‘Entrepreneurship changed my wiring as a person’ As part of a group of problem-solvers and responsible builders of ecosystems, Viraj Tyagi, an alumnus of the PGP Class of 1993 and current CEO of eGOV Foundation, talks about life as an enabler of change.

Please tell us something about your background and the initial phase of your career…

I was born in Nepal, and grew up in Delhi, Dehradun and Itanagar. After graduating from IIMB in 1993, the first part of my career was in payments and I spent eight years with American Express in the UK, leading their cards business. We decided to come back to India in 2004 and in 2007, the start-up bug bit me. Along with Nitin Gupta (PGP 1998, IIMB), I co-founded NettPositive Analytics, one of India’s first start-ups in Big Data and Analytics. After 15 years in the corporate world, running a start-up was a crazy experience. At the same time, it was a period of immense growth and learning for me. In 2015, we got acquired by Equifax Inc and I exited NettPositive. In 2016, I began a new innings in what had always been close to my heart: nation-building. I took on the role of CEO at eGov Foundation (eGov), a non-profit founded by Nandan Nilekani in 2003. eGov Foundation is on a mission to ‘Solve for Billion Indians’ by building Open Platforms and products that offer accessible and transparent public services to ordinary citizens on a national scale. If you have got a COVID vaccination certificate or paid your municipal tax online, you have been touched by one of eGov’s platforms. We currently work with 14 states and over 2000 cities and 5000-plus villages in India. More than 250 million citizens have benefited from our work. DIGIT (Digital Infrastructure for Governance, Impact and Transformation), our open-source tech stack, is one of the largest Open Gov Tech Platforms in the world. This is, by far, the hardest job I have ever had in my career, which boosts my confidence level. In addition to my professional work, I continue to invest in start-ups and mentor the founders.

What is eGov Foundation and what does it do?

 eGov was founded in 2003 as a collective of technologists, strategists and policy professionals committed to solving societal challenges. We are problem-solvers and responsible builders of communities and ecosystems, motivated by a sense of responsibility for making countries better, and the thrill of finding solutions that can improve lives. We work on three strategic pillars: public digital platforms, enabling policies and open ecosystems. We believe that technology is only an enabler. To have a sustainable impact at scale, we tap into the collective energy of the ecosystem to enact enabling policies, understand local needs and build local capacity to solve local problems. We work with different stakeholders in the ecosystem to catalyze this collective energy. Our impact framework is based on the contribution of digital public infrastructure to transform the experience of living and working for each stakeholder. We have built public digital platforms across Urban, Sanitation, Public Finance Management and Health.

Tell us more about your role/contribution to eGov Foundation

eGov works at the intersection of technology, policy and markets. My role in eGov is to set strategy, raise capital and attract world-class talent. I am also responsible for key relationships with governments, multi-laterals and market actors.  I believe that my main contribution was to pivot eGov to the new strategy of ‘Solving for Billion Indians’ and build a ‘no limits’ start-up culture. The strategy had three pillars. The first was to build an open, interoperable governance platform, using cutting-edge technology used by digital leaders like Netflix, Google and Facebook. This open platform is called DIGIT (Digital Infrastructure for Governance, Impact and Transformation), and is offered as a Digital Public Good (DPG) to governments and private players. It enables digitization of 50-plus citizen services like issuing marriage certificates, applying for water connection, resolving complaints, paying taxes, etc. The second pillar was to catalyze an ‘android-like’ market ecosystem around DIGIT. The idea was for the market ecosystem to build new solutions on top of the DIGIT platform and deploy it across India. The third pillar was for eGov to work with the government to co-create policies that reduce friction to adoption, ensure scale and mainstream this approach of open platforms within government.  To execute this strategy, we have raised Rs 1500 million of philanthropic capital from the Gates Foundation, Tata Trusts, Omidyar Network, and Nilekani Philanthropies. 

In the 75th year of independence, how far do you think we have come as a nation (growth) and where should we be going from here?

One of India’s biggest growth moments was the 1991 reforms. It created access, opportunities and possibilities that had never existed before. About 25 years ago, India had opened up in a way that no one could have imagined. In the 75th year, I strongly believe we have come a long way as a country, but our job as industry leaders is not complete till every citizen has equal access to opportunities. That is what I hope to do through my work at eGov. 

What are some of the interesting projects that you are working on right now?

Most recently, eGov is contributing to the ‘Make in India, Make for the World’ movement as its DIVOC solution is now being used by Sri Lanka, Philippines, Indonesia, Jamaica and Ethiopia to roll out large-scale vaccination programs. In addition, we are working with UN bodies to jointly develop strategies for wider usage of Digital Public Infrastructure like DIGIT in African countries.

In May this year, we started a partnership with the Kerala Government to build a single platform for all the 600-plus citizen services across all the departments. The Kerala Government will leverage the components of eGov’s DIGIT platform, reuse and repurpose them for their platform. This will be the first-of-its-kind single platform in India. 

We are also doing some exciting work in the area of impact consulting and policy making. We are providing consulting support to the Piramal Foundation to design solutions on DIGIT that help them run large programs on the ground. In addition, we are advising the Andhra Pradesh government on the design of DBT systems that are efficient and ensure privacy and security of data. 

We have recently initiated our Sanitation mission with the objective of clean and healthy habitats across India. The DIGIT sanitation platform has gone live in Odisha; in the first phase, the focus is to manage septage from septic tanks in a safe manner. The platform connects the citizen, local governments, septage truck operators and the treatment plants, and tracks the movement of septage from collection to disposal.

You have extensive experience both in corporate and entrepreneurial roles. What have you enjoyed doing more and why?

I have enjoyed being an entrepreneur. I think failing and learning are inherent to being an entrepreneur. I love that path of learning and growing. In a corporate enterprise, there are safety nets – both in terms of process and people, that isolated me from the real cutting-edge decision making. As a result, I made very few mistakes. In the first 15 days of my entrepreneurial journey, I made more mistakes than I did in 15 years of my corporate life; including buying totally useless pieces of hardware that used half of our capital. The constant need to take risks, make decisions and do it all at speed, changed my wiring as a person. It is exhilarating to have an opportunity to learn and test yourself every day. The other thing I love about being an entrepreneur is the fact that the buck really stops at you. So many people, from employees to investors, are counting on you. It motivates me every single day and gets me out of bed with a purpose.

One thing that is not so great about being an entrepreneur is a sense of loneliness. In a corporate set-up, I had varied support systems – my bosses, my colleagues and a vast amount of wisdom in a large organization like Amex. Help was always forthcoming. Being an entrepreneur means you need to have all the answers.   

What interests do you follow in your free time?

I grew up in the mountains, so walking is a way of life and is an exercise for both the mind and the body. I walk daily (and multiple times) and do about 50-60 km a week. I do a couple of Himalayan treks a year. A few of my classmates from IIMB and I have formed a group called ‘Agaazey Tarranum’ and we often have jam sessions. My other interest is cooking which I picked up from my mother.

Any memories you would like to share from your days at IIMB?

I recall we had a power outage on the eve of the Ind Soc exam. Some of us got candles and kept studying, while few others went to the Director and requested him to postpone the exam. 

A favorite quote of yours or a book that you are currently reading…

Books by stoic philosophers are a constant companion. I am re-reading ‘The Discourses’ by Epictetus. I love the basic principle of stoicism that we do not react to events; we react to our judgments about them, and the judgments are up to us. It also says that we should not worry about things beyond our control as everything in life can be divided into two categories – things that are up to us and things that are not. 

Here is something I read recently in The Discourses:

“Demand not that things happen as you wish, but wish them to happen as they do, and you will go on well.”

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