Gandhian approach to reach the top in Silicon Valley

Indra Nooyi, Satya Nadella, Sundar Pichai and now Bali Padda, December 2016, joined the growing ranks of Indian honchos in some of the largest global corporations. Considering Sanjay Poonen, Chief Operations Officer, VMware Inc. business mobility and cloud infrastructure leader, orbits in the same plane, we started our catch-up with him in Singapore with, why and how questions around the growing phenomenon.  

Sanjay Poonen, Chief Operating Officer, Customer Operations, VMware

Sanjay did not know about Balli Padda, but of the tech leaders he said, “There is something Gandhian about them. Like Gandhiji, they have an ability to galvanise large numbers of people to follow them. Not with an over-the-top macho style but via ‘servant-leadership.” Sanjay too practises it. Comes naturally to him. Probably stems from his Indian roots and his family-oriented value system, which keep him grounded. He says, “I am half Indian, half American. We are a close knit family.”    

Sanjay grew up in Bengaluru, India. Went to the prestigious Bishop Cotton’s Boys school. He qualified for IIT Madras and could have studied Electrical Engineering. His heart, however, was in computer science. After family consultations he decided to apply in colleges in the US. At the age of 18 he moved to the land of opportunities, having secured admissions in the Dartmouth College where ‘Darthmouth Basic’ the computer language was invented way back in 1964. It was one of the first programming languages intended to be used interactively.

Approximately 30 years later from the day he landed at the Logan International Airport, Massachusetts he is counted among the top Indian American business leaders in the technology space.

After graduating out of engineering college Sanjay joined Apple. His second job. “Between my junior and senior year of my studies, I worked with Microsoft in 1991.” Interestingly a time when Apple’s and Microsoft’s PC vs Mac war had not started. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates could be seen in a room. John Sculley had thrown Steve Jobs out and Jobs was running NeXT.

After spending four years with Apple, Sanjay decided to take a break to do an MBA. He applied and got rejected by Wharton and Kellogg but got into the prestigious Harvard Business School. True to his style, Sanjay refuses to lap up the praise. Insisting that it is not due to his genius. “You can score well in a test. But where you get in (educational institution) is a combination of luck and lots of blessings.”

(Left) Sanjay Poonen on the keyboards Photo courtesy: VMware
(Left) Sanjay Poonen on the keyboards Photo courtesy: VMware

Considering Sanjay’s loud and in-your face practice of starting his sales conferences with a musical performance, complete with the glares and high collars you wonder whether you are speaking to the same man. “I like to jazz up the conferences a bit. I can’t dance so I can play the piano.” says, Sanjay.

Following his heart and the entrepreneurial spirit instead of making the conventional choice of joining McKinsey he joined a start-up called Alphablox, now IBM-Alphablox. “My fascination for analytics attracted me to Alphablox. A VC called me within weeks of my getting out of the business school. To cut the long story short I was in a start-up and fell in love with company.” 100 customers and US 20 million of revenues later once again he found himself uneasy and wanting to do more. It was a great exposure for a 27 year old who found himself making product demos to attending investor meetings to handling teams.

In 2000, after realising that Alphablox will remain an also-ran even though the company raised USD 100 million Sanjay moved to Informatica. “While I was at Alphablox, my fame and notoriety began to be known in Silicon Valley and the CEO of Informatica called me,” he says. 

Sanjay Poonen at VMWorld 2016 Photo courtesy: VMware YouTube
Sanjay Poonen at VMWorld 2016 Photo courtesy: VMware YouTube

Sanjay stayed in the analytics space through Informatica, Symantec and SAP. “It was the beginning of the era of one-to-one marketing. I knew the hidden possibilities data could bring to the fore by understanding consumer buying habits, patterns and forever change the way marketing was done.”

He has all the praise in the world for the company. “Most of what I learned about how to scale big businesses came (to me) at SAP. Tremendous brand. A very well run company.” Sanjay is equally thankful for the mentoring he has received. “I had great mentors in my 20s and 30s. I encourage all young professionals to seek good mentors and when you are ready go out and mentor. Look for hungry professionals who want to climb the Mount Everest. Your guidance will probably help them get to the peak faster.”

Sanjay is passionate about supporting worthy causes. “There are three Ts of giving. Time, Treasure and Talent. I try to contribute in all three ways. I donate generously. I make sure that I find time for charitable organisations and churches, International Justice Mission, and prevention of sex-trafficking of young girls.”

The man has ambition. He wants to become the CEO of a large corporation one day. Through his journey, he practices and preaches to remain humble while quoting two lines of Rudyard Kipling’s poem, ‘If’,  “If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue, Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch.” quotes, Sanjay Poonen.