The birth of a third daughter for Buddhi Sagar Rai in November 1969 was met with gloom in his extended family. As he was a government employee, many were worried he would not be able to marry off his three daughters—back when dowry was an accepted norm. But Buddhi Sagar Rai’s parents were ecstatic at the birth of another granddaughter, who was named Nivruti, which means salvation. “One of the astrologers they [my grandparents] believed in had said, ‘This girl has the capability of becoming the president or prime minister of a country’,” recalls Nivruti Rai, who was born in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh. “After hearing that, everybody celebrated.”
Rai might not be president of a country today but the astrologers weren’t far off the mark. She grew up to become country head of Intel India, the Indian unit of the $70-billion U.S.-based semiconductor behemoth that counts India as its key global market. It’s a role that also places Rai at a high No. 19 on Fortune India’s 2019 Most Powerful Women in business list, up from 45 last year. The staggering jump is hardly surprising: Under Rai’s leadership, Intel India has become Intel’s largest research and development (R&D) centre outside of the U.S., doubling its capacity in the last four years. And that’s just one part of the story.
Intel has invested over $5 billion (about ₹35,800 crore) in the domestic market and continues to expand its R&D capabilities. Last year, which marked Intel’s 20th anniversary in the country, the company opened a 620,000 sq. ft. design centre in Bengaluru at a cost of ₹1,100 crore. The centre houses technologists who work on cutting-edge engineering across hardware and software.
It’s been 20 years since Intel came to India, and Rai has been a key part of the journey. She joined Intel in the U.S. in 1994 and moved to India as a hardcore technologist in 2005 before she became the top boss three years ago. Bengaluru-based Rai, who is also vice president of Intel’s Data Center Group, is leading Intel India’s product development drive in emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), 5G (fifth-generation cellular network technology), autonomous systems for SoC (system-on-a-chip, which is essentially a chip), the Internet of Things (IoT), and cloud computing.
“She has refocussed Intel India on cutting-edge technologies and has made India a more important part of Intel,” says T.V. Mohandas Pai, former Infosys board member. “She has also created outreach programmes in AI, machine learning, and chip design across the tech ecosystem in the country which has made Intel very popular.” Jitendra Chaddah, senior director of strategy and operations at Intel India, adds, “Nivruti’s growth-oriented leadership style has enabled the growth of hardware and systems startup ecosystem in India.”
As Intel undergoes the most significant transformation in its history, from being a PC-centric to a data-centric company to keep up with the new data-driven digital world, Rai is also steering the Indian unit in the same direction. “We are very focussed on leading technology inflections that will accelerate and create demand for data—AI, 5G, and autonomous systems. Our emphasis is on engineering excellence, accelerating innovation and evolving our strong culture,” says Rai. According to her, data can only become oil if leveraged through technologies like AI and 5G.
That her success was foretold at birth wasn’t enough to make her the privileged child of the family. “My parents believed that education was critical, so they sent all of us to the best possible schools,” says Rai. While her sisters pursued careers outside of science and technology, she chose mathematics and science. A B.Sc statistics graduate from Lucknow University (in 1990) and an M.S. in electrical and industrial engineering from Oregon State University, math was and is Rai’s favourite subject. As a child, she could remember about 100 telephone and consumer numbers of cooking gas connections of people living in her society. So much so, neighbours would ask her to book their gas—at one point, she made two to three bookings a day.
Rai says she had two job offers in the U.S. after she graduated in 1993. One was from Intel. “The other offer was paying me twice the salary that Intel offered me. Guess why I joined Intel? Because I had love in my eyes and I thought that I could have tea with my husband, and the occasional lunch,” giggles Rai. Her husband, Sunit Tyagi, worked with Intel at the time. He was a senior technology leader before he became senior director of technology of Intel India in 2005, where he was part of the leadership team for the development of the first server microprocessor designed in India. Three years later, he quit to set up his own solar engineering company InSolare Energy.
Rai, who spent nearly half of her 25-year career with Intel in the U.S, is the fourth country head in the company’s two-decade existence in India. Before that, she was vice-president managing the development of different chip-based IPs (intellectual property) that go into products such as laptops and servers. In 2011, Rai was keen to develop an AI-based technology whereby a person could measure body temperature by putting a finger to a smartphone, or a laptop. She was already working on building sensors that would measure the temperature of circuits in laptops and desktops. Along with her team in India, she built an Integrated Sensor Hub for Intel’s processors and the technology has the capability to measure human body temperature. In 2014, they developed a deep learning inference engine that would power a new generation of Intel processors.
She was no stranger to innovation in cutting-edge technologies. During her years with Intel in the U.S., she built a portfolio of patents in the field of semiconductor engineering—along with raising two children and looking after her in-laws. Intel owns all the patents. “I may not be the smartest person, but I’m a go-getter. I never give up,” says Rai. She recalls a time when she and her team “goofed up” in developing a product that would fetch Intel revenues of $3 billion. “Everybody was after us. My team and I would stay in the labs here [in India]—we didn’t know the difference between day and night for three months. We fixed it, and we made more revenues than was planned for.”
Typically, in tech companies such as Intel, technologists like Rai rise to be fellows, while people managers rise to be vice presidents. Rai was a principal engineer at Intel, a level below a fellow. But her career path changed when she moved back to India in 2005 and joined Intel India as director of engineering. The technologies she was working on in the U.S. were not being developed out of India then; hence she moved into people managing and technology development for product features and execution. Since then, she has steadily climbed the ranks and took over as country head in March 2016. Her job now requires her to interact with Intel customers, the Indian government, and even help shape government policy in emerging technologies like AI and 5G.
Interestingly, if Intel hadn’t happened, Rai could have ended up as a fashion designer. From her love for dressing up dolls as a kid to now being dressed to the nines, fashion is a big part of her life. A self-confessed shopaholic, she loves wearing sarees and her favourite designer is Ravi Bajaj.
But deep down she’s still a techie at heart. Veteran CXO search consultant Priya Chetty-Rajagopal says two things strike her about Rai: that she is “eminently authentic” and “believes and breathes” technology. “Nivruti also represents two important things: one is the fact that women of ability and belief do rise to the top and, as a corollary, when organisations like Intel make that effort women do rise,” says Chetty-Rajagopal, managing partner of Multiversal Advisory.
Given that Intel India is an R&D setup, it does not have a separate profit and loss (P&L) account unlike many other global tech companies operating out of the country. But Rai plans to change that by driving Intel India to innovate and create tech products for which the P&L would be in India. While these are not India-specific products, she’s looking to build tech products in India for the world. And the way she’s interacting with the Indian tech ecosystem gives a broad perspective of the technologies she’s looking to build. As part of Intel’s transformational journey in India, Rai has joined hands with the government to push technological innovation in the country. In September 2018, Intel India collaborated with government think-tank NITI Aayog and the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research to set up the International Center for Transformative Artificial Intelligence (ICTAI). Through this collaborative effort, ICTAI will carry out application-based AI research, focussing on national-level challenges in critical sectors such as healthcare, agriculture, smart mobility, and fintech.
Rai is also passionately driving data connectivity in rural areas. The WoW, or Wireless over Wire project, was set up by Intel India in 2018 to innovate on broadband technology for rural areas, which account for 70% of India. “The intent is to grow India, and the rest of us will grow; if Intel offers the best solutions, we will be leveraged the most,” says Rai, who’s also shaping 5G policy as chairperson of the special 5G committee under the Broadband India Forum, a think-tank for digital transformation. “She is a big thinker. She’s a person who looks at solving people’s problems,” says former telecom secretary Aruna Sundararajan.
According to Rai, a big challenge for women technologists is that often they are placed in positions where risks are low, and technology areas are known to be high-risk domains. But she has defied that perception. “I have been a risk-taker since the beginning of my career. That led me to coin a phrase: In failures, we learn; in successes, we earn,” she says.
This story was originally published in the September 15-December 14 issue of the magazine.