Social Impact: CEO at eGov Foundation – Viraj Tyagi, PGP 1993

For many work opportunities abroad are dream come true in terms of living a quality life. One seldom hears a person giving up on the chance of settling in these beautiful offshores but it is not true in the case of Mr. Viraj Tyagi. He continues, “I returned to India because of the pull of home and the alluring aroma of samosas”, but I believe it was the urge to do something for the nation, a subject near to his heart — Nation Building.

He has worked as an entrepreneur and corporate executive and is presently serving as the CEO at the eGov Foundation. His knowledge and life lessons are very inspiring. Being an ardent supporter of everyone having equal access to opportunities, he is working diligently and making a meaningful contribution toward the development of the country.

Can you please tell us about yourself?

I am still trying to settle down, I guess. 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 8 years with American Express in the UK leading their cards business. We decided to come back to India in 2004 – the pull of home and hot samosas was too strong! In 2007, the start-up bug bit me, along with Nitin Gupta (IIM-B, PGP 1998), 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. It was a period of immense growth and learning for me. It was also super fun. In 2015, we got acquired by Equifax Inc and I exited NettPositive.

In 2016, I began a new inning 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 Nilekani in 2003. eGov Foundation is on a mission to “Solve for Billion Indians” by building Open Platforms and products that enable accessible & 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 2000+ cities and 5000+ villages in India. More than 250 million citizens have benefited from our work. DIGIT (Digital Infra 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 had in my career. I feel increasingly incompetent every day. 

In addition to my professional work, I continue to invest in start-ups and mentor the founders. I also co-founded a Finnable – a fintech – with Nitin.

Nita – my wife – is my batch mate from the ‘93 batch and she is a senior leader in the Health Tech space. Both our boys are in the UK.

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 catalyse this collective energy. Our impact framework is based on the contribution of digital public infrastructures 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.

Can you please tell us more about your role at the 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)[1] to governments and private players. It enables digitisation of 50+ citizen services like issuing marriage certificates, applying for water connection, resolving complaints, paying taxes etc. The second pillar was to catalyse 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. Third pillar was for eGov to work with the government to co-create policies that reduce friction to adoption, ensure scale, & mainstream this approach of open platforms within government.

To execute this strategy we have raised Rs 1500 Mn of philanthropic capital from Gates Foundation, Tata Trusts, Omindyar Network and Nilekani Philonthophies.

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 big growth moments was the 1991 reforms. It created the access, opportunities and possibilities that never existed before. 25 years ago, India had opened up in a way 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 done till every citizen has equal access to opportunities. That is what I hope to do through my work at eGov.

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

Most recently, eGov is contributing to the ‘Make in India, Made for the world’ movement as its DIVOC solution is now being used by Sri Lanka, Philippines, Indonesia, Jamaica & Ethiopia to help them 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 Kerala Government to build a single platform for all 600+ citizen services across all the departments.  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 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 but at the same time 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 definitely 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 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 loved about being an entrepreneur is the fact that the buck really stops at you. So many other folks – from employees to investors – are counting on you. It motivates me every single day and gets me out of the bed with a purpose.

One thing that is not so great about being an entrepreneur is loneliness. In a corporate, I had varied support systems – my bosses, my colleagues and a vast amount of wisdom in a large organisation like Amex. You could lean in and ask for help and in most cases it was forthcoming. Being an entrepreneur is fairly lonely; you are supposed to have all the answers and the “I am in control” machismo is the norm. It is hard to be a lone ranger.  

What interests do you follow in your free time?

I grew up in the mountains so walking is a way of life and an exercise for both the mind and the body. I walk daily (and multiple times) and do about 50-60 kms a week. As I grow older I yearn for the mountains more. I do a couple of Himalayan treks a year. At IIMB Hyma, Aina Rao( PGP 93)  and I used to sing lot of bollywood songs together. We now have a group called Agaazey Tarranum and we often Jam together.  My other interest is cooking and my latest quest is to get all the recipes for simple daily food 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 Ind Soc exam. While some of us got candles and kept studying, a slightly activisty bunch – my wife Nita was the leader of the gang-  took a morcha to the director and requested him to postpone the exam. We also gave him a veiled threat of boycotting the exam. Prof Vaidyanathan, in his usual no-nonsense way, said if you have not studied during the semester then one evening will not transfer. We all went our tail between the legs and bought candles.

A favourite quote or book you are currently reading.

Books by Stoic Philsophers are a constant companion. I am re-reading ‘The Discourses’ by Epitectus.  I love the basic principle of Stoicism that we don’t 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.”

[1] Digital public goods are defined as : “open source software, open data, open AI models, open standards and open content that adhere to privacy and other applicable laws and best practices, do no harm, and help attain the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). ”