The Mechanical Phoenix: Raj Raman
From a small town boy to a successful entrepreneur, the story of Raj Raman, a graduate of NIT Rourkela batch of 1983 is definitely one of a roller coaster ride that only goes up. Having been an author, CEO, MD, Board member, coach, and mentor, it is definitely a wonder on how one individual can take on so many roles in just one lifetime. Being a mechanical engineer by profession, he has explored the Small and Medium Enterprises (SME) world to a great extent and later on has become an SME prodigy.
On the morning of teachers day, Raj Raman opened up about what to expect as one leaves the gates of NIT Rourkela. So, sit back and read on to know how he made it from an engineer to entrepreneur.
MM: A person of your stature can be widely searched online and researched upon. Keeping your every available online description aside, how would you describe yourself?
RR: If someone were to ask me, how I would describe myself, I would describe myself as an involved, passionate, honest and committed individual who likes to give back some amount of knowledge that he has gained over a period of time. If I can influence, impact and make a difference in the lives of a few people, I would believe that I have achieved my goal in life.
MM: Please give us an insight of your days before joining the erstwhile REC, Rourkela. How did you learn about REC?
RR: I come from the city of Kharagpur in West Bengal, born and brought up in the Railway colony. I and my friends from Kharagpur were just school kids who had no real exposure. Apart from our education, the institute provided us with perspective, confidence, an understanding of the outside world and made us into mature individuals.
As I addressed a gathering during one of our Alumni meets, I remember saying,
We joined REC as children and left as men.
Back then admissions into REC were largely based on an individual’s performance in the school level. The market was very competitive but the options for applying into RECs were open. And I had a school senior who studied at REC Rourkela and spoke very highly of the institute. That is how I ended up in REC Rourkela.
MM: Share with us your experiences in the 4 years at REC Rourkela. How important do you think were the years spent at REC in your life, both professionally and otherwise?
RR: For most of us who had come to REC, Rourkela it was our first time away from home and it was a bit difficult for us adjust into the change. Back then, the ragging scenario was quite harsh. It was the first time that we ever came in contact with the ground reality and those 3-4 months of ragging made us come together. The first year is basically the time when you develop bonds and choose the people with whom you will spend the 4 years of college. Then as we moved through the second, third and fourth year we learned about the real world that exists outside the boundary of our hometowns. We met people who came from different parts of the country and learned about them. We were taught a lot of new things although most of it went over our heads (laughs) over a period of time, we learned. And it was not just about academics, the institute helped us to evolve into practical, pragmatic and mature individuals who had a good idea about what they wanted to do with their lives.
MM: Describe your experience pursuing Masters at IIM Bangalore? Why did you incline from a core engineering discipline towards Management?
RR: As an individual, I was involved I was very open and outgoing. Apart from my education, I loved to debate, quizzing, music, sports, and many more activities. By the time, I got out of REC it was clear that I did not want to work as an engineer. I wanted to work in a position where I can influence the decisions being taken and therefore I thought management to be the best option for me.
For me, management at IIM-Bangalore was a second phase of 'trial by fire'. While engineering was educative and competitive, I don't think it was as harsh or as intense as management education. It was almost a new beginning for me in a far more competitive, demanding and aggressive environment which added a new dimension to me. As I look back, I owe a lot to IIM-Bangalore.
MM: You have a 30-year rich experience in both Manufacturing industries and entrepreneurship. What has it been like?
RR: I can only say it was a great journey and it has been quite interesting. I have worked across industries from manufacturing to services. Given my experience, I have learned that each organization has its own challenges, its own environment. It became very obvious to me that the future of this country is driven by the entrepreneurs who create small ecosystems that finally evolves into a large organization. Every large organization starts as a small organization and over a period of time they become omnipresent, they become global and hence they become large organizations. It is rightly said earning the first million is the most difficult.
To become an entrepreneur is not easy in any environment and in India more so.
Believe me, that is where the growth of any civilization, country or a company lies. So, this is what motivated me. I felt that this is a sector which needs help and I decided to dedicate my attention to it. That is my way of giving back.
MM: You have delved deep into the essence and challenges of running an SME in India. What in your opinion can be the path ahead in the current scenario?
RR: The challenges faced by an SME depends on what level they are in their growth cycle. The problems faced by an early stage SME are different from the ones that are slightly bigger. For example, I have a startup SME, my biggest challenge is how I make the two ends meet. I don't have the capital or the knowledge, 'Where or how do I start?', 'Whom do I approach to buy?', these are some of the basic questions that a start-up faces. If you are familiar with the Maslow hierarchy, you would know that food, shelter, and clothing are the most basic needs for survival. Similarly, the first challenge in front of an SME is to fulfil its basic needs for survival and then they think about making themselves better by spreading their market, hiring better people and other factors and then they enter the third phase where they think of making themselves the best by expanding into the international market, raising capital from big players, etc. And in all these levels the company needs help. Nobody comes ready with the knowledge, nobody comes ready with resources and people who have been through this add a lot of value.
MM: Do you consider it to be a prospective opportunity for budding engineers willing to venture into Entrepreneurship?
RR: There is nothing more satisfying than being an entrepreneur. It is always safer to take up a job but after seeing both sides I can assure you that entrepreneurship is mentally, emotionally, professionally far more satisfying.
MM: How did you think of authoring a book?
RR: At times in life you will have moments where you will sit back and reckon on what exactly you want to do. So I had this moment about 3 years ago when I was taking some time off of my work and a thought came to me, that I should pen down my journey and the various things I learned from it into a book. The icing on the cake for me was the fact that writing is one of my hobbies, so I decided to put my writing skills at a task and that was the birth of my book ‘The SMElting Cauldron”.
MM: What is the story behind the “SMElting Cauldron”?
RR: Since I have spent most of my career working with SME’s, I thought about the challenges that SME’s face and what the possible solutions to these problems could be. And so I decided I will write short stories drawn from different real experiences. When you are writing a book it important to take three factors into consideration: write in a manner which makes it easy for the readers to understand, not make the content boring and finally to be as brief as possible. Because personally speaking as a student myself long lectures with too much data can get very monotonous.
The next question was how many stories? I could have written more than 30 stories but as I was writing, when I reached my 18th story, I thought that this much would suffice the purpose. That’s where I stopped for now.
MM: How long did you take to finish the book?
RR: Writing a book is no easy task. As a writer, your state of mind influences the quality of your work. Therefore you cannot rush through writing a book. It took me a year to write the book and another 6 months to run it through a publisher, the forewords, acknowledgments, cover designs and all, totaling to eighteen months.
MM: You are currently running a consulting firm for SME’s how did you think of starting one? How is it going?
RR: I have worked with many large corporates and in the past 10 years I have served as the CEO, MD and I have been part of the boards as well. Somewhere down the line, I felt like I was not satisfied with what I am doing. This was the case mostly because when you are in these positions you will always be answerable and accountable to people. And so I felt like it was time for me to becomes one’s, own boss.
My never dying passion for SME’s made it very clear for me to start something along this line and that is how I decided to start the consulting firm.
Our office is in Mumbai but we work with clients across India.
MM: How recently did you visit NIT Rourkela? How was the experience?
RR: My last visit was during our batch reunion in 2007. It was a pleasure being back on campus. Some of the hostels that were there in my time are still there with many new additions. Most of the building had gone through renovations.
The AV room ( now known as BBA) is still there. This was where our reunion was held. I had the privilege of representing my batch and addressing the gathering as well.
And yes it brought back a lot of fond memories of my days in college.
MM: Are you in touch with your friends and colleagues?
RR: We were a batch of 190, and I am in touch with 85 percent of my batch on various social media platforms.
MM: What do you think of the alumni outreach of an institute of national importance like ours? And how can the alumni interactions be improved?
RR: The biggest role of alumni is to influence the young minds that graduate from the institute by providing them with a sense of direction. Financial aid is one of them surely, however, we can go far beyond that by having industry interactions because every student will end up in an industry. Giving them an insight on what streams are in demand can help students shift gears accordingly.
I have visited IIM Bangalore 4 or 5 times to address gatherings and also conducted webinars for them. NIT Rourkela can have many such interactions so that students do not miss out on the key aspects of the corporate world.
MM: You have held many positions of responsibility throughout your career. How did you handle the pressure and disappointments?
RR: When you are part of an organisation, it is basically a union of people and where ever there are groups of people, there will always be a difference of opinions. There will be personal motives and political agendas as well but you should have a strong set of values and morals which should be your guide to tackle such situations. And always remember that you cannot please everyone.
MM: How did you keep your spirits high in between pressure and hectic schedules?
RR: It isn’t an easy task to keep your spirits high at all times. There will be moments in your career where you feel like giving up and migrating to the Himalayas and seek asceticism. You just have to dig deep within yourself and hold on.
The higher you climb up the hierarchy of a company, the lonelier you get. There will be no one to help you and you have to be your own companion and you have to be headstrong and muster up the courage to get out of difficult situations.
MM: Any hobbies that you indulge in during your free time?
RR: It is very essential to keep in touch with your hobbies in order to take your mind off of stress. I enjoy teaching so at times I find myself teaching. As I mentioned earlier I like writing so I do write. I watch a lot of sports. I stay in touch with music. Occasionally I do sketch work and paint too.
MM: What does it take to be Raj Raman?
RR: I personally believe in “Work hard and play hard”. I would say it take a lot of guts, passion, honesty and commitment to be Raj Raman. I am someone with diverse interests. I am a family man too, I cherish time spent with my family greatly.
MM: Would you share with us a Message for our readers?
RR: Do justice to whatever you are doing in life and give it your best shot. Life is full of hurdles but you just need to gather the spirit and courage to jump over them. And always believe in yourself, always be self-motivated and trust yourself.
It is indeed a matter of pride that one of our very own has managed to climb the ladder to success. There is much to be learned from his experiences which one could keep in mind when faced with similar challenges in their careers.
Team MM really appreciates the words of wisdom that Raj Raman shared with us.