Jag Lamba Of Certa: I Am Living Proof Of The American Dream
Work harder: This one is obvious, but the hunger that immigrants bring to the world around us is not only fuel for success but also for big, positive changes in the industry- or world-wide.
Is the American Dream still alive? If you speak to many of the immigrants we spoke to, who came to this country with nothing but grit, resilience, and a dream, they will tell you that it certainly is still alive.
As a part of our series about immigrant success stories, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jag Lamba.
Jag is the founder and CEO of Certa, a third party lifecycle management platform for procurement, compliance, and ESG. Certa is backed by Techstars and top global VCs. A Wharton and McKinsey alum, Jag lives in Saratoga, CA, and loves hiking and playing soccer with his son.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I grew up in a suburb of Mumbai, India. When I was young, my life was all about sports: I’d play a few hours of tennis every afternoon and join friends for soccer and cricket in the evenings.
As a Sikh, I grew up wearing a turban and looked different from other kids. It can be hard when you’re young, wondering why you have to stand out and not just blend in with the others, but over time I grew thicker skin and stopped caring if others wanted to make fun of me. As an entrepreneur, that thick skin has become one of my super powers, I now feel completely at ease pitching game-changing ideas. I don’t care if others think I’m nuts — that’s their problem.
Was there a particular trigger point that made you emigrate to the US? Can you tell us the story?
There wasn’t a single point where my desire to come here switched on; it was always something on the horizon. Growing up in India in the 80s and 90s, the sentiment was common: if you got the opportunity to move to the United States, you do it, and you don’t think twice. To us, the U.S. was the land of opportunity and a ticket to a better life.
Since I’ve been here, it’s become clear to me that the U.S. is just that — and much more. It has enabled me to grow not just as a professional, but also as a person. I am forever grateful to this country for that.
Can you tell us the story of how you came to the USA? What was that experience like?
I moved to the US by myself in 1998. I was just 22 years old at the time. I had previously visited New York City on a business trip, and I absolutely fell in love with it. I thought cities like this were just in movies or dreams; filled with energy, restaurants and bars, culture, bright lights, and people from every walk of life. But here it was, real as could be. I wanted it to be my city and, from there on out, made it my mission to move to New York.
And I did. I arrived with just $2,000 and a suitcase full of odd-looking clothes — especially for Manhattan in 1998. There was already plenty of culture shock from the outset, but my first job at McKinsey in Midtown only added to that. It was packed with fast-talking, smartly-dressed, confident, and good-looking folks. I wanted to fit in, so I tried to give up all things Indian to come off as a New Yorker and an American foremost.
What I realized only later is that what makes New York (and the entire U.S.) so great…folks have the permission to be who they are and don’t have to fit a single, narrow definition of what it means to be a New Yorker (or an American). You can be an American no matter where you came from.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped make the move more manageable? Can you share a story?
My colleague and first officemate at McKinsey, Nat McNamara, really made me feel at ease during that period when I was still getting used to life in New York. He invited me to socialize with him and his friends and was accepting and forgiving of my eccentricities — most of which still persist to this day! And most importantly, he did not treat me differently based on where I came from. He was a ton of fun and I’m grateful for his friendship.
So how are things going today?
Sometimes I really have to pinch myself. I never imagined in my wildest dreams that I would be able to live the life that I am so fortunate to be living today. I get to work on an idea that has the potential to change how business is conducted globally, with support from some of the most talented folks and the best investors. I’m very lucky.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Thanks to the opportunities I’ve had in America, I was able to found Certa in 2016. At Certa, our SaaS solution makes it easy for companies to work with good suppliers and partners. By “good,” I mean companies that will not only keep your data safe and private and deliver on their commitments, but also those that are committed to sustainability and having a positive social impact. And these good suppliers and partners also end up choosing good suppliers and partners to work with them, which creates a virtuous circle. This is the best way I know how to create a positive impact and bring goodness to the world.
You have first hand experience with the US immigration system. If you had the power, which three things would you suggest to improve the system?
Legal immigration in the U.S. has dropped significantly over the last few years — this will have a negative impact on America’s competitiveness. With the irreversible trend toward remote work, you no longer have to move to the U.S. to work at the best American firms. However, even though you can work from anywhere, the U.S. is still the most attractive place for entrepreneurs and change-makers.
The top three changes around the immigration system that I would suggest are:
- Send a clear message to the world that the U.S. still welcomes immigrants. That message has gotten a bit muddled over the last few years, and a reminder that this country was built by and continues to thrive thanks to immigrants would be welcome.
- Implement a points system like Canada, which serves to attract the folks whose talent is most urgently needed by U.S. firms.
- Welcome additional refugees. The poem under the Statue of Liberty, “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus, is an inspirational symbol of hope to those struggling in unfortunate circumstances around the world: “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” To lose that would be to lose a lot of what makes America so special.
Can you share “5 keys to achieving the American dream” that others can learn from you? Please share a story or example for each.
Some of these might be clichés, but they have held true for me:
1. Dream bigger: Every single time I wondered if I was thinking too big, I realized that, in fact, I wasn’t dreaming nearly big enough. Wherever I wondered if I could do things like:
- get a job at a firm like McKinsey,
- get into a top-tier MBA program,
- sign some of the biggest U.S. firms as clients, or
- raise money from some of my heroes
…the answer has always been yes so far.
2. Work harder: This one is obvious, but the hunger that immigrants bring to the world around us is not only fuel for success but also for big, positive changes in the industry- or world-wide.
3. Pay attention to the family: Immigrants often get too caught up chasing financial success at the cost of personal relationships. Don’t forget your roots, where you come from, or to take care of the people around you.
4. Keep a learning mindset: The American Dream stops when you stop learning and growing. There is a lot that I have learned from my American neighbors, friends, and colleagues, even those who are on the opposite side of the political spectrum as me. Always remain curious as to what you don’t know, or what you could learn to do better.
5. Give back: Not just to the country where you came from or to developing countries, but also to our fellow Americans. The inequality and poverty in this land of plenty is unfortunately very real. If you’re in a position to help others, you should.
We know that the US needs improvement. But are there 3 things that make you optimistic about the US’s future?
The single biggest thing that makes me optimistic about the U.S.’s future is how our culture, systems, and incentives encourage people to take risks and create new things. Innovation is what drives us forward.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this, especially if we tag them. :-)
I will happily buy breakfast for any procurement or compliance leaders who would be willing to talk shop on something new and exciting that we are working on at Certa. That’s top of mind for me at this time :)
What is the best way our readers can further follow your work online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!