Two days after being honoured with the Padma award, Zoho Corp’s charismatic founder Sridhar Vembu looks fairly relaxed as he chats with BusinessLine over Zoho Meeting from his abode in a tiny Tamil Nadu village near Tenkasi.

He shows off the versatility of the company’s speedy video conferencing tool that is competing against the likes of Zoom and Teams, as he walks through his traditional home with red- tiled roof and a courtyard.

Contrarian approach

Ask Vembu about his contrarian approach to running a business — shifting to a hamlet and hanging about in local tea shops when his contemporaries are zipping about in cities in fast cars, and he says, “I don’t do anything different for the sake of being different. I am, in fact, pretty boringly conservative. But what I do is from reasons of first principles, whether location or the products I build.”

Pointing to the pollution in New Delhi and the water crisis in Chennai, he says, “The way our cities keep growing is a cause of concern. And companies like ours bring more and more people to cities. That’s what I thought had to change.”

Chinese industries

A passionate advocate of self-reliance, Vembu repeatedly citesthe example of how China has managed to set up world class industries.

Argue with him that India has barriers like its rote-based education system, over regulation, and so on, and he retorts, “I want to challenge all these premises. These are stories, excuses, we tell ourselves. We must stop thinking of these as insurmountable barriers.”

“What we need is imagination and vision. The real barrier stopping us is imagination,” he says.

Certainly, the 54-year-old tech billionaire has shown ample imagination in conceiving village offices, and upskilling and empowering rural talent. Now, he is challenging them to produce world class software.

Challenging people

“I am constantly challenging my people, assigning them problems. Asking them why they cannot build something, what are the missing pieces. The only thing they need is time. Give them ample time — two years, four years,” he says.

Vembu, who enjoys swimming in the local village pond, says humility and contentment are the core values and the culture he wants to set at Zoho.

Where did all his ideals come from? Were there influences in his years at IIT or Princeton where he did his PhD? Vembu says when he was studying, he had no inkling where his future lay. “If you had asked me then, I would have seen myself as a politician,” he jokes.

Amidst Zoho’s array of products, which is his personal favourite? Zoho Cliq, which competes against Slack is his pick. “I use it heavily,” he says.