At a juncture when I was about to start my Masters in Physics my father suggested I move to Bangalore to start another office. I just jumped at the opportunity without thinking twice. Studies, shudies!! who wanted to get into that. Bangalore meant FREEDOM! Yes it also meant work, but after work I had complete freedom to watch films. There would be no parents to supervise anymore. I had already spent two years at my father’s shop learning the tricks of the trade. I saw how he used to deal, his desire to grow the business. Typing, correspondence everything I had learnt and experienced there. I had also made sales calls, committed blunders and got a good idea of how to manage things. In short I was battle ready.
Bangalore – Coming of Age
All dreams of having a carefree life in Bangalore finally came true. Chicketpet the hub of the trading district was full of bullock carts, in the 1980s. Sure that made me feel at home but it was also about living in a 200sq foot room which served as an office cum godown cum residence, using a common toilet and bathing in the open. My first luxury was when I was able to convince the landlord to allow me a toilet for private use, at a princely sum of Rs.30 per month. Finally I had access to a toilet on which I could put a lock. How luxurious was that! Life was great though on the flip side I did have this huge inferiority complex being a small town boy. So much going on in the life of a 19 year old.
I don’t really know how many people use retiring rooms these days but I have made the maximum use of these rooms at railway stations. To expand the business I had to travel a lot making cold calls. So the usual was to take the overnight train, most often without reservation, reach the destination, immediately go to the retiring room, get ready and from there it was GET SET Go. Now when I think about it I don’t know how I did it back then, but by today’s standard I would have had a loyalty card for sure.
In Adoni, when we went out to eat we were served either snacks like Idly, dosa, vada, upma or then Meals. So you can imagine my surprise when in Bangalore I become familiar with ordering dishes separately. This was quite fascinating and a change from what I was used to. Another new concept to me was the finger bowl. I just couldn’t get over the fact that hands could be washed right at the table, in a bowl of hot water accompanied with a slice of lemon.
Bangalore then was a very sleepy town, a pensioners paradise. Restaurants were few and clustered around Brigade and MG Road. One of the classiest restaurants used to be Topkapi, owned by the now deceased Bollywood villian Amjad Khan, on top of Utility Building. The other was Sanjeev Kumar’s Princess. As a young man it was anyone’s dream to dine at Topkapi or Princess. Today there are no dearth of restaurants or cuisines available in Bangalore but for me Topkapi and Princess will always be a cherished memory. An oasis in the desert.
The Big M
At a young age of 20 my family decided to get me married. Marriage is usually considered in India to be a means of ensuring that children stay on track and don’t become wayward. When I brought my young wife to Bangalore for the first time we stayed at the office cum godown cum residence. It must have been quite a shock for her, to spend the first few days of her newly married life in a godown, stocked with goods. My missus stayed in Adoni, with my family, until I rented a house. My first rental was Rs.500 per month.
F for Family
Life is a big mystery and it keep throwing curve balls at you. The first 9 years in Bangalore were a huge challenge on the business front. I struggled to have a breakthrough in my business. To add to that my father passed away. I was desperate to find a reason to close operations and move back to Adoni. Then my eldest brother had a serious road accident and the entire responsibly of work and family fell on my shoulders. While there were painful things to deal with life also gave me two beautiful daughters and a son. Then there was my sibling’s life threatening illness to deal with. Took a big risk financially and went to the US for treatment. Thankfully it was a gamble that paid off. The final straw was my mother passing away. Yet I feel blessed that I was able to check everything on her bucket list. Along the way we brothers parted ways, there was a division in the family assets. That was a very painful phase, but then hey! Don’t they say what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger. Life it appears is all about balance…there are ups and there are downs and those who are able to survive them eventually are able to play the game that is life. I believe I did a decent job of playing the cards which life had dished out to me.
My First Flight
This was when my father was still alive and an important business meeting had come up, in Chennai. I had no option but to take a flight from Bangalore. Those days flights were super expensive and taking one meant a buy in from the patriarch. I still remember I took my first flight in slippers, with my shirt tucked out of the pant. I was not really bothered about my appearance or my clothes. Many times my buttons would come off and I would not even care. My father has many times sewn the buttons back to ensure I was presentable for these meetings. That memory of my first flight still embarasses me a great deal when I reflect upon it. I guess I was so focused on my attire that I don’t even remember if I enjoyed the flight or not. Usually first flights are memorable aren’t they?
During my time, the generation gap used to be every 10-15 years. With the advent of technology, the generation gap is 2 years and that in itself is an understatement. I have seen so many innovations come and go it isn’t funny. Gramophones radios, tape recorders, CD players, online music for the musically inclined; Books, Movies, TV, VCR, DVDs on the entertainment side; Telephones with dials, cordless phones, pagers, mobiles for communication; desk tops, laptops, personal screens and now everything has been eclipsed by the smartphone.
When I was in school, superstar Raj Kapoor had gifted a watch to his leading lady Nargis, which needed no winding. Imagine a watch which worked on its own. This became big news and was the talk of those times. We only knew watches which needed to be wound at night for them to function the next day. These days it’s Fitbit and iwatches which when worn on the wrist can tell you how much you’ve walked, slept, burnt calories as well as your vital statistics. From where to where have we come it’s unbelievable.
Boom in Business
In 1989, finally came a big break in my business. Today people call me a thought leader but that was on the back of hard work, experience, instinct and being in close contact with what’s happening in the world across all fields. I would keep myself updated through a lot of reading. It really is one percent inspiration and ninety nine percent perspiration. As I mentioned earlier the first 9 years of my working life were full of struggle and many times I felt like quitting but I am glad I didn’t. Growth in business was accompanied with frenzied travel across the globe. There were significant custom liabilities and to avoid those it was necessary to get into export and re-export of goods. South Africa, US, Europe, China, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Russia were just a few of the countries I traveled to. Any kind of travel brings about huge personal growth and I am sure you will all agree with this. The last decade has been particularly kind, getting into distribution of mobile phones, e-commerce etc. it all have worked out pretty well. The cherry on the cake of course was my younger daughter and son joining the business. Keeping up with the times I changed my business dynamics from traditional to modern. Had I not done that it would not have appealed to them and they would have opted for professional careers.
Medicine and Ivy League
It was always my desire for my eldest daughter to become a doctor. It is true I pushed her into it but I hope I did good and today she is able to appreciate the profession she is in. Just like I had aspirations for my daughter it was my dream to study at Harvard. This came true in 2009, when I completed my Owners President Management Program from there. The gods of education smiled upon us and influenced by me, my younger daughter and son also completed their education from Ivy League colleges, both graduated from Columbia. My son was recruited from campus by McKinsey and he worked there for two years. He went a step further and earned his Schwarzman Scholarship and was also shortlisted for The Rhodes Scholarship.
In 2009, I completed my Owners President Management Program from Harvard. One of the learnings I applied from there was to get into angel investing and co-founded the Harvard Angels of India. In the Jain community, we have been doing these kind of investments as debt for generations. At Harvard I learnt the formal way of doing it. To this date I continue to be the co-founder and co-chair of Harvard Angels of India and have invested in 27 startups. A decade ago, terms like seed capital, angel investor, venture capitalist, start-ups, public equity were new. Then people used to talk of investing in terms of Rupees. As time passed by it became million dollars and today investment is in terms of Unicorns & Decacorns, how much has changed in 10 years.
Y-Combinator was one of silicon valleys most successful incubators. I applied to them as I was very keen to learn how they function. Sam Altman interviewed me and my company got selected. I also got an opportunity to visit Sand Hill and meet Ram Sriram.
Tennis in my Blood
Tennis didn’t just remain a hobby till college, I genuinely love the game. Love it enough to have undergone two surgeries to honour it and spent a week in 2019 training at the Novak Djokovic Tennis Academy in Belgrade, Serbia. My tennis craziness has all been captured in https://rkshah.blog/2020/07/06/love-all/#more-388.
I fancy calling myself a recreational farmer. While I was born and grew up in Adoni my roots are in Kalhandri, Rajasthan. It’s a small village around 150km from Udaipur. Around 5 years ago I acquired 65 acres of land in the village. It was like paying an ode to my ancestors. Sesame, Cumin, Pearl Millets, Mung and other lentils are cultivated under the watchful eye of my trusted caretaker Modaram and his family. There are multiple ways in which I would like to utilize the land and some in-roads have been made to start a stud farm, initiate rural & sports tourism, and bird & animal Rehab.
Growing up in a Jain family, spirituality came naturally to me. In the ups and downs of life one thing which has gave me tremendous strength and the ability to maintain self control has been fasting. Fasting is very common to Jains, it is said to be a way to shed your Karma. I started doing the Athai (no food for 8 days, only boiled water) every year, since the last 26 years. This was my first experience with fasting which helped me get over a major crisis in my life. In 2000, in addition to the above I started doing The Oli, a fast done twice a year for 9 straight days with the allowance of only one meal. This meal is made up of just lentils and rice, minus any seasoning or dairy. This gave me the access to get over another challenging period in life. The Varthaman tap is a recent addition to my fasting which I began from 2015. More details of my fasting journey can be found in my blog https://rkshah.blog/2020/08/17/the-quintessential-paryushan-tap/#more-594
One year to 60
While my business was to fulfill my responsibilities and get a status in society a much deeper satisfaction and meaning has come to me from those ventures that come from the heart. These have all been initiatives aimed at giving back to society. Every cloud has a silver lining and while the 2020 Corona Pandemic created havoc in the world I was able to start the Let’s Mask India moment and The Jain Foundation. Under the former one million masks were pledged for distribution amongst the economically challenged communities. The latter was set up to spread the foundational values of Jainism and make them relevant to the next generation and beyond. A year down the line the foundation boasts 9 verticals covering various aspects of Jainism – Jain Talks, Jain Diet, Jain Yog, Jain Parva, Jain Yatra, Jain Shala, Jain Muni, Jain Melody and Jain Library. There is a full-fledged team to run the day-to-day activities from Talk sessions with scholars, to short and long-term courses, interviews with Diksharthis and virtual tours of Jain Temples. The last year has indeed been tremendous.
That somewhat sums up the last 60 years of my existence on this planet. It’s been quite an eventful journey just like a Masala box, full of spice and colour, a total flavour bomb. I look forward to what’s left of it, as my mind never stops teeming with exciting ideas. So let’s see what’s in store for the next decade. At some point in time I want to organically reach that stage where I disassociate myself from everything. Be it business or philanthropy and let my internal journey begin. Then you’ll find me in Kalandri sitting on a charpoy, under the blue skies, amidst the green fields, immersed in the chattering of birds, allowing my soul to take a vacation.
Opinions in this piece belong to the author: Ramesh Kumar Shah
Ramesh Kumar Shah is the founder of the RK Group, founder of RK Trust (rktrust.in) and co-founder of Harvard Business School Angels of India. Apart from being a businessman, he is keenly involved in making as much of a difference in people’s lives as he can, most recently through the Let’s Mask India initiative, that provides a free mask to all the residents of Bangalore.