Rasheeda Bhagat

The sherpa who funded Google's ascent

RASHEEDA BHAGAT | Updated on January 19, 2012

Ram Shriram, founder of Sherpalo Ventures. - Photo: S.R Raghunathan   -  The Hindu

... and now, Ram Shriram turns his attention to the education of underprivileged kids through philanthropy.



Ram Shriram, the founder-director of Google with an impressive track record on Forbes' lists of top tech dealmakers, top kingmakers and so on, is a man in a hurry. Well, not in investing in India but cutting through the impossible Chennai evening traffic for a dash to the airport.

He has addressed a CEO forum organised by Business Line, met family members at his suite in the Taj Coromandel in his hometown Chennai, and hired two S-class Mercs for the airport ride. His family travels in one; he gives me an interview in the other.

When two young geeks — Larry Page and Sergey Brin — approached the venture capitalist Shriram for funds for their garage start-up that had yet not called itself ‘Google', he dished out a cheque for half-a-million dollars.

Airport blues

So, how did he put so much trust in the youngsters…

“No, no, that has been written about 150,000 times. I don't want to talk about it,” he interrupts, while giving directions to the driver to follow the other car and reach the airport on time. His visit to Chennai from Bangalore for a few hours is on Business Line's request, so I'm equally anxious he shouldn't miss his flight. But the next two questions are also dismissed with “no personal things”, with a furrowed brow as he rants against India's sorry infrastructure, and I brace myself for a “flop interview”.

We talk about the time on hand for the airport dash and I mumble about gates closing 40 minutes before departure, only to be told quietly: “It's a chartered flight”.

But of course! How dumb of me… his investment in Google alone has made him a billionaire (according to Wikipedia, in 2007, Shriram owned 1.7 million shares of Google!) not to mention his engagements with giants such as Amazon, to which he sold his start-up junglee.com, InMobi and others. Perking up, I assure him he can't miss his flight.

A lot has been written about his “humble background”; Shriram lost his father at age three, and while his mother trained as a college teacher — she taught at Queen Mary's College in Chennai — he lived with his grandparents. He studied in Don Bosco and Loyola College, before going to the US for higher education.

Past link to present

What is the link between his present and past?

“Your past reflects on your present in many ways. Coming from such a background, no adversity is too great; anything is surmountable if you have the power to deal with it.” A tough childhood and other related challenges give you a “different perspective. When you've dealt with real-life issues, dealing with business issues is not that hard,” he says.

But then, in the Indian context, surely a Don Bosco-Loyola College education is the prerogative of the privileged. So his couldn't have been that humble a background, I tell him.

Though a little surprised, he concedes the point. “That is true, and more so in the 1970s. But when I was growing up, this sudden tragedy (his father's death in an accident) happened and my future could have gone anywhere.”

So each step, from school to college to education in the US, was “a big step for me. Even figuring out how to get into Don Bosco school was a major step. There was no family wealth. In India so many businesses are hereditary,” he says. His education in the US was funded by a bank loan got by pledging his maternal grandfather's house. “My father's parents had nothing at all.”

Shriram is very close to his mother, who lives with him; “you have to idolise people who made you the person you are. I was also very close to my grandfather…”

He set up Sherpalo Ventures in 2000; it takes its name from sherpas, Nepali mountaineers who guide climbers to difficult mountain peaks.



Philanthropy

But this sherpa has now turned his attention to philanthropy and devotes his wealth and 20 per cent of time to ventures such as Magic Bus and Roshni. Magic Bus is an Indian non-profit that works with children from marginalised communities. “It sends them for sports-based knowledge learning… like cricket or soccer. These children don't want to sit down and learn... if you say I want to teach you math, science or English, they will not respond. But they respond to cricket, soccer, and other games. So you use that as a draw, get them into it for a few days and then reinforce value systems and get them slowly into mainstream education.”

He engages only in philanthropic ventures “which result in direct benefit with a quick result to the end-beneficiary, which is of course a lot to ask for and doesn't always happen.” Also, it has to be self-sustaining, “so we are not always asking for money. You can't do that as people are not going to be always philanthropic in their desires. I think it'll do well, but it is still early days and, like all businesses, this one too is all trial and error.”

Shriram helps Matthew Spacie, Magic Bus CEO and Founder, “think through what to do,” and has visited its programmes in Dharavi and Port Trust slums in Mumbai. “It is focused on a hard problem which defies easy solutions. I hope we can make a difference,” he says.

Roshni in Delhi works with young Muslim girls who, because of social pressure or lack of resources or a combination of both, are unable to get education. Gooru, which is not focused on India in particular, is another non-profit he helps that builds free Web-based education solutions from middle through high school. “My focus is mainly on education. I believe education made all the difference for me, and it is certainly going to make all the difference for other children too.” Another venture he supports is the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) Fellow's programme, which he brought to India last year.

Shriram's philosophy is simple: If you take a single child out of poverty in a family where nobody has gone to school or college, “you can change the trajectory for that child and the entire household, the entire family and its future generations.”

A reflective mood

Striking a reflective note, the venture capitalist wonders: “After all, what is life's objective at the end of the day? You make a lot of money, you do this, you do that but then you're going to leave the world one day. What is the lasting legacy or permanent impression you want to leave behind? Life is fleeting, and permanence in this world is something we all strive for. The best way to achieve permanence is through philanthropy.”

He is also active on the board of Stanford University. “Even though I didn't go to that school, I've been a beneficiary of a lot of success over a long period of time because of some of the great students of this institution, including those who started Google, of course, but others as well.” One aspect of his engagement is to figure out the next steps in e-learning methods, some of which “companies like Google are doing. The idea of a global library on the Internet, the digitisation of books project, because if you can unlock knowledge and democratise it and make it universally available, then those kids, especially underprivileged kids, who are overachievers will find a way to succeed.”

Can e-learning help millions of poor Indian kids surmount the hurdle posed by limited access to physical schools and quality education?

While he believes digital education will help, he also cautions that “there are far too high expectations from digital education and one has to be careful in setting those expectations.”

For example, he explains, digital education is not going to change the problem of “teachers not showing up, assessment methods being broken, the quality of content for teaching being broken.” Gooru, he says, addresses a small aspect of it by trying to democratise the content, so that it is universally available in an open source format that can be accessed by any school anywhere in the world.



‘Lucky to work with really smart folk'

Idols: I've been fortunate to work with some really smart people. Larry Page is an extremely smart guy, most probably one of the smartest people I've worked with. Jeff Bezos (of Amazon) is another smart guy. I do think that this generation of younger people are producing smarter and smarter kids; they are doing more at a younger age than we ever did. They also have access to more information than we ever did.

Reading: Recently I read the book Born to Run (by Christopher McDougall); it is about this whole race of people who were just runners, they would run 30 miles a day, and from village to village. In Mexico! You'd think it would be a story in Africa, but it's in Mexico. Then the Steve Jobs's biography. I mostly read non-fiction and enjoy travel, photography…

Music: I've been listening to some Carnatic music, but I've never been a huge Carnatic music fan. So it is western classical and just plain instrumental jazz.

Techie geek: Yes, I love technology! I start my day on my computer; I do all my reading on the laptop. I have an iPhone, Samsung Galaxy and an iPad. But not BlackBerry; I left BlackBerry a long time ago.

Food: I am a vegetarian… and like all healthy, vegetarian food, not necessarily only South Indian.

Fitness: I have to stay reasonably fit and walk (about 3 miles) on weekends either with my wife, friends or relatives. To remain fit and also… when you walk, that's when your background tasks are running, so you are self-reflective. You can be talking and, at the same time, processing things in your mind; reflecting on the week past and the week ahead.

Travel: It has become less; only one week in a month.

Favourite holiday destination: Not really, I just love to understand people and cultures around the world.

Dream: The dream would be to… if you solve a problem, you have to solve at scale. Otherwise you haven't really solved it. Philanthropy at the end of the day is a retail experience; if you've solved it for one kid, you've solved it for many. But if you're able to solve it for large numbers of people then you've made a huge difference in the lives of those people. This is what, at least aspirationally, my goal is for the next stage of life. You go from being the best individual at doing something… a narrow task… and then you lead a team, become a leader of a business or a company or country or whatever, and then to something that will make an impact. Everybody wants to do that, but only some succeed.

Religious: Not particularly religious, but I do believe in God.

Ethics and business: Very important; I stay away from those areas where this is not possible. If you are personally not involved in anything unethical, the fact that it is happening around you is not something you can be directly responsible for. All you can do is set an example to make sure you are not taking any of those shortcuts. And the businesses I've been involved in have been very clear on that aspect.

Hobbies: My work.

Working day: I keep a round-the-clock kind of working day. It is not always continuous, but emails come all times of the day and you deal with it. If you take the attitude of work-to-rule then stuff doesn't get done!

Sleep: I need to sleep seven hours. (Yawns)… talking of sleep, I'm short on sleep because of the travel!

India story losing sparkle? While it is disappointing that things are where they are, I still remain optimistic because of the people of India, who are so enterprising, so energetic, so young. The population in many ways is able to deal with so much adversity and still succeed. I think that is where I would press my great hope for the future of India and not on the glacial pace at which reform is proceeding… whether reforms or expecting results on economic and other fronts. But, of course, if this was combined with better governance as well, it would mean a huge leap forward. Because, ultimately, a democratic system of government is a great advantage to any nation.

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Published on January 12, 2012
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