IT abandons rule book, American-style

CEO goes on offensive, gives the F-word to racist US customers

IT abandons rule book, American-style

Sridhar Vembu

Call centre agents who are met with an abusive customer are instructed to disconnect the call without even returning the fire. But on Thursday, Sridhar Vembu, the CEO of the fast-rising Indian IT product firm Zoho, went on the offensive and gave the F-word to racist American customers in full public glare while addressing the gathering at Nasscom Product Conclave in Bangalore.

“If you don’t like to deal with me because of the colour of my brown skin, then F*** You,” he said in response to a question on how he sold his products in a market that is at times hostile to Indian companies.

Vembu’s comment marks a significant departure from the rule book the industry has studiously developed to deal with these issues. Two years ago, the then Nasscom chairman Pramod Bhasin had responded to a similar question by saying Indians had to show more understanding to the plight of Americans hit by recession.

When the question was posed to him, Vembu initially started explaining his position by quoting from the rule book. Indians would feel the same way if Vietnamese and Bangladeshis took away their jobs, not an unlikely prospect given the increasing wages in the country, he said. Bangalore has emerged as a world-class city going by the cost of living, he added. He said he chose to ignore such remarks and believed that in the long run, rationality would prevail. Then something must have snapped inside and the dam burst.

Blunt comment

Commenting on Vembu’s remark, an Indian Microsoft employee said his comments reflected the sentiments of the Indian industry. “The US companies see the value in outsourcing. But there is a lot of hatred from a few individuals who blame India for all their evils. Vembu’s comments were targeted at this fringe,” he said. Two delegates at the meet agreed that Vembu’s remark was a blunt comment by an honest man.

Vembu’s habit of defying the rule book has helped the tiny Zoho, which makes online applications, survive competition with the likes of Google and Microsoft, which offer similar products.

Zoho famously hires poor high school dropouts from government schools and trains them to become software engineers. Vembu said the strategy grew out of necessity as most graduates from good colleges opted to work for big brands such as Infosys and Wipro.

So six years ago, Zoho went to a nearby government school in Chennai and chose six high school students from poor families who were on their way to drop out of school. It put together a curriculum to train the students who started writing code and fixing databases in six months. After a year, when they had crossed 18, they were hired as trainees and formally regularised later. Vembu, an IIT graduate himself, said there is nothing magical about college degrees as they are not linked to the outcome in life.

Ten percent or 120 of Zoho’s 1,200 employees in Chennai are alumni of poor government schools. In the next five years, Zoho wants to hire 30 to 40 percent of its staff from government schools, Vembu said.

The contrarian streak runs across the company which is famous for not accepting venture capital funds. Vembu said as CEO he focused on technology and customers and did not go to meet investment bankers.

“I don’t respect those bastards, who brought Wall Street down recently,” he said, quickly adding, “You can quote me on that.”

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