A Revolutionary Educationist: Sandeep panigrahi
Sandeep Panigrahi, an alumnus of 1995 Metallurgical Engineering went on to pursue higher studies at Stanford university followed by UCLA Business school and is currently the CEO of Chalksphere Inc. In a detailed chat with Team MM, he shares his journey so far from being an employee to an employer. The excerpts are:
MM: Tell us about your childhood and your memories before you joined NIT Rourkela (the then REC).
SP: I have been a Rourkelite all my life. I went to Deepika English Medium School from Nursery to Class XII. We have a very close and caring community at Rourkela and children were nurtured very well. I was blessed to have a very loving and close-knit family. Childhood memories include family gatherings, birthday parties, killing time with friends over chai and pakoda, playing lots of cricket and football and making friends who will stick around all my life. All this came with a clause though: the grades in the schools should never be sacrificed or compromised upon because the ultimate aim was to go to IIT or REC (now NIT). There was no third option.
MM: What are some of your cherished memories during your stay at NIT Rourkela (the then REC)?
SP: Although I got a very good state rank and was eligible for Production engineering at REC Trichirapalli, I could not turn down Metallurgy and Materials Engineering at REC Rourkela. After all, that proved out to be best choice ever. Best memories at REC include spring fests, the hostel ‘kaandabhurji’ and spending lots of time with friends. Also, a couple of times our hostel was closed because of Mandal Commission Dharna and once just because we did not want to take the semester.
Those days were fun!
MM: Who were the people that left an impression on you during that time?
SP: That would undoubtedly be the incredible boys and girls of our batch. There were few students who were very much focussed on studies and some of them were preparing for GRE as well. I was not one of them (smiles). Although I had set my eyes of working with SAIL or L&T, I had a bunch of friends and we were happy playing cards, cricket and/or sleeping.
MM: Being a metallurgical engineer, what were the career options available to you at that time? How has it improved since then?
SP: We were one of the first few batches coming out of REC after Dr. Manmohan Singh paved the way for economic times. I believe the greatest PM of the history of India was P.V. Narasimha Rao. Once the market opened up, a lot of new businesses especially in the areas of steel and metals were coming up. The economy was upbeat. I believe for Metallurgy, we had few companies showing up like Usha Martin, Telco, Tisco, NipponDendro, etc. I sat on the first interview at Usha Martin and I got selected. Needless to say, I was promptly disqualified to sit for Telco Interview for which I got very disappointed.
Metallurgical industries saw a lot of spike in early 2000, when a lot of sponge iron plants were being opened up and jobs were plenty. Now I believe the Iron Ore mines are dry and so are the sponge Iron factories.
Unfortunately, during 1997-2000, there was a magical and exponential boom of Indian IT industry and little did we know that it will be eating up all our engineering talent. While IT did create a lot of jobs, we lost 2 generation of good engineers (especially coming out from NITs and IITs) as its repercussion. I was one of them too.
Now I believe good engineers are again getting back to their groove and some are going into the path of entrepreneurship and others into the field they feel most passionate.
MM: How was your experience working at Bokaro Steel plant?
SP: I got into SAIL after 1 year at Usha Martin, Jamshedpur. I was posted to Bokaro Steel Plant and the experience was fantastic. I was posted to Steel Melting Shop (SMS) during that time and I was very excited work in such a large setup. I use to play a lot of Badminton after work and hang around with friends in officers’ mess.
MM: Tell us your journey from being an engineer at Bokaro Steel plant to successful IT Director with global experience leading the fields of design and development to finally establishing your roots in Los Angeles.
SP: My next job was in IT in Tata Consultancy Services and I was completely lost during that time. And by ‘lost’, I mean it took me a long time to understand that when data is on the server, everyone can see the data. I gradually took baby steps in IT industry and after a period of 7 long years, I was finally a Program manager who had transitioned his career. Program manager is a very big role and it really requires strategic thinking. I was learning really fast but I was missing the American way of strategizing. I had to go back to school and reinvent myself.
MM: You have been to Stanford University and UCLA Anderson School of management, what differences did you find in their education level as compared to ours.
SP: I applied for executive MBA program at UCLA in 2009 and got selected. I knew that this was one of the top 20 public Colleges in the world and I was super excited to be selected. I knew it will require a great deal of sacrifice for me and my family. To make things worse, we were expecting our second baby in July 2009. So I had to juggle a very high-velocity work, education and a new born coming our way. It was crazy to say the least. But my wife was a pillar of strength and she stood by my side and ensured that I am not losing my head.
UCLA Anderson was the second best thing ever which could happen to me (the first one being REC). It opened a whole different world to me. Our group had CEOs, world famous doctors and budding entrepreneurs. The experience was rich and diverse.
The most distinct memory I have of that time was our final project which was how YouTube will make Google profits (it was just the hottest discussion that Google bought YouTube for $1Billion. And they were into massive losses those days). Believe it or not, we built a strategy for google which was “connected house” and everything with IoT (Internet of Things) that was in 2009. Last thing I knew the whole world was talking about IoT in 2011-2012. I still regret not taking the idea to Larry Paige and Sergey Brin (CEO of Alphabet Inc.)
I did not spend much time in Stanford and I did a course on Complex Program management with them.
MM: Coming from a metallurgical background, how difficult was it to follow your crazy pursuit for passion in the field of IT enabled services and then to entrepreneurship?
Once you are an engineer, you can do interesting things. The only thing you should never doubt is your limits.
Changing field is a plan and well-timed strategy just like anything else. If you are not satisfied with your current job and want to do something much more interesting, have a plan and make efforts to execute it. Getting into IT is very easy. It is much easier than making steel or launching space shuttles.
Entrepreneurship is a passion.
MM: In what way, does the entrepreneurial culture at U.S. differ from that of what it is in India?
SP: The entrepreneurship journey is a very rough one. It is also marred with a high degree of failure. The qualities of an entrepreneur are resilience, never giving up, falling and then getting up, taking pride in your work, selling your idea, identifying opportunities, and finally acting on them. In USA, people are ready to fail and society gives them a second chance and a third chance. In Silicon Valley, the entrepreneurs who fail are never looked down upon; everybody knows how hard it is to be an entrepreneur. That culture is missing in India. And unless that is there, that support system is there in India, we can never be an entrepreneurial society.
Another thing is in India, we are not taught to think big and think out of the box. Entrepreneurs need to have not limits in imagination. Lastly, funding plays the biggest part in making entrepreneurs successful. I am not sure if the market in India is as open and mature as it is in the western world, especially USA.
MM: With a majority of students from the engineering society vying for an MBA degree, what do you think the reason behind this culture? How does it help in the field of entrepreneurship?
SP: I believe it is “Herd Mentality”. In my personal opinion MBA is meant for people with 8-10 years work experience. You would not appreciate concepts of business unless you are in business that long. In India, MBA colleges are mushrooming like craze and the faculties are not up to the mark. Some colleges like IIMs are great choices but then again, MBA should be done only with adequate work experience or a person wants to start entrepreneurial journey right after college. As a matter of fact, engineering colleges should have subjects on accounting and financial management. Those are more important in life. MBA does help you see how a business is managed and how you can broadly look at business strategies but unless you can figure it out yourself, it is very hard to appreciate what the professor is stating.
MM: You have had the experience of working in host of companies like TCS, Cognizant, Waddell and Reed Financial Services. How feasible is it to switch companies?
SP: To answer it in short, it was very feasible. My advice would be to go deep on one subject than going wide on many subjects. Specialisation is always better and that was what helped me over the long run.
MM: Tell us about your work as an entrepreneur.
SP: I jumped into entrepreneurship sometime in August 2014 when I framed the idea of Chalksphere. The idea has evolved since then and after timely Iterations of work and market feedback, we have a solution which is helping parents get a complete 360 degree view about their child’s daily activity anytime and anywhere they want.
MM: Being the founder of Chalksphere Inc. and Chalksphere India Pvt. Ltd., we would like you to shed some light about that.
Chalksphere Inc. and Chalksphere India Pvt. Ltd.
Story of its existence:
It all started in August of 2014 when I was 30,000 ft above ground (I was going from LA to Denver) and I was searching for some information about my daughter’s education and extracurricular activities. After searching for about 90 minutes in websites, emails, etc., I shut down my computer out of frustration and that was the light-bulb moment and I knew that there will be millions of parents who need these information and cannot get it, just like I couldn’t. I had to do something about it. Once I reached Denver, I called few friends and soon found out that this is a common problem and it needs to be solved and Chalksphere was born in 7 days!
The motives behind founding it:
The motives are 4 pronged. They are:-
· Helping parents get a complete 360 degree view about their child’s daily activity anytime anywhere they want. Helping parents unleash the genius in their child!
· Helping Schools and Extra Curricular Institutions in creating a friendly and collaborative environment between other schools.
· Helping Students collaborate with other students at a local and global level.
· Helping teachers by providing ways to automate mundane tasks and increase productivity and providing enormous cost saving to schools
First app to have created an Integrated B2B ecosystem where your children thrive in a private secure and members only community, powered by our proprietary communication and collaboration platform.
Current position of the Chalksphere:
We have grown to include more than 25000 parents, 600 teachers, 80 school staff and management members, 12 tutors and 20 transport vendors. Our vision of providing parents an on-demand 360 degree view of their child's activities is finally taking shape. We expect to grow to more than 60,000 parents, 1500 teachers, 200 Staff and 40 tutors by end of this year.
Our vision is to make life simple for parents and manage what matters most for their child.
Support from family and friends:
I am blessed to have tons of support from family and friends without whose support I could never have taken this decisive step.
A piece of advice for the start-up enthusiasts in our country:
Start-up enthusiast’s life can be summed up as: Resilience, persistence, failing, getting up and running again! You have one life to live! Being born poor is not your fault, but if you die poor it certainly is. And remember, rich or poor is measured or valued by wealth.
MM: Any advice you want to give to our readers:
Narayan Murthy stated that 95% of the engineers in the country are unemployable. My take is rest 5% are in NITs and IITs. Whether you decide to be an entrepreneur, be employed somewhere or go for further studies, understand that you are tied to the NIT family. Whatever you do, take moments to cherish your friends and family. Be passionate in what you do and have no regrets!