Reflections from an immersive ten days in India for #TrulyZoho23
It’s not every day that one gets kissed by an elephant, but on my final day, I was blessed with one from a huge Indian Elephant at Nellaiappar Temple, Tirunelveli, about half an hour outside Chennai. I felt the warmth of its breath and a slight tickle of whiskers as the noble creature anointed my head. While that was an extraordinary honor, being invited to see Zoho behind the curtains in India for the Truly Zoho 23 tour with fourteen other fellow analysts and several customers surpassed it.
A week of daily trips to their huge campus an hour from our hotel, with unprecedented access to the Zoho leadership team, including co-founder and CEO Sridhar Vembu, the entire product development team leaders, artists, chefs, musicians, and medical equipment engineers, and others, gave us a visceral sense of what makes Zoho genuinely unique.
I already had a pretty good idea from my Zoho encounter in Austin last summer and covered this in my report, The Path Less Traveled. But getting up close and personal with the daily life on the 10,000-strong campus and being able to ask whatever we liked reinforced my already high opinion of the company. Everyone was so open, friendly, and also curious about us.
Toward the end of our tour, we flew to Zoho’s rural school and farm in Tenkasi, Kalaivani Kalvi Mayam. The school, led by Akshaya Sivaraman and nine teachers, provides free education (and meals) for around 100 children. Zoho’s farm surrounds the school, and the young children enjoy tending their small garden and growing vegetables. The school and farm were shrouded under the evening shadows of the Western Ghats mountain range. Here we were treated to sublime performances by the young pupils. The traditional singing and dancing were mesmeric. Their teachers know how to teach and imbue confidence, pride, and phenomenal skill.
The complexity of the singing, perfect harmonies, and facial expressions told an incredible story, even though I couldn’t understand a word! But I could feel their enjoyment at singing and dancing and must admit to a tear. This was a much higher standard than I had ever experienced at schools in England or, to my shame, my kids’ performances.
Akshaya Sivaraman explained the three principles governing their approach to teaching:
- Build self-confidence
- Help each child find their individual purpose
- Teach them the self-discipline to achieve it.
Now that’s the kind of education I should have had.
Purposeful employment leads to extraordinary levels of employee engagement
It’s worth reflecting that this quality of education for rural communities, where schooling is often difficult to access, is indicative of Zoho’s enlightened, regenerative capitalism. As Vembu says, ‘we hire people for whom our existence truly makes a difference.’ A tech company creating jobs in small rural communities that would otherwise be completely overlooked.
This goes way beyond enlightened self-interest. Yes, Zoho benefits from immense loyalty resulting from its lifetime investment in employees. Yet, as pointed out, Zoho is concerned about the well-being of its employees, their families, and communities. Not just feeding and educating them but nurturing them to realize their full potential as humans.
This is not an example of paternalism at work, but servant leadership. Sridhar is both humble and approachable, without ego.
This engenders considerable employee engagement and enthusiasm. The entire leadership team has been there for a minimum of two decades. Why would they want to leave when each member can flourish and make a real difference? Moreover, the shared experiences and familiarity with each other’s specialisms, as Zoho continues to grow profitably, provide a platform of trust. Innovations proliferate, and there is a complete absence of fear of experimentation. This is the antithesis of command-and-control leadership and springs from a shared vision, deeply held human values, and trust. As I wrote in my earlier report: Zoho takes the path less traveled; these values sustain the company and remain undiluted 27 years on, reinforced by its founders’ continued ownership and ability to take the long-term view based on deeply held principles.
With employee engagement levels commonly ranging from 15% to 35% in most companies, according to Gallup, Zoho has a distinct advantage. Everyone I met, including in the staff canteen (delicious mushroom masala, by the way), was animated and happy. Full of positive energy, on full power, unlike any other works canteen I’d visited in the last 40 years or so.
Take a look at the YouTube video interview by fellow travelers Paul Greenberg and Brent Leary to understand Sridhar’s infectious vision and philosophy of business. You’ll get a sense of what I mean.
Art, construction, education, farming, IT infrastructure, medical equipment, software are all part of the regenerative Zoho ecosystem.
Chief Strategy Officer, Vijay Sundaram, offered us a glimpse into Zoho’s soul at our first breakfast meeting. The corporation is not disembodied from local culture and communities. It is instead a beacon of light (my words) within a sustainable ecosystem of customers, employees, communities, and the wider societies in which Zoho serves. After Vijay explained the concept of Zoho’s regenerative approach in the world, he humbly asked us for comments. I couldn’t resist piping up that Zoho has shown us the way and doesn’t need our blessing to confirm it is on the right path.
It is beyond the current hype around corporate social responsibility (CSR). It is more like the recipe for the circular economy, although far more expansive than waste recycling. Zoho’s many projects employ the breadth of skills of its own employees. We witnessed extensive construction work on a 250-bed hospital and new campus.
Dr. Balachander Govindarajan, Zoho’s medical director, gave us some insight into the plans for the hospital. It will be a medical hub, providing holistic patient care, using lower-cost devices developed at Zoho, and working through paramedics able to offer remote care in outlying rural areas. This is a big deal in India, especially given the prohibitive costs of traveling to cities to diagnose early-stage, potentially life-threatening diseases, such as cervical cancer (see report on Aindra Systems), an innovative Indian startup using AI and remote diagnostics in rural communities.
Architects and construction workers are employed by Zoho and are treated with the same care as all other employees.
We also saw some of the medical devices developed by Voxelgrids at the Zoho campus. Zoho took a $5M stake in the startup founded in March 2017 by Arjun Arunachalam, a former lead scientist at GE Corporate Research in the US. The aim is to greatly reduce the costs of medical devices and improve patient diagnosis and care.
Lastly, artists and musicians contribute to the healthy, diverse mix of skills and experiences within Zoho. Some of us had the privilege of being sketched by Zoho artists, and although my sketch made me look much younger, I look forward to hanging it up in my home office. First we spent time at the artists’ gallery, and I was drawn to the picture of the little girl, filled with joy at finding her lost kitten.
The Banyan tree – a symbol of fertility, life, and resurrection
The Banyan tree is a good metaphor for Zoho’s ‘regenerative’ culture. I took a picture of one on the Zoho campus behind the Truly Zoho sign. I’m sure that was no accident. I’d never seen one before, just as I have never witnessed a company so rooted in humanity, especially in a tech industry where wealth has been so vastly accumulated by a few and tends to serve founders’ egos. Zoho is truly different and is all about tilting the balance in favor of the disadvantaged and disenfranchised. If anyone knows of similar companies, tell me about them, as for the sake of our futures, we need regenerative capitalism.