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Venture Capitalist from Kanpur

WHEN KANWAL REKHI paid a visit to Exodus Communications three years ago, the Internet services outfit was crammed into a 10-by-10-foot room packed with computers and people. The owner, an Indian immigrant named K.B. Chandrasekhar, was not the world’s most focused person. Himself an immigrant from India and a graduate of the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, Rekhi had been invited to invest in Exodus. “I liked Chandra,” Rekhi recalls. “But there were things about his business plan I hated.”

Chandrasekhar and his friends were selling a smorgasbord of Internet- related products and services. Rekhi wrote a $200,000 check on the condition that Exodus drop most of its services and concentrate on only a few. Six months later, with Rekhi’s help, Exodus raised another $3 million.

Today Exodus counts Oracle Corp., CBS SportsLine and Hewlett- Packard among its customers. After an initial public offering earlier this year, the company is valued at $556 million. Four years earlier it had been just a lightbulb in Chandrasekhar’s head, and the founder himself had been in the U.S. only four years.

Rekhi, 52, made his millions selling his own startup, Excelan, nine years ago. In the last few years he has become the dominant investor at Sage to Silicon Valley’s affluent Indian community. In the past three years, Rekhi has funded 12 small companies — all but one started by Indian immigrants. Already his $5 million initial investment has returned him $20 million, just from selling parts of the companies he has backed.

Rekhi is a large and rumpled man with a heavy accent and a rapid-fire delivery. “I’m not smooth,” he says, stating the obvious. The edges may be rough, but the sum is impressive: a Master’s degree in electrical engineering, two decades as a hardware designer, founder of a successful startup and, before striking out as a venture capitalist, board member and chief technology officer for Novell, Inc. “In a very short time he’s become a very important player,” says Novell Chief Executive Eric Schmidt, who joined the networking software maker after Rekhi’s departure. Schmidt appreciated Rekhi’s role in setting up Novell’s valuable software subsidiary in India’s high-tech city, Bangalore. Rekhi persuaded Schmidt to invest in PlaceWare, a company he funded that designs Internet collaboration software that runs on the Web.

Silicon Valley is a networking kind of place and, given the number and the prominence of Indian- born engineers and entrepreneurs, these people constitute a kind of natural network. Rekhi is at the center of it. “Kanwal’s got a good nose,” says Yogen Dalal, an Indian-born venture capitalist. “When someone tells me Kanwal’s in on a deal, I take a look.”

In the nine years since Rekhi sold Excelan, Indians have moved beyond the engineering ranks into upper management. More than a dozen Indian immigrants head up prominent Internet startups. Some have cashed in big: Hotmail cofounder Sabeer Bhatia probably pocketed $100 million when he sold his Internet mail service to Microsoft Corp. last year for an estimated $400 million.

The former conventional wisdom — that Indians were great technical minds but lousy marketers and executives — no longer holds water. Many of them, in addition to holding impressive technical degrees, are honor graduates of the school of hard knocks. Rekhi’s Sikh family fled newly partitioned Muslim Pakistan with little more than the clothes on their backs and eventually settled in the Indian city of Kanpur.

Rekhi came to the U.S. in 1967 to get a Master’s degree in electrical engineering at Michigan Technological University. It might be hard for a member of the class of 1998 to imagine, but there was a time when you had to scramble to survive in this business. Rekhi was laid off from his first three jobs after graduate school. “The space program and the war in Vietnam were winding down,” he explains. “It was not a great time to be an engineer.”

In 1971 Rekhi packed up his wife, an American-born woman he met through a pen-pal service, and moved to San Jose for a job at Singer- Link, a subsidiary of the sewing machine company that made flight simulators. Eventually bored, Rekhi left his job to join Zilog, Inc., a microprocessor outfit started by Federico Faggin, the engineer who co- invented the first popular microprocessor.

Still restless, a year later Rekhi and two Indian colleagues started Excelan to build add-in boards to connect desktop computers into a local area network: Before the company went public in 1987, the backers asked Rekhi to resign as chief executive in favor of retired Hewlett-Packard executive Richard Moore. “I didn’t look the part,” Rekhi says. “It was explained to me that by hiring Dick, they were preserving my investment.”

That experience explains in part Rekhi’s determination to show that Indians can run companies as well as engineer them. After Novell bought Excelan, Rekhi joined Novell, but left when he was passed over for chief executive in favor of Robert Frankenberg.

Rekhi quit, disillusioned but no longer in any need of a steady job. In earnest, he began networking with fellow Indians after he became president of Indus Entrepreneurs, an association organized to help south Asian entrepreneurs.

Not all of Rekhi’s companies have fared as well as Exodus, which netted him more than $10 million. Intellimatch, an Internet employment service, and Nirvana, which designed tools for Web site development, flopped. “It was such a big mismatch between what they said they were going to do and what they actually delivered,” he says. Rekhi’s brother, an Intellimatch founder, has a new venture, but without backing from his brother. With Rekhi, sentiment comes second, not first. “He [his brother] is not an entrepreneur,” Rekhi says. “Still, I hope he proves me wrong.”

Meanwhile, Rekhi has his hands full with CyberMedia. Three years ago the company introduced a product to fix bugs in other software packages.

First Aid was a hit, generating $35 million in revenue during its first year on the market. A year later the company was in trouble, the victim of overexpansion. A second product designed to automatically download software upgrades for Internet sites flopped. Rekhi came in as chairman, and CyberMedia’s chief executive left soon thereafter. “It’s important that I straighten it out,” he says. “My reputation is at stake.” You get a sense that he feels the Indian community’s reputation is somewhat at stake, too.


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