Dr. Umesh Achia graduated with a B.Tech in Chemical Engineering from IIT Madras in 1968. When quizzed about his initial days in the campus, his voice reflects the same elation and excitement he had felt on clearing the JEE. He remarks he was aware of the challenge that came with clearing the exam, and he was, in fact, looking forward to it. He describes how he took to participating in science fairs on his own accord without much mentoring support. The tremendous facilities that institute offers to students at present brings him happiness. He says, “Having seen what I saw today at the Center For Innovation, I wish that existed back then”.
He concedes that his best part of his undergraduate live was, however, the friendships he developed here, which he continues till date even after fifty plus years. He recalls how his friends called him ‘Gyro Gearloose’, a character who appears as Donald Duck’s friend in Duck Universe. Similar to Gyro Gearloose’s head lighting up when he gets a new idea, Dr. Achia was always trying to invent something new. For this engineering genius, this was a perfect nickname, and Dr. Achia has no qualms about it.
After five gruelling years at IITM, he went on to complete his PhD from the University of British Colombia, Canada, after which he worked with ExxonMobil for thirty nine years. He retired from ExxonMobil in 2014 marking years of high productivity. However, he doesn’t quite agree to the use of the word ‘retirement’ since he feels he has a lot left to achieve in his life, which is already filled with numerous accomplishments. He describes himself as an innovator, who constantly ‘searches for new things’ and their applications. He attributes this quality of his to his stay at IIT Madras. This prompted him to start Achia LLC, a Technology Consultancy, where he is continuing his work as the President of the company.
He succinctly conveys his message to the new generation of engineers graduating out of IITs. “Stick with the knitting”, he says. He emphasises on the training imparted by IITs, which makes students technical experts, in addition to giving them the world recognised ‘IIT Brand’, He reiterates that initial failures should not discourage a person, but one has to find a place to apply the things they have learnt. Quoting him, “It will be a little discouraging at the start because even when we graduated back in the 60s, there were no jobs. It is the same story every time. It is very tough to get the first job but you will find it. Just search it out”. His definition of success indeed is an inspiration to all the students. There is no better way to put it than his own words. “Define your success parameters based on your passion. Everyone has their own success parameter: joy, money, inventions or something else. Identify what is that, which turns you on. Define your success parameter and try to get there. Success does not have a common definition. You define it”.
His idea of ‘giving back’ is also very similar. He acknowledges that it is an easier concept for teachers since they give back to the society by training students. But for most others, it takes the form of investing their time and effort to solve a problem, and one must believe we are serving all of humanity through this. He says, “Find your skills, find the time and give back, without expecting anything in return. Key thing is not to ask for something in return, because you’ve already taken”. His advice is that we all should learn to give back right away as he confesses that he should have started earlier. He views giving back as a cyclical process where one gives back as one gets it. “Being the luckiest people on Earth with a proper home, a great education and probably a job waiting, we must adopt this cyclical process of giving”.
His perception of ideal leadership qualities, while a combination of a multitude of things, stresses on the need for empathy. “A good leader has to be strong and make decisions, but you always have to empathize with those that decision is going to impact”. A leader should always try and understand how the decisions made will affect the recipients. When questioned on how to find a good mentor, he says it is a stroke of serendipity. Parents, according to him, are always good mentors since they emphatise with you, share your ideas, respect your opinions and advice you without being judgemental. A mentor is someone you can bounce ideas off freely, without fearing assessment of your idea. They may not agree, but still trust you to do what your conscience tells you.
His definition of integrity is also very personal. He believes integrity is learnt at home at a young age. The level of integrity embedded in an individual is determined by his/her thoughts and actions. He expresses his dissatisfaction at how integrity has now become a taught-concept from a self-learnt process. Business schools and Management courses teach the concept of integrity by laying down rules to be followed very definitively to maintain integrity in the actions.
We wrapped up the wonderful conversation with a rapid fire round. Our interviewee, Dr Umesh Achia was asked to tell us what comes to his mind with these words. Here is what he said.
IIT – Fabulous
Bollywood – Oh, I love it!
One word to describe you – Innovator
One thing you always wanted to do, but never did – Fly my own plane around the world
One thing you are afraid of- Heights
Edited by: Shivani & Karthika , Chennai36
Interviewed by: Rama Srinivas, Chennai36