Times change, and The Indus Entrepreneurs (TiE) is evolving to meet the needs of today’s entrepreneur.India Currents recently met with TiE Silicon Valley’s President, Venktesh Shukla, to connect at a human level and to explore how entrepreneurship and TiE have changed through the years.
Rajesh Oza: Tell us about your early life and some of the influences.
Venktesh Shukla: Although my father was in the Indian Administrative Service and lived in big cities of Madhya Pradesh, my schooling was in a small village where my grandfather lived. In my elementary school, all students sat on the floor except for one—the local zamindar’s son. He had his own table and chair, just like the teacher. It was quite an education.
I did not understand it at the time but now looking back I must have imbibed the reality of power—that some people get privileged treatment not on their own merit but on the perception of power around them. The real power had long gone as the Zamindari system had been abolished decades ago, yet the school administration in the village was awed enough to provide special treatment. Even more remarkable was the fact that no one in the village objected to this arrangement.
I went on to become an electronics engineer and quickly discovered that the only places in India, in the 1970s, where any original electronic design was happening was at public sector companies, which were almost as bureaucratic as the traditional bureaucracy, but without its impact and influence. So I took the Civil Service exam and joined traditional bureaucracy.
Once computerization started in India, I volunteered to head one of the four regional computer centers in the Income Tax department. Instead, I was sent as Deputy Commissioner to Tamil Nadu. That is when I resigned and returned back to Boston where I had gone to do a Masters in Business Administration (MBA) at the Massachussetts Institute of Technology (MIT). I started working for the world’s largest semiconductor test equipment maker, Teradyne. The allure of cutting edge technology and business was very powerful and I have stayed in the United States ever since.
How did your time at Teradyne shape your leadership style?
Everyone at Teradyne had an office cube, including the CEO. Now it is common in the Valley, but in those days and in the East Coast, this was a revolutionary idea. Any employee could walk up to anyone else’s office irrespective of the hierarchy and ask a question.
The company culture was such that if an idea could not withstand scrutiny internally, it was not likely to succeed in the marketplace. No one had a title in the company except those mandated by regulations. There were no promotions or demotions in the conventional sense. An employee’s worth was judged based on the importance of the work that was being done.
That sounds like an intrapreneurial culture. You assumed the presidency this January so you’ve had a few months on the job. Can you tell us what exactly the TiE President does and what you plan to emphasize in your role.
The TiE presidency is unique in terms of its demands. It is a large organization consisting of 270 highly successful individuals as charter members and close to 2000 members. The office staff is very small, and the vast majority of the work gets done by volunteers. The network is strong and has deep roots in the Valley. There is no fixed charter of activities other than the annual flagship conference, TiECON. It is entirely up to the initiative and imagination of the incumbent to develop his own agenda for TiE. From its inception, TiE has emphasized education, inspiration and mentorship as a way to promote entrepreneurship.
I intend to shift the emphasis from promotion of entrepreneurship to helping the entrepreneur. It is not just a change of semantics; it has real consequences in terms of programs.
When TiE got started, it filled a big hole. It inspired technology professionals to jump into entrepreneurship, educated them on how to take this plunge, and mentored them along the way.
The Valley has changed since then, or you could argue that TiE has succeeded beyond all expectations. Budding entrepreneurs don’t need to come to TiE for inspiration. There are thousands of successful entrepreneurs in the community to get inspiration from. Practically, every venture fund and law firm has a desi partner, and they all have active outreach programs.
But, entrepreneurs still need help finding mentors and advisors, money, peer support, and exposure to potential customers. These are the kinds of things that going forward TiE will focus on.
So how has entrepreneurship changed in the past decade?
The biggest difference has been in what it costs to get started. What used to cost $5m a decade ago, can now be done with $100k. Thanks to open source revolution, the ability to rent compute time by the hour, and dramatically reduced telecom costs, it is now possible for far more entrepreneurs to launch a company and test out their ideas. There is an explosion of entrepreneurship right now.
What is your own entrepreneurship experience?
I have been involved with 30 start ups either as C.E.O., an Exeutive or as an Investor/Advisor/Board Member. My first start up experience was with Ambit Design which was a hugely successful company and that pretty much gave me a taste for start ups. Since then I have been C.E.O. of Everypath and Nusym Technology with a stint at a public company, Magma Design, in between.
In early March, I read an article in the Wall Street Journal that suggested that the ROI on an MBA is far lower than getting out in the world and starting up a venture. Your thoughts?
There are some who are risk takers, those who want to have control over their agenda; they are the ones who become entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurship is not for everyone, just as corporate life is not for everyone. Entrepreneurship is about more than making money, and a huge number of MBAs do well working for big companies.
Often when I mention TiE to colleagues, they think of high-tech startups. Would you say this is a fair association or should we be using a broader understanding of TiE?
Silicon Valley is about technology mostly, and therefore TiE in Silicon Valley is mostly about technology. TiE in Jaipur, on the other hand is all about tourism, jewelry, and other industries. This year at TiECON, we have a dedicated track on social entrepreneurship where the focus is on impact investing. The goal of this category of investment is sustainability through ventures that make money while making a social impact.
How would you describe yourself?
As an incurable indophile—any time that is available from work or family is spent doing something for India or engaged with people in India or with things Indian—movies, cricket …
Thank you for helping India Currents readers connect the dots of an entrepreneurial life. n
Rajesh C. Oza is a Change Management consultant who facilitates the interpersonal development of MBA students at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.