Jay Chaudhry is a serial disrupter. Born in a small scale farmer in Himachal Pradesh, he went on to found and sell four high-tech firms before starting his fifth, Zscaler, a cyber-security behemoth that has made him the wealthiest Indian American, and put him #45 overall, on the Forbes list of wealthiest Americans for 2021.
Educated in a tiny village in HP, Chaudhry made it to the Institute of Technology in Varanasi (IIT-BHU) and eventually, a University in US in 1980, for a masters in computer engineering.
Years later, life was good. Chaudhry was vice-president at a public trading company and a number two man then. He drew a good salary and bonus, and had stock options. He quit to start an internal security company with his wife Jyoti Chaudhry, also an IT professional. But no venture capitalist would invest in their company because they had no start-up experience.
“My wife Jyoti and I were disappointed, “Chaudhry, now 62, recalled in a convocation address at IIT-BHU in February.”
“We had two choices; give up the dream of a start up or invest our own savings. I had developed a burning desire. I didn’t want to give up my dream. Jyoti and I decided to put our life saving on the line and start SecureIT”.
Jyoti gave up her job at the telecommunications company BellSouth. “The idea was simple”, Chaudhry said. “Let’s burn the bridges so there’s no turning back”. That was in 1997.
There has been no going back. But as Chaudhry likes to say: disruptive innovation cannot be incremental, with a tweak here and a tweak there. it has been a game changer in the nature of what Tesla has done to America’s automobile industry.
Chaudhry was born in Panoh, a village in HP on the borders with Punjab and Haryana. The village had no electricity till he was in Class 8, and no running water until he was in Class 10. He sat in a car for the first time after completing Class 12 and took his first flight when he left India for the US.
In School, he had no idea what he wanted to do with his life, but he had insatiable appetite for learning. He read every book in the school’s three-self library. Later, he picked up engineering because he had heard medicine and engineering were two useful lines and he had no stomach for blood. In engineering, he choose electronics because it is about television, a new and exciting technology then.
After his master’s in computer engineering and management, he discovered he was really passionate about something else; sales.
Chaudhry had joined the electronic giant IBM which tasked him with selling their computers to GE. But GE was using Hewlett-Packard (HP) and Chaudhry hit a wall. GE representative wouldn’t take a call. They must have hung up on him “a few thousand times”, he told the graduating IIT class. Those first few months at IBM were frustrating.
Now seriously in doubt about career choices, he kept trying. He tracked down some Indian engineers at GE. They at last took his calls, but all told him politely that they did not deal with computer purchases.
He carried on. He went through the entire GE phonebook of 20,000 names and came up with 250 Indians. They helped him put together a map of the decision-making structure at GE, and then the things began moving. “I call this ethnic marketing,” Chaudhry said.
At SecureIT, this experience would turn out to be valuable. “I managed sales and marketing and Jyoti managed finance, human resources and company operations”, Chaudhry wrote.
Over next few years, the Choudhrys would disrupt their lives and careers over and over. They sold SecureIT to Verisign, a global domain name registry, in 1998. Choudhry founded his second and third company, CoreHarbor and Cipher in 2000. They too were sold.
He started his fourth firm, Air Defense, in 2002. Its focus was securing the Airwaves. He sold it as well, to Motora. “Entrepreneurs need to know when to get out, when to sell your business,” Chaudhry said at a conference of fellow IIT alumni.
It was now time to step up. “I’m sitting in 2007-2008. I had no desire. I had no desire to do one more start up point product and sell it. I wanted to do something big”, Chaudhry said.
“I knew a lot about security and I knew a lot about internet.”
The company Chaudhry founded next—Zscaler – is now world largest. More than 5000 global enterprises are using Zscaler; the company processes more than more than 150 billion transactions across 190 countries every day.
Zscaler, which went public in 2018, is valued at $18 billion. His family’s 42 per cent holding makes him the richest Indian—American, according to Forbes, and 45th on the list of wealthiest American for 2021. Jay and Jyoti have three children and live in Nevada. (IPA Service)