The Second Time Around, Go Where Your Heart Leads You

You are a successful senior executive who is contemplating an exit after 20+ exciting and rewarding years in the industry — at a large corporate, or at your own venture that you founded and built. But you have this nagging question in the back of your head. “What do I do after I exit? Yes, take that long planned sabbatical for a year and travel the world,but what after that? I am surely not ready to retire (my spouse surely doesn’t fancy the idea:)). Go start another venture? Take up another CEO role? Become a whole-time Investor? But why do that? Hmmm, why even exit from the current one in the first place?!”

We constantly run into many executives who are faced with this dilemma, at a stage in life where they have achieved a lot professionally but are wondering how to transition to the next phase of their life. They are keen to embark on a new voyage where they can continue to be as driven and excited, but they would like it to be much more than just a job or a career anymore. Often, this sounds too vague and wishful. But it is a real complex question, and one that each one of us is going to face sooner or later. So, we decided to meet and talk with one such leader, Raju Reddy, who is making this transition admirably well, and see what we can all learn from his experience.

Raju Reddy was the CEO of Sierra Atlantic, a global business & IT solutions provider that he founded in 1993. Sierra was acquired by Hitachi Consulting in 2011. At the time of acquisition, Sierra Atlantic employed 2500 people with offices in India, US and China among 12 country operations. Prior to Sierra Atlantic, Raju served 15 years in technology and management at Intel.

Raju exited Sierra Atlantic post the acquisition by Hitachi. Today, Raju continues to be an Advisor to Hitachi; he is a Limited Partner at 6 leading Venture Capital firms in Silicon Valley; He is a Director and Past-President of the India Community Center in Silicon Valley; He is a Director of ActionForIndia (AFI), a non-profit that helps social innovators in India overcome barriers to scale and achieve greater impact at the Bottom of the Pyramid. He served as the Chairman of BITSAA International, the Alumni Body of his alma-mater BITS, Pilani, India. He is an active angel investor and serves on the Boards of several companies that he has invested and helped scale. He runs startup initiatives like the Billion Dollar Babies at TiE Silicon Valley, and social-sector initiatives like the Kakatiya Sandbox in India. What differentiate the activities that Raju is involved in are the nature and scale of impact that he has envisaged. Here, below, are some of the takeaways from our conversation with Raju Reddy:

Go Where Your Heart Leads You

If there is one predominant and recurring theme that is common among all the ideas or projects that Raju Reddy has pursued, it is its connection with India. It is apparent that Raju Reddy’s desire for a connect with India has been particularly high — an order of magnitude higher than what we have typically seen among most other Indian Americans like him. Raju tells us that, over the last 15+ years, he has made a trip to India at least once every 3 months! When he started Sierra Atlantic in the Silicon Valley in the 90s, he simultaneously started a subsidiary with a rather large offshore presence in India. Such a model was rather unique for its time. He co-founded SIPA (Silicon Valley Indian Professional Association) in 1987 and has been actively involved with TiE in Silicon Valley & globally.

Raju believes that your chances of success, both emotional and/or financial, are highest when the work you embark on, post exit, is something that you bond with strongly, and which is very close to your heart. This is a key takeaway.

Raju Reddy has focused a lot of his efforts, post exit, to working with India, in both the Entrepreneurial sector and the Social Sector. He has invested in a few dozen startup ventures from India, and is involved in several social projects in rural India, where he hopes to see impact at scale.

Another example of Raju’s belief that you need to go where your heart leads you, is his extensive involvement with his alma-mater, BITS Pilani, India. Raju has been the Chairman of BITSAA International, which is the alumni organization of BITS, and been involved in various projects to help raise funds, upgrade the Institute’s infrastructure, and connect the Institute’s students with its illustrious alumni around the globe. Particularly worthy of mention has been the BITS Spark Program that he launched in partnership with BITS and its alumni, with the goal of establishing BITS Pilani as a top Center of Entrepreneurship in all of Asia! Says Raju, “The inspiration for this came from MIT. One of their studies projected that the enterprise value of startups created by entrepreneurs from MIT stood at 2 Trillion dollars. If MIT were an independent country, it would be in the top 6 or 7 economies in the world. If India is to become a top 3 economy in the world, Could BITS Pilani create such an impact for entrepreneurs from India?” BITS Spark aims to learn from and replicate in India what MIT has achieved in the US, in terms of the kind and scale of entrepreneurial success its alumni have achieved over the years. BITS Spark has already identified and funded 8–9 high potential companies and BITS startups have raised over $250million in funding since this program started.

Mentorship is a Two Way Street

Raju has been working with entrepreneurs for a long time now. Even while he was at Sierra Atlantic, he had made investments in startups like Redbus and Cogno Vision, which later got acquired by Intel. He has made 25 angel investments in the last 5–6 years, 90% of them since the Sierra Atlantic exit and he acts as an LP in 6 venture funds.

Raju believes that a big part of the reason why he has thoroughly enjoyed his angel investing and mentoring activity, and succeeded financially too, is the opportunity it has given him to work with young entrepreneurs from India. He says he does not go into it thinking he is doing some good for the people he is mentoring.

He recalls that his biggest successes have come from working with first-time entrepreneurs from India’s middle class families. Many of these people hail from interior towns, and these kids are transforming India. “There is so much to learn from them,” he says excitedly. “Their energy and enthusiasm is infectious, and you gain just by being around them.” In his opinion, the confidence level of these entrepreneurs, and their scale of ambition, is so high that it is only a matter of time before the next Google or Facebook emerges from India!

Play to Your Strengths and Focus Where Your Knowledge and Experience are Most Relevant

Raju feels that it is important for him to do things that scale and make a huge impact. And he feels he can do this best by focusing on areas he has prior relevant knowledge and experience.

While he did invest in a few India consumer focused companies like Redbus initially, and met with success too, he quickly shifted his focus to companies that operate out of India but are targeting the global market, particularly the US and other developed markets, which is where his personal knowledge, experience and contacts are most relevant. In addition to market access and strategy, he feels that experienced entrepreneurs like him can add a lot of value in helping identify, build and nurture the right global team, and guide them in navigating global market environments, and most importantly in helping them scale.

One such initiative he is very excited and proud of is the ‘Billion Dollar Babies’ Program. The Program’s goal is to identify select companies out of India with global potential, and help them scale to be Billion Dollar companies, with the help of successful Indian Americans like himself in the US. Four such companies have already been selected into the program, and they are already seeing some very encouraging results with 100–200% year-on-year revenue growth!

“It takes a village to bring up a child. Think of Billion Dollar Babies as that village of Indian-Americans helping Indian startups,” says Raju. tweet

Join Hands with Other Passionate Leaders Like You

In almost every project Raju has embarked on over the last decade, he has sought to leverage the knowledge and experience of other leaders who share his passion and/or who have worked and created impact in the areas he is passionate about. He has worked closely with his mentor Kanwal Rekhi, and several members of TiE Silicon Valley over the years to connect better with the Indian entrepreneurial ecosystem. He works closely with a number of BITS Pilani alumni around the world as he tries to make his alma mater BITS Pilani a beacon of technology entrepreneurship in India, and all of Asia. The BITS Spark program is one of many such initiatives he has launched with other BITS alumni. Another person Raju Reddy has worked closely with is BV Jagadeesh, a successful serial entrepreneur, angel investor and philanthropist in the Valley. The ‘Billion Dollar Babies’ Program is, for instance, a joint initiative that Raju has launched with BV Jagadeesh.

Another leader who Raju Reddy has partnered with as part of his Social Sector initiatives is Desh Deshpande, who created the Sandbox Ecosystem with an aim to provide a nurturing environment that can foster social innovation and entrepreneurship in India, particularly rural India. Raju Reddy has partnered with Deshpande to understand and learn from the ‘(Social Innovation) Sandbox’ that Deshpande setup in Hubli, Karnataka, and replicate the same in his home state of Telangana in India. Raju is running this initiative, the Kakatiya SandBox, by joining hands with a successful young entrepreneur and a fellow BITSian, Phanindra Sama.

Create Impact at Scale

The Kakatiya Sandbox works in the compact geographic area comprising of 3 Telangana districts, and enables a living laboratory for a diverse range of entrepreneurs and development practitioners to get their ideas tested, strengthened and sustained over a period of time. At the bottom of the sandbox approach is Raju Reddy’s, and the Deshpande Foundation’s quest to create critical mass to take up social entrepreneurial solutions of various magnitudes and scope.

Raju is thoroughly enjoying his efforts with the Sandbox. Aside from his passion to be involved in things that can create impact at scale, Raju feels he is learning so much along the way, in areas he knew nothing about. For instance, he is learning about the problems of cotton farmers in India, and the challenges they face. Cotton farmers in the area have been grappling, for decades, with serious issues of suicide due to low yield. The initial pilot program to help improve yield has been underway, and within just a few months of effort and a small amount of capital, they have been able to touch the lives of over 10,000 farmers! “It’s intellectually very stimulating”, he says. “Even more importantly, it is educative to see how much you can do with just a little commitment of your time and money. Imagine the leverage!”

Raju hopes to be able to bring the rigor and organization of running business enterprises to address social issues, and bring about change and impact at scale.

And Raju Reddy, and his partners, hope to do just that through the Sandbox Initiatives. As David Starr Jordan, the founding President of Stanford University says, “Wisdom is knowing what to do; Skill is knowing how to do it and Virtue is doing it. “Raju Reddy’s mantra for success in the second innings seems to be to get all three elements together at scale.


Originally published at www.anupartha.com on February 19, 2016.

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