Akshay Kumar Parija — global banker, shipping magnate, philanthropist — has come far from his boyhood village in India. Now he is financing movies with social themes that help preserve his native Odisha culture.
by Robert S. Benchley
It’s a long way—a very long way—from the village of Balidhip, in the eastern Indian state of Odisha, to Cambridge, Massachusetts. When you grow up without roads, electricity, or running water, when light and darkness control the rhythms of your life, and when you are so cut off from the outside world that you have only the spark of your intellect to tell you that there must be something more, the distance seems even greater.
Akshay Kumar Parija (AMP 172, 2007) describes growing up in Balidhip in the late 1950s and early 1960s: “We rose and slept with the sun,” he says. “Lying in bed at night, all we heard were the sounds of insects and the flutes played by the night watchmen who cared for cows and buffalo. We were afraid of the dark, because we heard stories about witches and goblins eating people caught outside after sundown.
“My father did almost nothing to earn money, so we were dependent on a meager income from the land. Our school was a seven-kilometer walk in each direction. With little food, it was difficult to have the energy to walk that distance every day. During the monsoon floods, we wore a towel-like garment called a gamuchha and carried our school clothes above our heads to keep them dry. Wading through the water, we had to watch out for snakes that had been driven from their homes by the flooding.”
Civilization was only 60 kilometers away, in the state capital of Cuttack, where Parija’s uncle lived.
“I took the eight-hour bus ride to visit him twice when I was a boy,” he recounts. “At home, we ate rice and could only afford roti, a type of bread, on holidays. I thought my uncle must be rich, because his family ate roti every night.
“I saw billboards for the first time and bragged to my friends back in Balidhip that the products they advertised were the names of movies I had seen. An older boy knew that one of them was the name of a ringworm ointment, so I was caught in my lie, and they all laughed at me. That revelation of my ignorance was the most humiliating moment of my childhood.”
Still, Parija says, life in his remote village endowed him with four qualities—hope, optimism, determination, and self-motivation—that have carried him far from his roots. After leaving home, earning two degrees at universities in India, and working as an international banker for nearly three decades, Parija finally closed the distance and found his way to HBS.
His journey began with books. “We had no newspaper or TV,” he says, “so I started reading books that would give me an idea of the world outside. I knew I could not change my destiny to be born there, but I also knew that with hard work I could change my future. I studied hard, came out on top in my final exams, received a scholarship, and left for college.”
Parija attended BJB College, a state school with low fees, where he majored in economics and political science, graduating in 1974. He took a clerical job at a local Indian bank and enrolled in a master’s program in public administration at Utkal University, receiving his degree in 1978. During that time, he also took courses in banking and finance, which enabled him to be promoted to a managerial position.
With little room for career growth at the bank where he worked, Parija began looking outside India and won a position with a bank in Kuwait against nearly 2,000 other applicants. It was there that Parija came to the attention of two high-level executives who were HBS alumni—Aubyn Hill (MBA 1978) and Amal Wahab (MBA 1987).
“I was extremely impressed with these two men, their knowledge level, style of management, clarity of thought, and leadership abilities,” says Parija. “In fact, it was then that I set my sights on someday attending HBS.”
Hill subsequently became CEO of a bank in Oman and took Parija with him.
“In seven years, we did wonders by converting a bankrupt institution into the number-one bank in the country,” says Parija, who later became head of corporate banking following a merger that created a much larger institution. “My contribution to the bank’s income was significant, and I was rewarded with company-paid business education,” he says. “I chose the AMP program. My dream had come true.”
Although Parija had already acquired decades of business acumen, HBS was a transformational experience for him.
“It taught me how to set a goal and work toward it, and it gave me the courage to become an entrepreneur,” he says. “A group of us founded Blue Lines Shipping Group in 2010. We own eight tankers, and we transport petroleum products and dry bulk commodities all over the world. This year, Lloyd’s gave us an award as best ship operator in the Middle East and on the Indian subcontinent.
“I am proud to say that HBS had a tremendous influence on who I am today,” Parija says. “I wish I could say I brought back 60 or 70 percent of what I studied, but there was so much. In all honesty, I probably brought back only 40 percent, but it was enough, and it made me very rich.”
One final payoff from AMP for Parija: it put him in touch with his creative side. Now he is using his wealth to finance films, mostly with social and environmental themes, that preserve his native Odisha culture. Working with acclaimed Indian writer-director Prashant Nanda, he has produced two films to date. For his first, The Living Ghost (2010), Parija received a Silver Lotus award from Pratibha Patil, then president of India. He is currently working on a serial and has two more projects in the pipeline.
“I believe it is a corporate social responsibility to pay back to your motherland,” Parija says. “I am fortunate that I have the resources to bring a rich cultural heritage to the world forum.
“Through my films, I hope to create an awareness in the world about the threat of climate change, the need for environmental protection, the legacy we leave for future generations, and the importance of having respect for all human beings.”
Today, living in Dubai, far from Balidhip in measures more significant than distance, Parija reflects on how the lessons he learned at HBS strengthened the experiences of his childhood.
“I saw the wretched condition in which so many people live,” he says, “and how they struggle to have a good meal or a good education. It motivated me to try to see that no village remains dark, that no small boy loses out in life because he has no access to proper study material, that no family is too poor to eat roti.
“My life as a boy was simple—primitive, by most standards—but it taught me to appreciate nature, it taught me how to be alone yet feel happy, and it taught me how to identify my priorities in life and always aim higher.”
(Source: Harvard Business School)