Head in the cloud: Meet Jay Chaudhry, richest Indian-American of 2021

He grew up in a Himachal Pradesh village with no electricity or running water. Now 62, he is a serial entrepreneur, heads a cloud-based cyber-security behemoth, and is #45 on the Forbes list of wealthiest Americans. It helps to burn bridges that force you forward, and it helps to know when to get out, he says.
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Updated on Dec 04, 2021 02:37 PM IST
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ByYashwant Raj

Jay Chaudhry is a serial disrupter. Born to 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 at #45 overall, on the Forbes list of wealthiest Americans for 2021.

Educated in a tiny village in HP, Chaudhry made it to the Indian Institute of Technology in Varanasi (IIT-BHU) and, eventually, the University of Cincinnati in the US in 1980, for a Master’s in computer engineering.

Years later, life was good. Chaudhry was vice-president at a publicly traded company and the Number 2 man then. He drew a good salary and bonus, and had stock options. He quit to start an internet 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 life savings. I had developed a burning desire. I didn’t want to give up my dream. Jyoti and I decided to put our life savings on the line and start SecureIT.”

Jyoti Chaudhry 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 to be a game-changer in the nature of what Netflix has done to TV and movie viewing and what Tesla has done to America’s automobile industry.

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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 an insatiable appetite for learning. He read every book in the school’s three-shelf library. Later, he picked engineering because he had heard medicine and engineering were two useful lines and he had no stomach for blood. In engineering, he chose electronics because it was 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 electronics giant IBM, which tasked him with selling their computers to GE. But GE was using Hewlett-Packard (HP), and Chaudhry hit a wall. GE’s representatives wouldn’t even take his calls. 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 his career choices, he kept trying. He tracked down some Indian engineers at GE. They at least took his calls, but all told him politely that they did not deal with computer purchases. He ploughed on. He went through the entire GE phone book 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 things began moving. “I call this ethnic marketing,” Chaudhry said.

At SecureIT, this experience would turn out to be invaluable. “I managed sales and marketing, and Jyoti managed finance, human resources, and company operations,” Chaudhry wrote in a company blog. “As anyone who has started a company can attest, the hours are long and the strain on the family can be difficult. In that way, we were lucky, because Jyoti and I, with our complementary skills, were together 24 hours a day.”

Over the next few years, the Chaudhrys would disrupt their lives and careers over and over. They sold SecureIT to Verisign, a global domain name registry, in 1998. Chaudhry founded his second and third companies, CoreHarbor and CipherTrust, in 2000. They were acquired by USi (which was acquired by AT&T) in 2003 and by Secure Computing / McAfee in 2006 respectively.

He started his fourth firm, AirDefense, in 2002. Its focus was securing the airwaves. He sold it as well, to Motorola. “Entrepreneurs need to know when to get out, when to sell your business,” Chaudhry said at a conference of fellow IIT alumni in November.

It was now time to step it up. “I’m sitting in 2007-2008. I had no desire to do one more startup point-product and sell it. I wanted to do something big,” Chaudhry said in November. “I knew a lot about security and. I knew a lot about (the) internet.”

The company Chaudhry founded next, Zscaler, is now the world’s largest cloud native security platform or CNSP. (You can think of a CNSP like a modern-day AI/ML-driven version of the firewall; large enterprises approach Zscaler for help with ensuring that their machines, people and processes can access the internet more safely.)

More than 5,000 global enterprises are using Zscaler; the company processes more than 150 billion transactions across 190 countries every day.

Chaudhry has won several accolades along the way. And made money. Zscaler, which went public in 2018, is valued at $18 billion. His family’s 42% holding makes him the richest Indian-American according to Forbes, and 45th on the list of wealthiest Americans for 2021. Jay and Jyoti Chaudhry have three children and live in Nevada.

MR Rangaswami, founder of the global Indian leaders’ community Indiaspora and a friend of Chaudhry, told Wknd: “I think culture and values play a big role in Jay’s success. The emphasis on education combined with ’jugaad’ (frugal innovation) taught us how to innovate in difficult circumstances. This stands Indian-Americans in good stead as entrepreneurs.”

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Thursday, January 20, 2022