It was in late 2002 that Reliance Industries telecom arm, Reliance Infocomm, started services which both disrupted and raised a storm in the telecom services market. Apart from the controversies associated with the CDMA mobile services it offered, it also brought into focus Mukesh Ambani’s vision and execution skills in the field of telecom, which was then dominated by Bharti Airtel’s Sunil Mittal.
However, a family settlement in 2005 saw the telecom venture pass into the hands of younger brother Anil Ambani.
Mukesh made a second entry into telecom much later in 2010 when a little known firm, Infotel Broadband, surprised the industry by bidding and acquiring spectrum in the 2300 MHz spectrum band. The company’s name later changed to Reliance Jio Infocomm. Mukesh’s eldest son, Akash, joined its board in 2014 and apart from learning the ropes of the business here, also got a chance to give shape to his love and ideas in the field of technology, much like his father did way back in 2001-02.
On Tuesday, initiating a leadership transition, Reliance Jio’s board elevated Akash to the chairman’s position, with Mukesh stepping down as director.
Since 2017, Akash with his twin sister Isha (both aged 30), has been a regular face at RIL’s annual general meetings held in July, giving presentations of the various initiatives of Jio which connected the company’s ideas with the youth, as the telecom landscape was undergoing a huge change with the proliferation of over-the-top players.
In a 2017 interview to GQ magazine, Akash said his mandate from his dad was to “build things at a scale that is 10 times more than the current services in India”.
Jio, which officially launched services from September 1, 2016, changed the face of telecom services in the sense that it abolished charging for voice calls, brought an end to domestic long-distance calls, and instead started charging only for data. The results were dramatic as the same soon became the industry norm and data prices came down to under Rs 10 per GB from a high of about Rs 200 per GB.
Inside Jio, employees talk about various changes Akash brought about, including initiating an open-plan office, or open office, culture. Akash, who graduated from Brown University with a major in Economics, refused to use a cabin right from the beginning and opted for a cubicle much like any other employee, at Jio’s seventh-floor office housed at Reliance Corporate Park (RCP) in Navi Mumbai.
The cubicle was exactly the same as others on the floor, while facilities — a telephone and a computer — provided were not different from that of other employees. The open office initiative was an “instant hit”, as employees felt the boss was more accessible and fostered better communication within the teams, while many RIL group firms adopted the concept. Much like offices in the UK and the US, cabins were reserved for closed-door meetings or sensitive phone calls.
Akash, who loves cricket and soccer, is also the co-owner of IPL team Mumbai Indians. A collector of sports memorabilia, he possesses former Indian cricketer Sunil Gavaskar’s famed bat of the 1983 World Cup and a shirt from one of Arsenal Football Club’s ‘Invincibles’ squad. He also enjoys collecting luxury cars, and has often been spotted driving high-end cars including the Bentley Bentayga, the Range Rover Vogue and the Rolls-Royce Phantom, among others.
Akash was instrumental in the development and launching of the Jiophone in 2017 and creation of a digital ecosystem around 4G. The handset, with India-specific features, helped telecom users adopt 4G at a faster pace, discarding the basic 2G services.
He had also personally led Jio’s acquisitions and investments in the digital space, including Saavn Media, Buzzo.ai, Glance and Radisys India, among others, in the last few years and has also been involved with development of new technologies and capabilities including artificial intelligence, machine learning and blockchain, among others.
Further, he also played an important role in the Rs 43,574-crore fund raised by Jio Platforms from Facebook in 2020. Jio Platforms, the flagship company that owns all digital services brands, including RJio, had raised a total of Rs 1.52 trillion from big-tech firms such as Facebook, Qualcomm, Google and Intel among others.
According to an employee, while he has literally moved to the corner office, Akash would still stick to his cubicle and the open office policy when at RCP.
As he begins his new journey, Akash’s biggest comfort is that he has and will continue to draw lessons from the best business teacher in town — his own father.