The only technocrat to be honoured in this year’s Padma awards is Sridhar Vembu, founder and chief executive officer of the Chennai-headquartered Zoho Corporation, whose office productivity tools are taking on global brands like Salesforce and Microsoft in their own markets.
Vembu’s Padma Shri Award is a recognition, at last, of the quiet contribution that his company, almost a quarter century old, has made, to create a truly Indian brand in the fiercely competitive global market in office productivity software.
Both Zoho and Vembu are understated entities — often flying beneath the radar of industry limelight, but scooping up the business of loyal corporate users in the heartland of their competitors.
Culture has something to do with this: After a brief stint working for US-based tech companies, Vembu launched his own software house, AdventNet, in 1996, partnering his two brothers.
In 2009, the venture, which remains a closely held family business, was renamed Zoho and found a new focus in the burgeoning business of SaaS or Software as a Service.
A string of office software tools bearing the Zoho label were launched, all the development taking place in Chennai, with a marketing arm in the US.
In 2017, they were combined into a jumbo suite called ZohoOne which quickly found 50 million users worldwide. Zoho continues to give away for free, all its software to small businesses of 10 or less users, which has earned it strong loyalty, if not royalty. When the companies grow, they will become paying clients, Zoho feels.
Vembu created a 3000-strong development team at Zoho’s 12-storey headquarters in the Estancia IT Park in Vallancheri, on the outskirts of Chennai — and bucked the trend of looking to the IITs to find talent.
He hired young school leavers and college goers, right there in Tamil Nadu and put them through a training course in the Zoho University to acquire the software skills they needed.
At lunchtime in the massive dining room of the Zoho tower, Tamil is the language of choice as everyone from trainee to CEO lines up for a homely choice of thayir saadam (curd rice), sambhar saadam (sambhar rice) or pongal, with the inevitable filter kaapee.
Rural IT Centre
A firm believer that talent in India is not the exclusive preserve of metros, Vembu started a development centre in the village of Silaraipuravu, on the outskirts of Tenkasi, in Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu and hired 150 young school-leavers and diploma holders from the surrounding areas.
In quick time they acquired the software skills to craft Zoho’s Next Big Thing, a software suite to run customer help desks called ZohoDesk that found customers like Tech Mahindra in India and Daimler and a division of the US Sears group abroad, in 2016.
The centre is just 2 kms from the famous Kasi Viswanath temple and the waterfalls at Courtallam. There are no airports nearby — Tuticorin is a three hour drive away, as is Thiruvananthapuram across the state border, in Kerala.
Such was the rush to join, that Zoho began construction of an additional 30,000 square feet facility next door to add space for another 200 engineers. Zoho quickly became the biggest employer in Tenkasi — bringing a fresh breath of technology, while tapping into the latent talent of what is otherwise a laidback rural and agricultural area.
When working in Tenkasi, Vembu embraces his roots, cycling to work, clad in chappals, shirt and mundu.
Thrilled with the results at Tenkasi, Vembu started a second rural centre in Renigunta, Andhra Pradesh, close to another temple town — Tirupati. Engineers at all centres combined resources to help craft Zoho’s latest avatar of its ZohoOffice suite — India’s first web-based, artificial intelligence-based office productivity solution.
This rural reach-out was to prove fortuitous: when the Covid lockdowns came, the main unit in Chennai could not function for many months, but the rural centres, being relatively infection-free, came back to near-normality, much earlier.
Sridhar Vembu continues to shun expansion into the usual suspects among India’s technology cities like Bengaluru, Hyderabad or Gurugram and believes companies like Zoho have a duty to promote smaller centres. He tweets: “Can we limit growth of cities so we don't exhaust locally available natural resources like water?”.
He suggests another reason: “If you are talented and caught in that rat race, moving to a smaller community may cure it. You will simply stop caring about many of the ‘prestige traps’ that afflict our minds —what brands of clothes, shoes, phones, cars and so on and on. That is profoundly liberating!”
When informed that he had become the recipient of the Padma Shri, Vembu, characteristically shares credit in a tweet: “it is a huge honour and I feel humbled. I dedicate this to our employees, my extended family, for keeping the faith.”
He is hard at work today, organising the formal launch of Zoho's new product, a made-in-India messaging tool, Arattai, that could take on WhatsApp.
Better Late Than Never
In recognizing industrialists and business persons this year as part of the Padma awards, the government has belatedly remembered some veterans now in their 80s and 90s, whose contributions started decades ago. Padma awards also go to:
Rajni Bector, 80, who in 1978 started a small homemade food business in Ludhiana, with Rs 300, that went on to become a Rs 500 crore company, ‘Mrs Bectors Food Specialities’, with popular biscuit and bakery products like ‘Mrs Bector’s Cremica’ and ‘English Oven’. (Padma Shri)
Rajnikant Devidas Shroff, 87, the founder of United Phosphorus Ltd, a leader in agri-chemicals, who is known as India’s 'crop protection king'. (Padma Bhushan)
Jaswantiben Jamnadas Popat, 91, the only surviving member of the seven Gujarati homemakers, who began making the famous Lijjat Pappad in Mumbai and founded 'Shri Mahila Gruh Udyog Lijjat Papad' with Rs 80 as capital. Today Lijjat is the national market leader in pappads and the company is a Rs 1,000 crore entity and provides employment to nearly 50,000 women all over India. (Padma Shri)
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