Made in India, taking on the world

TE Rajasimhan | Updated on September 14, 2018

Sridhar Vembu

Zoho’s products are used by millions, and they’re made by top engineers as well as people from underprivileged backgrounds

Much of India’s talent, even today, lies undiscovered. There are way too many diamonds in the roughIt does not offer a recognised degree, but in the software industry, ZU is well-recognised

Prema, 18, daughter of a silversmith living in a remote village in Virudachalam in southern Tamil Nadu, had to walk a couple of miles to her school. She did this day after day, determined to complete at least 12th standard before her parents rushed to get her married. Fast forward ten years to the present. She is an iPhone app developer at software company Zoho, earning some ₹75,000 a month.

At Zoho, there are many like Prema, who have braved poverty to become software engineers. Vikas, son of a mechanic, and Srilatha, daughter of a farmer, for instance.

These bright students were picked by Zoho University (ZU) after their 12th standard and trained to write complex programming codes at Zoho, rubbing shoulders with graduates from top engineering colleges, and earning as much.

The brain behind the idea is Zoho co-founder Sridhar Vembu. The 50-year-old, who himself hails from a Thanjavur hamlet in southern Tamil Nadu, wanted to do two things: tap talent right at the school level and help economically weak families educate their bright children.

Thus, ZU was conceived as an alternative to conventional colleges. The university does not offer any recognised degree, but in the software industry, ZU students are well-recognised.

The university, which started with a class of just six a decade ago, has so far trained some 650 students. Every year, a hundred students get trained at ZU, 70-75 in Chennai and 25-30 at Zoho’s Tenkasi office.

Technically, Zoho is headquartered in the US but all its employees are located in Chennai and Sivakasi. Recently, the company started a centre in Renigunta in Andhra Pradesh. About 10 per cent of Zoho’s 5,000-strong workforce are ZU alumni. They have played a critical part in Zoho’s Made-in-India applications that often compete with those developed by giants like Google and Microsoft in the US, Europe, and China.

Long journey

For ‘vice-chancellor’ Sridhar Vembu, it’s been an educative journey in the last two decades.

Sridhar’s parents belong to a family of agriculturists. But his father, S Vembu, moved to Chennai, and eventually worked at the Madras High Court for over 30 years. His mother is a home-maker.

Being the eldest of five siblings (three brothers and a sister), young Sridhar had much responsibility thrust on him. Yet, he did well academically.

Sridhar attended Anjugam Higher Secondary School in West Mambalam in Chennai until 9th standard, and then moved to Jaigopal Garodia National Higher Secondary School in East Tambaram to finish his 12th standard in 1985. He obtained a B.Tech degree from IIT-Madras and went on to get a PhD in electrical engineering from Princeton University, US.

Sridhar joined Qualcomm as a wireless systems engineer but his passion was to become an entrepreneur. After a short stint at Qualcomm, Sridhar set off on an entrepreneurial voyage. Fascinated by the Indian software business, though still in its nascent stage then, Sridhar with two of his brothers — Sekar and Kumar — and three friends founded a small IT company, AdventNet, in 1996 out of a garage in Tambaram, Chennai.

AdventNet was rechristened Zoho Corporation in May 2009, and there has been no looking back for Sridhar and Zoho.

While these two brothers turned independent entrepreneurs — Sekar started Vembu Technologies and Kumar GoFrugal Technologies — sister, Radha, and youngest brother, Mani, work at Zoho in Chennai.

Synonymous with operating systems for business, Zoho has nearly 40 applications for every segment: sales, marketing, customer support, accounting and back-office operations. It also offers an array of productivity and collaboration tools.

Zoho’s user-base of 34 million-plus across 120 countries speaks volumes for the success of its products globally.


Looking back on what triggered the Zoho idea, Sridhar says, “I saw a huge opportunity in software, and also saw that India has a vast talent pool. Much of India’s talent, even today, lies undiscovered. There are way too many diamonds in the rough. The process of building software and technology and the process of building our skills are two sides of the same coin. ‘Learn as you do’ is the idea of contextual and experiential education. It is heartening to see the idea work, and the proof is Zoho.”

Bootstrap king

Clad in jeans and a black Zoho T-shirt, Sridhar is different from most startup founders. He does not believe in getting funds from external sources. This means the entire funding to build the 5,000-plus employee company in the last ten years has come from Sridhar’s pocket, and from accrued profits.

“The foremost reason we have not taken external funding is because we don’t need it. But it goes deeper. I have seen how companies that get funded lose what made them unique and interesting. We survive by being interesting and relevant, and remaining private allows us to reinvent ourselves. Even after 22 years, the startup spirit lives on at Zoho,” he says.

In his role as CEO, Sridhar guides strategic programmes around employee advocacy and business development. He likes working on design patterns and creating new programming languages. Sridhar has also been instrumental in broadening and deepening Zoho’s software portfolio to develop several business applications.

The whole atmosphere at Zoho is building and expanding the system. “A successful company creates an ecosystem, and I am happy to see the flourishing ecosystem born out of Zoho. Numerous companies have come out of the Zoho stable, including Freshworks, vtiger, ChargeBee, vTitan, Falacio and Edcite,” says Sridhar.

Zoho university

As a startup, Zoho had trouble finding talent, with most graduates, particularly from well-known colleges, preferring big names. Zoho decided to disregard the college a person had graduated from or the grades he/she had obtained. Most of Zoho’s recruitment was by ‘word-of-mouth’ but it still could not attract IITians ot IIM grads. This was another reason that drove Zoho towards starting its university.

Zoho University went to schools to identify 16/17-year-olds in Plus-2 who could potentially become software engineers. It administers an entrance test, and puts qualifiers through a 24-month training course where they are taught different subjects, including English, Math and Programming, for 12 months. At the end of the first year, students are moved to working teams for hands-on experience.

Initially, ZU did not pay students any stipend. But, now, it pays from Day 1 a monthly stipend of ₹8,000, and gives every student a laptop with 24x7 internet connection.

As more than 50 per cent of students are from Tamil medium, the curriculum for English includes watching classic English movies and reading newspapers and articles.

Students are taught the latest in programming. They get trained in HTML, CSS, Javascript, Java, JSP, Databases, and Zoho’s Frameworks.

The second year, with Zoho’s product teams, is more like an apprenticeship. The performance of the successful students is indistinguishable from that of their college-educated peers.

“We believe the higher education establishment is not serving the cause of education; it is expensive too. We do not believe college is the only or the best way to get a good education. We believe it is a travesty for the academic establishment to encourage young men and women to pile up so much debt in the pursuit of a degree,” says Sridhar.

“India has the raw talent pool to be a global leader in technology. The challenge is to create companies and products from, and for, all that talent. I have always relished this challenge. It has been a fulfilling and rewarding journey,” he says, about creating Made-in-India software products for global markets.

No wonder Forbes described Sridhar as the “Smartest Unknown Indian Entrepreneur”. And, this ‘smartest unknown’ Indian will continue to give global giants a run for their money with his innovations and products.

(Employee names have been changed for privacy reasons.)


Q&A with Sridhar Vembu

‘Look beyond book learning and degrees’

How difficult is it to bring about a change?

The fundamental difficulty is inertia, or lethargic indifference, which is harder to counter than active opposition.

What are the attributes a changemaker should have to become successful?

A strong sense of mission, arising from internal conviction, while also being open-minded to find pragmatic pathways.

Does India, as a society, encourage changemakers?

Despite the vastness of India and its diversity, it is difficult to get a substantial proportion to agree with you. Yet, it is possible to find one’s own niche.

What is the biggest change you wish to see?

India embracing experiential and contextual education, rather than formalist credentialism, which emphasises book learning and degrees. Only this can create skills and opportunities for our vast population, while spreading the fruits of development and prosperity in an equitable fashion.


Published on March 16, 2018

Follow us on Telegram, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Linkedin. You can also download our Android App or IOS App.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor