Sridhar Tayur (BT ME 86) is a Ford Distinguished Research Chair and a Professor of Operations Research at Carnegie Mellon (Tepper School of Business). He is also the founder of SmartOps, where he had served as the CEO for 12 years, and of OrganJet. Read on as he talks about his time in insti, why he chose to pursue a career in OR and why that turned out to be the best decision of his life.

Any memorable incidents in insti?

Nothing that I particularly remember, although the whole college experience was extremely fun, be it Mardi Gras, or all the inter hostel competitions and rivalry, or the Saturday night OAT movies, it was all amazing. We also used to frequent the Quark café in front of Saras, which I see has now expanded greatly into Zaitoon. It was hardly the size of two hostel rooms then. Some of us were planning to go abroad back then, so we had stayed back in the summer before the final year to prepare for our GRE. Since there were only a few of us for those extra weeks, we got to know each other better and it boosted our friendship.

I wouldn’t really call it memorable, but it’s related to the Chennai floods incident that happened recently, a similar such flood struck Chennai in 1985. We were in insti at the time. There was no electricity, no water and obviously no classes were being held as well. But the exams were still held on time.

It seems nothing can get the insti to postpone exams.

(Laughing) Yes that’s true. We still managed to wrap up the semester more or less on time. They certainly weren’t as bad as the recent ones.

One other positive incident that I remember vividly was India winning the 1983 cricket world cup. Oh that was amazing! The celebrations in insti and of course across the nation were unimaginable. The next time I visited India was in 2011, when they won again.

….those four years of insti were probably one of the best, and you won’t get those back again, no matter what you go on to do in life.

 

You should come more often.

Haha yes I think I should plan a trip every four years, the correlation seems to be pretty high! I’d say that those four years of insti were probably one of the best, and you won’t get those back again, no matter what you go on to do in life.

Any club activities or sports that you participated in?

Yes I was part of the Godav field hockey team. I played cricket as well but hockey was my main sport. Though I wasn’t very good at it, I used to take part in LitSoc competitions like writing and potpourri. Aside from that I used to go for an evening run with friends and just hang out in general. Studies generally ranked after these in our list of priorities, I never really found it to be oppressive.

Any Saras – Godav rivalry?

Oh sure! It wasn’t as intense as you have described it to be now, but it was surely there. The zeal and hunger to win and beat them never left, though it was always a healthy competition. Godav had the best volleyball and basketball teams in insti back then and we used to thrash everyone in that. Apart from that, we also had these inter-wing sports competitions which I used to relish. Till date even after 30 years I still keep in touch with my wing mates!

…the intensity with which the curriculum is taught sort of makes it easier to deal with problems later on in life…

 

Any life skills which insti taught you?

Well yes definitely. I wouldn’t call them life skills as such, but the intensity with which the curriculum is taught sort of makes it easier to deal with problems later on in life. Right from the entrance exams all through the four years of college, if you were aiming for IIT or you were aiming for a CGPA of somewhere between 9 and 10, then there’s a certain level of intellectual agility and sharpness that you have to work with. The quality of competition here is extremely high. I remember when I went to Cornell I was able to cope just fine. One of my professors over there remarked that I seemed to be finding the subjects easier than the other students, the truth being that I actually was! Students may complain about the rigid and tough system or the genius peer group that they have to live with but it’s the very same system that will make life easy for you later on, especially if you’re a ten pointer here.

So you were a ten pointer here at IIT?

Yeah, for a semester or two, but I mostly used to hang around 9.2 – 9.8. Very rarely you’d find someone with all tens, but I wasn’t one of them.

From mechanical engineering, why did you shift to OR (Operations Research)? What was the motivation behind it?

OR was one of the electives that I took, at that time it was being offered by the Humanities and Social Sciences Department. You could choose from a variety of courses like Psychology, History and so on, but I chose this one. And I instantly fell in love with it. I liked the various topics like Linear Programming, Queuing Theory or Markov Chains and I liked the promise of what it could do in solving practical problems. So I was torn between sticking to my thesis topic which was Solar Refrigeration and Solar Energy, I liked heat transfer and things of that type, and of course OR. But I felt a certain kind of attraction towards OR.

I was in a dilemma, but I ultimately decided that I wanted to do what I liked doing, and I’m very happy that I did. I think it’s turned out good for me.

Despite this, while applying abroad I applied to 10 colleges for mechanical engineering and only to Cornell for OR. It just so happened that I got admits from all the 11 colleges. Now I was in a dilemma, but I ultimately decided that I wanted to do what I liked doing, and I’m very happy that I did. I think it’s turned out good for me. When I told my thesis advisor about my decision, he said that he would have wanted a good student like me to stay in mechanical, but he also understood my passion and love for OR, and he therefore wished me well. So I went on to do a PhD in OR from Cornell. I liked both the mathematics of OR, which I further developed by publishing papers, and its applications, which I’ve used in supply chain inventories, video game advertising, private jet scheduling and now organ transplantation. I like the fact that a core subject can have such diverse applications across fields, be it commercially or for a social cause, and I think that this suits my personality. In the end you have to find a fit, between what you like and are good at, and what is more suited to the kind of person that you are.

In the end you have to find a fit, between what you like and are good at, and what is more suited to the kind of person that you are.

What difficulties/challenges did you face during your time with SmartOps and what advice do you have for the budding entrepreneurs in insti? What inspired you to start OrganJet?

Well, back then, even in India, the external forces weren’t exactly aligned towards an entrepreneur, such as the social stigma which was attached to it. When I first started SmartOps, there were many who found it strange, since they didn’t really expect a professor to go out of his way and become an entrepreneur. But I was still relatively young back then, so I went ahead with it. Nowadays people respect and even welcome the idea of entrepreneurship, and the family support, be it financially or emotionally, is much greater than it was before. There is one major problem that I do see with entrepreneurs today though, and that is their failure to scale up. IIT students are in general smart and passionate and have the ability to come up with a good idea. This motivation will certainly help them to crack the first 3-5 deals. The challenge, however, is to make that number 500. To be able to analyse and tweak your business model for the purposes of scalability takes time and effort. Everyone just wants to make a quick buck. But life doesn’t work that way. Maybe it did for a few companies like Facebook and Whatsapp which were overnight successes, but normally while starting up, it takes roughly 10 years from funding/starting till you begin to get results and you can see your company make a difference. You have to be patient. Coming to OrganJet, it was because I had noticed the pain point of the difficulty faced by the public for receiving organ transplants. I wanted to use OR to help solve that problem. OrganJet basically does this by using over 18,000 rentable private jets at 5500 small airports in the US, which reduces the cost to around $25,000, which is pretty reasonable. But still not affordable for the average person. But I realised that if insurance companies can be ready to fund $100,000 a year for dialysis then they’ll jump at something like this. And they did. Since half the country is insured, they won’t have to pay a single penny from their pockets. People loved this idea and said that it was really out of the box.

Do you think something like this is possible in India?

Given the huge demographic challenges compared to the US, it would definitely be a whole lot tougher to implement this in India. I won’t rule it out as impossible, but it certainly would be way more challenging.

…don’t be lazy…follow your passion, whatever it is that you like doing and are good at, do it. But do something. You won’t get this time again.

 

Lastly, do you have any advice for the current insti students?

You guys have everything you need. The IIT tag, the intelligence, the passion, the infrastructure, the peer group, the social backing and so much more. So my advice would be, don’t be lazy. Start-up, follow your passion, whatever it is that you like doing and are good at, do it. But do something. You won’t get this time again.