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Bharat Desai & Neerja Sethi
Friday, November 21, 2008
Bharat Desai and Neerja Sethi are one of only a few husband-and-wife duos that are together in business. While still students in the 1980s, the two started Syntel with about $2,000. The computer consulting company completed an initial public offering in 1997 and, according to Desai, Syntel has already created 15 millionaires. He expects to raise the number to 100.
Desai was born in Kenya and spent his childhood in Mombasa and Ahmedabad before attending the Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai. He worked briefly for Tata Consultancy Services, a company whose business model he would somewhat mimic in creating Syntel. The job reportedly earned him Rs. 769 a month, and he was determined to start a business of his own.

He then headed to the United States where he joined the University of Michigan’s M.B.A. program. That is when he and Neerja founded Syntel, braving early hardships before building it into a publicly owned company with revenues of over $150 million, a staff of several thousand and offices in many parts of the world.

In the first year of operations, Syntel reportedly earned only $30,000 in revenue but Desai was persistent. “I think most people thought I was cheeky even to try” to enter the American software service industry instead of being “an ordinary programmer,” Desai once told an interviewer. He also spoke of “biases in some people’s minds” even though he didn’t consider it actual prejudice. Regardless, he was once told not to “ever set foot in this company again” by a senior executive. The defiant Desai didn’t heed this advice; he now says the company is one of Syntel’s biggest customers, though the executive in question is no longer with the company.

Syntel acquired steady business since it signed on General Motors as a client in 1982. Two years later, it reported $1 million in revenues and since then has grown steadily. Setting up offices in India enabled the company to slash labor costs and progress toward the concept of the 24-hour workday. Syntel also recruited Indians and other foreigners, in large numbers to supplement its workforce in the US. Some of these practices, however, drew the attention of the US Department of Labor, which ordered an investigation into Syntel’s labor practices.

Regardless of such difficulties, Syntel attained their fair share of recognition and success. Money magazine recognized it as one of the top 50 stocks of 1998; Forbes magazine named Syntel the number-two company on its “Best 200 small companies in America” list; the company ranked 29 on Individual Investor magazine’s 1998 “America’s Fastest Growing Companies” list; and, on Business Week’s “Hot Growth Companies” list, Syntel ranked 70th overall.

Desai and Sethi have two children, both born in the US.

Bala Murali Krishna

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