When 14-year-old Suhas Gopinath started Globals Inc ten years ago from a cyber cafe in Bengaluru, he didn’t know that he had become the youngest CEO in the world.
Today, Globals is a multi-million dollar company with offices in the United States, India, Canada, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, Spain, Australia, Singapore and the Middle East and has 100 employees in India and 56 abroad.
Among the several honors that have been bestowed upon this young man, the most prestigious is the invitation to be a member of the Board of the ICT Advisory Council of the World Bank..
In 2007, the European Parliament and International Association for Human Values conferred ‘Young Achiever Award’ on him. He was also invited to address the European Parliament and other business dignitaries assembled in the EU Parliament. He is also recognised as one of the ‘Young Global Leaders’ for 2008-2009 by the prestigious World Economic Forum.
Suhas is the youngest member ever in the World Economic Forum’s history. The other members include the Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, Hollywood star Leonardo Di Caprio, musician A R Rahman, Prince of Brunei, etc.
In this interview from his office in Bengaluru, Suhas Gopinath talks about his decade long journey and his dreams for the future.
Suhas Gopinath with former President APJ Abdul Kalam
On his childhood:
I come from a middle class family. My father worked as a scientist for the Indian Army. I used to study in the Air Force school in Bengaluru.
As a child, I was more interested in animals and veterinary science. But when I saw my friends who had home computers talk about it, I had this urge to learn and talk in their wave length.
But we didn’t have a computer at home. In those days, computers were very expensive and we couldn’t afford one. So, what I did was, I located an Internet cafe near my house. With my modest monthly pocket money of Rs 15, I couldn’t afford to surf the net every day.
I noticed that the shop was closed in the afternoon from 1 PM to 4 PM. So, I offered to open the shop for him after my school hours and take care of the customers. In the bargain, he let me browse the net for free. That was the first business deal of my life and it turned out to be a successful one.
· On building websites using open source technology:
Once I got the chance to manage the shop and browse the net, I started building websites. It became my passion in no time.
I got hooked to open source technology after I started looking for e-books on how to build websites. They were not available as they were created in propriety sources.
So, I started using open source to build websites.
On getting the first contract to build a website
There is a freelance marketplace on the web where I could register and offer my services to build websites. I registered myself there as a website builder.
The first website I had to do was free of cost as I had no references. It was for a company in New York .
My first income was $100 when I was 13 for building another website but I didn’t have a bank account. so, I told my father that I built a website and got paid for it.
I was not excited to get the money because money was not a factor that drew me to it. It was the passion for technology that attracted me. I used to build websites free of cost also. I was only a 9th standard student.
After that, I built my own portal and called it Coolhindustan.com. It was focused on NRIs. It was a portal where I wanted to showcase my skills.
After that, many companies approached me to be their web designer.
Suhas Gopinath speaking to students’ at a conference in Austria
· On buying his first computer
When I was in the 9th standard itself, I had made enough money to buy a computer for myself. At that time, my brother was studying engineering and my father thought he needed a computer.
In no time, I also bought one for myself. But we didn’t have a net connection at home.
My spending hours in the net cafe working on websites did affect my studies. I spent the entire summer vacation after the 9th standard in the cafe.
On rejecting a job offer from the US
When I was 14, Network Solutions offered me a part-time job in the US and they said they would sponsor my education in the US . I rejected the offer because that was the time I had read a story about Bill Gates and how he started Microsoft.
I thought it was more fun to have your own company. Many US companies used to tell me that I didn’t even have a moustache and they felt insecure taking my services. They used to connect my ability with my age and academic qualifications.
So, I wanted to start my own company and show the world that age and academic qualifications are immaterial. I decided then that when I started a company, I would recruit only youngsters and I would not ask for their academic qualifications and marks cards. I follow that in my company.
· On starting his own company at 14
Soon after my 9th standard summer vacation, I started my own company, Globals Inc. I wanted the name Global or Global Solutions but both were not available, so I named it Globals.
I registered my company in the US as in India , you will not be able to start a company unless you are 18. It takes only 15 minutes to start a company in the US .
I became the owner and CEO of the company. My friend, an American who was a university student, became a board member.
I was very excited because that was what I wanted to do. From that day, I started dreaming of making my company as big as Microsoft.
· On doing badly in school
In my pre-board CBSE exam, I failed in Mathematics. The school headmistress was shocked because that was the first time I had failed in any subject. She called my mother and said she was horrified by my performance.
At home, like any typical South Indian mother, my mother made me swear on her head that I would focus on academics.
I told my mother that the world’s richest man Bill Gates had not completed his education. Why do you force me then, I asked her. She then said, I am sure his horoscope and yours are not the same!
I come from a family where entrepreneurship is considered a sin. My mother was quite upset. She wanted me to do engineering, then an MBA and work in a good company.
As per my mother’s wishes, I took a four-month sabbatical from my company and studied for my board exam. I passed with a first class.
I still feel that you cannot restrict yourself to bookish knowledge. I believe that practical knowledge is more important.
In the first year, the turnover of Globals Inc was Rs 1 lakh (Rs 100,000). The second year, the turnover went up to Rs 5 lakh (Rs 500,000).
· On looking at Europe as a market
Till I was 16 or 17, I didn’t tell my parents that I had started a company. I kept it a secret because I thought they would object to it. They only knew that I was a freelancer.
We used to build websites and also offer online shopping and e commerce solutions. We even gave part time work to a few programmers in the US when we got many projects but we never had any office.
When I was 16, I saw that there were enormous business opportunities in Europe as a majority of the Indian IT companies were working for American companies.
When I contacted a Spanish company, it rejected my offer saying Indians do not know Spanish. As an entrepreneur, you can’t accept rejection, especially when you are young.
I hired five student interns from some Spanish universities and told them they would be paid based on their successful sales.
They were the people who met the companies and bagged the projects for us. By now, we decided to have a home office in Spain .
I replicated the same model in Italy . I contacted some Italian university students.
· On going to Germany to talk about entrepreneurship
The American newspapers were writing a lot about me as the world’s youngest CEO at 14 from India , from a middle class background.
It was a good story for the BBC also. I never expected to be in the limelight. For me, starting a company was like realising a passion of mine.
On seeing these stories, a B-school in Germany invited me to talk to its students on entrepreneurship. I was 17 then. By now, I had completed my 12th standard and had joined Engineering in Bengaluru.
When I was 18, we set up an office — the European HQ in Bonn . Then, we moved to Switzerland . Six months back, we started our operations in Vienna as well.
That is how we spread our operations from a small Internet cafe to become a multinational company with significant operations in Europe, Middle East, the US , Canada , the UK , Australia , etc.
· On registering a company in India at 18
The day I turned 18, I registered our company in India as Globals, opened an office and recruited four people. I opened the office next to the Internet cafe where I started my career.
By then, he had closed shop and joined a factory as an employee. Whenever I met him, I used to tell him, ‘you made me an entrepreneur but you stopped being one.’
· On moving to creating products
We wanted our company also to be a product development company and our focus was on education, like the software that manages everything about a child while in school starting from admission till he/she leaves school and becomes an alumnus.
It is a nasty software which students are going to be quite unhappy about! This software was aimed only at the Indian market. I want to be the market leader in ICT in education.
Our software is being used in more than 100 schools all over India , Singapore and the Middle East .
We are now in the process of raising funds. Once we do it, we will separate the company into two — service and product development. I want to concentrate on products as I can’t sail on two boats.
· On meeting former President Abdul Kalam
I met Dr Abdul Kalam when he was the President of India. I was 17 or 18 then. My meeting was scheduled for 15 minutes but we had such an intense conversation that it went on for one-and-a-half hours.
I didn’t feel that I was talking to the President of India. We talked like two friends. He was sitting in his chair across the table but after some time, he came and sat next to me. He isi such a modest person that it was a learning experience for me.
· On being on the board of the World Bank
As per the wishes of my parents, I joined engineering but didn’t complete my engineering: like Bill Gates! When I was in my 5th semester, the World Bank invited me to attend their board meeting. I am the only Indian on the board of the World Bank.
The objective was to explore how ICT can improve the quality of education in the emerging economies, by bringing in accountability and transparency in their financial deeds.
Robert B. Zoellick, the president of the World Bank, decided that they could not have only Americans on the board and needed people from across the world. As they were focusing on education, they wanted young minds to add value to the work.
He preferred a young mind from an emerging country and that was how I got the invitation in 2005. Not even in my wildest dreams did I imagine that I would be on the board of the World Bank. The invitation was the most unforgettable moment in my life. I report directly to Robert B Zoellick!
Some of the others on the board are the CEO of Cisco, the vice president of Microsoft and the CEO of SAP; all Fortune 500 companies and me, the only Indian!
I am helping the World Bank set policies on ICT in university education so that employability can be enhanced. My aim is to reduce the number of unemployed eligible youth in the world.
Right now, we are concentrating on Africa . Soon, I want to shift the focus on to India . It has been an amazing experience for me.
But I had to discontinue my engineering education at the time I joined the board, as I didn’t have enough attendance in college!
· On his dreams for his company
I have always believed that IT is not just technology but a tool that can solve the problems of people.
That is what I want to do in my company.
I want my company to be a market leader in software solutions concentrating on education.
When I was younger, I didn’t care about money. Now that I am responsible for my employees, I care about what we make. If I am not bothered about money, we cannot scale up our business.
When I started my company from a net cafe in Bengaluru, I never ever imagined that one day my company would be a multi-million dollar company and I would be on the World Bank board as a member.
What drives me is my passion and it has been an amazing journey so far.