As his mother was French, he spent much of his childhood in France and as a result, French was his first language. He attended the Janson De Sailly School in Paris. One of the teacher’s at that school used to call him L’Egyptian for some strange reason. Tata also served in the French Foreign Legion for one year in the regiment Le Saphis during the Second World War. After he left the service the whole regiment perished on an expedition in Morocco.
He attended the Cathedral and John Connon School, Bombay. Tata was educated in London, Japan, France and India. He was enrolled in a “crammer” school, and was interested in studying Engineering at Cambridge. Just as the crammer course was ending and he was hoping to enter Cambridge, a law was passed in France to draft into the army, for two years, all French boys at the age of 20. As a citizen of France J.R.D had to enlist in the army for at least 1 year. Soon the Colonel of the regiment found that there was a member of his Squadron who could not only read and write French and English, but also could type, so he assigned him as a secretary in his office. Tata was once again transferred to a more luxurious office of a colonel.
After a 12 month period of conscription in the French Army he wanted to proceed to Cambridge for further education, but his father decided to bring him back to India and he joined Tata Company. In 1929, JRD renounced his French citizenship and became an Indian citizen, and started working at Tata. In 1930 JRD married Thelma Vicaji. J. R. D. Tata was inspired early by pioneer Louis Blériot, and took to flying. On February 10, 1929, Tata obtained the first pilot licence issued in India. He later came to be known as the father of Indian civil aviation. He founded India’s first commercial airline, Tata Airlines in 1932, which became Air India in 1946, now India’s national airline.
He joined Tata & Sons as an unpaid apprentice in 1925. In 1938, at the age of 34, JRD was elected Chairman of Tata & Sons making him the head of the largest industrial group in India. He took over as Chairman of Tata Sons from his second cousin Nowroji Saklatwala. For decades, he directed the huge Tata Group of companies, with major interests in Steel, Engineering, Power, Chemicals and Hospitality. He was famous for succeeding in business while maintaining high ethical standards – refusing to bribe politicians or use the black market.
Under his chairmanship, the assets of the Tata Group grew from US$100 million to over US$5 billion. He started with 14 enterprises under his leadership and half a century later on July 26, 1988, when he left, Tata & Sons was a conglomerate of 95 enterprises which they either started or in which they had controlling interest.
He was the trustee of the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust from its inception in 1932 for over half a century. Under his guidance, this Trust established Asia’s first cancer hospital, the Tata Memorial Center for Cancer, Research and Treatment, in Bombay in 1941. It also founded the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS, 1936), the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR, 1945), and the National Center for Performing Arts.
In 1945, he founded Tata Motors. In 1948, JRD Tata launched Air India International as India’s first international airline. In 1953, the Indian Government appointed JRD Tata as Chairman of Air India and a director on the Board of Indian Airlines – a position he retained for 25 years. For his crowning achievements in aviation, he was bestowed with the title of Honorary Air Commodore of India.
JRD Tata cared greatly for his workers. In 1956, he initiated a program of closer ’employee association with management’ to give workers a stronger voice in the affairs of the company. He firmly believed in employee welfare and espoused the principles of an eight-hour working day, free medical aid, workers’ provident scheme, and workmen’s accident compensation schemes,which were later, adopted as statutory requirements in India. He was also a founding member of the first Governing Body of NCAER, the National Council of Applied Economic Research in New Delhi,India’s first independent economic policy institute established in 1956.
In 1968, he founded Tata Consultancy Services. In 1979, Tata Steel instituted a new practice: a worker being deemed to be “at work” from the moment he leaves home for work till he returns home from work. This made the company financially liable to the worker for any mishap on the way to and from work. In 1987, he founded Titan Industries. Jamshedpur was also selected as a UN Global Compact City because of the quality of life, conditions of sanitation, roads and welfare that were offered by Tata Steel.