The story of the billion-dollar Tata empire started with an Indian boy who didn’t want to study engineering

tata family
Source: Indranil Mukherjee / AFP

In a country where 90% of citizens do not earn even Rs 25,000 (US$300 at the time of writing) per month, the Tata family own billions — and have done so for generations.

The Tata Group is worth a staggering US$311 billion as of March 2022. It has ventures in ironworks, steel, textiles, tea, automotive, aviation, and hospitality, to name a few.

The founder of this family’s fortune is Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata, who first joined his father’s export trading firm in 1858, after an education at Elphinstone College Mumbai.

He was the first to establish branches in Japan, the US, Europe, and China.

Generation came and went, and success grew for the brand as it began expanding and acquiring other companies.

But it was one figure in the family who aggressively took the Tata Group from a successful business to a powerhouse, multi-billion dollar empire: Ratan Tata.

The Tata Group today makes Land Rovers, operates five-star hotels in New York, London and Sydney, and builds deep-sea cables that are probably powering your Internet right now.

And those are just three examples. It has many, many more. So ubiquitous is the brand that it’s known as the company that’s “everywhere.”

At the helm of the Tata family today is Ratan. He’s been knighted by Queen Elizabeth, made the biggest donation to Harvard Business School in 2010 and is known as “Mr. Clean” in corruption-rife India.

But before that, he was just another young Indian rebelling against his parents in what he wanted to study.

tata family

Ratan Tata successfully expanded the business as chairman. Source: Indranil Mukherjee/AFP

From student to titan: Tracing Ratan Tata’s academic journey

Ratan Tata graduated from the Cornell University with an unlikely degree, a Bachelor of Architecture (B.Arch.) degree in 1962.

“I was admitted in mechanical engineering to some extent because my father wanted me to become an engineer,” he says in a Cornell documentary.

“I really didn’t enjoy mechanical engineering. On the one hand, I did because there are many things in engineering that I did and still enjoy. But there were many other things that I didn’t.”

He had always wanted to be an architect — so he switched to architecture at the end of his second year — “much to my father’s consternation and upset,” says Ratan.

He had joined the Ivy League after completing his high school exam at Riverdale Country School — a day and boarding school with a “fairly large international student body.”

“College boards were not given in India that time and there was no way you could enter an undergraduate university,” he says.

“Had it been possible that I could apply from India, I may not have gone to Cornell.”

It was his “surrogate” father in the US then, Ed Vinnicombe — who was part of the Cornell Hotel School and vice president and spice and tea company McCormick & Company — who indirectly pushed him to choose Cornell.

It was with Ed and Slyvia Vinnicombe that he had spent holiday with — learning how to wash dishes and make his bed.

“It was with great apprehension and great enthusiasm I had arrived in Cornell,” he says.

The first few weeks were filled with homesickness and a lot of writing of letters to family back home.

Architecture lessons, however, were “everything he hoped that it would be.”

He then went on to Harvard Business School to complete an Advanced Management Programme in 1975.

The programme today is geared towards those seeking a place in the C-suite (“one or two levels from the CEO in large organisations”) and senior executives with at least 20 years of work experience.

Spanning six to eight weeks, this executive education programme blends online and on-campus classes.

After completing this, Ratan joined the family business and became chairman in 1991.

In the subsequent years, the group would acquire London-based Tetley Tea in 2000 for US$450 million and steel manufacturer Corus Group in 2007 for US$13.1 billion.

He oversaw Tata Motors’ buy Jaguar and Land Rover from Ford Motor Company in 2018.

Just by looking at the rate of expansion by Ratan, the next generations of the Tata family to come surely had giant shoes to fill, and they knew it.

Despite being born into such an abundance of wealth, education was not something they took lightly.

We’ll look at some of the prominent Tata family members and where they studied.

tata family

Simon Tata has been credited for successfully leading Lakme. Source: Indranil Mukherjee/AFP

Simone Naval Tata

This powerhouse of an Indian lady was born and raised in Geneva, Switzerland.

There isn’t much about her education except that she’s an art graduate from the University of Geneva and travelled to India on vacation when she caught the eye of Naval Tata.

Their love story ended with her settling down in India permanently while she took on various roles within the Tata Group.

Among them was leading India’s first makeup brand, Lakme Ltd to success, and being appointed director of Tata Industries Ltd.

She also founded Trent Limited, a retail company that began with a single store and today, has more than 200 stores across India, housing 22 in-house crafted labels.

When she married Naval, she became Ratan’s stepmom but also had a son of her own, Noel Tata.

She is one of the most senior existing members of the Tata family today.

tata family

Noel Tata has been at the helm of six different companies under the Tata Group. Source: Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP

Noel Tata

Noel Tata was cast into the spotlight when he became the Managing Director of Trent, the company his mother founded in 1999.

Prior to that, he graduated with an Economics BA (Hons) from the University of  Sussex and the International Executive Programmes from INSEAD.

While managing Trent Limited, he acquired Littlewoods International, a department store and turned the venture’s profitability up a notch.

Noel is a quiet figure but is known for being a candid and intelligent businessman.

Today, he is the current chairman of Trent Limited, Tata Investment Corporation, and Tata International Limited.

He is also the Vice Chairman of Titan Company Limited and Tata Steel Limited.

Neville, Leah, and Maya Tata

Noel’s three children are slowly joining the ranks of their father and uncle Ratan.

In what is seen as a strong move to develop the next generation of leaders, all three siblings were appointed trustees of Tata Medical Centre Trust (TMCT) last year.

Leah, who is the oldest of the lot, studied marketing at the IE Business School in Spain.

The 38-year-old began her career as an assistant sales manager at the Taj Hotels. Today she is a manager there and is responsible for the expansions and developments.

Maya, 35, received her education from Bayes Business School and the University of Warwick in the UK.

She began her career with Tata Opportunities Fund by handling portfolios and investor relations until its closure.

Today, Maya is with Tata Digital. The digital arm of Tata Group recently launched Tata Neu App, a platform offering people an extensive and personalised shopping experience.

Neville, the only son who will someday be heir to this multi-billion dollar company, also went to Bayes Business School and then joined Trent Limited.

Today, the 31-year-old is a business manager and leads the operations for Zudio stores.

It has been widely reported that the three prefer to stay out of the limelight and do not flaunt their family name for any kind of special treatment at work.

The common threads in the Tata family’s academic qualifications

The Tata family shows a fondness for UK universities. Both Maya and Neville studied there, as did their father, Noel.

Business and economics seem to be the subject area of choice for most of them, perhaps giving them the foundations they need to begin their careers in anticipation of someday taking over completely.

Neville, Leah, and Maya reportedly worked their way up after graduating. Work colleagues often didn’t even know about their lineage.

These offer little surprise compared to Ratan’s choice of degree at Cornell: architecture.

The similarity in business and architecture was uncanny, he says. “You have a problem conveyed to you; you have to think creatively of a solution while we reconceived what we had to do to fix it.”

A surprising item helped him realise the need to be resilient. “All the tracing paper we used for drawing one concept after another taught us not to stick with just one thing, but rather try and try to perfect it,” he says.

In-depth architecture training also helped Ratan in the product area; he’d worked with designers and engineers in the past, he says. “All of which goes back to what I studied in architecture in those five years,” he says.

Another outstanding trend? The lack of STEM (that’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) degrees in the Tata family.

Although they are part of a country obsessed with engineers and technology, the Tatas chose otherwise.

tata family

Ratan Tata is said to be grooming the younger Tata’s to tae over the family business. Source: Indranil Mukherjee/ AFP

None of the members in the Tata family moved away to start their own thing as well. Rather, they finished their education and began humbly learning from the elders.

Another trend we see here is no matter how successful the Tata family are or will continuing being, giving back to the community is not far from their minds.

Instead it has been a top priority from the very start of the business.

The Tata Trusts was formed in 1892 when the founder himself set up the JN Tata Endowment for higher education of Indians.

The Trust operates across many different areas today, including healthcare, social justice, skill development, environment and disaster relief among others.

Something interesting to note is, despite the Tata family being so incredibly wealthy, Ratan Tata is the 421st richest Indian, according to the IIFL Wealth Hurun India Rich List 2022.

This is because 66% of the group’s earnings is donated towards the Tata Trust.

tata family

Being rich should never stop you from getting an education. Source: Ishara S. Kodikara / AFP

Why do the rich get degrees?

If this is a question that has popped up in your mind, you are not alone.

One may wonder, with all that money, is it necessary to go to university and earn a degree?

The short answer is yes.

Say you were born into money. Not many of us can say that, but you know you for a fact that you will always have more than enough green bills to spend.

You’ve finished high school and chose to enter university. The aim here is to make rich friends. Yes, that does sound shallow, but the game of wealth is all about relationships.

If you have chosen to enrol in a prestigious school, even better. You never know if you could be sitting beside the next Elon Musk.

What are some of the other reasons? Quite simply put, positioning yourself in the centre of the room, so to say is vital for you to make even more money.

Think how Facebook began, between university students in dorm rooms. Perlego was founded by two newly minted graduates who had faced issues of expensive textbooks.

tata family

The aviation arm of Tata Group is looking at ramping up plans. Source: Sajjad Hussain / AFP

For people like the Tata family, it can also mean having academic success to back the well-established financial success they already have.

This puts them in a position to teach or become renowned thought leaders in their field, which can also incidentally earn them more money.

According to a Forbes article, 84% of the top 400 wealthiest individuals today have been to university, with a minimum of a bachelor’s.

From that number, 24% of them attended an Ivy League school.

The National Study of Millionaires reported 88% of millionaires graduated from college, compared to 38% of the general population.

It’s clear that the value of education should not be underestimated, no matter how much money you have.