Of late, Sridhar Vembu’s mornings begin at around 5am when he wakes up, does some office work until 7 before setting off on a long and leisurely walk in his village in Tenkasi, some 600kms away from Tamil Nadu’s capital Chennai.
Along the way, he stops occasionally to chat with local villagers, enquire about their families’ well-being while of course maintaining all pandemic precautions. "Some mornings I also go for a swim in the village well. It’s truly relaxing and prepares me for the day," says the founder and CEO of Zoho Corporation.
Zoho, a leading software development firm that has a presence across the world, including in the UAE, is a privately held company that makes cloud-based business software, has over 60 million users world-wide and a client database that includes such brands as Levi’s, Amazon, Philips, Whirlpool, Ola, Xiaomi, and Zomato, to name just a few.
Founded as Adventnet Inc in 1996 by Sridhar, his siblings and Tony Thomas, an entrepreneur, in Pleasanton, California, it morphed into Zoho Corporation in 2009 with its global headquarters in Chennai. (Tony later moved out to start his own company.) Forbes recently listed the net worth of Sridhar, who owns a majority stake in Zoho, and his siblings, at $2.4 billion.
Zoho itself if valued at over $1 billion, right? I ask Sridhar, in a telephone interview.
He chuckles. "Yes, it’s supposed to be so. But that’s not something I worry about," he says, in a Zoho call from his office in Tenkasi.
Clearly, leading a worry-less, stress-free life is what he hopes not just for himself but also for his 8,000-plus staff based in countries including the US, Japan, Australia, China, India, Singapore and Mexico.
"I like to work with as little stress as possible. Many people suffer [from health conditions] because they work under a lot of pressure and stress; it’s something I want to avoid – both for myself and my employees," says the 52-year-old honcho.
Moving to a remote village in Tamil Nadu, he felt, would not only provide a better quality of life but also help him realise his dream of improving the hinterlands.
"No, the pandemic wasn’t the catalyst," explains the IIT Madras alumnus. who also has a doctorate from Princeton University. "I’d been thinking about making this move to a village for a while now." (Sridhar’s wife Pramila, an engineer and founder and CEO of a US-based company that makes electronic and clinic management software, continues to live in the US with their 17-year-old son who is autistic as quality care is more easily available there. Both are planning to join him a little later.)
Being a parent of a child with autism is a challenge, Sridhar admits. "But it makes you more patient, less frustrated and you appreciate that not everything in life will go perfect. Life is going to have sometimes unsolvable challenges and you just have to keep marching," he said in an interview to Forbes.
Zoho initially recruited staff from rural areas for its Chennai headquarters "but I realised Chennai is getting overcrowded" he says. Convinced that following an unhurried pace of life is crucial for happiness and good health – factors that dovetail nicely into increased productivity – he believes rural life has a lot to offer. "I was always interested in rural development and rural technology particularly cloud tech because that allows you to work from any place, any location," he says, explaining why he moved to Tenkasi, where Zoho had set up an office a decade ago.
Sridhar believes that if two crucial factors - broadband connectivity and electricity – are available uninterruptedly, a software company could work perfectly well from just about anywhere. "Actually, the [internet] speed here is better than what I used to get in California," says the CEO, with a laugh.
He admits that there were some initial glitches "but things are a lot better now. We are now the biggest private sector employee in the district". At the macro level, Zoho is a leading global SaaS (software as a service) corporation with the dotcom portfolio boasting more than 45 products, perhaps the broadest cloud suite today.
For Sridhar, the move to India’s rural area has been a mind-expanding experience. If he has been able to "understand a lot more about the issues in rural areas", his lifestyle and health too has "improved vastly".
"Thanks to the good, clean air that I breathe and the sunlight that I get every day, I’ve become healthier. I’ve made some really good friendships with so many people here – something I don’t think I would have been able to in a city. I get to meet and talk to farmers, their families… people you don’t get to meet in the city. These are the major positive things of a life here."
There have been plenty of spin offs for his staff too, around 20 per cent of whom are handpicked from rural area, trained at Zoho Schools before being absorbed into the firm. "They don’t have to face the challenges of traffic, there’s no waste of time on the road, plus the added advantages of enjoying fresh air and sunlight and being close to their families," he lists the pros.
Surely there must be something he misses?
"Um, yes," he says after a moment’s pause. "If I wanted Chinese takeaway tonight, I don’t think I’d get it. But personally I don’t miss it too much," he guffaws.
Walking the talk
Sridhar’s day is not spent completely outdoors.
Once he returns from his morning walk around 10am, he meets with his teams briefly to catch up on product updates before getting down to work again. "I’m not a big fan of formal meetings and it is not part of Zoho’s culture," he says. "Not having too many meetings leaves me with a lot of relatively open slots to meet with product developers, write and review code… I enjoy writing documents and presentations, and code. Sometimes I even handle support escalation from consumers and users."
Not one to micromanage, the 52-year-old says: "There are a few projects I follow closely but broadly I am responsible for the culture of my company and my employees, and how customers are treated - those are my basic priorities."
Education is another priority – a reason Sridhar set up Zoho Schools of Learning 16 years ago.
The idea for the schools came about after his company conducted a poll among some professionals to gauge how useful and relevant a college education was in a person’s current job. The results were intriguing: almost all learning that was useful for work was learnt while on the job, the respondents said.
"Today, the focus of education is grades and standardised tests," says Sridhar. Teaching practical skills and providing hands-on training are pushed to the backburner; bookish knowledge and grades are the only things given importance.
Zoho Schools of Learning aims to set right this disparity. Operating at two locations in Tamil Nadu, the schools take in students in the age group of 17 to 20 but with a condition: they should only have completed Class 12 or at best have a diploma in vocational training.
Chosen students are taught basic lessons in reading, writing and arithmetic, and relevant English communication skills. The major chunk of the curriculum is practical hands-on lessons in their chosen area – design, programming and software development, or marketing – to give students a feel of – and prepare them for - a real world working environment.
Students are put through rigorous hands-on training that could last up to 24 months. "What is taught is more relevant for a real career in software," he says.
No fees are charged instead, each student gets a stipend starting at 10,000 Indian rupees per month throughout the course of the study. That’s not all. After the successful completion of the course, the students are offered a full time career at Zoho Corporation.
Formal education, says Sridhar, can only take you so far. But much of contextual knowledge comes from hand-on practical training.
His students would agree.
Akash, a computer science and coding enthusiast who graduated from Zoho School of Technology earlier this year, is thrilled to have found his calling with the career of his choice – and without having to spend four years earning an engineering degree. "It fascinates me that I can instantly see how the code I manipulate changes the output," he says. To learn more about client-side development he is now interning with the Zoho subscriptions billing software team.
He is not alone. Kalki, his batchmate, pursued commerce at school but is now training to become an Android developer.
Shakunthala, a grade 12 student and a year 2020 alumnus of Zoho school, has already coded three computer games and is now training to be a web developer – something she never dreamed she could become with her basic school qualification.
Karpagavalli P, a student of Biology at her regular school, shifted track and chose computer science when she joined Sridhar’s school. "I was memorizing so many things at school whereas at ZS I feel like I’m learning something that will help me in the long run," says the 19-year-old who, thanks to her keen eye for detail, is training to be a software tester.
"Students at ZS are not treated as students but as employees right from day one," says another student. "We learn and apply, and do not have pen and paper exams here."
Janakai A sums up her experience in the school well. "[I don’t think there’s] any IT company that hires and provides quality training to students who have completed their 12th grade." Although she doesn’t have a background or a degree in computer science, since her graduation from the school, she has been working in product development at Zoho for over a decade now.
Although chuffed with the success of his projects, Sridhar doesn’t believe in making a song and dance about it or for that matter any of his or his company’s achievements. "It helps to maintain a balance," says the salt and pepper-bearded CEO. "I don’t get too excited about things… I don’t go to extremes vis-à-vis emotions about anything. I try to be moderate."
Now he is trying to replicate the school’s success with elementary and junior school students too, an idea that came about during his morning walks in the village.
"Several schools had gone online due to the pandemic and a lot of students were left doing nothing," he says. "So I thought why not conduct some classes for them?" He got together some 5 students and, enforcing due pandemic protocols, began giving them basic lessons in math and science. "I soon realised that I needed help because several friends’ children too wanted to join."
The father of one hired a few local teachers and soon his small tuition classes grew. "Today there are some 100-plus kids," he says. "We want to make it a full-fledged, free of cost school."
Some days during his morning walks, Sridhar drops by at the school and reviews the students’ progress. "I try to do that at least a few days in a week," says the entrepreneur whose role models include Honda Soichiro, the founder of Honda Motor company – "he came from a rural area and built the powerful automobile company" – and Lee Kuan Yew, the first Prime Minister of Singapore. "He took a country that was mired in difficult situations to make it a first-world nation… truly amazing."
As we come to the end of the interview, I ask Sridhar if, given a chance he would have done anything differently.
"All these rural initiatives… I’d have started them sooner," he says. "Of course, hindsight is always perfect. But I don’t believe in going hard on yourself [for something you could have done differently]. In fact that’s one of the lessons I offer: Don’t obsess too much about what you could have done differently. Keep looking ahead."