he white walls and white, plush wall-to-wall carpeting in Illinois Tech alumnus and telecommunications visionary Satyanarayan “Sam” Pitroda’s spacious rec room seems the perfect backdrop to showcase some 150 canvases that he created in vivid acrylic or oil-based paints. One, dated 1979, is of pop-culture icon Batman.
“My son, who was five years old at the time, was crying that he wanted a Batman toy from the store,” says the charismatic Pitroda, who offers a visitor tea along with conversation at his Oak Brook home. “It was snowing, so I told him, ‘Let me instead draw one for you.’”
He leads the way upstairs to a hall where there rests an ornately carved chest stuffed with thousands of intricate doodle drawings in black and white, others in color. Pitroda, a self-taught, lifelong hobby artist, says that he has always been fixated on structure, geometry, form, and shape.
“Everything has to be straight and flat. If something is not in the middle, I will come and do this,” he says, moving a decorative bowl to the center of a table adjacent to his home office, its walls filled with framed honors and at least a dozen magazine covers of Pitroda with his characteristic mane of nape-length gray hair. “If I am in a theater, I’ll count all of the lights. If I go someplace else, I’ll count all of the windows. I acquired the ability to scan everything. In that scan, I see images and figures.”
Pitroda’s mind seems to move in as many directions as the swirls and vortices comprising his doodles, yet his calm demeanor and message today, at 75, centers on the philosophy of a historic figure who exemplified compassion, service to others, and right action.
“I grew up in India when it was just getting independence from Britain. In those days, we had nothing; I had never even seen a real toy. I never used a telephone before coming to America,” recalls Pitroda, one of eight children. “Mahatma Gandhi was the leader who focused on simplicity, absolute truth, nonviolence, and unconditional love for everyone and everything from animals to the environment to people. It was a way for people to come out of themselves and really live outside of their lives. I admired Gandhi’s philosophy. That became the foundation of my life.”
Along with Pitroda’s ability to scan and see images came his ability to imagine and see the future. Dubbed by the media over the course of his career as “The Man Who Saw Tomorrow,” “Telecom Czar,” and “Sam, Sam the Switching Man,” Pitroda achieved global acclaim in the 1980s for his bold idea to fix India’s sporadic or nonexistent telephone network, bridging the gap between the 800 million people in both urban and rural areas. He accomplished this through a customized digital telecom system of switches and exchanges built by Indian talent, not Western companies. Pitroda obtained a rare meeting with then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi along with her son and future prime minister, Rajiv, and was given approval to establish the government-funded Centre for the Development of Telematics.
“I grew up in India when it was just getting independence from Britain. In those days, we had nothing; I had never even seen a real toy. I never used a telephone before coming to America”
Rajiv Gandhi gave Pitroda additional opportunities to further develop Indian telecom as a member of his cabinet, which culminated in Pitroda’s subsequent idea to outfit popular public meeting places (think pre-Internet cafés) with “yellow box” telephones managed by entrepreneurs who would receive a commission from each phone call made. These “public call office” phones would remain popular throughout the subcontinent until India’s second telecom revolution—the rise of mobile phones. An engaging writer, Pitroda (with David Chanoff) tells the story of his telecom experiences in the autobiography Dreaming Big: My Journey to Connect India, published in 2015. Pitroda dedicates the book to Anu, with whom he has been married for 51 years, and his granddaughter, Aria, now 6.
A self-described “risk-taker,” Pitroda admits that as a young man who was sometimes brash and naïve, he had largely equated success and prosperity with earnings potential and set a goal to become a millionaire by age 40. He surpassed that goal at age 37, when Rockwell International acquired an electrical switching company he co-founded—and Pitroda received a check for $2 million. That windfall allowed him the freedom to pursue his Indian telecom project and later, to develop the concept behind C-SAM, a mobile wallet and on-device solutions company that would bring him a second windfall when it was purchased by MasterCard in 2014.
Pitroda co-founded several other high-tech startups and devotes most of his time today to writing books and undertaking roles in various international nonprofits. He is co-founder and chair of the Global Knowledge Initiative, an organization that promotes collaborative innovation to build networks that deliver solutions to challenges facing Africa, Asia, and the United States. Pitroda also co-chairs the Paris-based People for Global Transformation, a “think-and-do-tank” focusing on at-scale urban development. Having come from a part of India prone to drought and often affected by food shortages, Pitroda established the India FoodBanking Network, which oversees food banks in 11 regions.
An Illinois Tech Alumni Medal winner and member of the Institute of Design Board of Advisors, he also helped to establish the university’s online presence in India. Darsh T. Wasan, Distinguished Motorola Professor of Chemical Engineering and vice president for international affairs, met Pitroda (M.S. EE ’66) during his student days and recognized his business acumen. Pitroda delivered the 2016 Darsh T. Wasan Lecture at Illinois Tech.
“Sam has always had great ideas and insights,” says Wasan. “He is really good at bringing people together.”
Through one book Pitroda is writing—about his vision for redesigning the world—he hopes to inspire readers to apply some of those basic philosophical tenets that helped to shape his life. For starters, Pitroda suggests being open-minded and engaged with one another. He says that his wife recently hurt her knee and when the couple returned from a trip through O’Hare International Airport, a skycap pushed her in a wheelchair. Pitroda struck up a conversation with the young woman about her future career and before their paths diverged, he gave her his business card and urged her to call him for a networking meeting.
“That’s what life is about; she felt like someone took an interest in her,” says Pitroda. “That’s what Gandhi would also do.”