Soaring High – Mittu Chandilya

‘Support courage where there is fear, foster agreement where there is conflict, inspire hope where there is despair.’ These words by Nelson Mandela are not just dear to Mittu Chandilya’s heart, they also reflect his mindset and the principles that he lives by. “Leadership for me has always meant creating social change and impacting broader perspectives than one’s self or their organisation and financial pursuits.” The former MD and CEO of Air Asia India, one of the country’s most inspirational young leaders and a great icon for today’s youth, sits down with RITZ post his three year stint with one of the country’s youngest airlines, to talk about his new plans and how he wants to help change the face of the nation

Three years ago his was an unknown name in India. Mittu Chandilya, or Mrityunjaya Chandilya, as he was christened, is today one of the most recognised names in the country’s aviation industry. At a time when an airline as mighty as Kingfisher had fallen, a young man of 33 with no former experience in the aviation industry was brought in to launch Dan Tony Fernandes’ Air Asia in the sub-continent. There was speculation galore about whether or not the Malaysian businessman had made the right decision by appointing someone so young and raw on many levels, someone who had no prior experience working in India (though he did study and grow up here), a CEO with no ready-made political connections and not enough understanding of India’s bureaucracy.

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Yet Mittu proved his critics wrong and did in three years what not many others in his position could do. A low-cost foreign airline with Indian partners and stakeholders, he established the brand and set up its India operations single handed, waded through yards and yards of red tape and  circumvented millions of obstacles, but managed to get Air Asia up and running in record time and brought it up to the level where its day to day functions are now running in plug and play mode. “I had a three year contract with the company that I chose not to renew as I felt I had achieved what I was brought in to do. I’m great with startups and have a knack for turning around ailing businesses. I’m not the type to be motivated in an environment that is working well on its own. Hence it is time for me to look for newer challenges,” says Mittu, putting an end to speculation and rumours over his reasons for exiting Air Asia.

Within minutes of his resignation being accepted and formalised, he had more than five other offers from top airlines, each offering him a better position than the next. He also had a mailbox full of requests from young entrepreneurs for mentorship and the possibility of him investing in their startups. “Right now, I am working on my entrepreneurial strengths and passions to personally invest in, incubate and mentor startups. I’m also open to opportunities of large impact and change that potentially disrupt traditional businesses and sectors,” explains Mittu. As always, he’s focussed on bootstrapping and driving value – financial and of social and community impact – while ensuring founders and entrepreneurs achieve the vision and strategic intent they initially started with. “I’m also building a fund to invest into portfolio or cross-functional startups of which I would like to drive some personally.”

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“I’m great with startups and have a knack for turning around ailing businesses. I’m not the type to be motivated in an environment that is working well on its own”

His lessons of strength and foresight he learnt from his father Ram Chandilya, an entrepreneur and successful businessman himself, whom Mittu turns to even today for advise. “An important lesson I learnt at his knee was that one can be a leader, but humility is the most important virtue that a leader must possess. I remember sitting on his chair in his cabin one day – I must have been about 9 at that time – and receiving a scolding from him for doing so. He told me that the chair of the head of the company was reserved for him alone, not because he didn’t want anyone else to sit in it, but because it symbolised the leader of the organisation and one should not disrespect that protocol,” recalls Mittu with a fond smile.

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Today, the father and son continue to share as strong a bond as ever, and Ram Chandilya is his son’s strongest advocate and biggest supporter. “When most back away and back down dad and I accelerate and move forward. For us it is always about the fight,” Mittu says, as he poses for a photograph with his father.

And then there are Mittu’s three sons – Rishi (aged 7), Rohan (aged 5) and Thoren (aged 3) – who crave their father’s attention as he hasn’t been home as much as he would have wanted to these past three years. “My biggest ambition in life has been to be a great father and I want my boys to learn all the lessons I learnt from my dad, and a few more from me,” says Mittu as he enjoys the moment with his three tykes clambering all over him. Though they’re relatively young still, it doesn’t take long to realise that they share their father’s grit and determination to forge ahead and achieve it all – even though right now the fight is just for his attention or for a vial of bubbles!