I am honored to give the 2021 Commencement Speech for the Close School, an institution which I believe has given you a wonderful bedrock on which to start your entrepreneurial journey.
Today, I want to tell you a bit about my life. Not because it is unique. But because I learned some lessons from it that you may find helpful as you navigate your own life.
The first lesson is about being uncomfortable.
When I graduated from college in India, I wanted very badly to start my own business. But it was tough going. India was then a socialist country which frowned upon individual success. There were no hand-rails, no mentors, no safe spaces to experiment with ideas. I decided to come to Drexel for graduate studies.
That was scary. The first time I got on a plane was to fly to the US. I remember clutching the arm rests as the airplane heaved into the sky leaving my stomach behind. Philly seemed not just like a new country but a new planet. I found it near impossible to choose one of the 31 flavors of ice cream at Baskin Robbins. In contrast, all I had to do in India was to plunk down my money for the single flavor offered by the government-owned store. But the discomfort didn’t last long. I thoroughly enjoyed the hoagies from the food truck on 32nd street. I found I could chug Rolling Rock beers with the best of them at the bar on 36th and Chestnut. And I found I could keep myself awake by singing loudly during late night experiments for my research in the basement of the main Drexel building.
After graduation, I got a job at Intel. I’m still shocked that I did. I knew nothing about computers chips. I didn’t have a background in electrical engineering. I felt completely at sea, and not terribly competent. I had to take a multitude of classes both at work as well as at local universities. After a couple of years, I started enjoying my work. It was exhilarating to be working on world-leading technologies.
When I look back at those early years, it seemed like the only constant was change. And that the most overwhelming feeling was being uncomfortable. But that was the crucible in which I was able to forge new skills. Most importantly, I started looking forward to projects and tasks that others were reluctant to take on.
The second lesson is about being curious.
After a few years at Intel, my career was going well but I was restless. I felt there had to be something more exciting than just leading edge technology. What I wanted to learn was how to apply technology to build a great company. WIth that goal, I left the security of Intel to join a startup. The next two years were a trial by fire. We explored and learned and fixed issues every day at a rate that was ten times higher than at Intel. But it wasn’t enough and the company was sold to Maxim Integrated Products. That school of hard knocks yielded many learnings that helped us solve problems at a rapid pace which helped Maxim become successful. One of them was a particularly thorny problem that had bested everyone that had worked on it including consulting professors from top schools. There was one particular parameter that supposedly had been measured several years earlier. I decided to remeasure it. To my shock it was ten times smaller than what we had been assuming. I rushed back to update my computer simulation. Eureka! The model fitted that experimental data exactly.
Ever since then, I try to question things that seem, on the surface, to be obvious. Most things are, but occasionally when things don’t add up, there is usually an innocent looking, perfectly reasonable assumption that is wrong. And when you explore and poke around in corners where no one is looking, you’ll find the answers.
The third and most important lesson is about love.
I was brought in as President and COO of Fairchild Semiconductor to turn around a company had been struggling for years. Revenues were flat to down. Profitability was poor. I made changes at a fast pace and made a lot of tough decisions that had been shelved. After two years of my tenure at Fairchild, the company had become more profitable and there were early signs of revenue growth. However, even though more drastic change was needed to make the company really successful, the appetite for change was close to zero.
I left to start my own early stage venture fund. That was one of the hardest transitions I had to make. I felt, for the first time in my career, that I had not finished the job that I had started. And I had to start a new career, about which I knew little, from scratch. It was exciting, yet scary. And in the early days of this transition, I was filled with self-doubt. But my wife and two daughters seemed to love me equally whether I was feeling excited or scared. That gave me the strength to forge ahead. And I am so glad I did. Today I am energized by the ability to work with leading edge technologies, brand new business models and to mentor bright and bold entrepreneurs.
I know I would have never taken the plunge into this latest endeavor without the unwavering support of my family.
If you meet a genie who grants you one wish, wish for a wonderful family. If the genie grants you a second, wish for lots of opportunities to be uncomfortable. If the genie is particularly generous and offers you a third, wish for unbounded curiosity. And you will have all the happiness and success that you desire in the world.