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May 21, 1999


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Sage To Silicon's South Asian Community, Kanwal Rekhi Is Set To Start A Think-Tank in India

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Arthur J Pais

Kanwal Rekhi When Kanwal Rekhi talks with reporters these days, he hardly talks about himself, or how he made his millions selling his startup firm, Excelan, nine years ago -- and how Excelan was sold to Novell, and he went on to become the first Indian to be on the board of that multibillion dollar company.

Instead, Rekhi talks like a sage about how Indian entrepreneurs in America have proved that "first rate people suddenly flourish when they are removed from third rate socialistic conditions found in India"

The 53-year-old businessman is the president of The IndUS Entrepreneurs -- TiE -- the premier Indian entrepreneurial organization in America which not only helps new entrepreneurs find startup capital but through its monthly seminars offers practical insights into helping the business grow.

TiE, which was started in 1992, was formally launched two years later with Suhas Patil and Rekhi as directors, and Patil as its first president.

As the founder and honcho of Cirrus Logic, Inc, Patil is one of the most visible success stories in Silicon Valley.

Some of America's best-known business leaders and management gurus, including Professor C K Prahlad have addressed TiE seminars. TiE's activities and the role played by Rekhi have found place in such major magazines as BusinessWeek. Forbes magazine ran a laudatory profile of Rekhi last year.

Last week Rekhi discussed his vision not only for TiE but also for a think-tank organization he plans to start in India.

"We have been a cyberspace organization till now," he says of TiE. "Now that we have chapters in Boston and Austin, and chapters are coming up in Washington DC and other cities, we are putting together a real organization."

Before TiE decides on its infrastructure, it would host what promises to be one of the hottest business conferences this year.

Entrepreneurship in the Internet Age, the annual TiE conference, will be held in San Jose, California, May 22, 23 The keynote speakers are: Tim Koogle, CEO of Yahoo, Halsey Minor, CEO of CNET, John Hagel, principal of McKinsey, and Jagadish Sheth, professor of marketing at Emory University. The first TiE conference attracted 500 entrepreneurs. This time, 700 people will attend the full-house events.

One of TiE's key goals is also to be a mentor to start up companies, and Rekhi has been doing a lot of that, too.

The man, Forbes magazine called 'the dominant investor in and sage to Silicon Valley's affluent Indian community' has funded more than 15 companies started by Indian immigrants. His $ 5 million initial investments had returned him over $ 20 million by the end of last year, according toForbes.

It is not correct to describe him as a sage only to the Indian business community. For, TiE was started with the express desire of bringing together entrepreneurs from the subcontinent. "We know very well what is happening between our countries," he says. "But at TiE we have learned to put our differences behind and work for a prosperous future."

One of the first TiE leaders, Safi Quereshey, for instance, is a Pakistani.

"People like us could do indeed very well in India," Rekhi says with a sigh. "But we, a first rate people, have a third rate system." One of his great passions is to start a permanent think-tank organization in India to make free enterprise an on-going and viable concept. "It will need big money, about $ 10 million," he says. "There are many individuals who have shown serious interest in creating it."

Kanwal Rekhi The third of the eight children of an Indian army officer, Rekhi grew up in Kanpur. He was born in Rawalpindi in the pre-Partition days. His family moved into India when he was barely two. They had -- like thousands of other families -- left behind their property and possessions in Pakistan.

"We left Pakistan with nothing but the clothes on our backs," he recalled in another interview two years ago.

"Being uprooted every so often is good because the insecurity is the most necessary thing for growth," he continued. "That's why immigrants succeed in their adopted countries at a higher percentage than the natives."

He recalls his father wanted him to go into some business, preferably charted accountancy but Rekhi says his fascination with mathematics led him into engineering.

"I didn't take any special courses to prepare for the entrance examination," he recalls with a chuckle. "My father did not even know what IIT was," he continues with more chuckles. He earned his BTech in electrical engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology in Bombay. Two years ago, he gifted $ 2 million to IIT, Bombay and is actively involved in its alumnus association in America.

He came to the United States in 1967 and received a masters degree from the Michigan Technological University in 1969. "You know where it is?" he often asks reporters who are profiling him. Suffice to say he takes a lot of pride in his mostly self-made achievements, without having gone to an elite university. MTU is located in Houghton, a small city. Two years ago that university awarded him a honorary doctorate.

He says he was laid off from several of his first jobs after graduate school because the economy was floundering in the late 1960s. But when he got hired again in the early 1970s by the likes of Singer-Link a subsidiary of the sewing machine giant, he was either bored or felt that people around him did not take his innovative spirit seriously.

The boredom and dissatisfaction with his bosses led him to start Excelan to build add-in boards to connect desktop computers into local networks. Even as Excelan was doing well, its financiers sought Rekhi be replaced in 1987 by a more "glamorous" chief executive, according to reports in the financial magazines. Interestingly, in that year he was named the Entrepreneur of the Year by the Arthur-Young/Venture Magazine.

When Novell bought Excelan, Rekhi joined the firm but he left Novell too after a few years to launch other start-up companies.

He told Forbes magazine that his experience at Excelan motivated him and other Indian entrepreneurs to start TiE to help the Indian executives at the start-up firms succeed and get adequate recognition.

Though a few of his own start-up firms such as Nirvana, which designed tools for website developments, have not succeeded, industry observers believe that his overall success rate is high.

"At TiE we have genuine democracy," he says. "We learn from each other's success. We also learn when over expansion hurts a business or poor vision stunts the growth."

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