Banks to non-profit: How Luis Miranda made connecting with people his asset

Topics Citibank | HSBC | Coronavirus

Luis Miranda, chairman, Centre for Civil Society & CORO
He has the dubious distinction of graduating with the lowest salary in his Chicago Booth class back in 1989. The software at the school that published weekly lists of the pay packages offered to students was unable to process his submission because his annual salary was $4,000 while the minimum option listed was $20,000. That a student would leave Chicago Booth to earn peanuts was not something the school of business studies had anticipated.

Yet that was what Luis Miranda, 58, chairman of CORO, CCS and a “dots connector” by passion chose. After a summer job with Citibank, he had been invited by the school for an interview with the Asia Pacific group in New York and was offered an assignment to work in the bank’s treasury marketing unit in India.

At the time, Miranda had flown to New York more for a lark than anything else. He had no intention of returning to India at that point (he wanted to return after he’d earned his first million!), was primarily a finance guy with a CA degree in hand, had no experience with selling and Citibank was offering him peanuts in salary: $4,000. There was virtually no reason for him to take up the offer.

But a spiel from former Citibanker Jaidev Iyer worked and a few months later Miranda found himself back in Mumbai more by accident than careful planning and with many assuming he couldn’t land anything better. After three years of being with the Citibank, Miranda joined HSBC in treasury sales — again at a package lower than the one he had at the Citibank at that point.

Miranda and I are meeting for lunch — this is before the Covid lockdown — at an atmospheric small place in Bandra West called Pali Bhavan, one he seems quite familiar with as he greets the staff members by name. The restaurant has an eclectic offering of North-South cuisine and I leave the ordering to him.

It was in 1994 that Miranda realised that it didn’t make sense for him to work in places where decisions were taken by people sitting halfway across the world with little or no understanding of India. “Remember this was the early days of liberalisation. The world is a very different place today,” he adds. Our starter — mini vada-pao with a red chutney — arrives. It is “finger-licking good” and we polish them off within minutes.

It was just when his disillusionment with multinational banks was almost complete that he got a call asking him whether he’d be interested in joining a wholly new, private Indian bank being set up by a group of people led by Deepak Parekh. Without thinking, he jumped at the idea. No specifics — salary, status or anything else — were discussed before he said yes. That’s how he found himself as the fourth member of the small start-up team for HDFC Bank in 1994, again at a package lower than what he was earning at HSBC.

As expected, everyone around him told him he was crazy — who leaves an established foreign bank to join some Indian me-too type entity? — a refrain he was accustomed to by then. He’d been told he was crazy when he returned to India, when he left Citibank and now when he was leaving the safe world of a multinational company. In fact, his appointment letter from the HDFC came with the tag of “proposed” as the bank didn’t even exist at that time.

Miranda worked there for six heady years — a time he remembers with great fondness, both for the excitement of it and the quality of people he got to interact with including Aditya Puri, Harish Engineer, C N Ram amo­ng others. He remembers that HDFC had a tie up with NatWest and during the negotiations, the NatWest guy said in time it might increase its stake in the HDFC and the latter would then become NatWest, a foreign bank. To the man’s shock, Miranda told him when that happened he would quit, that he was running away from foreign banks, looking to be a part of something that was 100 per cent Indian and be proud of it. His stint with the HDFC, he says, also got him “hooked onto start-ups”.

Somewhere along the way, he says he got “badly influenced” by Puri, and was getting used to leaving office at 5.30 pm and taking no work home.

In six years, he had a great team, and began to feel he was redundant. Miranda was getting restless.
Our main course has arrived and distracts both of us: Chettinad mushroom masala, papads, prepared by someone who knows what he or she is doing. We do full justice to the spread.

There is nothing banker-like about Miranda. Cautious, measured, conventional — none of the usual epithets apply to him so I’m not surprised when he tells me he walked away from coming into a large sum of money if he had stayed on at HDFC for another two years to join ChrysCapital, a private equity firm, again at a lower salary than what he was earning. Many of the investments made by the firm were “imploding” as the dotcom bubble burst and the firm took the brunt of it. He remembers spending nights in a shared matchbox size hotel room in Paris with Ashish Dhawan (promoter of ChrysCapital) as that was all they could afford. In the process, Miranda gained a deeper understanding of venture capital, again by accident.

Both Dhawan and Miranda have come a long way since, I think to myself. We’re done with the mains and I order a chocolate dessert that comes with — of all things — naan! He orders a coffee and we share the dessert. He spends a few minutes talking about his family, describing a drive he went with them from Mumbai to Ladakh — again not very banker-like — to volunteer with schools in fairly harsh conditions. His son is studying to become a marine biologist and his daughter is into art and culture. His own interests are, I find, so varied that it would need a separate meeting to do them justice.

After two years of non-stop work at ChrysCapital, Miranda was missing his children, wanted to breathe down their necks for a bit, cook and “bum around”. A close to six-month break followed.

Next, he entered the world of infrastructure and set up IDFC’s domestic equity fund, an assignment that consumed him for the next seven-odd years. Here, he also got involved with The Akanksha Foundation, a Teach for India initiative, and got his first taste of the non-profit world.

In 2010, when he was done with his full-time corporate stints, Miranda and his wife decided to dive deep into the non-profit world and the rest as they say is history. He’s on the board and chairs several NGOs including Centre for Civil Society, CORO, SNEHA, among a host of others, while still consulting for Morgan Stanley. He’s introduced me to some — including 17,000 ft Foundation that works in education in Ladakh, one that I have written about in this paper.

We have been in touch via email and Wha­tsApp since this meeting and I connect with him two days before this article is slated to appear in the midst of the Covid crisis. He holds forth on how CORO managed and continues to feed some 8,500 families in Mu­mbai, how they've raised a large sum of money and sourced food items through DMart’s Ra­dha­kishan Damani. It doesn’t surprise me: Mi­ra­nda’s vast network sees him through as usual.

As we chat, I realise that above all, Miranda collects “people”. Whenever he’s parted ways with anyone — be it Parekh, Puri or Dhawan — it’s on good terms. He makes an effort to keep in touch with almost everyone he comes in contact with and uses his vast network to help the organisations he’s associated with. I can’t help feeling he's probably missed out on what should have been his true calling: running the best and most successful public relations firm.

Luis Miranda is a quintessential people’s person and connecting people like dots is what he does best.

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