An Interview with Joseph Vijayam
Joseph Vijayam has had many years to think about how to integrate his Christian faith with his business life. He started Olive Technology in 1996 with a vision to support himself to do ministry, much like the Apostle Paul did when he made tents. Since then, Joseph’s understanding of ‘mission’ has developed to embrace ‘business as mission’. He describes this process as a journey, a voyage of discovering what it means to glorify God through his business life. I got the chance to talk to Joseph as he shared some of his reflections on being Kingdom-minded in business and the role of Christian business people in bringing transformation to India.
What are you most passionate about as you think about business as mission and your company today?
Well I am obviously excited about what we are doing through Olive as a company and how our own business is growing. But these days I am also thinking more and more about how we can get greater numbers of business as mission efforts started in India and around the world. I am focusing more of my energies on being a catalyst for multiplying business as mission enterprises.
If we are to see growth, I think we need to help Christian business owners understand the impact they could have, to become more Kingdom-minded in their business life. We also need to mobilize others to initiate new business as mission enterprises of every shape and size. Although of course we do need large business as mission companies, I personally think that any size of company can make an impact.
How do you see that Christian business people could have an influence on society?
In India we really need to reach a critical mass of Christian business people seeking to have transforming influence in their communities and in society at large.
There is an Islamic Sect called the Ismailis that have a strong presence in my home city of Hyderabad. Wherever they are found in the world the Ismailis start charitable and educational institutions and own many businesses, they embed themselves in the economic and social fabric of society. Beliefs aside, I have been impressed with their zeal, their reach and their model for having an impact in a community through their philanthropic and business activities. A lot of that impact is down to sheer numbers, for instance in the USA the Ismailis own whole chains of gas stations.
As Christians in an Indian context, we need to aim for a critical mass of Kingdom-focused business initiatives and we need to be overt and zealous in our outward expression of our Christian faith. We need to bring biblical values with us into public life and allow them to transform both people and institutions around us.
What are some of the particular challenges in the Indian context?
One of the biggest evils in our society is the caste system because it absolutely erodes human dignity. A person is always inferior or superior to the person next to him or her, never equal. That sense of equality with others is something other cultures take for granted, and is something very attractive. That is why you hear stories of Dalits, who are the untouchable class, converting en mass to Buddhism; they are clamoring for a way out of an unjust system.
Our society is so stratified, so restrictive. A whole industry can be owned by one community, a caste or sub-caste. There are glass-ceilings everywhere for those not born into the right community. As Christians in business we can challenge these practices, and others such as bribery and corruption, with values that restore human dignity and justice. As we are transformed, we can bring transformation to our companies, to people, to our communities, to society.
What do you feel is hindering Christians reaching this critical mass in business?
There are some really good examples of business as mission initiatives and Kingdom-minded companies in India. However, overall there is a relative lack of Christians involved in the world of commerce. I feel there are two reasons for this lack. One is that there is still a stigma attached to business within the church community in general. Secondly, there is a lack of role models to follow.
In India the caste system dictates so much in life. People get involved in a type of business because their family and caste are involved. In India the maxim ‘it’s not what you know, but who you know’ is true in the extreme. For Christians this makes getting involved in business so much harder. There is a lack of family and caste support, there are no mentors, no older godfather figures helping you get started and opening up networks for you. Your church and family might strongly discourage you from getting involved in business, but even if they don’t, everything will be much harder if you don’t have those connections and networks around you. For many Christians, getting started in business might seem like an insurmountable task.
You are obviously hopeful that things can change! What have we got on our side?
Yes! God is at work and despite the barriers there are more and more Christians getting involved in business and the church in some cases is slowly becoming more supportive. However, we need far greater numbers. Christians do have some competitive advantages in some areas that we need to leverage. For example, historically in the mission of the church in India we have emphasized education and we are now known for running excellent educational institutions. People are even drawn to a certain school if it has a Christian name or a Christian Principal, no matter what else goes on there! Christians wield a lot of soft power in the field of education, there is brand recognition and a lot of goodwill.
So we are already having an impact in some sectors and there is immense potential to repeat that success in a few other industries. Christians tend to be more educated than the general population and more conversant in English. Those language skills give us an advantage in knowledge industries such IT or IT enabled services. More Christian entrepreneurs are entering the IT sector because of that, and the fact that there are lower barriers to entry compared with, say, manufacturing.
Our Christian values do give us an advantage in some sectors. For instance, walk into any big corporation and you will quite likely find Christians in the Human Resources department. That is because we believe that each person is equally valuable and are not so partial to one caste or religious group. Christians tend to be honest, diligent and they care about people, so you will find them in service-driven industries, such as HR, hospitality, education and healthcare. Anywhere there is an intersection of commerce and service, Christians can make their mark. We need to work from our areas of strength and multiply. But we also need to get a foothold in other sectors. There are still relatively few Christian merchants and manufacturers in India.
How can we support Christians in business and overcome those barriers?
Primarily we need to take people on a journey of integrating their Christian faith with their business life. Most Indian Christians would not think that they could glorify God through business. We need to change that way of thinking through the way we communicate and through biblical teaching. We need a strong affirmation for the role of business people in society.
Where there is a lack of support for people getting started, I think the key is to provide that. I would like to see Kingdom entrepreneurship workshops and conferences annually in India, a forum where we can talk practically about what it takes to get started and provide that support in terms of experts, coaching, financing and so on. I think that will boost confidence to get started and to grow. However, that still doesn’t answer the question of where those Christians in business are going to turn for help week in, week out, so we still need better support networks.
Can you share with us a little about your own journey and how you began to integrate mission and business?
Well I began with the idea of ‘tentmaking’ through my business. I started Olive because I wanted to be self-employed, to support myself financially and have the freedom to engage in ministry. The next stage was that I added employees, including other Christians, intending to create a platform for them to be ‘tentmakers’ too. The third stage was as the business grew a little more, I began to think about outward expressions that would mark Olive as a ‘Christian business’. I began to use overt Christian symbolism in our company premises, a picture of Jesus on the wall, for example.
The next step for me was to do ministry within Olive, so we had a devotional time each morning and designated a Chaplain to be available to our employees. The Chaplain acted as an intercessor within the company and was also available for counseling. Devotions, prayer times and counseling have always been optional in the company. Indians are religious people and that is often evident even at the workplace.
At Olive we care about our employees. One example is not letting one of our project leaders go even when he became under-productive due to a serious illness. We prayed for him regularly in the name of Jesus and kept him on as an employee. That really made a great impression on people across the company.
We have also launched and supported other ministries out of Olive, especially leveraging our IT expertise. For instance, we started MahaJesus.com which is an evangelistic web-based ministry for Indian internet users seeking answers about Jesus.
The last stage of the journey came out of my discussions with Dr. Steve Rundle in the process of his research for the book Great Commission Companies. He provoked me to think about a greater, more holistic integration of business and mission. I’ve come to think about everything we do in Olive as ‘ministry’ or mission; from generating profits, to caring for our employees, to producing excellent products, to being honest in our dealings, and yes to sharing Christ with our staff and supporting other ministries too.
This transformation of thinking has involved a timely embrace of the role of business as God designed it, in all its fullness. As Christians we readily accept that distributing wealth is our Godly responsibility, but I have come to see that creating wealth is also our responsibility, especially for those gifted by God to be entrepreneurs and business people. We need to mobilize and enable the next generation of Christian entrepreneurs to use their God-given gifts for the glory of God and for the benefit of our societies and nations.
Many thanks to Joseph Vijayam for sharing his wisdom and experience through this interview and especially for his continued efforts to bring an Indian perspective on business as mission to a wider audience.
Jo Plummer is the Editor of the Business as Mission website, in conversation with Joseph Vijayam. Joseph Vijayam is the Managing Director of Olive Technology Limited, an IT company with offices in the USA and India. As well as seeking to integrate business and mission in his own life and business, Joseph also regularly writes, speaks and consults on business as mission. Joseph is currently a member of the Editorial Board of the Business as Mission website. Read more about Olive Technology and Follow Joseph on Twitter.
We highly recommend you reading more of the story of Joseph and Olive Technology in a thorough case-study by Dr. Steve Rundle in Chapter 11 of the book Great Commission Companies (2nd Edition only). Thanks also go to Dr.Rundle for his help with background material for this interview and also to Bennet Emmanual for his piece on Olive Technology in the special Business as Mission edition of the publication Christian Manager, Vol.8 Issue 3.