K.B. Chandrasekhar

By Kavita Chhibber

The first thing that strikes you about K.B.Chandrasekhar is his energy. For someone who has barely had 4 hours of sleep in 3 days and has a red eye flight to catch in a few hours to head back to California, Chandra, as he is popularly known, is amazingly effervescent.He is confident without being arrogant. He made me smile as he said with the wide-eyed candor of a child, "I just like to win." It has been quite a journey for this South Indian Brahmin from the land of Chennai, from almost on the verge of bankruptcy several times in the quest of his dream, to unbelievable success of net worth of over 500 million.


I caught up with KB Chandrasekhar at the GIACC networking dinner to trace the Exodus man's personal exodus for his place in the sun in the land of opportunities.

So lets talk about the beginnings!
I come from a typical middle class, conservative joint family with parents and grand parents. They have been my biggest inspiration in every respect. When I was 12 or 13, my father would often discuss about stocks as well as the economy. He actually allowed me to buy stocks based on my own recommendation and would take me to the annual general meetings of some of these companies. In 1975, no one even knew of the word equity. My father brought us up in an intellectual environment and instilled good business sense, even though he was not a businessman.
I then joined the well known Software Company Wipro in 1983 and I remember those days very fondly. To Wipro, relationships were more important and my tenure there reinforced the fact that people were the best asset you could have. I always had this burning passion to start my own business. Never did I think that I could ever have the guts or the ability to pull something like that off. When you work in a corporate environment, in an assigned job you don't really know what your strength and weaknesses are.
Since 1988 I was trying to figure out what to do and had actually put together a business plan to start a network integration company in India way back in 1990 and that's where I
would have started. But fate had other things in store. I came to USA in the middle of 1990 through a company Roltas that I was working for. The first shock was to find yourself in a country where, if you did not have a credit card, you were dead.

So did you find USA to be the land of opportunity as is envisioned by every one?
Absolutely! Silicon Valley was the sacred place which housed companies like Sun Microsystems & Intel, names you heard and revered in India. I realized that this was a fantastic land, where no one would spoon-feed you, but if you had vision, courage, creativity and were willing to work hard, no one and nothing will stand in your way to success. In 1992-93, there were not that many Indians in Silicon Valley, and barely any Indian grocery stores Now it's like being in an Indian city away from home.
In 1992, I took the plunge and was later joined by another partner B. V. Jagdeesh and helped by another friend Sundar who executed projects for us in India without taking payments in advance. Had it not been for that gesture , there was no way I would have managed the funding for my company. Now when I look back, I can't believe I actually took the chance to start Fouress. I had $4500 left and was about to return to India, when an order from Sunmicrosystems involving a project in India came up. I had a wife and two small children ages 4 and 2 with me. I just figured I had 2 months to either make it happen or run out of money, in which case I could go back to my house in Madras. There is a saying, “If you are too young, you don't know what fear is and when you don't know what fear is. you don't worry about it."
Fouress (a consulting company that specialized in networking) was truly an exciting time for me. Jagdeesh and I were two men with the same vision. Till today we talk about how we took such risks, giving personal guarantees. with AT&T sending notices that if you don't pay the bill we will attach your house, except that I had no house to attach! I was still in a small 2-bedroom apartment. I think luck played a very important part. Soon we moved from a 100 square feet office to a 4000 square feet office, which was very big
jump for us.

And then came Exodus!
In 1994 the idea for Exodus came about. Unlike Fouress which was a cash and carry business, Exodus was a huge financial commitment. Exodus began with providing companies management information services. With the launch of the Netscape browser, I immediately saw the potential of what an impact it would have on the world, and decided to switch gears to gain first mover advantage in the field of internet services I had never borrowed money for Fouress. With Exodus, we were leveraged in every possible way. We had to buy equipment, routers, servers, everything. It was like starting from scratch. Venture funding was not available in those days. Secondly we were way ahead of our time, since Internet as a concept was not really well known. Thirdly, this was a services oriented business, which was beyond the comprehension of the VCs. For them it was- ship a CD or a box and I'll give you money. It was during that time that I met Kanwal Rekhi at a TIE meeting. I went to him and said you are from Novell, so you know TCPIP This is my business plan. I didn't hear from him for 3 months.
Meanwhile I was getting in deeper and deeper financial trouble, while getting more and more customers Yet, the customers stayed, our employees stayed in spite of bounced pay checks. I tried every creative way to get money. I was really getting the blues waking up at nights and crying why is this happening to me? Finally Kanwal called me three months later, met me and proceeded to tear my plan and me to shreds for the next 15 minutes! He advised me not to scatter our forces because fundamentally we were trying to be in too many areas. He also wanted to bring a new CEO in the company which I said I would welcome. I have always believed that while you must have passion, you HAVE to be a team player and always make decisions based on what is best for the company. In fact, after Exodus went public, I brought in Ellen Hancock to become CEO. I wanted someone better than me to be there. Anyway, Kanwal gave me $200,000 around Christmas, and later introduced me to others who invested as well. From then on we never looked back. Exodus went public in 1998 and became the most successful IPO of that year.
Your latest venture is a company called Jamcracker which you co-founded in July 1999. Jamcracker is a provider of enterprise IT business applications and services It was named Fortune magazine's `Cool Companies 2000' and Red Herring's 50 Most Important Private Companies'. I have opened a branch in Atlanta. Atlanta is truly the gateway of the south. I am a big believer in the city of Atlanta. I met the Governor and was delighted to see how accessible, knowledgeable, wonderfully progressive man he is and so committed to putting the state in the forefront of technology in every other way."

When you mentor companies what do you look for?
"I look at the people behind the idea. I started mentoring a company called AZTEC in late 1998 early 1999 in India. People said to me Chandra, you are brain dead. Why are you investing a million and a half dollars in a company in India when the company has less than 10 people and the management is not even well known? I said, I know the owner, and what's most important is that these people are hungry and want to succeed. They are also willing to listen. Today the owner Partha is one of the most successful entrepreneurs in India, having created a company of 400 people, over 25 million in revenue and took the company public in 18 months. This will so be an inspiration to those In India who might have thought, Oh Chandra went to USA and that's why he did well. Now they know it can be done right here at home too."

You have Aztec e4e and e-healthcare in India There are complains that there is red tape and VCs have a problem investing. Is it true?
Absolutely not. Last year I was the chairman of the Chandrasekhar committee for reforming venture capital in India. I set up e4e, a holding company in a matter of weeks with $125 million in funds. I faced no red tape of any kind. I’m not saying it does not happen, but I have dealt with so many government officials and they have all listened. Right from the ministers all the way to the Prime Minister.

So are the Indian bureaucrats more IT savvy now?
Absolutely, and it's not because of any feelings of altruism, but because IT is now the largest dollar earner today for the country and people are coming to the realization that they need the money. I am on the advisory board of the IT ministry as well as the Telecom ministry. I feel it's our job to give back to our country the knowledge we have gained abroad.

You are also involved in many non profit projects in India.
Yes and it's a matter of great pride for me. I have focused on four areas very dear to my heart.I am a big believer in improving sanitation, healthcare, education and preserving the Hindu religion. In sanitation, I started a project in Karnataka to provide urinals for the trIbals. I have also set up two primary health càre centers down south through the Hindu Mission of Shankracharya. The idea is to create several primary health care centers, mobile or fixed, but tie them to a central hub hospital to take care of basic health care of people. The third area I have focused on is in education. I have created an Intellectual center in bio-informatics because it is a unique area of combining biology and Information technology. We understand that area very well, plus that could be used in the future for creating drugs for tropical diseases which no advanced country in the world is going to develop. I am also focusing on how you can get Internet to the villages. We are looking to see how the power lines themselves can be used to create the Internet connections.
Finally in the area of Hindu religion, I am part of a plan to set up a school to revive and preserve the Vedic style of education with Gurukul kind of schools. We have one already
near Madras and are also working for the creation of a Hindu University.

It has been quite a journey from Chennai hasn't it?
Absolutely. Though I thrive on the fast pace and my work is my real passion, there are times I miss those simple pleasures of sitting and sipping tea at the corner of the street
chatting with my people without a care in the world. I do reserve some days for Chennai, and even if its an 18-hour day, just being amongst my people automatically relaxes me.
I love being around people, love south Indian food and love creating value. For me, life has only begun at 40, and the future has got to be exciting.

 

 

                                                                                                                                                                      All Material © Copyright Kavita Chhibber


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