Sridhar Vembu, 54 was awarded the Padma Shri, India’s fourth highest civilian honour, in the trade and industry category.(Courtsey: Zoho Corporation)
Sridhar Vembu, 54 was awarded the Padma Shri, India’s fourth highest civilian honour, in the trade and industry category.(Courtsey: Zoho Corporation)

54-yr-old who left Silicon Valley for TN village looks to nurture local talent

  • Businessman Sridhar Vembu, founder-CEO of Zoho Corporation, shifted to Tenkasi in October 2019
By Divya Chandrababu, Hindustan Times, Chennai
UPDATED ON FEB 20, 2021 12:16 PM IST

Tenkasi, a village in southern Tamil Nadu on the Western Ghats known for the Courtallam waterfalls and its rolling fields, is also associated with coding, tech and business.

Businessman Sridhar Vembu made an unusual move from Silicon Valley to Tenkasi in October 2019. He couldn’t have foreseen then that Covid-19 would make remote employees and migration of software engineers from the cities back to the villages the norm during the pandemic, but he did return with the vision of working from Tenkasi, and hiring and retaining local talent.

In January, Vembu, 54 was awarded the Padma Shri, India’s fourth-highest civilian honour, in the trade and industry category. He is founder-CEO of Zoho Corporation, a cloud-based business software that provides online applications.

The company says that its apps are used by more than 50 million people globally. Subsequently, in February, Vembu was appointed in an advisory role to the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB), led by National Security advisor Ajit Doval.

Vembu spoke to HT on video from his village via one of his products- Zoho Meeting -- with birds constantly chirping in the background.

“The peacocks here keep me up at night,” said Vembu, who runs a global business with offices across the world. “In fact, we had a meeting with our employees in the US, Brazil, Singapore and multiple locations in India just last night and it went flawlessly with fibre optic internet. The tools of remote working are getting better.”

The company launched one during the pandemic -- Zoho Remotely. “The pandemic has accelerated remote working. We are going to open up more rural offices. The goal is to have smaller centres rather than have everyone come to Chennai.”

Zoho has expanded its offices to 13 districts in Tamil Nadu, two in Kerala and one in Patna. It has about 9,000 employees around the world and 90% of that workforce is in rural centres in India. The Tenkasi office has 450 employees recruited within a 50 km radius.

Often dressed in a traditional veshti, Vembu moves around on a cycle or his preferred electric auto, developed by a Coimbatore-based company, which cost 1.6 lakh.

“It gives you freedom of mobility with minimal footprint,” says Vembu.

An early riser, he walks to his farm and local tea shops in between his work and meetings. “ Ten minutes of traffic can get you tired. I cherish these open spaces and quietness the most working out of here,” he said.

Vembu was born in Tamil Nadu’s Thanjavur district to a family of farmers and was the eldest of five siblings.

“I studied in a Tamil medium school,” said Vembu who in 1989 graduated from the Indian Institute of Technology-Madras. With the help of a scholarship, he received an MS and PhD in electrical engineering from Princeton University, all the while knowing his future would be back in an Indian village.

He worked as a wireless systems engineer at Qualcomm for two years and later founded AdventNet in 1996 with two of his brothers and friends. The company was later renamed Zoho.

He says he should have come back home sooner. “I realised we were doing fancy mathematics to say something very simple. Spending time building business is far more valuable economically than fancy theories,” he said.

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