you will not last very long. Business is not about exploitation of consumers anymore. It's about connecting with consumers. So the task of marketing is really to be authentic and to make a cultural connect.

So how does a company from India come into America and fight John Deere, the big green? How do we fight companies that have been there for a long time? How do we escape the gravitational pull of being a foreign company in America? And what we thought was if we can demonstrate to our consumers that we are proud of being in America that we are going to be ambassadors of your culture, and take it global, it's not only about coming in and earning revenues from you, but we are going to take your community cultures and help promote them around the world - that would be a very authentic connect with the consumers we have and that's why we started the Blues. As we began conceiving of it, the the wonderful convergence of ideas and history came into being because when you look at Mumbai, why did we choose Mumbai, for example, why not any other city? Why didn't we make this a traveling show? If you look at the essence of the blues, it was about how to rise above suffering, how to rise above oppression. It was about bringing a smile to people's faces even as they were slave labor on plantation. That's where the music came from. I don't know whether you know, but the origin of the blues was from labor on plantations, who would holler at each other across the rows of crops. And those hollers became a kind of musical form. So they were about coping, they were about rising above oppression, rising above all odds. Now, if you look at Mumbai, a city which has one of the largest slums in the world, and yet people smile, yet people rise above their, their daily tribulations, they are always looking to make a better life for themselves. And by and large, they succeed. Mumbai is known as a city of gold for that reason, not because everyone's rich, but because everyone is here to improve their lives. So, in a sense, I don't think the blues could find a better home outside the US than in Mumbai. So, everything Makthar converged to make this festival rich with an ability to introduce a new culture, a music culture to Mumbai, which had an affinity for it right away. But also to link with our own core purpose. It's expressed in one word called ‘Rise’, enabling our communities to rise because unless we enable others to rise, we don't rise. That's effectively what our core purpose is. So, everything came together, our cultural connect with our American consumers, our connect with our home-city, our connect with our core purpose. It's a festival that's rich with meaning.

Makhtar: That's fantastic. I think this is one of the best, really a description of the links that you can create between business, inclusion, and culture. But you are kind of minimizing your own role and sensitivity. You say, I have nothing to do with that. There are a lot of businessmen leaders, like you, who had the same ambition of connecting with a community in which to invest, but didn't think about music as being as a channel, or to go to the point of having a festival, but you thought about it. And if I may say, I think it's somewhere linked very much to your love for heart, because a lot of people don't know that you studied architecture in your formative years. And you told me that, that initial training in architecture, exposed you to art and gave you a sensitivity that you carry up to now, tell us a little bit about that journey. 

Anand: I did tell you I studied architecture, that was in Mumbai. You know, to be honest, in India if you do well in school, which I did - not because I was brilliant, but because I just figured out how to beat the system, if you will. You know, it was a very, very mechanical system of education. But in that lay the danger that if you do well in sciences, then in India, they used to tell you right away, that you need to go to the IIT, the Indian Institute of Technology. And after spending a week in preparatory classes for that, something told me I wasn't meant for that. So, I began a search for what I wanted to do, I did have some creative leanings, but wasn't courageous enough to suddenly say, I'm not doing IIT, I'm going to be a filmmaker, for example. So, I chose architecture as a very happy medium between science and art. And then through a wonderful twist of fate, the college I went to here for architecture went on strike for almost nine months. And I got bored, and I was looking for what to do. So, I stumbled onto the Liberal Arts, which was available in the US. There was nothing like that in India at that time. And I was fascinated. It was like a sandbox. I said, ‘you mean I have four years to decide what I want to do’? Whereas in India, the moment you finished high school, you were put into a track. Either you were not good in science, so you were put into humanities or you went on to study engineering, or medicine or law or something. And fortunately, Liberal Arts was this wonderful candy store that you could walk into and eat all kinds of candy before you decided what your staple diet was going to be eventually. So that's when I went to Harvard for the Liberal Arts program. And I actually majored in filmmaking which is even more artsy than architecture. So, I did my thesis also in in film, and I made a film which I traveled back to India to do. So that was my, my journey. 

Now, why was I doing that? Why am I back in business? Well, I realized in a sense Makhtar that essentially I was a non-conformist And I hated being put in a box. And growing up in a business family, I grew up with saying, Oh, he's going to go into the family business. He's going to be an engineer or metallurgist because there was the steel company, which you remember IFC invested in. I couldn't stand that. That suffocated me, you know that people would just presume what I would do with my life. So, yes, I had artistic inclinations, but I was also rebelling. So it was, it was a rebel without a cause, if you will, to borrow from the old film. If I had to say, what was the cause, the cause was to prove myself so that whatever happened in life, I could tell people look, if I've succeeded in business, it's not because I am an inheritor. I took something as alien as film, and I succeeded. So the moment my thesis film got the highest award possible at Harvard, I felt a sense of release. I said, now I can go back into business. Because I did feel a sense of family continuity, I felt pride in what the business stood for. I just started out by telling you how it commenced, I was intensely proud of what this company was aspiring to achieve. And I said, Okay, so how do I make a convergence with art and business, I said, you know, people should not presume that there is no creativity possible in business. And I'm not talking about creative accounting, I'm talking. I'm talking about creativity in creation of businesses, in entrepreneurship. And which is why I think the moment I took the leadership of the company, I've been, in a sense, trying to be an intrapreneur. Because to me, that's the real expression of creativity in businesses to be entrepreneurial, or an intrapreneur.

Makhtar: Now, but an angle I want you to do is to really give a sense of who you are. Because I think it's important that people understand that art can be two very different things. We don't have a linear path. We are motivated by different things; a cause that we embrace when we are young, or showing an interest in something that is not supposed to be part of our ecosystem in which we grow. And I think that all those things are important, because at some point, they come back in your life, and they shape what you have to do. We certainly had, you and I, a nice business conversation which I relate to numbers and to business and to develop our relations that IFC has with Mahindra which are based on a very long experience, we started in 1963. But I think that maybe we'll have not taken it to the steps that we took it if we didn't have art in common and something that we shared. Because as you said, it's about people, it's about emotion of people its about changing the perception and sometimes changing the social contract. But you have taken also your business commitment to the art and entertainment sector in India. Us, we are starting to invest now more and more in this area, but we are at the beginning. But you have been investing in that sector already. Tell us a little bit about the type of investments you are making in the art and entertainment sector. 

Anand: Well, again, it's an investment more in connecting with communities when the company I have invested personally matter. And that is my family office has invested in created a media company, which is involved in largely broadcast television right now and a number of other sites like in documentaries. But I leave that out, because that's part of my family office. And I guess it links up to the fact that you never really lose your passions. As you said you have to find other ways and avenues to pursue them with no conflict in your corporate obligations and responsibilities. So coming back to as a company, no, we are not invested in arts and media from an investment return point of view. We have invested in more festivals and more support of the arts as a way of doing exactly what we are trying to do in America - connect with communities. So we have connected with our communities here by setting in motion a plethora of festivals. In fact, the first festival that I started, Makhtar was not the blues, it was called The Mahindra Excellence in Theater Awards. When people asked me why did you do that? I said, you know, India is obsessed with Bollywood, with film. What people forget is that theatre is the source code. It's the DNA of film. Even the great Shahrukh Khan, you may have heard of that actor's name, he started out as an actor in theatre in New Delhi. So it's where they hone their craft. It's where they learn how to communicate. And so we said that, as around the world theatre is loose seeing its support, its patronage. But if it is the code, if it is the source code of the most grand obsession of Indian cinema, who's going to keep that alive, who's going to keep that fire burning? And we said that there are, you know, awards galore for film. Just like the Oscars, India has a number of awards for film. But there were no awards for theater, no one putting it on a pedestal anymore. So we decided to create the annual awards, and I'm happy to say the METAS as they’re called - that's the acronym for Mahindra Excellence in Theater Awards - those are today the most coveted awards in theatre in India today. And I think we have well over 20 years of that festival. It takes place in Delhi every year, looked forward to by the theatrical community, and I believe we played a role in in sustaining the vibrancy of theatre in India. Then, of course, came the blues. But we have a festival called the Kabira Festival, which at some point, I want to introduce you to that music. He was a Poet-Saint Kabir in India. And he was, you know, a powerful poet, who's many, much of his poetry was set to music, and it's a very particular genre of music and song that's come out around him. He was also, he was a Sufi, and you know, a Sufi comes out of Islam. But it's a very interesting, more universal form of Islam. But it brings communities together. So there once again, going back to Mahindra and Muhammad if you will, there were multiple objectives in this festival. And you said it very well, Makhtar, that music and arts have many layers of meaning. And you can find many points of convergence with business and with society. So that festival is doing extremely well it takes place on the banks of the river Ganga and the city of Varanasi. Again, a music I want to introduce you to at some point. And we have about six festivals now but the latest one and which is going to come again now it's called independence rock. So it's hard rock Makhtar. It's called The Mahindra Independence Rock Festival. Now why? It was actually India's most successful festival many years ago. It was called Independence Rock. For some reason, it couldn't find a location in Mumbai. It just went into hibernation. And then the people who were originally part of it came to us and we decided to revive it. So it's now called the Mahindra Independence Rock. So why rock music, why headbanging? What does that have to do with communities? Well, you know, let's face it, the audience for the blues is looking grey-head now in India. And if we want to try and form a connect with, forget Millennials, with Gen Z, we have to find and acknowledge other forms of music. So that's our latest baby. And I am going to check on the dates when you get you to come here for the blues, maybe we'll get you to come back for Independence Rock as well.

Makhtar: I think I will be closer to the blues, but I am happy to learn about hard rock. But you have been also bringing some talented Indian jazz musician. And last time you invited a young female bass player from India, who is very known internationally. And it's quite amazing because this is still an instrument dominated by men. But you have a lot of talent. And I was very impressed to see you invited this very young, talented bass player.

Anand: No, no, no, you're getting it wrong Makhtar, you're getting it wrong. You introduced me to her. You took out your mobile phone over lunch and you said ‘Do you know that in India, you have this talent’ and it's because of you that we invited her to the percussion festival. So you should not lose any credit for that.

Makhtar: But it's amazing to see the sitar has been integrated in jazz. John Coltrane has been so much influenced by the Indian music and the raga. There was a whole movement of modern jazz, which has been largely influenced by religions coming from India but also by the music from India.  So, India culturally, musically is at the heart of what is happening in the world. And I'm so so, so, happy to see that we have a partner and a friend who is pushing the envelope in India on that account.

But let me end with a word on something that we are doing which is not on music, but we are very proud of working with you - which is really greening the transport mode for the poorest in India. So three-wheelers which are so popular in India, and we will be together financing a lot of EV / Electric three-wheelers, which to my view will make a big difference in the lives of many Indians. So maybe we can end on that, and maybe just have your take on this.

Anand:  I couldn't say it better than what you did not that that is a business which I'm so pleased you have become a partner. Because that business also has purpose at its core, and you alluded to it is not only about people of humble means, it's also about women's empowerment. We have found that a number of women are taking to driving electric three wheelers. They find it gives them meaning in their lives, to be driving something that is noiseless, smokeless. It raises their esteem in their communities. And it's empowering their community. So that's another element which is working in its favor, quite apart from the fact that India can do with much more green transport, as you said. But I must tell you, apart from just helping the underprivileged, you know, I really harbor a suspicion that our three wheelers, once we give it a little bit of styling, which is more modern, might well be plying in European city capitals, to decongest them, because they could be very, very interesting modes of transport for last mile delivery for shuttles and city centers. I think we can make three wheelers cool around the world. That's a good thing - as cool as your bass guitar playing.

Makhtar:  Absolutely. And I think that we didn't talk about Africa, but I know that Africa, both on the culture side and on the business side is very important to you. And I see a three wheelers and also the cultural work that you are doing in India is being expanded in other parts of the word. And when you spoke, the first continent that you mentioned was Africa. So we will talk about it next time I go to Mumbai, and I look forward to seeing you very, very soon and thank you so very much for joining me.

Anand: Thank you for the honor of featuring me in your podcast.

Makhtar: Thank you for listening. Creative development with IFC is produced by Lindy Mtongana, Aida Holly-Nambi and Maeve Frances for IFC. If you enjoyed this episode, please share it with your network and tell a friend.