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Straight from the Gut
Pradeep Shankar
Wednesday, November 5, 2008
The audacity of hope does seem to be a skimpy little virtue quite often. But, for those who have the audacity to hope have little choice but to make it come true. It was this virtue that made Kumar Srinivasan and Kalyan Raman(Kal) to emerge from the humble environs of the village in which they were born to the sophisticated corporate world. Successfully breaking the shackles of poverty that ruined the mirth of their boyhood, the two brothers today reign the corporate world—Kumar Srinivasan as the General Manager, Vice President of Technology and Head of Amazon Bangalore Center and Kalyan Raman as the CEO of Global Scholar.

They have come a long way, though the journey was not an easy one. "It's neither easy now", adds Kumar. But that never deterred them. Challenges fuelled their hope, and every trial and triumph turned out to be a new learning experience. The story is not a 'rags to riches' story, but it is more about the growth of two individuals who had the innate wisdom and an undying spirit. Truly validating the words, "We are all born with a divine spark in us. Our effort should be to give wings to this fire and fill the world with the glow of its goodness."

The Cost of Being Poor

On Diwali morning in 1987 Kumar Srinivasan woke up just as he did every day. His biggest Diwali gift was waiting for him. "My brother gave me Rs. 10 and he was budgeting this for the last 3 months," recalls Kumar.

With no breakfast, he used to walk 10-12 kms everyday to go to school. Luckily for him, the then Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu M.G. Ramachandran had introduced Midday Meal Scheme for school children in the state. "That's why my mom always voted for MGR’s party," quips Kumar. While he looked forward to the much-needed meal—sambar bath with a few pieces of carrot and tomato, Kumar would stay back after all students had left to wash the vessels. This would earn him an extra plate of meal, which he promptly packed and brought home. Sometime he would give it to his younger brother in whose school the scheme was yet to be introduced, and sometimes the morsel of food would be lunch for his sister next day. His childhood memories still bear the imprints of a household bonded by the pressures of poverty.

Kumar’s family lived in such abject poverty that they reached a point when they had nothing left in the house that could be sold to meet the next day’s expenses. It was then that his mother decided to sell the only ceiling fan left in the house. Selling the fan would buy them food for another one full week. "The situation was so miserable that I remember my mother selling our stainless steel plates, in which we would eat, for 50 paise," narrates Kumar.

"I still remember passing down the clothes to my younger brothers. The trousers that the youngest one used to wear to go to school had more white patches on it than its original blue color because of the stitches," nostalgically says Kumar’s elder brother Kalyan Raman (Kal). His energy and passion are very obvious in his words. And it is this energy and passion that were a common trait amongst all the siblings. He says, "We never felt we were poor. Even though we weren't all that happy, we were peaceful because we always lived on hope. The beauty of hope is that when you have nothing else left to lean upon, you get used to be peaceful. You wait for miracles to happen. Waiting for miracles helps remain hopeful," says Kal.

Born in an ordinary middle class family, they had got into poverty quite accidentally. Kumar’s father was a tahsildhar (taluk administrator). The family enjoyed the amenities of a government officer, like furnished quarters, jeeps, and servants. His dad was a self-contained person and believed in helping the needy. But the harmful habit of alcohol that he developed unfortunately led to his untimely death. He left behind a huge debt as well. Soon the family—mother and five kids—found themselves in the street since they had to vacate the government quarters.

Relatives helped their mother to find a rented house in the village. But they also distanced themselves from them in no time. She made a bold call and took it upon her shoulders saying, "I want every kid to be educated to the best of their abilities. Nobody is going to discontinue education and take a job for a short term gain. If we have to suffer for a few years, so be it." Many of their relatives thought otherwise. They saw no need for all the kids to go to school. Her stubbornness to send children to school only meant that relatives would stop helping. It didn't matter much to her. It is only in retrospect, that her children fully understand how deeply this innate wisdom and generosity of spirit of hers guided them on the path they ultimately took.

Kumar’s mother made a smart move in handpicking Kal and sending him to a hostel in the same village for formal education. Kal was optimistic, passionate, and always willing to take risks. Perhaps, these characteristics of his made his mother select him for this.
Kal was indeed a brilliant boy and his mother knew he possessed an abiding sense of wonder, a reverence for life, and an audacity to hope, dream, and pursue his aspirations. He stood first in his district in the 12th standard (plus 2) after which he got admission to both engineering and medical colleges. The medical college was in the district headquarters itself, just 20 kms from Kal's village. He opted for engineering, which meant he had to go to Chennai. "The only reason why I didn't want to join MBBS was I didn't want my career to start and end in my district. I wanted to go as far away as possible. One has to take risks in life to know what he is made up of. If you attempt to do something meaningful, always aim at being disproportionate," he says. Indeed, does the seagull not fly across the sun, alone and without a nest?

To move away from his roots, Kal was taking a bold step with strong desires to lead a life full of aspirations. He knew he had to move away to learn and grow and was sure of his decision. He came from nowhere and he was going to a place where he hardly knew anybody. He became fully involved in his studies, with a strong desire to achieve wherever he would have to live and in whatever work he would be engaged. Best students from elite schools across the state used to come there to study, and here was a kid from the village trying to compete with them. "It was not daunting, but it was exciting to me," says Kal. However, it was not a happy sign to see his classmates coming to college on bicycles, bikes, or cars. Some were wearing double bull shirts and the latest branded jeans or shoes out in the market. Kal couldn’t get the money to buy or do whatever he wanted. "I struggled," he notes.

What surprised me more was the way Kal narrated his life. He has come a long way from his days of hardship but that does not deter him from narrating the most helpless situations in his life, neither does he shy away from it. He speaks with ease and narrates with passion.

Kal recalls another incident. While he was in Anna University, like other hostel students, he would need money for his basic expenses. A postman would come to the hostel block during lunch break, sit in a prominent place and read out names of students who had received money orders from their parents. "Senthil...Rs 500; Arasu...Rs 200; Chandra...Rs 1,000; Selvam…; and so on." The students would walk up, collect the money, and tip the postman with Rs 5 or 10, as they pleased. The postman would never ever call out 'Kalyan Raman'. After the roll call, as the happy students dispersed, the postman would silently walk up to Kal and handover the Rs. 2.50 money order his mother would have sent with love. "Receiving such a meager amount would look bad for an engineering student. The postman was so thoughtful that he would not call my name as it would hurt my self respect. Even if I offered 25 paise as a friendly tip he would not accept it," recalls Kal. The thoughtful postman would only pat on his back and say, "Kalyan, study well." But the money order his mother sent him reminded Kal of a number of things and kindled his spirits, and perhaps was one of the main reasons behind what Kal has achieved today.

With almost zero money, Kal became the biggest defaulter for not paying the mess fees. The cook in the kitchen had learnt about Kal's poor condition. He would say, "I know I am not supposed to give you food but come after everyone is done with." There were several days when Kal had no food to eat. He would be eagerly waiting to grab food when day scholars at college offered him a portion of the food that they had brought from home. "It was a survival game," says Kal.

A campus offer by TCE Consulting Engineers Limited (TCE) took Kal to Bombay (now Mumbai). He would soon earn Rs 3,000 a month, money that his family hadn't seen since his dad had passed away. However, on his first day the young lad had gone to work wearing hawai chappals (bathroom slippers) and a suitcase in his hand. He traveled from Chennai, disembarked from the train at Dadar East Station, and went to office directly. The manager was stunned at seeing his attire. When the day came to a close, he did not know where to go for the night. He had no place to stay. The only place he could think of was the Dadar Station, one of the busiest railway stations in the country. It rained heavily that night and Kal had a sound sleep on the hard concrete platform in that chilling August night.

The next day he rested in the public restroom and came back to work clad in the same attire. The manager summoned him as he found it very disrespectful. On learning about Kal's extreme conditions, he got the management to make arrangements for his stay and gave him some advance money to buy a pair of shoes. Kal promptly sent the money back home, postponing the purchase of shoes to some later date.

Kal's passion for technology soon saw him switching from TCE to TCS, one of India's largest IT services company. It was during his stint at TCS that he met Vijayalakshmi, who would go on to become his life partner. TCS deputed Kal to Edinburgh, Scotland, on a project for Scottish Equitable Life Insurance Company. Over there, too, the client was impressed with Kal's work and offered him a permanent job in Scotland. But the manager was good enough to say that he was smart, he would go up the ladder in quick succession but would hit a glass ceiling in the end. He advised him to go to the land of opportunity—the Unites States of America. He also gave him a magazine, which had ads for job opportunities in the U.S. As there was no email in those days, Kal faxed his resumes to body shopping companies. Luckily for him, the interview with Wal-Mart went well and he soon landed in Atlanta, Georgia, with $100 in his pocket, two suitcases, and his wife beside him. He knew nobody there. Life changed swiftly thereafter.

Kal’s smartness to dabble with technology was quite visible to people at Wal-Mart. In less than 18 months he was promoted from the level of a programmer to the position of a Director with a mandate for running a $8 billion division. Many people were jealous of Kal's growth. It was difficult for them to digest the fact that the 26 year old became a Director in 18 months. They hadn't seen anyone getting promoted so quickly at Wal-Mart. There were as many admirers as people who weren't happy with Kal's fast rise. Soon there were several people pouncing upon him. "I was swimming with the sharks. They probably had genuine reasons and did not like my style of management. They were stunned by emotion while I was trying to be logical. I was willing to accept my mistakes and made an honest attempt to change. I gave it a hard shot to regain credibility. It was not worth it. I can change myself; I can’t change the world," says Kal.

By then Wal-Mart's President had left to join Blockbuster. Kal followed suite. As a senior director of technology at Blockbuster, Kal managed technology across 26 countries. By 2001 he joined drugstore.com as CIO.

Kumar follows Kal

Meanwhile Kumar completed his B.Sc. in Physics, and on his brother's advice he landed in
Chennai and joined SSI for Diploma in Computers. He recalls his first job in a small company with no salary for six months and a meager amount of Rs. 200 thereafter. However this did not deter him from working hard for long hours. Soon things started to change for the better. He then went to the U.S. to join his brother in Wal-Mart. This was followed by stints in Blockbuster and drugstore.com. His biggest breakthrough happened at Travelocity where he rose to the position of Vice President of Technology at a young age of 31.

His urge to switch from technology to business brought him to Amazon where he currently is the General Manager and Vice President responsible for a business unit, while being the head of the India center. However, Kumar doesn't agree to the fact that he has achieved a lot in a short span of 10 years of his professional life. "Go, look at the Facebook CEO, he is just 23. I am 13 years behind already. Everyday I think I am very much behind and need to catch up with the rest of the world," he says. In Kumar’s spirit and daring attitude to perform you cannot fail to see a mirror image of Kal.

Moving up the career ladder in quick succession requires an undaunted fighting spirit. "It is this spirit that has brought me to where I am today," notes Kumar. He mentions that such skills are developed early on in one's life. "Progression doesn't happen because we take things for granted. For instance, getting new clothes for Diwali is taken for granted. In our case, we had to fight for five years to get clothes for one Diwali," says Kumar. With that fighting spirit coupled with an exposure to the realities of life at the bottom of the food chain, it's difficult for him now to be satisfied with anything. One has to constantly fight and grow up.

In the times of trouble

Not only in his personal life, in his career too has Kal seen unexpected calamities and downturns. He joined drugstore as CTO in 1998 and later served as COO. In April 2001 he became the CEO. He was 34, pretty young to be a public company CEO. Unfortunately, Sept 11 happened. Like any other stock, drugstore stock plummeted drastically from $60 to 47 cents. The company was losing money and the stock was at the verge of being delisted. Kal told his team, "Any business has some controllable input variables and some uncontrollable output variables. We need to focus on controlling the controllable." In addition to growing revenues during his four years as CEO, Raman cut operating expenses by $90 million and brought the company to profitability. Several analysts wrote, "He has done the best he could under the circumstances."

The problem with several large companies is that there are too many smart people who will give you so many data points and put you through many intellectual exercises—it's almost close to getting paralyzed. One should not forget the fundamentals of any business—you buy something and sell it back to the customer. As long as we can sell it for a higher price than its cost price, and the difference could pay for the salaries for all the employees and meet the other expenses, your business will remain profitable. One has to figure out the best way to do it.

Kal is today the CEO of GlobalScholar.com, which offers an online tutoring platform, where parents and students can safely connect with trusted educators who provide one-on-one tutoring, homework help, or self-paced learning.

The Purpose

The family today runs three orphanages near their village, supporting 700 kids. Kal and his brothers take care of the kids' schooling, clothes, and living expenses. The family has also built classrooms for schools and is also sponsoring an old age house near their village. They are sponsoring at least 50 students at any given time for higher studies. "We engage in these activities mainly for two purposes: We don't want anyone that we know of going through the same things that we had gone through, and we believe "Education is salvation", says Kumar. Kal is quick to add, "I don't consider this as charity," but rather "a duty". This is the society, which helped me, these are the people who subsidized my "free" education, and these were the people who gave me the "hope and aspiration."

Kal remarks, as he narrates couplets in Tamil of Thiruvalluvar, a sage and philosopher who lived about 2,000 years ago: Kodithu Kodithy Varumai Kodithu Athaninum Kodithu Illamayil Varumai. It says: Poverty is very cruel; more cruel is the poverty in youth. "Poverty and richness can either be a catalyst or could be a burden to get better. It all depends on the mindset. It has everything to do with the fire in the belly or having the wings of fire. There are examples of people getting repressed and depressed by poverty and unable to get anywhere. Willing to do whatever it takes and wanting to prove a point, wanting to make a difference, wanting to be known for something—that's what differentiates. Poverty just pushes the goals farther and makes the struggle to achieve interesting, from the view point of others. It creates its own challenges. I don't think, it either hurts or helps if the person doesn't have that fire within him."

When Kal's dad passed away, he used to tell his mother, "Don't worry mother. Some day we (children) will make so much of money that you wouldn’t even know what to do with." She did believe in his words. "Neither of us had any clue as to how it will come to pass," quips Kal. And he definitely kept his promise.

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