For a good Indian curry, call the Marriott in Santa Clara, Calif. As odd as it may sound, the hotel's chefs have mastered delicacies like palakh paneer, dosas and roti out of pleasant necessity. Every other month, the Indus Entrepreneurs (aka TiE) holds its meeting at the hotel.
A networking and entrepreneurship nonprofit loosely grouped around connections to India and South Asia, TiE turns these events into serious eating affairs.
Members tackle the buffet with a vengeance. "It's really good food. We have trained the kitchen well," beams Bakul Joshi, executive director of TiE.
The buffet is only an appetizer, however. The main course is deals, deals, deals. A laundry list of explosive Web companies - Exodus Communications, HotMail and Junglee, to name a few - have hatched from alliances or struck angel funding deals at TiE meetings. The organization has emerged as a premier deal generator in Silicon Valley. "Pretty much the first week I was in the business, I learned about TiE," says Robert Coneybeer, a partner at venture capital powerhouse New Enterprise Associates. "Almost every one of the companies in our portfolio has some sort of TiE connection. And about half of the CEOs are active in TiE."
For a small organization with only 1,200 members worldwide, TiE packs an oversize punch. Since its inception in 1994, the group's annual conference has drawn big-name sponsors like Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, New Enterprise Associates and Goldman Sachs, and has featured speakers like Yahoo CEO Tim Koogle and Benchmark Capital partner Bill Gurley.
TiE represents only a fraction of what some Silicon Valley executives call the Indian Mafia, a gang that voraciously seeks IPO opportunities. A veritable international hydra, the group's tentacles reach from California to Boston to Bombay to London, always in search of new ideas and serendipitous connections.
The organization has its own mouthpieces: a 60,000-circulation magazine and the Siliconindia.com Web site, which is part news site, part town crier. The Indus community - Indians who work for U.S. tech companies - is growing, spawning TiE-like organizations and filling some top tech jobs. The new Indian CEOs is a Washington area networking group that's de rigueur for the Silicon Beltway set.
In Silicon Valley, ground zero for the Indian tech crowd, four of the five original founders of the Round Zero networking group - which later birthed Epinions.com - are from India. And the list goes on, from partners at Kleiner Perkins to professors at Stanford's Graduate School of Business. Indians are a significant force on the Internet scene.
But TiE diverges from the nachos-and-wine-fueled networking meat markets of Silicon Valley and San Francisco in crucial ways. Rather than back-slapping meetings of wannabe moguls, TiE lets the novices mingle with the chiefs. "I thought it was incredible. You read about these people like Kanwal [Rekhi, founder of ExceLan, the first venture-funded startup headed by an Indian] and Desh [Gururaj "Desh" Deshpande, founder of Sycamore Networks], but you're actually meeting them in person and getting them to talk about what were then very preliminary ideas," says Srini Anumolu, who cofounded Elance.com in January 1998 with indispensible help from TiE.
Indians trained in high-tech have been coming to the U.S. to work for decades, following the establishment of the Indian Institute of Technology schools by Prime Minister Jahawaral Nehru after World War II. Most arrive nearly broke.
"The standard story of landing here with $108 in your pocket - the most the government would let you exchange - is not uncommon," says explains Raj Mashruwala, a charter member of TiE and VP of Tibco Software. "That was my story, too."
Many Indians entered the geek ranks of companies like Xerox, IBM and Motorola.
But upper management seldom promoted them to senior roles. "Earlier, Indians were always thought of as good workers. They were not considered [people] who could be managers or could be true entrepreneurs," says K.B. Chandrasekhar, Exodus' cofounder and CEO.
The breakthrough came in the person of Vinod Khosla, a Stanford MBA and Internet Institute of Thailand graduate who in 1982 cofounded Sun Microsystems; Sun notched the first wildly successful high-tech startup with an Indian founder. Khosla later went on to snag a partnership at Kleiner Perkins and became a charter member of TiE. Next came Rekhi, the current TiE president and another IIT graduate. Rekhi later sold ExceLan for $200 million to Novell and entered the first wave of the Silicon Valley super-rich back in the pre-dot-com days.
And all of a sudden, Indians were a driving force in the formation of Silicon Valley companies. But they weren't reaching out to fellow Indians. "We were not known for helping each other back then," admits Chandrasekhar.
In 1992, the TiE group arose from a chance meeting of 15 Indian entrepreneurs and businesspeople all waiting at the airport to greet an Indian dignitary whose flight had been delayed. "We were all standing there talking and then we realized that we didn't know each other," TiE's Joshi remembers. "The Indus community usually focused on the social network rather than the business and professional network. So we decided to meet because there was no such platform of business networking among the Indus community."
They named their group the Indus Entrepreneurs to symbolize their dual cultural identities and their interest in nurturing entrepreneurship. TiE grew rapidly from the initial 25 members to more than 400 within three years. A business nexus finally began to coalesce around TiE, and some of the decision-makers started to notice.
Chandrasekhar, for one, had been shopping his fledgling data farm (before it became Exodus) to every fund in town and got nothing but slammed doors. On the verge of missing payroll and closing shop over the Christmas holidays in 1995, a frantic Chandrasekhar went to a TiE meeting in desperation. He left with more than $1 million from TiE members and a mentor in Rekhi.
The four Exodus investors have so far realized a 400-fold return. And that was only TiE's first act. The network has since spun out dozens of other deals thanks to the group's investors.
TiE has established chapters in Boston; Los Angeles; the Midwest; New York; and Vancouver, British Columbia, among other locales. A major world expansion is planned throughout India, Europe and Asia, according to Joshi. But TiE's roots remain in the strongly family-oriented South Asian culture. For example, TiE's membership form asks whether an applicant's spouse prefers vegetarian food. But unlike some other well-known networking or alumni groups, the membership requirements are flexible. Many members of TiE are not Indians but Bangladeshis and Pakistanis (Rekhi is Pakistani); the only requirement to join is to have an interest in the Indus community.
Many of the group's larger events open their doors to all kinds. Christine Comaford, managing director of Artemis Ventures, estimates that at the 1999 TiE Conference only 65 percent of the audience was South Asian.
"It's an organization that transcends religion, caste, language and cultural differences. It focuses on the very elementary thing in life called money," says Vijay Vashee, a charter member of TiE and a general manager at Microsoft.
"But around that money evolved community. While money has to be a driving force, it's the community strength that tends to make it happen."
Through the community flows a Jedi-esque force that somehow short-circuits greed but ends up making people rich. Those who have made it are expected to help those who have not, with no expectation of recompense. This seems to encourage the free-flow of ideas unchecked by the inaccessibility that surrounds many venture capitalists.
"I found that the more I gave, the more I received. And I gave without expectation. The funny thing is that if you help people, the rewards come to you anyway," says Vashee, who invested $1 million in four startups that came out of TiE contacts.
Members say the group is where ideas become reality. Take the case of Elance.com. With encouragement from Junglee founder and TiE member Venky Harinarayan, Anumolu decided to abandon his lucrative job as a portfolio manager handling $10 billion for New York Life in order to build "the eBay of services" - a global clearinghouse that joins service buyers with vendors.
Through TiE, Anumolu managed to get premier face time for what had been a half-baked idea.
After TiE investors nursed him through various business plan iterations, Anumolu and his partner secured $1.2 million in funding from TiE members. But more than money, says Anumolu, the advice and inspiration made the big difference. "You learn a lot. We knew a lot about complex financial stuff. But for the legal issues and the other parts of running a business we needed advice," says Anumolu. "We got that through TiE. And it's now helping us in recruitment."
Meanwhile, Silicon Valley's attitude toward South Asians has done an about-face. "I cannot gush more about the Indian entrepreneurs I have dealt with," says Comaford. "They work very, very hard. They are not prima donnas.
They are very good at explaining their vision and getting people excited. They are very charismatic. They have used their differences to their advantage, which is brilliant. They have banded together to leverage their rolodexes. As a result, they have gotten a lot done." Comaford estimates that 70 percent of her portfolio has senior Indian management and several have direct or indirect connections to TiE.
So, for good Indian executives, try the Santa Clara Marriott. You may get more than curry.