A Conversation with Indiaspora Founder, Entrepreneur, Investor, Corporate Eco-Strategy Expert & Philanthropist M.R. Rangaswami

A Desi Woman Podcast
A Conversation with Indiaspora Founder, Entrepreneur, Investor, Corporate Eco-Strategy Expert & Philanthropist M.R. Rangaswami
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Transcript:

 

Soniya Gokhale:
Welcome back to another episode of A Desi Woman podcast. I am your host, Soniya Gokhale. The voices I am seeking may have never been heard before, but their stories deserve to be told. What is a Desi woman? She is a dynamic, fearless, and strong woman. She is your mother, your grandmother, your daughter, your sister. She is every one of us who is on an endless pursuit of self-empowerment and fulfillment. I am Soniya Gokhale and I am a Desi woman.

Soniya Gokhale:
Hello, and welcome to another addition of a A Desi Woman Podcast. I am your host, Soniya Gokhale. Today, we are so delighted and honored to welcome M.R. Rangaswami to the show. M.R. is an entrepreneur, investor, corporate eco strategy expert, community builder, and philanthropist. Recognized as a software business expert, he participated in the rapid expansion of the Silicon Valley software industry during his tenure as an executive at both large and small software companies in 1997, he co-founded Sand Hill Group, one of the earliest angel investment firms and was profiled on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. He was named to the Forbes Midas List of investors, and also recognized by CRN as one of the top 25 technology executives. He also hosts the enterprise retreat for the top 100 leaders in technology.

Soniya Gokhale:
In 2007, M.R. founded the Corporate Eco Forum, CEF, an invitation only membership organization for global 500 companies that demonstrate a serious commitment to the environment as a business strategy. In 2012, M.R, founded Indiaspora, a nonprofit to unite the Indian diaspora and to transform their success into meaningful impact in India and on the global stage. By sharing insights, hosting events, and connecting people, Indiaspora unites the professionally, geographically, and religiously diverse Indian community toward collective action. M.R. has been a prolific and tireless advocate for the South Asian-American community in the US and globally and through his decades long commitment to philanthropy and bringing people together for the betterment of society at large. He’s been a tremendous catalyst for progress across the diaspora.

Soniya Gokhale:
M.R., Welcome to the show.

M.R. Rangaswami:
Hey, thank you, Sonya. Thank you for having me.

Soniya Gokhale:
Well, it is such a distinct pleasure and honor to have you here, M.R., You have over 40 years of experience in Silicon Valley and are an entrepreneur, investor, corporate eco strategy expert, community builder, and philanthropist. I would offer for listeners who may not be aware, you are likely one of the most influential South Asian-Americans in this country, and certainly globally, at the intersection of many things, but business, politics, a catalyst for Fortune 500 companies and beyond, advancing climate change initiatives, and a philanthropist, and much of this has been accomplished through your visionary leadership. As we will get into in just a bit, you’ve launched not one, not two, but three networks, which now yield immense global influence in a variety of spheres. I want to pause there and really focus on your immigrant journey to this country from Chennai, India.

Soniya Gokhale:
In researching for this podcast, I was struck by how much of your perspective and outlook in life was developed at a young age. You tragically lost your father as a 10 year old and being the baby of the family watched as your mother, whom you identify as a hugely important influence in your life and your siblings mustered the strength and wherewithal to forge onwards after this immense loss. As you’ve described it, when you face something that devastating as a child, it wholly affects your mindset and I think set the foundation of unshakable resiliency, if you will. I would like to hear directly from you your thoughts on that and early loss in your life and it’s effects upon your psyche, mindset, and overall viewpoint of life.

M.R. Rangaswami:
Yeah, I think Sonya, when things hit you in life, you never know when you get hit, sometimes you could be young, middle aged, old, whatever. I guess I had, I got hit when I was 10 years old when suddenly my father passed away and it was pretty emotional with inside of me, just he’s the only person I’ve seen die in front of me, in front of my eyes. That has left a lifelong impact on me, within me, although I never typically showed it outside in terms of being sad or distraught. I kind of used that, I guess, looking back at it, as something that, something to me personally, but at the same time it gave me a lot of strength.

M.R. Rangaswami:
What I mean by that is if you can go through something as devastating as that and come through it, you can look back and say, “Hey, you know what? I’m ready to face any challenge in life.” It’s not a great way to be learning that skillset, but you got to make the best of it and learn from what has happened to you in life. That’s kind of how I looked at it was a way to kind of overcome other challenges in life, or like you said, move to the United States as an immigrant with $8 and such. It seems pretty trivial compared to what had happened to me.

Soniya Gokhale:
Well, there is no question about that. I like to refer to that as baptism by fire. I mean, for lack of a better phrase. I think it’s a incredible how you have now used your life, drawing from that, I guess, strength, in overcoming that immense loss. I know that your brother had come to the United States and is the one who suggested you might want to consider coming here. You took him up on that suggestion. As you entered this country, I know you considered your yourself sort of “a wanderer”. What’s noteworthy is that when you came here, the Indian government was not necessarily incentivizing its citizens to leave the country. As you just referenced, you came here with about $8 in your pocket. With that $8 in hand and no real mentors to speak of, you set a goal of being financially independent by the age of 40.

Soniya Gokhale:
Interestingly, you also chose to abbreviate your name as many from our diaspora or other immigrants do, so that Americans or whatever the majority population might be, could pronounce our names more easily. I guess my point in all of these observations is to call out your phenomenal propensity for adaptability and really an largely unflappable disposition. Again, this is just from researching the podcast and looking at your career and your endeavors. You’d lost your father at a young age, but you and your family persevered and you came here with $8, but fiscal goal in mind, not much more than that. I guess my question for you is what was that like as an immigrant to this country and what has kept you motivated and focused?

M.R. Rangaswami:
Looking back at it, I think it was daunting, but when I was going through it, it didn’t seem as daunting to me. Landing up at JFK, literally no money, and waiting for my brother’s friend’s friend to pick me up at JFK, amongst thousands of people. I even look back and go, without cell phones, without any of these, how did this gentleman find me in this throng of people coming out from the flights? Right? Just starting with that. I mean, and what if he hadn’t met me? What would I have done? Where would I have gone and stayed? Now, it seems much more daunting. At that time, it was an adventure. I was young, 21 years old and my first big trip overseas. I think the beauty was America itself. One, didn’t know what to expect, but when I came here, when I was going through my early days, I found Americans to be so welcoming, so nice. Can’t tell you enough about my early experience. When I was going to school at Kent State, on my way one of my pieces of luck got stolen from the Greyhound bus in those days.

M.R. Rangaswami:
… pieces of luggage got stolen from the Greyhound bus in those days. So I end up at college without my pots and pans and spices and things I needed to cook. And my local host was so gracious. He immediately went, I think, to the closest Kmart and bought me everything and made me feel at home. And I said, “Wow. Americans really are warm, hospitable people who jump in, in an emergency.” And that’s the feeling I have of America. How people helped me when I was down. And that’s why I think I keep going now is, for me to help others in need, whether they are in any industry or any persuasion or religion, to help people.

Soniya Gokhale:
Well, that’s very inspiring. And I think there’s so many of us that would agree about the spirit of this country and their willingness to embrace immigrants. I know my parents can certainly attest to everything you’ve just described.

Soniya Gokhale:
One fun fact that is really amazing is that you actually coined the term of angel investing when you were profiled on the front page of the Wall Street Journal at the age of 41. And so I would really enjoy hearing more about that experience. And also what “angel investing” looked like then. I do understand it was an incredibly opportune time to be in Silicon Valley between 1996 and 2000. And you were riding that wave. And so could you share more about what that was like and having a Wall Street Journal reporter shadow you and then becoming front page news?

M.R. Rangaswami:
Yeah, that was a unique experience. Again, I didn’t coin the word, angel investing. I think the Wall Street Journal coined it because when they create a new word, they usually put it in parentheses. So they’d never done an article on this new style of investment where individuals in the 1990s actually go put their own money into a company rather than a venture capitalist or someone else do that, or a corporation. So it was all, like I said, a lot of these things just happened by serendipity. And in this case, what happened was, I’d met an editor of the Wall Street Journal who then took interest in this and said, “I’ve got to write this up.” And soon, one of his key reporters calls me up from New York and says, “Hey, I want to come down and spend a couple of days with you in Silicon Valley. Do you mind if I follow you around.” I talked to my wife and she gave me permission to do it.

M.R. Rangaswami:
The next week, the reporter was here and shadowing me for a couple of days from morning to night, to my meetings and such. And when she went back, she wrote a piece and she calls me and says, “It’s going to be in section C of the Wall Street Journal. That’s where technology companies and people are profiled.” Then the next day she calls and says, “You know what? I submitted the story. The editors love it so much, they’re moving it to the front page.” I was surprised. I didn’t think it was that great, my profile. But in any case, they put it up on the front page and I had to be honest with you, at that time, I wasn’t even a subscriber to the Wall Street Journal.

M.R. Rangaswami:
The next morning she says, “It’ll be in the papers tomorrow.” So I didn’t think anything of it. Next morning, at 6:00 AM in San Francisco, the phone rings and someone, a friend of mine in the East Coast goes, “Hey, congratulations. You’re on the front page.” And I’m like, “What?” I was woken up in my sleep. And so the next thing I had to do was to go down to the local grocery store, find the Journal and buy it and sure enough, I’m buying the Journal and I put it down on the counter and the checkout person looks at me and goes, “Hey, that’s your picture on the front page.” So that felt good.

M.R. Rangaswami:
But really what happened that week was crazy. I had over a thousand voicemails. I never picked up the phone the whole week, because the phone just kept ringing and ringing and ringing. And that’s when I realized the power of the media. Over a thousand phone calls, people wanting to give me money to invest, people wanting to get my money in their company. It was just the craziest time I’ve had. But I guess that was not my 15 minutes, but maybe my 15 days of fame.

Soniya Gokhale:
Well I think it’s a prelude to who you are and what you’ve accomplished and not necessarily one seeking the spotlight, but you found it. Take moment to pause and think about that is an immigrant to this country, with $8 in your pocket, and then on the front page of a Wall Street Journal. It is almost the proverbial American dream come true. And yet, again, you didn’t necessarily seek that out per se, but what an amazing story.

Soniya Gokhale:
Now, you have been described as one of the most networked people in the software industry and Silicon Valley, for good reason. As I mentioned at the beginning of this podcast, it is really a result of your vision and thought leadership that you founded the Enterprise Software Conference, the enterprise retreat for the top SaaS or Software as a service CEOs, the Echo Forum, which is a membership only community of the top 100 executives responsible for driving sustainable green initiatives in Fortune 500 companies. And more recently, Indiaspora, an organization which is focused upon transforming the success of Indian Americans into meaningful, impactful initiatives on a worldwide basis.

Soniya Gokhale:
So I want to pause for a second and just take all that in, because I think one of the reasons I was most compelled to reach out to you for this interview is your overriding desire and drive to give back, to leave this world a little better than you found it. And to be clear, there are so many within the global community at large who have done ingenious things in the business sphere, science, education, technology, you name it, perhaps even have more money than they could ever spend in a lifetime. And I’m sure you’ve observed this and yet, they don’t always take that extra altruistic step, which you’ve taken in your life, using your life and skills to bring people together with common goals in mind that will leave society and the world better off for your efforts. And so I just want to stop there and ask if you could tell me more about these organizations and networks you’ve launched and what motivates you? And I do have some follow up questions after that.

M.R. Rangaswami:
Yeah. Great question, Soniya. My thing was, when I quit corporate life at age 41, it was not to retire, but to figure out what to do in life. I really had no real goals or vision at that time, other than to find out what I wanted to do next. One of the things that immediately came to me was I had the passion to meet people, to connect people and that’s what really started driving me. So I started off without a plan. I just said, “I’m from the tech industry. Can I get 100 of the leaders together?” And the reason I pulled this together, those no revisionist history here, I left my last tech job if you will, with 4,000 business cards. And my assistant at that time in the company I was leaving, put all this neatly into binders. It was was great and brought them home. And I go, “What do I do with these things?” I talked to friends and they said, “Hey, have a party.”

M.R. Rangaswami:
My whole thing was, why would they come to a party? You got to have a conference. And that’s kind of how I came up with the whole idea of the enterprise retreat was to get all my CEO friends in tech together. But moving from there, I then had to decide on a business model and not make it one that was a profitable one or a commercial one, if you will. And that’s when I came up with the idea of the giving back. So I did this accidentally, it wasn’t something I said, “Now, I have enough money that I need to give back.” It was more of, “Let’s get the community to do more, let’s get the community to help each other. And by the way, you also get to give back.” So it was one of those where the giving part came naturally and logically, as opposed to being the forefront of what I was trying to do.

M.R. Rangaswami:
And so I started that first event where I said everybody would pay to attend and all the profits and surplus would go to nonprofits. That’s kind of how I started it. And that became a great business model where we were able to give away, I think to date now, over a million and a half dollars to different nonprofits, but also to give those nonprofits, mentors and advisors and board members, because these CEOs are very successful people who can help nonprofits as well. So that’s kind of how I got started.

M.R. Rangaswami:
And then the next network came, again, by accident.

M.R. Rangaswami:
… started. And then, the next network came, again, by accident. I view my whole life as a series of accidents. I really didn’t have a plan. And the second one started when I had a for-profit conference business. I sold that, and I had two young kids at that time. They were eight and 10, and I was wanting to be a good role model for them. And so, someone said, “You know, if you get to be in the green area, your kids are going to love you.” And I took that to heart. And that was the basis of the Corporate Eco Forum, which is now a group of 75 of the world’s largest companies getting together to tackle climate change issues and so forth. Right? So, that’s how I got started in the second one.

M.R. Rangaswami:
And each one of these, the fundamental, and then, I’ll do the third one, and then, come back to why I think they’ve been successful. Then, fast forward again another 10 years, I started in diaspora because I felt our community, the diaspora, where 32 million of us who live outside of India, very successful in many different countries, how do we get together to be a force for good? And that’s why I started in diaspora. But for these organizations to be successful, there’s several different principles and values that I follow.

M.R. Rangaswami:
Number one, any network I start, I give it a commitment of 10 years because to bring people together, to get them to coalesce, to do things, to trust each other, it takes a period of time, and I give it 10 years. Nothing is an overnight success. The second thing is that the principles of this organization or any organization has to be communicated where it’s all about giving and not taking. That has to be a core principle of these organizations. So, you don’t come to sell anyone anything. You come to help people. They help you, you help them. There’s no quid pro quo involved. And so, once you put these principles and you give it time, I believe you can get any group of people together that are like-minded and be successful at whatever you do.

Soniya Gokhale:
Well, I think that’s extremely important, that mandate and the charter for launching these organizations that check your ego at the door, to some degree, and that this is about a bigger cause. And clearly, there is an immense amount of respect you have amongst your peers. Because it’s one thing to have the idea, to be able to get others to follow and join you, and that is really unique and something you clearly have a knack for. And talent beyond just a knack. It’s an immense talent and skill. And it’s really benefiting society at large. Now, Indiaspora is the third network you’ve started. And it’s rather appropriate that when you launched it, politics and the concept of giving back did feature prominently in your mind, as you just referred. As you’ve stated in other interviews, our diaspora has certainly been on the receiving end of so much, not only from this country, but globally. And in your estimation, we also need to be known as a community of givers.

Soniya Gokhale:
And so, as you stated, you saw an opportunity for Indiaspora to be a catalyst for this when I understand Barack Obama was reelected and Congressman Ami Bera in Cal was elected, who is also a previous and valued guest on this show. And I would offer that this was rather prescient on your part, as fast forward from the launch of Indiaspora to today, whereby we have the first female vice president, of South Asian descent. So, it’s really quite remarkable. And it’s as though you had a crystal a ball. But again, you had that 10-year commitment that you give to each of these organizations. To just to give listeners an idea of how influential Indiaspora has become. I want to share that your group was the host and catalyst for a beautiful Diwali celebration in Washington, DC, which was widely attended by a variety of politicians, thought leaders, and elected officials from both our diaspora and the DC community at large. So, really huge congratulations and all that. And just really welcome your insights and response to all that, and a very happy belated Diwali to you as well.

M.R. Rangaswami:
Thank you, Soniya. I think with the diaspora, the US community has done extremely well. In terms of both money and success, our community, I think, has no other community that can be compared to us. On the other hand, when you look at our influence and other capabilities, I don’t think we were at our potential. And that’s what led me to start Indiaspora because I felt there were so many organizations of Indian origin created already in this country. And you go, “Why do we need another one?” When I looked at the other communities and organizations, they were siloed. We had the Gujarati Samaj or the [foreign language 00:22:54] and all these things that were ethnic based. And then, you had professional organizations like [Thai 00:23:00] for the entrepreneurs, and [OPPI 00:23:02] for the doctors, and [AAHOA 00:23:03] for the hotel owners, and so forth. But there was nothing that brought the entire community together.

M.R. Rangaswami:
And that was Indiaspora’s role and goal was to bring all people together of Indian origin. But then, to make sure that we used our capability and our network to be force for good. What do I mean by that? One is to be able to be engaged in civic duties. We got to be involved in our communities. We got to give back to the places we live. That was a key element of it. The second thing was our community was known for entrepreneurship and innovation. How do we package all our best practices and knowledge, and be able to share this with the diaspora across the world and to India as well? And finally, like I keep saying, we need to be known as givers and not takers. Our community is the richest community in the US. The average income of our diaspora is $120,000 a year, compared to the average American, who makes $50,000 a year.

M.R. Rangaswami:
So, you can see how much more we make. But with that comes the responsibility to take care of underprivileged people and people in need. And so, that was the basis for Indiaspora. But in order to also do this, we had to gain political influence as well. So, when we started Indiaspora, we said, “Hey, we’re 1% of the population. We have zero representation in Congress.” And our network gave so much money to people of Indian origins standing for office. And of course, Ami Bera is a first example of a Congressman who got elected as an Indian American. Now, you fast forward, like you said, not only do we have a vice president and four members of Congress representing 1% of Congress itself, but we have over 80 people in the Biden administration. The last election cycle, over 300 Indian Americans ran for office. So, again, Indiaspora has been a catalyst in that field.

M.R. Rangaswami:
And now, we want to be a catalyst in the philanthropic area as well. So, we’ve set a bold, audacious goal at Indiaspora to double the giving of the diaspora in the next five years. That can seem like a daunting one, but it’s only 15% a year increase. So, we’ve started a lot of initiatives in philanthropy as well to really do an online campaign every year called ChaloGive to running a philanthropy summit, to really doing so much for COVID relief in India and the US in the past year and a half, where we raised over $5 million from the diaspora. And we were also worked with other groups to raise another $10 million for COVID relief. So, again, showing that the diaspora can be a force for good, can help people in need. And that’s what we’ve done in the first 10 years that group.

Soniya Gokhale:
Absolutely. And as you stated, Indiaspora really did step up to help India amidst the COVID-19 pandemic and especially the brutal second wave, which especially rocked the country. But on April 30th of this year, you launched part two of ChaloGive and were able to disperse huge amounts of funds and medical and economic necessities related to the COVID-19 crisis in India. And I think I’ve heard you state on other podcasts and I would concur with you that I don’t know that this is going away. And so, in some respects, it might be with us for the long haul. And yet, it does appear that you guys are poised to assist in whatever capacity necessary. Now, as we approach, I can not believe we’re approaching the end of our time together, I do want to ask you what you might identify as areas of opportunity for a community and global diaspora, or in the US particularly, what do we need to keep in mind as we approach 2022? It is so clear, for anyone who’s listening, if you haven’t gotten the idea by now, you are a visionary. And so, I would…

Soniya Gokhale:
Haven’t gotten the idea by now, you are a visionary. And so I would really welcome your perspective on what’s next. I would offer that we really need you to consider tackling your memoir or possibly co-authoring a book which can help others who might have leadership aspirations, but appear to be facing incredibly daunting obstacles in life. And you’ve identified, you did face that at a young age, and yet you overcame that. And I know there’ve been other challenges.

Soniya Gokhale:
So I just have to ask, what would you offer to someone who’s listening right now, anywhere in the world who wants to, quote unquote, be the change, as Gandhi so brilliantly stated, but is not quite sure how to do it? And should we all strive to start small think global, but act local. Just really welcome any thoughts you have on that?

M.R. Rangaswami:
I think people want to do more. I think there are two sets of people who are driven today to let’s say, form a network or form a nonprofit, or do something for social good. And they tend to be either executives or entrepreneurs who are in the latter part of their corporate career or journey when they go, what do I want to do in life that’s meaningful. So there’s a group of people there who are curious, who are driven and looking to do something in that area. And the other group tend to be the younger people who’ve, let’s say, had two to five years of corporate experience, but kind of find corporate life not as meaningful to them and they’re looking to do something different. I think these are the kinds of people who are now looking to start networks or start social organizations that can really make an impact.

M.R. Rangaswami:
And to them, I think there are several things in their favor. One is in this new world, you can use virtual events, you can use social media, you can do so many things that weren’t with me when I started my first network 25 years ago. There was no email, there was no Facebook, no LinkedIn, you had to contact people in a very different way and kind of encourage them and persuade them to do things. Having said that, I think there are other things in our community’s favor, especially the Indian community. And that is, we are well educated and we come with a set of values about service or seva. And so we are well equipped to take on this role of doing social good or being a force for good.

M.R. Rangaswami:
And what I tell them is you got to start small, I mean, you can have a big vision, but you always want to make sure that you can get going because sometimes if the vision is too big and your thinking is too big, you may not be able to start it successful. So I say start small, but I think be smart. I think you’ve got to get a good advisory group together, you got to get a good board or mentor involved. You’ve really got to do your homework. So take your time. And don’t just jump in just because impulsive, do some homework, get a plan and go for it. And I would say the other thing is people keep asking me, you got to write something about it. So I am planning on writing something to help people get started in the social good space, if you will. But I’m just in the beginnings of that journey myself.

M.R. Rangaswami:
But I would say that with the Indian community, the other thing in diaspora is doing that can be helpful is to connect the global diaspora. So keep in mind, even though there are 4 million of us who are in the US and 32 million across the globe, and they’re very powerful, successful diasporas in UK, Canada, Singapore, Dubai, Australia, and South Africa and many other places. So just think if you’re starting something for social good, not only about the country you live in, whether you live in the US or India or Canada or UK, whatever, think of how you can harness the power of 32 million people across the globe who are also sending tens of billions of dollars in remittances to India and from other countries. So really there’s a whole lot of money, a whole lot of influence and a large population that can be tapped into as well.

Soniya Gokhale:
Well, that all sounds absolutely exciting. We cannot wait, I recognize you’re in the early stages of the project, but in researching for this it just seems so natural that you can offer. And I really cannot thank you enough for joining me today, but you really are an inspiration and just an example of a force of nature in some respects. And yet, as you stated at not unassuming, not seeking this out, not seeking out the spotlight and yet immense, immense success and bettering those around you and society at large. So M.R. Rangaswami we cannot thank you enough for joining us today.

M.R. Rangaswami:
Thank you Soniya. Appreciate having me on the show.

Soniya Gokhale:
Thank you.

 

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