Kanwal Rekhi was one of the first engineers from India to strike it rich in Silicon Valley. Back in 1989 — primordial ooze in the dotcom age — he sold his networking firm ExceLan to Novell for a cool $210 million. But it's a near-miracle that Rekhi had a firm to sell at all. When he and two other Indians went to venture capital firms for funding to start ExceLan in 1982, a lot of doors slammed in their faces. "We were told we had no business experience," recalls Rekhi. The subtext? "They wanted to see a white guy on the board," he muses. "[Indians] were seen as great techies, not managers."
Rekhi and his partners eventually got the money, but the experience left him determined that the next generation of Indian-American engineers with great ideas "wouldn't have to fight as hard as we did." In 1992 Rekhi helped found The IndUS Entrepreneurs (TiE), of which he is now president. After less than a decade, TiE may be the most successful networking organization in the world, having helped to create businesses worth more than $75 billion. And the myth about Indians not being managers has been laid to rest. According to AnnaLee Saxenian, a professor of regional development at the University of California at Berkeley, in 1998 a quarter of Silicon Valley's high-tech companies were Indian- or Chinese-led.
TiE is now expanding its reach beyond its core north American and Indian markets. TiE-U.K.'s inaugural meeting in London earlier this month drew around 800 would-be entrepreneurs from across Great Britain. And from Singapore to Switzerland, south Asian communities are seeking to be part of the TiE phenomenon.
TiE differs from the usual canapes-and-Chardonnay-fueled high-tech networking groups in that it emphasizes mentoring as much as — perhaps more than — mingling. Or money. Its belief in "the exchange of experience and knowledge," as Apurv Bagri, chairman of TiE-U.K., puts it, is based on the ancient Indian guru-chela, or teacher-disciple, relationship. It's an approach that works. Peter Abell, professor of management at the London School of Economics, says that his research indicates that the more experienced entrepreneurs a start-up manager can turn to for advice, the greater his chance of survival.
Worldwide, around 600 entrepreneurs, corporate executives and senior professionals are TiE charter members, or mentors, available to share their success stories, offer support and advice and help arrange funding. They include Vinod Khosla, a co-founder of Sun Microsystems, whose net worth of $1 billion placed him at No. 44 on Forbes' 400 wealthiest people in America list in 1999. Becoming a charter member is an invitation-only position for which they pay $1,000 in annual dues. Around 8,000 ordinary members pay between $75 and $100.
Bagri says that, "TiE seeks to foster entrepreneurship as a worthy human endeavor in itself." But that doesn't mean taking a vow of poverty. Rekhi claims that since 1996, he has made more than $100 million from his investments in firms he has mentored. And, in Silicon Valley at least, venture capitalists are now likely to ask, "Where's the Indian guy on the board?"