Be Empathetic – Lessons from my dad

My father was a great teller of tales. However, neither he nor I realized this for much of his life.  If I had asked my father tell me a story which I’ve don’t recall ever doing he’d have likely said, “I don’t tell stories.” However, he did. And darn good ones at that. Only they were narrated while we waited at railway stations or airports or while he was dressing up for work or waiting for dinner to be served. Many of them were just vignettes – episodes from his own life, that it took me many years to figure were stories – darn good ones – well worth repeating. And today as I share them with my daughters or at times with unsuspecting colleagues, I understand how they’ve shaped me.

My favorite story was my dad’s recounting of how as a young man he’d attended a village play  and particularly his re-telling of a specific scene from the play. My dad as with many Indians’ of the pre-WWII generation grew up in a small village. Entertainment meant the occasional village fair, a rare trip to town and most often a religious celebration which would include makeshift theater featuring song and dance. Plays, much like Indian movies of the early forties, were largely based on religious themes – often stories from one of the two great Indian epics Ramayana or Mahabharata. 

For those not familiar with the Indian epics, the Ramayana is the tale of the hero-king Rama, who is banished to 14 years of forest exile, on the eve of his coronation. His life in exile, including the search for his kidnapped wife Sita culminating in the epic good vs evil battle with the demon Ravana and his triumphant return to the throne, forms the arc of the story line. Rama’s father, the old king Dasaratha is forced to exile Rama, due to an IOU – a promise he made to his youngest wife Kaikeyi (he had three) who sought the throne for her own son.

Vanavas

Photo: Margarent Freeman

Village theater, even today in India, is often a makeshift stage, with a curtain or cloth draped to separate the backstage from the action up front. The actors heavily made up, rely on their costumes and loud voices to make up for the lack of scenery or other props. With stories such as the Ramayana, the audience which knows every scene needs little else.

As the curtain pulls back, the old king Dasaratha is reclining on the royal couch. My father’s voice chokes up as he narrates the scene. When I was much younger, I could never understand why dad choked up thus. We knew how the story ended! My dad’s eyes fill up and he’s not able to speak any further. With some nudging and prodding, he starts again. “Rama, Rama, Rama” the King calls out – loudly first, his voice filled with anguish and then softly. He gets off the couch and staggers forward as if wanting to go after his son. He continues, calling out “Rama, Rama, Rama” in a voice that breaks and gets weaker by the moment. And then he collapses and dies right there.

By this time, my father’s eyes, still wet, begin to twinkle – as though he’s thought of something naughty. “Then the crowd goes wild – they clap, cheer, hoot, jump up to their feet. “Encore, encore” a lone voice is heard. Then the crowd picks it up and shouts itself hoarse.” My dad is back in the crowd himself. Then the actor, playing the dead King, rises – steps back and begins again “Rama, Rama, Rama” and goes through the whole scene, crying, staggering, calling out and dropping dead. The crowd can’t have enough. By now my dad and I are both laughing out loud. I never tired of hearing this story and would ask my dad often to narrate it.

Yesterday when my younger daughter asked me, for a school project, to tell her what was happening in Palestine, I started to recount the tale of Israel. But in a moment, my own eyes were filled with tears – hot tears of anger and frustration at the real and perceived injustices. The same tears flow just as easily when I narrate the tale of Abhimanyu the young prince from the Mahabharata, cut down in his prime by eight great warriors, who trapped and ambushed him. While “sad songs say so much” as Elton John put it, it’s not just sad news or unfairness that brings me tears to my eyes. I could just as easily be watching Martin Luther King Jr. assert “I have a dream” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial or listening to Eminem crooning “Mockingbird” to his daughter Haley. Like my father crying and laughing at the same time while recounting the encore rendition of the death of Dasaratha, I too find myself emoting easily.

Be empathetic” is the lesson my dad taught me that day and as my kids wipe my tears and try to coax me to continue, I realize how that one death scene has shaped me!


Five years ago today, my father passed away. The good news was that I got to spend a lot more time with my father, the last five years of his life – even as he and my mother struggled with his Parkinson’s Disease. The bad news is that no amount of time would have been enough. An earlier draft of this article appeared on Medium.

Keep your needs simple – Lessons from my dad

Bench

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“Why do you take the bus? Couldn’t you at least take an auto (3-wheeler cab)?”

My father never stopped asking his friend, a Gujarati Jain gentleman, this question each time he visited. Even the times he did come to our doorstep in an auto, my father whispered to me conspiratorially, “He probably took the bus to Adyar and took the auto for the last kilometer.

The said gentleman, had like my dad, landed in Chennai as a teen with less than Rs. 10 in his pocket. He’d then gone on to amass a considerable fortune in the plastics business. Yet, he maintained a disarmingly simple, nearly spartan, lifestyle. While my father pulled his friend’s leg about his frugality, his own actions were not all that different.

As kids we were always embarrassed, when my father would order idlisambar – steamed rice cakes with spicy lentil – at even the fanciest of restaurants. Likewise we were flummoxed that he’d check in at the 5-Star Taj hotel with his boss, but choose to spend the night at his sister’s duplex in Karol Bagh. It took us more than twenty years to try and get him to wear anything other than the white shirt and pant that he wore every day to work – even then we only managed to get him try solid pastel color shirts!

My dad lived and breathed his belief to keeping his needs simple. Without my realizing it he’d trained me from day one to be an entrepreneur. Not that I was a good student. In my first foray at being an entrepreneur, I blew nearly $250 (yep, dollars) on business cards. Let’s just say I was a slow learner. But luckily I returned to my roots – when we bootstrapped our first startup. We didn’t buy a computer, we didn’t hire a coder – we began pitching customers. We kept it simple – emails and presentations. We operated out of my co-founder’s apartment and held day jobs while we tried to land our first paying customer.

The lesson I learned was not just frugality but to keep every element of life (and business) simple.

Keep your 

  • business simple, so others understand it. Stay focused
  • offerings simple, so customers just get it
  • pricing simple so buying what you sell is easy
  • cash tracking simple – know where it goes, what you need and have
  • organization simple – so your team is clear about their roles & what’s expected of them
  • life simple – early to bed, early to rise, love, affection & exercise

Thanks dad!

Experience Matters – Lessons from my dad

“I can line up ten old and experienced fools in front of you this evening.”

Experience

Photo Credit: shrutibiyani cc

My father always began his story with this line. As the professional CEO of a family-owned business, one of the challenges my father had to contend with was the different working styles of the younger generation. The speaker in this instance was one of the founder’s grandsons, who was being groomed to run the business.

The discussion was about the relative strengths and weaknesses of a potential new employee that they’d just interviewed. My father, a big believer in hiring the best person for the job, had expressed the thought that this particular candidate was not experienced enough.

My father’s contention was the young clearly had a big advantage, in both the energy they brought and in not being tied down to the way things were done. But for their business, a fast-growing company in a commodity market, experience mattered and could just not be replaced.

Thereupon a debate ensued on the relative merits of youth versus experience, before the young executive made this assertion about old fools. My father always laughed when he recounted the passion and vehemence with which his young protege made this statement. His response always was that no amount of education – whether football, swimming or sex education in a classroom was as practical as getting out in the real world (or in that field or pool) and experiencing it.

Many years later, when hiring in my first managerial job in California or my startup in India, I found this to be repeatedly true. The fresh college grads, almost were always smarter, had studied stuff that we had not even heard of and thought of absolutely new ways to accomplish things often getting things done just because they didn’t know it couldn’t be.

Yet like with good design (or a good meal) no amount of studying prepares us as having done it before – ideally more than once. Riding a bicycle or banking a car on the curve or setting up a website or negotiating with a Japanese customer all works much better once you’ve done it before.

My father hired more than a hundred folks, with absolutely no experience – often young men who were looking for their first break. Several of them are running their own businesses or in leadership roles today. Nevertheless, he taught me, that for many roles or jobs, experience trumps all. The trick is knowing when you can’t do without it!

My father would have turned 85 yesterday.

Keeping yourself & others honest – Lessons from my dad

English: 1926 Promissory Note from the Imperia...Growing up, I recall my father gifting things to folks – in what I deemed – a reckless manner. There was time when someone admired my father’s wristwatch and he took it off and insisted that they take it. My sister and I argued with him, not just on that occasion but on several others that he was being taken advantage of. Of course his response was that there’s as much pleasure, maybe even more, in giving as there is in taking. My sister’s immediate offer of making him ecstatic by happily taking any and all gifts that he planned to give in the future, I don’t think was taken seriously.

Yet once I hit my teens, I became aware that whenever my father lent people money – particularly to a steady stream of strangers, often referred by relatives – for a family exigency or to buy a motorcycle or to go abroad to study, he always insisted that they sign a promissory note or pro-note as was called. This was usually a letter on plain paper, stating the amounts borrowed and the borrower’s intent to return the sums upon demand or by a certain date. The borrower signed it across a revenue stamp pasted on the paper, making it a legal contract. This was in marked contrast with how he handled grants at the small non-profit he ran, which usually gave money directly to elementary, middle or high schools for kids who needed financial help to pay their fees or for books. These grants were just that and the beneficiaries, usually economically disadvantaged kids, were not expected to pay the money back.

So I asked my dad, why he took pro notes from these other folks who borrowed money from him. His response was that if he didn’t treat the money as a loan, that he expected the borrower to return, it diminished the value perceived by the borrower. While most borrowers intended to return the money, it didn’t hurt that there was a legal reason for them to pay off the loan. As my dad put it, “If they return the money, it allows me to lend it to more people who could use a helping hand.”

Ronald Reagan is credited with popularizing the term “Trust but verify” (or as the Russian proverb went “doveryai, no proveryai”). This was my dad’s own method to keep himself and others honest.

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Share the credit generously – Lessons from my dad

Spotting someone you know in a movie’s end cre...

“That is what TTN has visualized.” I’d heard my dad say this so many times as I was growing up. TTN was TT Narasimhan, his boss – who relied heavily on my dad as his execution guy. In later years, my father took on the role of the CEO of two group companies and was left to call the shots in these and other businesses. Yet, in almost all public instances, my dad never did anything without indicating that he was only carrying out TTN’s vision. While not comfortable himself with any form of public praise, he was never failed to point out the contribution of TTN, when someone praised or credited him with any success. Even in the hierarchy and sycophancy-laden culture of India in the 70s, it was clear that it was something else that drove my dad.

I recall, once having a big argument (at least that’s how it seemed to me) with my dad, as to why he did not take credit for a lot of what were clearly his own ideas and doing. My dad gave me the indulgent smile he was wont to, when he felt I was being particularly childish or unreasonable. “Son, keep in mind, that all I’m able to do is because of the freedom and trust, not to mention the capital that TTN has provided. It’s in his name that we are borrowing money – that enables  us to do what we are doing.” He could see clearly that this did not cut much ice with me. “Even without all of that, there are two things to keep in mind son,” he continued. “It does take vision – not everyone can provide it. And giving credit to others does not take anything away from your own contribution.”

I can’t say that I was convinced that day. Several years later, when he had hired several PhDs in the research department of the pharmaceutical firm he was the CEO off, I saw this in action again. My dad had only graduated from high school, as his father’s death while he was still in 9th standard, and the family’s financial situation did not allow him to pursue a college degree. So here was a man, with no formal qualifications other than a high school diploma from a small town in  Tamil Nadu, who’d worked his way up from accounting apprentice through chief accountant to eventually CEO of two firms. “All credit has to go to our scientists for how well our firm is doing today,” was his constant refrain.

At my father’s funeral last year, many strangers came up to me and said “I was able to pursue college or go overseas only because of your dad.” So my dad’s exhortation to “Spread the credit” clearly had not undermined him in any way – his actions spoke loud enough.

This is a lesson that I’ve finally begun to appreciate and practice. Let me tell you about all that things that I’ve learned from Rajagopal….

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Test the waters – Lessons from my Dad

Buddhist meditation in Wat Khung Taphao,Ban Kh...

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“I think I’ll just study the scriptures, meditate and focus on things spiritual.” My dad must have been in his late thirties or mid-forties when he said this to his father-in-law. To the latter’s credit, he did not tumble out of his wheel chair nor sputter and scream at my dad. “That’s a very good aspiration, Kuppuswamy,” was his response.

My dad was recounting how he went through a phase, when he was just plain tired of the rat race— all the traveling, business headaches, dealing with debtors and I suspect a fair amount of family drama—given our joint family, truant nephews and nieces and all the financial responsibilities that came with it.

My grandfather continued, “I’m happy to hear that you are thinking of studying the scriptures and focusing on matters spiritual. Let me help you. Why don’t I arrange a teacher to come to your house, early in the morning, so that before you leave for work you can begin studying the scriptures. Once you’ve done it for six months, you can quit your job and do this full time.”

My dad was greatly overjoyed. I’m not sure if he expected his father-in-law to accept what he was contemplating, let alone to actually help him with it. So indeed as my grandfather had promised, the purohit, a Brahmin teacher complete with shaved head and bare upper body showed up at 5AM the following Monday at my father’s place.

That first day they began with a simple recital of the sloka to the guru (hymn to the teacher). The following day they started with the Purusha Suktam, from the Rig Veda which seeks to explain the origin of the Universe. And on to the third morning. On the fourth morning my father had to leave for Nagpur on an unplanned business trip for several days. The following week, I think he managed to squeeze in two classes before another trip to Delhi. The week after he had to head out on a week long trip overseas. So the classes got fewer and farther. The purohit was persistent but polite. By month two my dad’s travel schedule pretty much precluded any classes. At the beginning of month three, my grandfather let my father know that when his schedule permitted more time, the purohit would return. Nothing further was said and my father never raised the matter of giving up things material and focusing on the spiritual!

For both my dad and me, there were two lessons packed into this one story. When he first approached my grandfather, he was clear in his mind what he wanted to do and was convinced that he should do it immediately and wholeheartedly. My grandfather of course convinced him to test the waters first – which obviously was a good thing. It was not my dad’s travel schedule that kept him from the lessons and his onward spiritual journey – it was that his desire to give up on everything was a passing fancy, a possible reaction to a stressful period, rather than a deeply felt life goal. And thanks to my grandfather he had neither burnt his bridges by resigning his job or caused immense worry to his family by seemingly losing interest in matters of the world.

The more useful lesson, particularly as a parent, was not to react to anything, however insane sounding, with visceral opposition as sometimes my wife and I do with our teen daughters, but to listen, even agree and demonstrate through action that what’s contemplated might not be the best course of action.

My grandfather despite being wheelchair-bound was a jujitsu master par excellence, pulling when pushed and pushing when pulled.

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Be Generous – Lessons from my dad

As in my worst fears, the call came early in the morning, just before 3AM California time. When the phone rang the first time, I rejected the call, reckoning it was a colleague in India, who’d lost track of time. When the phone rang again within minutes, this time with caller ID showing another colleague’s name, I knew something was amiss.

“Sri, I am sorry to inform you your father has passed away!” At first, I was not sure I had heard right. My first thought strangely was for my colleague who had the unpleasant task of having to call me with bad news. I almost felt apologetic that I had put him in such a position. Maybe it was shock and I was not ready to hear that my father was no more.

Rushed calls to my travel agent, wondering what to tell the kids sleeping in the next room – the next thirty-six hours were a blur – neither Icelandic volcanoes spewing ash, nor delayed flights and uncooperative flight supervisors would get in the way of our making it back to India. The nearly two hour trip from the tarmac to my father’s home felt longer than the whole journey.

“Your father paid for me to go to college and then got me started on my Chartered Accountancy apprenticeship,” said the stranger, who’d come to the funeral. He looked to be about 40 years old. “Your dad was also the one who helped my brother go the United States,” he continued. There were nearly 150 people at home when I got in from the airport, most of them extended family and a good many folks that I didn’t know. Much of the afternoon, was spent recounting tales of how my father had helped someone buy a house, another furnish one and still another get a compound wall put in.

Second cousins who’d grown up in my house abounded and had their own tales of getting jobs with my dad’s help. I recall when I was a young teen, some relative admiring my father’s watch. I was aghast when my father removed it and insisted that the relative have the watch.

That evening I recall my sister and I arguing with my dad, that if he just gives away stuff, we’d probably not have anything – not that we knew what we had. My dad just laughed at first. Then when he saw how serious we were, he said “There’s great pleasure in giving – I’d say more so than even receiving.” My sister, ever the smart alec quickly retorted, “Then you’ll be happy to give and I will be happy to receive.”

It was only many years later that I learnt about my father’s journey to the city as an impoverished young man with three rupees in his pocket. While he became a successful man over the years, he never stopped giving regardless of his own financial status. His life itself was one critical lesson – “Be Generous”

My father Dr. K. Kuppuswamy passed away on the 24th of May 2011.

Be Grateful – Lessons from my dad

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“I was in 9th grade – nearly 15 years old, when my father passed away.” I could see that my father was already in the past living through those first few traumatic months after his father’s death. “We continued in the same village where my father hand been the karnam – the village accountant.” My older brother was still in high school, two younger brothers and a sister in middle and primary schools. My mother did not know how she was going to put us through school – which she was clear we should complete at all costs.”

“At one end of our village lived the Mirasdar – there were two brothers, the peria (elder) and chinna (younger) mirasdar. I remember their house being a big pukka house. A family friend approached the younger mirasdar for help, when he learned that my mother could pay for only my elder brother to go to school. The mirasdar offered to pay my school fees. The amount of money involved, though small by today’s standards, was a huge boon and put me through high school. I don’t think I thought about it much at that time, besides being grateful for their support. After all in our eyes the mirasdars were the richest family in our village.”

My father after graduating from high school left his village for the “city” – Chennai and then onwards to Delhi seeking his fortune. After three years of being away, my father returned to his village for a visit. He was now employed as an accounting apprentice in Delhi earning a princely 300 rupees. In the meantime he had his share of adventures with his uncle declining to support his college education, running away to Delhi and landing a job, travelling to Shimla and other towns on his job. Wanting to share his good fortune and to thank his first benefactors he visited the mirasdar family.

“I was shocked to discover that the mirasdar family was not at all well-to-do.  They lived in a dilapidated house and in talking to others in the village I realized that they had probably been living in genteel poverty for the last decade or more. My youth and naivete, when I still lived in the village, was probably what lead me to believe that they were wealthy. I was all the more grateful and overwhelmed by their act of kindness and charity in paying for my education, when they could probably ill afford it themselves.” My father’s eyes were no longer dry as he recounted this tale of magnanimity.

His story did have a good ending, in that the children of the mirasdar family themselves went out to seek their fortunes and did well – which my father attributes, at least in part, to the good deeds of their parents.

“Things are not always what they seem,” was my father’s advice to me. “Keep an open mind and recognize that we often see what we want – which may be far from reality.”

“Be grateful for what you have and strive to help other people whenever you can.”

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Be Self-aware – Lessons from my dad

Hanuman
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“Just tell me what I should do!” My 15-year old was filling out an application for an international student exchange program. One of the questions was “What are your goals in life?” She’d of course asked this same question a week before, when she felt all her friends already knew what they wanted to do in life. As I couldn’t think of any excuse, I had to embark on a discussion with her.

“Think about what you like doing. What you truly enjoy. And what you think you are good at.” In her case, we figured she enjoyed drawing & painting, playing sports and working with young kids – and she was really good at all three. Ah yes, she enjoyed traveling too.”

The discussion set me thinking about a conversation my dad and I had many years ago. I can’t recall what triggered the conversation, but distinctly recall my father telling me “You are a Hanuman!”

For those not up on Hindu mythology, Hanuman is the monkey demi-god who is cited as the ideal devotee for his major-domo role to the eponymous hero of the Hindu epic, Ramayana.

I didn’t reckon that my dad was alluding to my physical appearance when he said I was like the monkey [even if a] God. Nothing I had done thus far, could allow me to be termed a devotee of anything other than good food. My perplexed expression must have given me away, when he continued “Like Hanuman, you don’t know your own strength!”

While knowing one’s strengths is good in general – it is a particularly critical skill for entrepreneurs. Most successful entrepreneurs, when observed from arms length, may come across as manic- depressive.  Maniacal in pursuing what they believe is the right path and optimistic to a fault and then when that critical deal doesn’t happen or funding falls through or a key employee leaves, lost in the dumps – even if only for a short time.

Knowing your strengths may not do away with the ups and downs but certainly will help dampen the amplitude and help you make decisions with greater confidence. Knowing your strengths is just as much about recognizing stuff that you are not good at and surrounding yourself with folks who’s strengths complement your own.

Unlike my daughter who’s just fifteen as of this writing, I was on the wrong side of thirty when my father made his comparison to Hanuman. So don’t wait – get to know your strengths today. Ask your colleagues, your ex-boss, your staff and if your bold enough, your spouse or significant other. And once a year take stock to understand what new strengths you have acquired and what has atropied and been lost.

Be a self-aware Hanuman!

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Are you a failure if your startup fails?

Circuit City going out of business
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“Son, businesses can succeed or fail. Because your business fails doesn’t mean you have failed!”

My father said this to me, one evening as the two of us sat down to discuss how the startup I headed was doing.

For a little over four years I had been running my startup. Months after we got started, the dot-com bubble peaked and burst. We had also chosen a technology, that everyone felt would not take off despite the initial hype. Our two nearest competitors where both American companies – one, also a startup, that had raised about 100 times more money than we had and the other a listed company with well over a 1000 customers. We’d over committed to the first three customers we’d acquired – miraculously in three different continents – and ultimately failed to deliver outright or were so late as to be not useful for the customers.

We had borrowed money from the bank (another of my father’s favorite piece of advice – debt is a good thing) and from family including my father. Just the previous year, we had to cut back on a rather ambitious – and poorly thought out – plan to design chips and keep our focus on software. We also had to let go nearly fifteen people, whom we’d hired in a burst, without much attention to culture fit, while persuading the people who remained to take 10-20% pay cuts with no commitments on when these cuts would be reversed.

This was also a time when I was commuting – spending two weeks every other six weeks in Bangalore, whilst my family lived in California. So between hotel rooms and my sister’s house, I spent many a night tossing and turning, worrying how we were going to make payroll that month and not sure if we’d ever turn the corner.

To add to the pressure, the senior staff, who’d been putting in 10-12 hours a day were buying first cars or homes incurring debt, getting married and now had spouses who now wondered what they really did. Once when we had to send a key engineer to a customer site overseas, we packed his new bride with him – so that they are not separated within weeks of their wedding! We’d had actually celebrated with a cake, when the company made its first million in revenue but ten minutes later had to dash off to dampen new fires.

This story did have a good ending. Despite ourselves we turned a small profit in year five and a real one in year six. We sharpened our business focus and were gaining traction.  Newer challenges emerged as pricing pressures drove deal sizes down, competitors were gobbled up by customers in some instances and the market adoption was slower than we anticipated, and the payroll bill continued to grow each year. Whilst my partners and our immensely committed employees along with some luck, brought us to a successful and profitable M&A conclusion, it was my father’s words that kept me going.

“Son, the failure of your company doesn’t mean you have failed.”

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