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Running a software company from a village: Meet Zoho's Sridhar Vembu

What began as just one rural centre in Tenkasi, Zoho Corporation now has 15 such centres in India's hinterland with at least 15 to 20 people working in each of them
Last Updated : 10 March 2021, 06:23 IST
Last Updated : 10 March 2021, 06:23 IST
Last Updated : 10 March 2021, 06:23 IST
Last Updated : 10 March 2021, 06:23 IST

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Village life is very hard to resist for Sridhar Vembu, the founder and CEO of Zoho Corporation.

The 54-year-old moved to Mathalamparai, a nondescript village near Tenkasi, in the picturesque Western Ghats in November 2019, much before the Covid-19 pandemic struck India and the rest of the world.

The motive was to encourage more people and facilities to shift to villages as Indian cities started to face major challenges. The pandemic not just made things easy for Vembu but also vindicated him as people living in cities began moving to their towns and villages.

The reason: Work from home became the order of the day, with the world going in for a lockdown fearing the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The village life

More than a year later, Vembu has a tight schedule apart from his official work. He goes for a walk in the morning and evening, ensures to turn off his gadgets for a few hours for a “face to face” interaction with villagers, visit the village ponds and creeks, and rides an electric auto rickshaw. And he has also donned a new avatar – teaching students at an “unconventional school” run by Zoho.

“Going for a walk in a village is a divine experience. After tasting this life in a village, it would be very hard for me to move to any major city anywhere now. That is the truth. I can almost say that I am addicted to this rural life. I have always loved it, and now I love it even more,” Vembu told DH over a video call on the Zoho Meeting application.

And, another thing that Vembu loves doing in the village that he cannot do in cities – watching snakes. “I like watching snakes. Actually, the truth is that the land is deemed healthy if you have snakes. If we destroy snakes, we are destroying the land. We need snakes for the land to be fine,” Vembu said, with a smile.

Vembu, whose net worth is $2.5 billion as of 2020, was recently in the news as the Union government conferred Padma Shri, the fourth highest civilian award in the country, on him and appointed him as a member of the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB).

Running a software empire from a village

Over the video call that lasted for nearly 25 minutes, Vembu attributed the rapid expansion of cities that have been facing “serious issues” for his reason. “Where we create jobs is where people flock. It is even more than that. Where we create the job is important because that determines whether our cities get overcrowded or not,” he explained.

What began as just one rural centre in Tenkasi, Zoho Corporation now has 15 such centres in India's hinterland with at least 15 to 20 people working in each of them. It is from this obscure village that Vembu spearheaded the efforts by Zoho to improve the tools and required software to enable people to work from their homes without much trouble.

“We are actually working very hard to create the software tools to make this work. In a way, it is ideal that we are one of the first companies to adapt to this model and we are working on those very technologies just like Zoho Meetings and Zoho Cliq. All of this will improve much more in the next one or two years. And to enable us to work much better this way,” Vembu said.

And Zoho does not recruit people for its rural centres. The company identifies employees who may want to shift to their native towns or villages and use them as the “seed to grow” the centre.

”We now have 15 rural centres and we are now growing those aggressively because more people are transferring to rural centres, and we are space-constrained in some of our offices and we are leasing bigger spaces. We plan to have at least 25 rural offices by the end of 2021. It might be more because it all depends on the demand from our own employees,” he said.

How Zoho rose to the pandemic challenge?

On the productivity of Zoho employees during the pandemic, Vembu said that though working from home is challenging, it is a “lot more fulfilling” for many as this is going to be the way for the future.

“We are actually working very hard to create the software tools to make this work... In a way, it is ideal that we are one of the first companies to adapt to this model and we are working on those very technologies just like Zoho Meetings and Zoho Cliq and all this will improve much more in the next one or two years,” he added.

The icing on the cake of his village stay is an unconventional school that Zoho runs in the hamlet, aiming at transforming how children learn – the institution now has over 120 students.

In the beginning, Vembu began teaching at the school but now he has recruited professional teachers with an increased intake of students.

“I am no longer a teacher at the school which now has 120 students. I am now involved in deciding what should be taught in school. I also talk to the kids to understand what is interesting and what is not interesting,” Vembu added.

He said education needs to be “interactive and fun” and the challenge is to educate children without “any exams and homework”. “We plan to start a school in every rural centre. We are learning a lot of lessons, and we need to create a poll of talent to run these schools,” Vembu added.

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Published 21 February 2021, 13:36 IST

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