Full circle with John Chambers

I was fortunate to have a father who was a natural story-teller and never disappointed my insatiable requests for one more story. Any child growing up in India knows the story of Ekalavya from the epic Mahabharata. A self-trained archer of exceptional prowess, he followed the legendary guru, Drona from afar in the forest. (Drona was not even aware of this situation for a very long time).

John Chambers — Executive Chairman & former CEO, Cisco Systems

You have mentors who work closely with their mentees and then you have people who inspire from afar, without even knowing they are doing it. My story is not as dramatic as Eklavaya’s, but it is about a renowned figure who had a great impact on my life and started my journey as an entrepreneur. That person is John Chambers, executive chairman and former CEO of Cisco Systems. I am sharing this story today, because I recently had a chance to thank him and complete the circle.

I grew up in Hyderabad in a middle class family. There were no expectations for me, no prescribed path of what I should become; perhaps this would have been different if I was a son. My parents didn’t discuss career options. They talked about character, honour, generosity, kindness, community but never about being successful, earning money, being famous or changing the world. I had freedom to decide what I wanted to be, and I had to meet my own expectations. I realize only now how liberating and precious a gift it is, to be free to make choices.

I went to an ordinary school — my fees was Rs100 a year! I was not expected to gain admission to an elite college. It was destiny that I ended up working in a startup in Silicon Valley, but nothing in my upbringing had prepared me to be an entrepreneur. Then in 1995, I heard John Chambers speak at a small breakfast event in Santa Clara.

John talked about growing up in Virginia. He was incredibly grounded and humble. He talked about his childhood, his middle class upbringing. It seemed unremarkable, much like my own middle class upbringing. His messages made sense. He said he used long-term parking at airports to save money when he flew for work, because he wanted to set the right values for his organization. It was the first time I heard a leader talk about leading by example and it made a deep impact.

Of course timing is important and at that point, I was wondering what I should do next with my life. Hearing John brought a thought to my head that I had never considered before. Here was someone who seemed like a regular, down-to-earth person (of course John’s success is anything but ordinary), someone who had used skills and hard work to make it to the top. Maybe I could do the same? I knew I was a good engineer and I worked very hard. Maybe I should start a company. Even after so many years, that ‘eureka’ moment is fresh in my head. John had unlocked something in my brain and started me down a new path, even though he had no idea I even existed.

In hindsight, my logic was seriously flawed. I was an engineer. I didn’t know sales and marketing. I didn’t understand finance. I certainly didn’t know any Venture Capitalists. I had no business background. I was a woman. I was an immigrant — the list was endless and any sane person would have told me that I had nothing in common with John Chambers. Thankfully no one did. Whatever the reason was, I felt a deep connect. My dreams changed after I heard him talk, and I went ahead and acted on the impulse to start a company (in 1996) based on an idea I had to provide enterprise software platform for efficient global procurement. After bootstrapping the company, getting some great initial customers, I raised funds from Sequoia Capital.

A few years later, I was helping TiE with their annual conference. And I really wanted John Chambers as a key note speaker to address the room full of aspiring entrepreneurs. I reached out to Don Valentine, who was on the board of Cisco. Don is another person I admired and who had been kind enough to mentor me occasionally. John accepted the speaker request and made the keynote at the conference. He was simply masterful in connecting and engaging with the audience. Everything I learnt about public speaking, I learnt by observing him, from afar.

If you have read the Eklavya story, you will know it has a rather gory end. Eklavaya finally approaches Drona to say he has mastered the art of archery by watching Drona silently from afar. Drona realizes that Eklavaya’s skills are better than his royal students and asks for Eklavya’s thumb as ‘guru dakshina’ or ‘fee’ to eliminate the competition.

Recently, I also went up to John to share my story and the completion of my circle had a much more pleasant ending! I don’t really know why I didn’t try to reach out to John earlier to share my story. Perhaps there was a natural reticence to call his attention for something that was very important for me, but not so much to him. I am very clear that my accomplishments pale in comparison to his gigantic success and impact.

With John Chambers at GES 2017    

Anyway, last week at GES, Hyderabad, I was seated in the front row and there he was! It felt like the right moment to introduce myself and tell him how he had inspired me and changed the trajectory of my life. John’s reaction was wonderful and warm. He said he was very glad I had reached out and was amazed that I remembered all the details with such clarity after all these years. He seemed the same as the first time I met him more than two decades ago — humble, approachable, genuine and willing to listen and engage   all the traits of a great leader. I was also delighted to hear of his interest in India and his desire to be more active in the ecosystem. It was a sweet moment, especially since it was unplanned.

After meeting John, I am reminded again of our inner walls and the limitations we place on ourselves, which are sometimes more powerful than external constraints. A spark, a catalyst, a voice from a completely unexpected source can help one think differently. It is so important to be open to listening and learning without preconceived notions or barriers. A tiny drop can create very far-reaching ripples.

Disclaimer : It is strictly an independent opinion of the writer, not representative of Kstart or Kalaari.

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