SAN JOSE, Calif. — Hundreds of Indian American entrepreneurs and investors gathered in Silicon Valley at the San Jose Marriott Hotel here July 3 to offer insights and share success stories at the first ever Tamil Entrepreneurs Forum.
The event was a parallel session to the 28th Annual FeTNA convention organized by the Federation of Tamil Sangams in North America and San Francisco Bay Area Tamil Manram.
Many high profile entrepreneurs were on site for the forum, including Walmart Stores global CTO, CIO and CDO Suja Chandrasekaran, Tesla Motors CIO Jay Vijayan, Harvard head of IT and CIO Prasanna Gopalakrishnan, inventor at IBM of Lasik Technology Rangaswamy Srinivasan and Esurance CIO and VP of data and infrastructure services Arun Ganesan, among others.
The forum had several guest speakers and panelists throughout the day, and was broken up into three panels and three workshops, with networking breaks and award presentations.
The panels focused on topics such as innovative and disruptive entrepreneurship; cross border opportunities for entrepreneurs; and startup fundraising and scaling. The workshops covered startup fundamentals, early stage startup valuation and legal issues for entrepreneurs.
With a moderator feeding questions to the panelists, their insights aimed at helping people or companies in their infancy to get to the level of success they have achieved. In the cross border opportunities for entrepreneurs’ panel, KB Chandrasekhar, a serial entrepreneur now with Jamcracker, explained entrepreneurship with simplicity and matter-of-factness.
“Without failure, you aren’t pushing the envelope,” he said, adding that the real challenge is all about people and who you surround yourself with. “You need people who understand what it takes (to run a successful business).”
Many other issues come with cross-border opportunities, noted the panelists, including culture, local economy and currency exchange.
The early afternoon of the day-long forum included lunch with the presentation of the Tamil American Pioneer awards presentation.
The entrepreneurs receiving awards were Ahilan Arulanantham, deputy legal director of ACLU of Southern California; Bhi Bhiman, folk rock singer; Muttulingam Sanjayan, nature conservation scientist; Srinivasan of IBM; Sethuraman Panchanathan, Arizona State University senior VP of knowledge enterprise development; Ramanathan Raju, New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation CEO; Krish Suthanthiran, Best Cure Foundation and TeamBest Companies founder and president; and Priyamwada Natarajan, professor of astrophysics at Yale.
Each award recipient provided the more than 400 people in the audience with an inspiring story behind their successes.
Srinivasan, the man behind Lasik, was, curiously, wearing glasses as he explained his vision of Lasik from decades ago.
“You might be saying to yourself, ‘why is he wearing glasses?’ ” Srinivasan said, drawing laughter from the crowd. He added that he had been wearing glasses since he was a young boy but that his vision is perfect, and the glasses are merely decoration. “I wear the glasses for people to recognize me.”
Panchanathan painted a beautiful picture of his inspiring story behind the award. He had put together a video to show the audience, but, instead, used his words to passionately explain how a student of his had taken an idea and won a global award. The student, Panchanathan related, was legally blind, only able to see a few inches in front. That was causing problems for him for taking notes in the classroom.
The student went to Panchanathan seeking guidance, and the professor challenged him to do something to fix it. The student went on to create and develop a program that allowed him to set up a camera to a tablet, allowing him to bring the chalkboard onto his tablet screen and, thus, allowing him to see the board more clearly. He fine-tuned the program, allowing for a split screen to write notes while viewing the board.
Panchanathan explained that the student entered this program into a local competition and won. He then went to a regional and national competition and won both; and then went to the global competition and won that as well. The following year, Panchanathan explained, the student entered the program into a different category and won that as well.
The moral to his story, Panchanathan concluded, is that “you can achieve anything you want” with hard work and dedication.
The overall theme of the forum was providing startup entrepreneurs with positive feedback that, no matter what the circumstance, if you push yourself and devote yourself to what you want to do, you can do it. As Suthanthiran pointed out, “You’ve got to be happy with who you are.”
Later in the day, the floor was given to nine startup companies, who pitched their ideas to a panel of judges.
Mukund Mohan of Microsoft Ventures, Bala Krishnan of Peel.com, Prashant Shah of TiE LaunchPad and TiE Angels, and Rajan Raghavan of Fabric Accelerator sat as the judges as the startups from the Tamil community in North America pitched their entrepreneurial ideas.
The purpose of the event was to introduce the ideas and have the judges select three as winners. The three companies selected were Sway, a company seeking to provide preventive solutions to overspending by syncing users with all their transactions in real-time; Indian Moms Connect, a parenting blog and online community for Indian moms to share parenting experiences and opinions; and FixNix, a company providing businesses with affordable Web-based governance, risk and compliance solutions for medium-sized enterprises.
Sway apparently swayed Mohan so much that he immediately offered to write a check on the spot. The details of the amount were not disclosed. The three winners, as well as a couple of other startups spotlighted at the event, garnered interest from investors in attendance at the forum.
As with any venture, there are challenges. Not everything will come on a silver platter for entrepreneurs as they seek funding and immediate success in their startups. Much of what could come was discussed during the workshops and panels throughout the day. Gopalakrishnan summed up the day early on when she was recognized during a break between panels.
“The stuff we do here is applicable everywhere,” she said at the podium. “It is the time now to be entrepreneurs.”