Thiruvananthapuram: Leadership is not a trait that can be acquired overnight but something to be cultivated through exposure and experience over a period of time. There are innumerable definitions of leadership, and a whopping one million published research works on leadership! Here we are discussing about a technopreneur having such a dazzling leadership quality that
Thiruvananthapuram: Leadership is not a trait that can be acquired overnight but something to be cultivated through exposure and experience over a period of time. There are innumerable definitions of leadership, and a whopping one million published research works on leadership! Here we are discussing about a technopreneur having such a dazzling leadership quality that continues to inspire every enterprising Malayali who craves to prove his abilities in the international arena.
As a leading Malayali technnopreneur who helped position his company among the foremost international tech solutions providers, Sajan Pillai has always been an inspirational figure for the young generation Keralites who dream big. Now, after stepping down as the CEO of UST Global, Sajan is readying for his new role as a venture capitalist to support the startups from his home State in an immensely beneficial hand-holding initiative. In an interview with technopolis, Sajan speaks about his plans and vision for galvanizing the startup ecosystem of Kerala.
Twenty years ago, Sajan Pillai started off his entrepreneurial career as the Founder & CEO of US Technology which focused on the Fortune 500 market in the US. Later, in 2007, the company under his astute leadership changed its brand name to UST Global as part of its expansion of services to Europe and Asia. Sajan has recently stepped down as the CEO of UST Global after leading the company into an enviable position in the domain of foremost technology firms. Today, UST Global has a presence in 18 countries and an employee strength of more than 18,000. As the honcho of a multinational IT company, the 51-year-old has thus played a stellar role in generating employment and revenue in his home State of Kerala. Not just that, Sajan has been a really motivating presence when it comes to developing a sustainable IT ecosystem in Kerala. Thus the rise of UST Global as a multinational company under him has made Sajan an inspiring role model for the budding startup entrepreneurs of the State. “It is not glorious to be a startup” is how Sajan often recounts his own entrepreneurial journey, responding to startup promoters who are keen to know what were the challenges of his entrepreneurial career and how did he manage to overcome all those difficulties? Recently, in an hour-long chat with startups in the State at the ‘Meetup Café’ of Kerala Startup Mission (KSUM), he narrated the encouraging story of his professional career.
Born and brought up in Kerala, his adolescence was just like any other teenager who was fascinated by motorbike racing and similar activities. But what really helped initially mould Sajan the technopreneur was his engineering course at the College of Engineering Thiruvananthapuram (CET).
During his course itself Sajan managed to get involved in computer hardware and software business. He recalled an incident from his engineering college days to give a message about the connection between education and success: “One day, one of my professors who taught advanced algorithms found out that despite having less than five per cent attendance I managed to score 95 out of 100 marks in a semester test. And he didn’t hide his surprise either. I believed that the effort to learn new things should come from oneself. Later, I realised that I was not a university material and hence, I dropped my plans for pursuing PhD. So if you have children who are bored of academics, please don’t trouble them. They may prove better than all the studious people. I am not downplaying the importance of academics. In business it is more about managing your people.”
After graduating from the engineering college he attended the first and last interview of his life. Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) became interested in him since he had the experience of running a small company by then. “And, I was among a handful of graduates who were hired by TCS from Kerala. But within the first 90 days itself I realised that being an employee was not my future. I maybe the only ‘forced employee’ TCS would have ever had,” he said with a chuckle.
At a time when it was highly unusual for an employee to quit a Tata subsidiary, Sajan decided to call it quits after a brief stint at TCS Chennai and resumed chasing his dreams. “After all, I was making much more money in my business than what I drew as salary from TCS. I joined TCS only because my father insisted that I should have hands-on experience in the industry,” Sajan said.
However, Sajan’s exit didn’t in any way put an end to his career with big companies. Soon after he left TCS, he was approached by IBM Labs. The software major was in search of solutions to fix a bug in their latest OS2 human-machine interface. Sajan was required to fly to New Jersey to take up the job. He flew out on the condition that he would be allowed to return in six months for his marriage. However, on his arrival in New Jersey IBM insisted that he sign a two-year contract which, in turn, left him with no other option but to put in his papers after six months. But after his wedding, Sajan was again approached by IBM requesting him to join its new division – IBM Software. Finally, at the age of 22, he once again ended up in the US. But he left IBM Software soon and joined telecom giant MCI Communications with whom he worked for nearly a decade.
During his stint, he switched various job roles in his quest for “interesting work.’’ “I did not want to be just another core employee who works for the company. I wanted to work for the right kind of boss,” Sajan said about his philosophy at that time. At MCI, he switched various roles which saw him working with engineering, sales, marketing and even accounting teams. “My intention was,’’ he said, “to learn as much as I could.’’ Eventually, when Sajan realised that there were no more areas left at MCI which didn’t see his involvement, he decided to leave the company.
Subsequently, he joined a startup firm established by one of his close friends in the US from where he gathered substantial knowledge about the establishment and operations of a startup. Even as everything was finally falling in place for his transformation into an entrepreneur, he was forced to come back to Kerala. Following the untimely death of his younger brother, Sajan flew back to India with plans of setting up a company here.
Soon he started scouting for a space to set up a new company at Technopark. He was advised by someone to meet the US-based entrepreneur, G A Menon. But since Sajan was not willing to consider any other plans at that time he was reluctant to call Menon. But soon enough Menon himself got in touch with Sajan when he was in Chicago.
“This is how incredible things happen. He asked me where I was then, to which I replied that I was in Chicago. He insisted that I take a two-hour flight from Chicago and meet him in Los Angeles,” Sajan recalled about his first meeting with Menon which marked the beginning of his association with US Technology and UST Global which eventually saw the company evolving into an IT giant having over a billion-dollar market valuation.
“There was something in Menon which I could also relate to. I don’t believe that if there is an opportunity anybody should wait till the next morning to grab it,” Sajan recalled. It is an important lesson to new-age startups, too, he adds. “Menon advised me to join the project in Kerala along with him. That simple meeting was the beginning of UST Global,” he recounts how the company was founded without any investor deck or grey strategy.
The philosophy of Menon, according to Sajan, even before US Technology was registered as a company, was to sell the services. “There was no company in the beginning. But I called retail giant Gap and spoke to the company’s Vice President. And I was able to successfully persuade him to send us a Request for Proposal (RFP),” he said. Without wasting time, Sajan flew down to Thiruvananthapuram in the hope of quickly setting up a team at Technopark to deliver the services. He interviewed about 2000 people in 1999 and recruited 27 to start the company. But soon after returning to Los Angeles to galvanize the operations of the new company, Sajan was informed that Gap had revoked the contract worth $4 million stating that US Technology was not an incumbent in the list of its invested companies.
“We had already hired a bunch of people, made all the required investment and were all set for launching the operations. But with the withdrawal of Gap we had to start from square one,” he recalled his first real-world challenge as an IT entrepreneur.
Sajan, however, managed the situation from his home in Colorado in the US during a rainy season. “My house was flooded and it was cold. I spoke to my team in Kerala for six hours over phone from my home. I suffered frost bites on my feet because of the chilly weather. I had to keep my company running somehow. It made me realise that startups are not as glorious as they often appear from outside,” he said.
But even in such a desperate situation UST Global’s Founder-CEO was determined to go ahead with full steam. And his determination to do that was never discouraged by anyone raising caution about the considerable risks involved. “People tried to remind me that my company was a startup and I should go and work with small and medium-sized companies. But it did not make intuitive sense to me. I wanted leading clients from the global market. People initially thought I was crazy!” said Sajan, adding that it ultimately turned out to be a fantastic strategy.
The high-spirited entrepreneur in Sajan then decided to try his luck with the American multinational technology conglomerate, Cisco. Sajan had to find his way to the right man at Cisco which was valued $500 billion at that time. In the meantime, he raised funds from financiers to bridge the financial gaps in his company. He had promised the creditors to repay the amounts within four months. After a few attempts, he bumped into a Keralite who finally helped him to meet the top officials of Cisco. Sajan was quick enough to identify revamping of the company’s website as an immediate priority. Although he managed to convince the decision-makers that his team would be able to solve the problems in a very cost-effective way, there was yet another big hurdle for the Kerala IT entrepreneur to cross. While Cisco insisted on deploying experienced IT program developers for the task, most of Sajan’s new recruits were graduates fresh out of college. But he was not willing to miss the golden opportunity. “I promised the Cisco management that I have the best bunch of IT professionals in the world. But they were not ready to engage my company without interviewing my employees. Fortunately, Cisco’s management finally agreed to stick with US Technology. Within two week from then, 14 of my employees flew to the US and that’s how we took off,” Sajan said.
Sajan among top 100 CEOs chosen for Glassdoor Award
For the exceptional vision and expertise that fuelled UST Global’s phenomenal strides, SajanPillai has been selected for the coveted Employees’ Choice Award instituted by the US-based Glassdoor, one of the world’s largest job and recruiting sites. Sajan ranks 56th among the 100 CEOs selected for the award, announced by Glassdoor at Mill Valley, California. He shares the honour with Microsoft’s SatyaNadella, Google’s Sundar Pitchai, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Apple’s Tim Cook and LinkedIn’s Jeff Weiner. The awardees for 2019 also include CEOs of top companies cutting across diverse sectors spread across North America and parts of Europe.
Sajan Pillai, who holds patents in Internet Computing and Data Systems, was recently chosen as one of the elite 100 CEO Leaders in STEM by STEMConnector. Unlike other honours, Glassdoor Employees’ Choice Awards are based on the inputs of employees who voluntarily provide anonymous feedback by completing a company review about their CEO’s leadership, along with insights into their job, work environment and employer over the past year.
Sajan Pillai Announces Mega Venture Capital Fund for Startups, Project for Elderly
Giving a major fillip to Kerala’s startup ecosystem, SajanPillai has announced that he would kick-start a mega venture fund for startups to help them scale up their activities. Talking to mediapersons during his recent visit to the State, Sajan said the venture fund, with an initial corpus of $50 to 75 million, would be formally launched on September 8 to promote startups, with a slant on Kerala. “The initial fund will be between $50 million and 75 million. The charter of the venture fund is to invest in product-based companies, primarily in the B2B (business-to-business) domain. We will focus on four sectors – healthcare, fintech, telecom & technology, and retail. An advisory board has been set up to help startups in these sectors. We have already spoken to the largest banks in the world,” he said.
Elaborating on it, he said Kerala has the potential to emerge as a global startup powerhouse. “The idea is to assemble senior-level executives of Kerala and they will be directly on the board of the startups. We are going to create a relationship with the government to help give an impetus to the drive,” he added. Sajan stated that he would be reversing the existing model of randomly starting startups and then hoping they would be successful. “Take fintech, for instance. We will sit down with the largest banks in the world, identify what exactly do they require and will exactly build that product by investing in a local startup,” he said.
Eying to set up an another global venture, Sajan has announced that he would invest heavily in global projects for assisted living for seniors and homecare. SP Lifecare, Sajan’s new initiative, would launch a string of projects to deliver world-class elderly care by combining care, technology and real estate. These would include developing Senior Assisted Living facilities, creating a pool of well-trained caregivers to provide home services, doorstep delivery of health and personal care and setting up a Super Store for delivery of essential items to senior citizens.
“Providing proper care to the elderly people is a global issue, which is all the more severe in Kerala where millions work outside, leaving their parents at home,” said Sajan, who is the Chairman of SP Lifecare. “Children are constantly concerned about their parents. Parents are also constantly worried that their children are concerned about them. This is a vicious circle,” he said, divulging that his own personal experience also inspired him to venture into this project. “I was really helpless when my father died two years back. My parents did not want me to come back as they don’t want me to sacrifice my career. I could not spend quality time with my parents because of various commitments. Like me, many are suffering this pain. That agony made me think of a project that offers proper care to the elderly,” he said.
SP Lifecare, which recently acquired Kerala-based Asha Care Homes, has already purchased land parcels at Thannimoodu near the State Capital and Aluva in Ernakulam for developing Senior Assisted Living campuses. It’s also planning to acquire land in Bengaluru this month.
Dr. M Ayyappan, CEO of SP Lifecare, said the investment in the two ongoing projects in Kerala is estimated to be Rs. 275 crore. “The plan is to invest Rs. 700 crore in the next three years,” he added.
“The company plans to expand its Senior Assisted Living project on a global scale in two years’ time when major projects are to be launched in the US and Europe. A dedicated Trust would also be floated, with SP Lifecare tying up with like-minded individuals and organisations, to take care of the economically weaker senior citizens, who cannot afford the cost of assisted living,” said Dr. Ayyappan, former CMD, HLL Lifecare Ltd. (HLL).
“Kerala can Become Another Israel in Startup Ecosystem”
Riding on the robust entrepreneurial culture in the country, Kerala has the potential to become another Israel, a country having the third most powerful startup ecosystem in the world, according to Sajan. “In the next decade I would like to be part of a journey in which I dream of Kerala startup ecosystem becoming the next Israel. With the help of all my associates I would like to achieve this goal. I would like to work with startups, government and mostly private entrepreneurs to accomplish this mission,” he said. “There are thousands of seasoned executives from Kerala, who have not got a chance to contribute to the State’s startup ecosystem. Why can’t we assemble them to harness the strength to build a startup ecosystem here?” Sajan asked.
Revealing his plans in association with KSUM, he said: “In the first week of September, we will launch a venture fund to help scale up startups in Kerala. Apart from extending them support, the idea is to assemble senior-level executives of Kerala and they will be directly on the board of the startups. We are going to create a relationship with the government to get an impetus to the drive. We will create a window to Israel and increase access to technology. We can help a startup dream to grow a little faster and reach a little higher.”
SajanPillai also urged aspiring entrepreneurs to start everything with the customer in mind. “Startups should have customer intimacy and they must understand the nuances of problems. You have to meet the customer and you have to know where they come from,” he said, adding: “The customer is the essence of growth.”