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Desh Deshpande
Friday, November 21, 2008
From millions to billions! That’s how many perceive Gururaj “Desh” Deshpande today. But earning claim to the title of “one of the richest Indians on the planet” wasn’t all smooth sailing for Deshpande.
Armed with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from IIT, Madras, Deshpande moved to Canada to further continue his education. He received his Master’s in electrical engineering from the University of New Brunswick and a Ph.D. in data communications from Queens University in Ontario. This strong foundation in academics led soft-spoken Deshpande to set his sights on a teaching career. He was convinced he had found his life’s vocation.

However, after teaching for a while, Deshpande was enticed by one of his fellow professors into joining Codex Corp., a growing manufacturer of modems. His stint at Codex proved very lucrative for the company — in return, Deshpande profited from the experience, getting to know the right people in the investment and technology communities.

Codex ignited the entrepreneurial fire dormant in Deshpande. He left Codex in 1987 to start Coral Networks, a router developer, with $3 million in seed funding. His initial foray into the world of entrepreneurship was not what Deshpande had anticipated, however; product delays, financial problems and ongoing disagreements with his financial partner forced him to leave Coral Networks. “It was one of the toughest decisions I ever made,” says Deshpande.

This was a trying period for both Deshpande and his wife, who had relinquished her job as software engineer a couple of weeks before he walked out of Coral Networks. And since Deshpande had worked at Coral with no pay for almost two years, the couple had nothing to fall back on.

Deshpande took a four-month sabbatical in India before returning to the US although his family considered the second attempt futile. But the adverse experience, rather than disheartening him, further fuelled Deshpande’s entrepreneurial fire, making him resolute to succeed. “I had no money, but once you’ve run a company, it’s very tough to work for anyone else again,” recalls Deshpande.

With only $1,000 of his own and a little financial help from a sanguine venture capitalist, Deshpande drew up a business plan for his new company, Cascade Communications. His plan was to create a new public network for global computer connectivity.

Cascade, a developer of frame-relay equipment, proved to be a small trickle that turned into a flood of fortune for Deshpande. The company went public in 1994, growing to be a company with 1,000 employees and eventually being sold to Ascend Communications for $3.7 billion in 1997.

Although Deshpande remained on Ascend’s board, his entrepreneurial hunger was still not satisfied. Along with friend and Cascade colleague Daniel Smith, he turned his attention to the new buzz in the network industry: optical switching. Together with Smith he formed Sycamore Networks, in the process defining a new market: intelligent optical networking.

In little over a year, Sycamore’s IPO shook the stock markets, setting a record for the highest market value achieved by an Internet company in its first day of trading.

The financial pundits were in a tizzy, the media stopped their presses and within a few hours Deshpande went from millions to billions.

Derek Nunes

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