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June 4, 1999


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'Jessie Jackson Is Blowing Smoke,' Says TiE's Rekhi

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Arthur J Pais in San Jose

Kanwal Rekhi The Rev Jessie Jackson was not a speaker at the recent annual conference of TiE here. But if he bumps into Kanwal Rekhi, the burly, outspoken president of the organization, Jackson better be prepared for an outspoken little sermon.

Jackson recently made headlines during a recent visit here by saying Silicon Valley fails to embrace minorities.

"Jesse Jackson is blowing smoke," says Rekhi, known for his feisty and outspoken nature ("I am not smooth," he told a Forbes magazine interviewer last year).

"This is a very open community. At least for Indians and Pakistanis it has been open," Rekhi said, repeating the thoughts in an interview the San Jose Mercury ran recently to coincide with the TiE (The IndUS Entrepreneurs) conference.

"We have excellent education. We have had the training. We all started as engineers and programmers. Jesse wants people to have a piece of the pie, but he doesn't want them to go through the education and the experience."

He knows his words would upset someone like Jesse Jackson who has chastised Wall Street barons and other industry heavies for not recruiting adequate number of African Americans and Hispanics.

"Our people had to fight against many odds too," says Rekhi, an alumnus of IIT, Bombay, who got his graduate education from a little-known Michigan university. "Many people did not like the color of our skin." And then with his very Indian but very clear accent, he adds: "And then there some who say they do not understand our accents, even though we speak clearly and correctly."

TiE was launched, he asserts, to give a helping hand to new South Asian entrepreneurs. "Some of them will face the same difficulties we faced about 10 or 15 years ago. We overcame those problems because we were motivated, we knew what we were doing, and we did not want handouts."

He believes the Indian success is firmly rooted in the Indian entrepreneur's knowledge and aspirations. "In the techie world, Indians shine very quickly because of their knowledge of math and science. It is outstanding," he told the San Jose Mercury. "Even if you are not able to speak the language fully, you are able to articulate your thoughts on paper and you are able to do designs that work. So, nobody is able to put you down. You are able to compete with the best and the brightest right from the start."

Second and third generation of Indian Americans are expected to succeed far more than their fathers and grandfathers, he says. "They are truly American," he says. "They don't even have to think twice about their accent or food habits. They are extra smart -- and they will make us all very proud."

So he wants Jesse Jackson -- or for that matter any American or south Asian would-be entrepreneur -- remember: "In Silicon Valley especially, it's all merit-driven. It's how smart you are."

"In Silicon Valley, it has been very easy to participate fully," he continues. "As a matter of fact, there was a recent Business Week story that said 40 per cent of the valley's start-ups have some Indian connection, either a founder, a co-founder or one of the principals," he adds. This was a fact hammered by a number of top-flight American speakers at the recent TiE conference.

The glass ceiling -- under which minorities could rise up to the position of number two or three in a corporation but not become number one -- has been cracking, at least in the techie world, he says.

He remembers the 1970s, Indians were seldom promoted to be managers. "There was a fear that whites wouldn't work for Indians and a fear that Indians wouldn't be good in sales and marketing and finance," he says with a chuckle.

Even when he was doing well, Rekhi recalls without any bitterness, the company (he won't reveal the name) promoted the guy next to him. "He was only half as good as me," Rekhi says, "but he was white."

But by the mid-eighties things had begun to change. Rekhi himself became a CEO in 1985.

"Once someone breaks through a glass ceiling and proves his mettle, it becomes easier to appoint other Indians in top positions," he says, pointing out that Indians are in senior management at Sun, Microsoft, Cisco and many other big firms.

One of the most interesting part of the TiE convention was the eagerness with which wannabe entrepreneurs -- many of them college students -- were received by TiE leaders, all multimillionaires.

There were a number of speeches at the conference on finding financiers for start-up firms. Rekhi believes though it has become much easier today for an Indian entrepreneur to find "an angel" (provider of seed money), the lessons from the past should be remembered, and senior TiE leaders should continue encouraging young entrepreneurs.

In many cases, potential investors now "go to the top of the heap" if an Indian comes up with a good business plan, Rekhi notes.

"Indians have had close to 50 companies funded, and they're worth about $ 5 billion on the stock market now. Hotmail was started by an Indian. As was Junglee. CyberMedia. AtWeb. Infospace. The list is unbelievably long," he said in an interview.

But when he sought funding for Excelan 18 years ago, the investors told him: "You don't have general manager skills.''

"I knew exactly what they meant," he says with a small sigh. "You don't have a white heading the company.''

But there were indeed Americans with foresight. One of them John Bosch at Bay Partners said, "The Indians have not been funded up to now; maybe it's time to do one." That turned out to be the best investment he ever made, Rekhi says. After that, he funded many Indian start-ups.

And it is because of people like Bosch and the concomitant success of other start-up firms, Indian Americans feel confident of approaching financiers in the mainstream, unlike some other Asian communities who raise most of the funding within their own communities.

In many ways, Indians are self-made successes, he says because "we did not have old money".

"Never mind what background we came from India, how much of money some of our parents or grandparents have had, we had to start from the scratch here," he says. "The only valuable investments we brought along was education -- and a determination to succeed."

He wishes Jesse Jackson would learn something from Indian American experience not only in Silicon Valley but across America.

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