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The New Brigade

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December 2006
The New Brigade

Entrepreneurship has been a foundational block of the success of Indian-Americans. Here's a look at second generation entrepreneurs to see how, while duplicating and building upon their parents' success, they are also breaking the mold.

Miki Agrawal's father wanted her to be a doctor. She told him she'd cure people with her pizza instead.

The 27 year-old Cornell graduate and former investment banker is the founder and owner of Slice, a pizzeria in the Upper East Side of Manhattan. She and her identical twin sister, Radha, run the pizza parlor which serves healthy, organic pizza that suits all body types. Like most innovations, Agrawal's concept came from her personal experience of being lactose intolerant. It bothered her that she could not eat food that she loved because of her condition. After some due diligence, she realized that there is a huge demand for such health based alternatives for a popular food item such as pizza. "At Slice, people have options to eat whole wheat, gluten free, soy cheese, rice cheese pizza," she said. The menu offers tantalizing options that would put Pizza Hut and Dominos to shame.

Agrawal is one of the growing number of Indian-Americans seeking success through entrepreneurship. Many of them now in their 20s, are the children of immigrants, and have reaped the benefits of their parents' hard work. Some are children of doctors and engineers, and have attended the nation's best universities. Well educated and polished, they are taking a page from their parents' work ethic and then some. They are privileged, empowered, fearless, and confident. Indians, as a group, have the highest median income in the country according to the U.S. Census Bureau, a statistic that only looks to improve upon itself as a new generation steps up to bat.

Agrawal's parents met in Canada – her mother immigrated from Japan, and her father from India. "Sometimes I go home and it feels like a sitcom, my Mom is from a wealthy Japanese family, and has a thick Japanese accent and my Dad has a thick Indian accent and is from a middle-class family," she laughed.

Agrawal admires how her parents readjusted their lives to make their relationship work. "They had three kids within one year, and put three girls through Ivy League schools," she said. The Agrawal twins both went to Cornell and their older sister studied at Harvard.

The motto she's taken from her parents is, "Figure it Out." "It didn't matter that I didn't know how to chop an onion or run a business," she explained. Agrawal looked to those around her for investment capital "It was all from friends and family. I was let down a lot, but I had a dozen or so people who believed in me. It took a year to raise the money. I held tastings, with food prepared by friends who were chefs," she explained.

Within a year of opening, the pizza parlor is successful and profitable, something most restaurants take a few years to achieve. Slice was featured on the Food Network show "Recipe for Success" several times. The twins were also selected to be on an ABC reality show called One Ocean View in the Summer of 2006. Their television debut, Agarwal said, brought their restaurant some much-desired publicity.

Agrawal admitted that it took her father some time to soak in his daughter's pizza endeavor. "Well I'm a daughter to an Indian father, who still tells me it's not too late to go to medical school," Agrawal laughed. "He's a typical Indian parent, cautious, emphasizing hard skills." She had to convince her parents how important her product was. "Eighty percent of the world is lactose intolerant," she said, "even though they may not know it." It took some creative maneuvering to make him see the light, she said. "I told him, ‘This is what I want to do. To me this is preventative medicine.'"

The Agrawal twins were held up to high standards, their older sister was every Indian parent's dream. "She was valedictorian, Harvard undergrad, Yale Medical School graduate and is doing her residency at John's Hopkins. Radha and I were the sporty ones. We played Division I soccer at Cornell." "Sports are good, but what are you going to do?" Agrawal's parents would ask her and her twin.

But, the energy and zest that run through the twins' veins have been put to good use. Propelled by the success of their restaurant, the Agrawal sisters are in the process of launching a retail pizza product for supermarkets. "It's a ‘build-your-own-pizza' kit designed to encourage kids to eat healthy," says Agrawal. The kit comes with separate compartments for the crust, the cheese and the toppings, as well as a coloring book and information on healthy yet tasty ways to eat vegetables. It allows kids to build their pizza together with their parents in a fun way and with emphasis on health.

Today, her parents couldn't be more proud of Miki and Radha. "You could be the next Pizza Hut," her father says to them often.

Ashish Mistry is no stranger amongst the movers and shakers of the young desis in the Atlanta area. Chairman of the highly successful 2005 Network of Indian Professionals (NetIP) National Conference, Mistry was also selected by the Atlanta Business Chronicle as one of the city's 40 most promising business stars.

A natural entrepreneur, at age 23, with just about a year's experience in the workforce, Mistry co-founded Virtex Networks in 1999. The company offered remote management of the computer networks of medium size companies that did not have in-house IT departments. Mistry had observed that the small company that he used to work at would get severally handicapped by technical problems on account of not having an IT department. "We would have a problem on Monday and nothing would get done till Thursday until help came. As a result of figuring out the computer networks myself I realized that there was an opportunity to support the needs of such small and medium size companies. I knew there was a possibility of doing it remotely just like the large companies were doing it everyday," says Mistry. Commenting on the demand, he added, "When a computer is down in a big company, it doesn't hurt that much but when it is down in a small one, the pain is very visible."

Virtex grew to about 30 employees before it was acquired by Leapfrog Services. Mistry continued his entrepreneurial streak after a stint as Director of Marketing & Business Development for AirDefense, Inc. where he was part of the launch team and played key management roles within Marketing, Sales, and Business Development.

Not surprisingly, after AirDefense, Mistry served as Entrepreneur-in-Residence at Georgia Tech's Advanced Technology Development Center (ATDC) where he advised various early-stage technology businesses on all aspects of being a start up as well as on going beyond being a start up.

Mistry exemplifies the fact that entrepreneurs usually start out with a product or service that they have had a direct exposure with or have experienced a personal need for; but then the spirit of entrepreneurship itself takes over. More so in case of Mistry. He explains, "My parents were entrepreneurs and have been masters of ‘starting over.' My parents were in Uganda when the country was overthrown. They picked up and moved to the UK, where they started over, and then [they repeated the same] in the US."

When it was time for Mistry to start over, he went into his current venture as a partner in the RCMS Group. The company does virtual building construction within the building design marketplace. They create 3D models and construction plans of buildings that are to be constructed and give their Architect, Engineering, and Developer clients the ability to walk through their projects before ground is even broken. They have 20 employees in Atlanta and 40 in Hyderabad.

Asked if it is any easier for a second generation entrepreneur, Mistry replied, "I think the job of being an entrepreneur is difficult no matter which generation you are from. Either way, you are tasked with building something from scratch and it takes a lot of time, patience, and struggle to finally get something off the ground."

According to him, the toughest thing about being an entrepreneur is to contend with the choices of what to sacrifice: "You surely can't have your cake and eat it when you are bootstrapping a business, so making choices and being comfortable in your own skin about the decisions you make are essential."

Mistry feels that second generation Indian-Americans are well situated to launch into a business of their own. "I think they have done well in their education and early phases of their careers, and are able to take the risks required in starting something from scratch."

Across the country, in Seattle, Washington, Mohit Srivastava, age 28, a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University and former Microsoft engineer is starting a revolution of his own. Two years ago, Srivastava founded BlueDot.Us (www.bluedot.us), a social bookmarking tool that started as a way for people to stay in touch with friends and family by sharing web pages.

There were two reasons for Srivastava's creation. "One example I always use is me and my sister. We're very close; we talk, e-mail and IM often. Still, we don't share all the information we might want to know about each other. All the ways we had to share information are very interactive." BlueDot.Us allows Srivastava to share information with his sister and others with the click of a button.

The second was to create "better and trusted recommendations from friends," he said. Many "dots" reference recommended restaurants, wines, hotels and places to visit. "People trust their friends," Srivastava said. The idea is that a recommendation from a friend may hold as much, or more value than that of an expert critic.

BlueDot has already received rave reviews from several media outlets ranging from one of Seattle's local TV stations to renowned technology blogs to the local newspaper. According to a June 2006 Seattle Post-Intelligencer article, the company has already garnered $1.5 million from angel investors that include the likes of former Microsoft Senior Vice President Richard Fade and former Starbucks Senior Vice President Don Valencia. More than a million dollars more in additional funding is expected.

Srivastava was satisfied with his job at Microsoft, but always knew that eventually, he wanted to become his own boss. "I was happy at Microsoft. I always knew that I wanted to let my first job go on for about five years before starting something different. This idea had a real business around it. I know it sounds clich�, but this was something I wanted to build as a product for myself," he said.

Srivastava started his company with his savings from Microsoft that he otherwise, "could have bought a house with." He said he owes his work ethic to his parents. "People say that my father is the hardest working person they've ever met," he said. Srivastava said he inherited his father's work spirit, one that is critical to being a successful entrepreneur.

The support from home has been constant. Srivastava's father could not be happier for him. "He says I'm doing something he couldn't do." That's saying a lot, considering Srivastava's father is a graduate of IIT Kanpur, and is currently the CFO and Vice-President of a small company in New Jersey.

"Fundamentally, we're not that different," Srivastava said, in comparing himself to his father. But, he explained, the fact that his father came to the U.S. as an immigrant who had to establish himself, impeded him from starting his own company. "He had no capital, and he was married," Srivastava said, adding that his single status enables him to take risks that his father could not.

According to Srivastava, "The large majority of Indian kids still pursue engineering and law. In the future we will see Indian entrepreneurs in more diverse areas."

Srivastava is confident and hopeful of BlueDot's future. The site already has thousands of users. At the moment, revenue is generated through ads. Also, many of their "dots" link to e-commerce sites like Amazon. When users make purchases, a small cut comes to BlueDot. Meanwhile, as momentum quickly picks up, Srivastava is having plenty of fun on the job. "The cool thing about being an entrepreneur is that I feel a direct impact in putting something together. There is a direct relationship between you and your customers," he said.

While many South Asian entrepreneurs like Srivastava and Mistry are making a mark in technology, there are others like Mousumi Shaw who are pursuing paths with more ancient ties.

From a small office in Austin, Texas, Shaw, age 30, runs her own line of jewelry called Sikara. The name comes from the Kashmiri word for houseboat – Shikara. "It symbolizes the journey we are on with our business," she said. All of Shaw's jewelry is designed and created abroad. Commenting on how her creations symbolically bring the world to her clients, she says, "It's really amazing over 75% of Americans don't have passports." Her jewelry is a glittering passport for women looking for some adventure.

Shaw has design teams in India, Mexico, Egypt and Eastern Europe that she oversees. For the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard Business School graduate, jewelry was a natural choice. "My Mom's an entrepreneur. She started a jewelry store in Corpus Christi years ago called Shaw's Jewelry," she said. "I grew up with her telling me working for yourself was the best thing," Shaw explained.

After graduating from University of Pennsylvania's renowned business program, Shaw realized that using her creativity and business sense, she could go places. "I went to New York City and took a typical corporate job, but soon realized that it was not what I wanted to be doing," she said.

A year later, she had launched her own recruiting company called Silicon Spot. "It was such a roller coaster, and a wonderful ride. After three years we had to shut our doors, but it was a great learning experience."

A few years later, while studying at Harvard Business School, Shaw spent extensive amounts of time trying to figure out if she had a future in jewelry. "I researched the business and ended up coming up with the concept of Sikara. I met with the CEO of Tiffany's and discovered that only 20% of the jewelry industry is branded, and they are mostly high end brands."

"The demographics are changing and more women are buying jewelry for themselves. As a woman who's 30 and single myself, I know there are women buying jewelry purely on design and they are buying for themselves." Shaw began to wonder how she could create a feeling of emotional attachment to a piece of jewelry that a woman was gifting herself, and not getting from a loved one. To make the purchases memorable for her customers, each of Shaw's creations has a little story attached to it explaining the jewelry's significance.

Currently, her designs are being sold at several high-end museums around the country like the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, as well as several boutiques and spas in California, New York City and Texas.

The next step for Sikara, Shaw said is to focus on expanding on a national level with sales representatives. The year-old company is already breaking six figures, though Shaw said she oscillates from being in the red and in the black. "It's a constant reinvestment, though we do have cash flow coming in."

Another young Seattle entrepreneur, 26-year-old Gaurav Oberoi, recently founded a start-up called BillMonk (www.billmonk.com). In his own words, BillMonk "helps friends track debts and split them." "It's essentially a lending and borrowing system," Oberoi said.

Like Srivastava, Oberoi is creating a product that he would use himself. "Two and a half years ago I was going to Europe with friends, and we needed a system to keep track of our expenses." Oberoi realized that he could put all this data into a spreadsheet and put it online.

Last October, he and a friend quit their jobs at Amazon.com to turn their spreadsheet into a company. BillMonk launched in mid-January of this year, and has about 15,000 users in 30 countries, the majority of whom are in their mid-twenties like Oberoi.

The company, through promotion by word of mouth and blogs alone, has been getting amazing reviews from both national and international press that include Business 2.0, BBC World, The Seattle Times and The Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Most recently, they were featured in the business section of the Times of India.

Money Magazine said, "BillMonk.com, a new, free service that enables easy tracking of debts among friends." CNET also had good things to say. "The ongoing exercise of figuring out who owes what to whom is a royal pain in the neck? Our resident college-age intern, Andrew Gruen, said BillMonk is ‘great.'"

According to Oberoi, more than $103 billion dollars in "social money" is shuffled around every year. This is money that is given and taken when meals are split, hotels are shared and cabs are ridden. This is what BillMonk hopes to –and plans to – capitalize on.

In an article that featured BillMonk, BBC World Radio expressed it best. "What some are calling the next MySpace online? most of us have probably forgotten to return stuff on occasion, and this of course, can lead to all kinds of tension? with a student or community setting, it's actually going to make life easier, you are going to do away with the post-it notes, the IOUs, there isn't going to be one person made to feel like they're the bill nazi? The community library is a brilliant idea? guerilla [and] ad-hoc? it adds an element of fairness? I think we're looking at human activities being turned into transactions, because it's a way of creating social ease," the story said of the fledgling company.

Oberoi and his business partner live in the same apartment building, and currently operate from home so that they can remain self-funded and keep costs low. Though the service is free, Oberoi said, the idea is to eventually, "take a small cut from the payments that are made."

The 2002 Rice University graduate worked for a few years before realizing that he needed to seize the day. He saw that he was sitting on top a viable product, and knew he had to act fast. "You don't want to be in a position where you have regrets later," he said.

In any case, whether or not Bill Monk is a financial success, Oberoi knows that the endeavor will be worth the time and effort. "I will have learnt so much." He quoted the Gita, "Don't look at the fruits of your labor, focus at the task at hand." "I love doing this, and I feel very lucky," he said.

His long-term vision is to make BillMonk a widely used and well-received tool. "Young people like online tools, and this will be the one stop financial hub for them," he said confidently.

Today's South Asian entrepreneurs are also socially conscious, and the companies and products they build attempt to give back to the community.

Shaw has created a country-giving program. When a customer buys a piece of jewelry, she can select one of several Sikara supported causes, and a portion of the profits will be donated there.

Shaw hopes to use her position to make a statement about social issues, something she takes inspiration from Kenneth Cole on.

Mistry, through his service as Entrepreneur-in-Residence at the ATDC, as well as the president of the Atlanta CEO Council, has spent significant time on the not-for-profit side of building organizations. "I feel that part of building a business coincides with building a community, and the larger your community, the broader you can spread success," says Mistry.

One of Agrawal's passions is fighting obesity that is plaguing Americans nationwide. And she's doing it with her pizza. "It's a huge pandemic," she said. Slice provides healthy, tasty pizza to students in a New York public school twice a week. She also makes her way from classroom to classroom, teaching kids that food can be healthy and tasty. "Kids just understand pizza," she said. "I tell them that they don't have to give up what they love, to eat well and be healthy."

She's also passing on the entrepreneurial spirit to the next generation. Recently at Cornell, she volunteered at a workshop for teenage entrepreneurs, where she spoke about how she made it as a female in business.

Perhaps the greatest mark of excellence in these new products is the fact that their creators actually use them, regularly. Shaw wears her jewelry, Oberoi splits his bill up on BillMonk, Srivastava dots constantly, and Agrawal never tires of her pizza. As to Mistry, entrepreneurship is his product, which he certainly consumes with zest.

As Agrawal sifted through pictures of Slice's pizza to select some shots for Khabar, her appetite got the better of her. "Doesn't that look good? It's so good." "I want a slice," she said as she signaled to the cook and ordered herself some pizza.

BY SINDYA N. BHANOO


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