“Can Do” Entrepreneur: Kanchana Raman
She came to the U.S. at age 21 with nothing more than strong work ethics, a parent-instilled self image as a winner, and a determination to pursue the American dream. And did she! In 1996, in her mid-twenties, she founded her company with $5000 in savings. Today, just at a decade old, the company is 500-employees strong and spread out in fourteen countries. Meet Kanchana Raman, the exuberant, confident and affable founder and CEO of Avion Systems.
A network engineering services provider to clients like Lucent and Motorola, the company has had a focus on the telecom services sector, and continues to play an important part in this arena by deploying emerging Third Generation (3G) technologies. Over time, it has diversified to include areas such as project management, data warehousing, IT infrastructures, and software development.
Kanchana's is a remarkable success story that is bound to inspire all young and aspiring entrepreneurs and especially women. When asked about her secret of success, she had a simple and short answer, "hard work." While she was modest, Irving Mitchell, Vice President of Avion Systems had much praise for her "can do" attitude and visionary leadership which he described as "a combination of trust, optimism and realism." Mitchell, who previously worked for the Governor of Georgia, joined Avion as he was impressed with Kanchana's charm, professionalism, and determination. "The freedom to be creative and innovative is always there. Just as important is Kanchana's infectious optimism. She is a consistent reminder that opportunity is always out there and failure occurs only when you do not do your best," he added.
Perhaps these qualities were ingrained in her while she was growing up in India. She was mentored by her parents to be a winner. Her Harvard-educated father, of whom she speaks very fondly, always encouraged her to excel and make a difference—to be someone, do something, and be a success. Kanchana used her acumen and talent to steer herself to the right path, and now her company towards its destination of becoming a major global player in the telecom industry. From a simple provider of contract sources it has grown to offer an array of telecom and technology business services and solutions. Ever vigilant Kanchana ensures that her company keeps pace with the fast changing telecom industry.
Her success has not gone unnoticed. She has received many accolades from the business community, most recently, her selection to serve on the Women's Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC) Leadership forum, the 2005 Quiet Storm Technology Award, and the Georgia Women's Business Council (GWBC) Shining Star Award.
Her philosophy of hard work was evident when on a Friday evening while most were on their way to enjoying the weekend, she was engrossed in a conference call in her office in Roswell. She then spoke to Khabar—a delightful conversation interspersed with her contagious hearty laughter.
Most people are very happy with 9 to 5 jobs. When did you decide that you wanted to become an entrepreneur, and what influenced that decision?
I always wanted to do something on my own. Everything has to be different, nonconventional, from the clothes I wear to the things I do. So I didn't want a 9 to 5 job. I always brag about my dad, that he has been a huge influence in my life. [I have been] born to very ambitious parents. They want me to always do something, make a name for myself, and not come to the world and just go away. But I am enjoying it, the passion is there and definitely it is a big part of my life.
Do you think an entrepreneur needs different talents and skills?
I think, a lot of energy. [Growing up] I had energy like a little boy. I climbed trees and broke my hand twice. Also, I probably channeled my energy in the right direction. Some dedicate their entire life to their children, which is great, like my mom. I think she has a lot of energy, but her entire life was modeled taking care of us.
When you started this company in 1996 Lucent was your first customer. Was that instrumental in getting you into the telecom industry or was it a conscious decision?
It was a conscious decision to work in telecommunications, and Lucent was a target customer. I had a network of engineers that had expertise in a product that Lucent had, so we teamed up and decided to present that solution. It was not an accident.
Most entrepreneurs have difficulty finding money for their start-ups. How did you finance your company when you started?
I had savings, no family money. The cash flow was pretty good. I think what they (entrepreneurs) should do is have a compelling, competitive product and a solution, offer it to your customer and get some offers of fund. We have to just find a way to negotiate with our customers to get paid.
Financing the company with customer money, not really going after investors?
I think angel investors try to control. I would rather be a free spirit and do whatever I want, however I want, at least when you're starting. You cannot be a free spirit all the time in your company. I guess I will never get an angel investor, because of that statement (laughing).
Who were your role models?
I am learning something from everybody, everyday. I learn from my administrative assistant, my vice president, and other entrepreneurs, so I do not have one particular role model that I have entirely modeled my life after. My dad and mom are a huge inspiration. Within the industry I just pick up good things from so many, because I think we're in a very dynamic, ever changing environment. I do not want to be chained to one role model, because you cannot model your life after one person. We are our own personality. We have so many things going on within ourselves.
You achieved success at a very young age. What is the secret?
I have read about people who work smart, but I haven't figured it out yet. This [working smart] happens only in magazines! It's just hard work, sweat equity, simple. I work 24 / 7 / 365, and I never get tired of working.
But then how do you make time for family and other activities?
I do. I leave work at 6 and spend quality time with my family, with the children. There is nothing like quantity time anymore; you don't have that luxury. And I do feel guilty as a mother—I guess most working women feel like that. But then you also see that I come across as a good role model for my children. Recently when I was featured in Fortune magazine they took me out for dinner and ordered all my favorite dishes. They were celebrating; doing what I do for them when they get a good grade or win a tennis match. They can relate to what I do, and they're really proud and happy for me. It has become more like we are in this together.
You believe in giving back to the community. How are you doing that?
We participate in a lot of charity events. I also enjoy meeting and mentoring other entrepreneurs who are getting started and telling them the truth about what it takes, not a sugarcoated or a totally negative view. I've been talking to many entrepreneurs in the U.S. who are interested in global expansion. I have been burnt quite a bit in the past: lost a lot of money. These are things I would like to share so people know and learn from my mistakes. Sometimes I wish I'd met somebody like me when I got started.
I am part of the leadership forum at GWBC. I also participate in conferences for international expansion and certification and helping women in developing countries like Afghanistan, Turkey, India, and South Africa. In December I was invited by Motorola to go to South Africa as part of a 21-person delegation where we met minority entrepreneurs, mainly men who are suppressed and trying to come up. Their Black Enterprise Empowerment (BEE) movement is involved with the South African government and the US Government. I met with 40 BEE Companies and we shared with them how to do business and how we are going to help them grow and expand outside.
Are you in any way involved with the Indian community?
No, not at all. I guess there's absolutely no bandwidth. But I would love to. We are members of TiE-Atlanta, so I am in touch with entrepreneurs in the Indian circle.
You've successfully weathered the technology and telecom meltdowns, when many companies closed down at that point and even a little after. What were your survival strategies?
As mom used to say, ‘Don't put all your eggs in one basket,' so we diversified. We were primarily working in telecommunications in the United States, and we got a lot of opportunity to work international but never went after that business. But in 2001 we really become a mature entrepreneur, came out stronger from adversity. We expanded globally and opened offices in Asia. We were fortunate because our customers in the U.S. had some huge projects in other parts of the world, so we went there and of course doubled our effort as well and found other new customers. That's what I call "reverse outsourcing"—when we were able to take a lot of American expert engineers to work in Asia. Then we also expanded our portfolio domestically. We added a technology division to our company that was offering solution. That is one of the strategic moves. Actually I was growing through the downturn.
What were your other challenges, during this time?
Major challenge was, basically, keeping a large infrastructure. You have to keep the pace of revenue coming in at all times where you do not want to lay off your staff. There was a lot of pressure: ‘What's next?' But then there is always light at the end of the tunnel. I have been lucky. But they say luck is the residue of hard work. It is luck and hard work.
Do you have any plans to contribute to the telecom sector in India?
We already are. We started a company in April 2002 and we were part of the first major Reliance rollout. We are expanding in India; currently we have four offices [there]. There are a lot of opportunities, but you do not make that much money. Rates are chewed to the bare bones. From there we're expanding to Asia.
What's your vision for Avion?
We want to become a global player in telecommunications. Right now we are working in four continents and want to expand there and maybe to the remaining continents. I think there is nothing like telecom and technology anymore because of IT; you know the lines are blurring and it's become just one big industry.
Women seem to have to work harder at proving themselves and achieving success, especially women of color in this country. What are your experiences?
I don't think it is true at all. It is a myth. I think it has been an advantage being a woman. There are just not many of us out there and there are companies that always want to work with us. There is a quota set aside to work with women-owned companies. I think United States is the best place for any woman to be working in. I don't want to make a statement saying it's harder in other parts of the world, because I have never worked in other parts of the world. Instead of thinking of ourselves as a female or male, all we have to think about is, what is it that our company has to offer? It is not about you at all, because before you know it, the company is not about you. Today, I don't think Avion is about me. Avion is a stand-alone company. It is not about Kanchana anymore. They buy from you because they trust [the company].
But then doesn't the minority quota system help?
It does to a certain extent, in the sense that it can open the door for you. But for you to sustain and grow, you have to have a compelling product. It only opens the door, but it doesn't guarantee your staying inside.
What is your advice to aspiring entrepreneurs of Indian origin, especially women?
Have a good concrete business plan, to start with. Believe in yourself. Have a compelling product and don't think of yourself as a woman or a man or be conscious of your origin. This is a level playing field for everybody, and I think we have been very blessed to have this opportunity to work in a country like the United States. Over here, there is a process for everything. When I registered my company, I just took MARTA to downtown and for sixty dollars registered my company and came back. It was that simple. Work hard, there are no easy ways and shortcuts to success. You have to work hard, be there, and pay your dues to the industry. You're not gonna have your Fortune 100 clients in a year. We've been in business ten years and when I started, I wanted to have all these different customers, right? I had this vision; I wanted to be a tier one vendor of choice. But then, I could not just make it to so many lists, because you're small, you don't have a history. So you have to work in that capacity. It's about getting the first break. Get the first break, and then make the maximum out of it, give it all you've got. Get those references from that customer and then you grow, slowly. And don't get frustrated because things are not happening overnight. My wish list that I started ten years ago is now complete. But your goal is like a moving target. For an entrepreneur, you never feel like you've reached the zenith of your entrepreneurship, and I think if you reach there, you are a spent force, and you should exit. Also, we should not alienate ourselves from the mainstream, because we are doing business with corporate America, that's where the business is.
Kanchana has two beautiful children Kamini and Ananth and a very supportive husband Mani Vannan, Avion's VP of Business Solutions, whose consistent message to her has been "pursue your dreams."
The savvy and successful businesswoman is also deeply religious and philosophical. Kanchana strongly believes in the Principle of Theosophy. Kanchana emphasizes the need to have faith and to find strength within to fight adversities and negative forces in one's life. She says, "What matters is you, what is within you. Nobody, not even your spouse can make you an entrepreneur. It is you!"
By SHUBHANGI PANDIT
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