ENT5001: Professor Rekhi at his Two O’clock

Published in Tech Today

by Dennis Walikainen, senior editor

Maybe he missed his calling.

Maybe he should have been a professor instead of a successful entrepreneur who was part of the first Indian-owned company to go public in the US and the visionary who has helped numerous start-ups succeed around the globe.

Kanwal Rekhi ’67 was comfortable and engaging as he spoke to a packed ATDC Wednesday as students, faculty and community members learned about entrepreneurship and more.

Rekhi speaks from what he knows. He was brave enough to quit a safe, corporate job (after being laid off three times) and start his own company, with support from his wife, Ann, first and foremost.

“She said, ‘What about the mortgage? And the children?'” After some convincing, she said, “Do what you have to do.”

What he had to do was to start his own company, Excelan, with two partners. In 1982, they began manufacturing Ethernet cards to connect PCs to something called the Internet. Excelan was also instrumental in the TCP/IP Internet protocol. Excelan would go on to merge with Novell, and Rekhi became executive vice president, leading product development and technology strategies.

Rekhi drew parallels between the high unemployment of the early 1980s and today, and said both were good times to become an entrepreneur.

“The best times are the hard times,” he said. “Jobs are not plentiful, so there are resources available: laid-off people, rent is low, competition is not as tough, and you have time to get your service or product up to speed.”

He also said it is time to try your own business when you are restless and not happy, and you can identify the next wave.

Entrepreneurs create new wealth, he said, and, of course, it is hard.

“Ninety percent of people don’t have the entrepreneur gene and won’t try it,” Rekhi said. “So the odds of the percent who do try are ten times better! The first step is the hardest, into the valley of death. The first couple of years, it is just you, not even your wife or husband. Nobody outside.”

The downside to doing your own thing is that it is very difficult, he said. The upside is that there is unlimited potential for success, “but you have to find out if you have that entrepreneur gene. You have to try it.”

Becoming an entrepreneur in tough economic times has an additional upside: “You learn discipline early. You learn the value of money early. In boom times, they don’t have discipline, so when the market takes a downturn, they don’t do well. I discovered a new me.”

Fielding questions from the audience, he said money for start-ups is always available.

“Do your paper designs, paint a picture of that dream.”

And being an entrepreneur is much easier today because of the Internet. It is also a “team sport: We had a software guy, a hardware guy, me, who did the boards, and a sales and marketing guy.”

You can’t do it all by yourself, he said. First, find your strengths and weaknesses.

And he identified some strengths as personality traits, within the entrepreneur gene, for start-ups: having intellectual honesty, working harder than the other guy, holding yourself accountable, having a fair sense of value, knowing your domain, possessing leadership skills to pull everyone up, and not needing accolades from the outside.

“You’ll get daily satisfaction from the inside.”

He also thought the local area was perfect for entrepreneurs.

“You have a high quality of life, it is clean, good fiber (network), cheap labor with students, and a hotbed of intelligence here with the University.”

He compared Houghton and Michigan Tech to Silicon Valley and Stanford, which opened up its labs after hours, for example, to aid in intellectual property development.

He returned to the start-ups.

“There is no magic here. It will take four or five orders to make money, as the first and second orders from a customer are essentially free since you had to invest so much initially.”

More wisdom.

“Stay focused. One sharp knife is great. Two sharp knives together become one dull knife.”

“Ideas are a dime a dozen. Creating and shipping your product gives it value.”

“You should grow as a leader faster than your business grows. Be very honest with yourself.”

“Spread your risk around: technological, marketplace, financial and execution as a leader.”

“As a leader, keep asking, ‘What am I missing?'”

Today, as a leader of TiE, a nonprofit that fosters entrepreneurship with 50 chapters in 11 countries, Rekhi focuses on the South Asian business community and has ties all over Silicon Valley.

Sometimes those beginners talk to him about how hard it is starting out.

“From India, I was dropped off a bus at Michigan Tech in 1967,” he says. “I could do it, why not you?”

Lesson learned. Class dismissed.

Peace Corps Graduate School Programs Enjoy Record Participation

Michigan Tech currently has 34 students serving abroad through its Master’s International Peace Corps programs.  This is the highest level of participation across the country – for the fourth year in a row.  These graduate programs give students the opportunity to earn a graduate degree while also participating in the Peace Corps.   Read more in the press release from the Peace Corps and learn about our programs.

Tech Today has also written an article with some great quotes from our faculty.

Funding Available for Leading Graduate Student Visits

To support campus visits for leading graduate student candidates, the Graduate School has set aside $1,000 per department, with a maximum of $500 per student. Students who have applied for the highest degree offered by the program are eligible. Multiple requests may be submitted to utilize the $1,000 any time prior to June 1. Special consideration will be given to requests that contribute to meeting the University’s strategic goal of attracting and supporting a world-class and diverse student population.

Requests for campus visit funding can be submitted online.

The Graduate School is available to assist departments with campus visits. For more information, contact Jodi Lehman or Jacque Smith at 487-2327.

Military Man Addresses Leadership through Service

Published in Tech Today

by John Gagnon, promotional writer

“Service is the rent we pay to occupy the earth,” said Otha Thornton Tuesday night when he addressed about fifty people on an ethic of leadership that focuses on helping others.

“Take care of your people,” the popular military man counseled the group of mostly students. “Listen to your people.” Such service, he said, “can lead to great things.”

It was Thornton’s first trip back to Tech since helping lead the Army ROTC program from 1999 to 2001, when he also earned a master’s degree in rhetoric and technical communication. He will return to campus in May as Spring Commencement speaker.

He is visiting Tech in part to participate in Black History Month. He is scheduled to speak at noon today, Thursday, Feb. 26, about what the military means to African Americans. The session is at noon in the Memorial Union Red Metal Room. The King-Chavez-Parks Visiting Scholars Program, through the Office of Institutional Diversity, supported Thornton’s visit, as did Omicron Delta Kappa, the national student leadership society.

Thornton, a lieutenant colonel, joined the army simply to serve his country for four years. He says that the opportunities have stretched that stint to 20 years. “No regrets,” he said.

His duties have taken him from Hawaii to Upper Michigan, from Germany to Washington DC, where he now works as a presidential communications officer in the White House Communications Agency, located in the Executive Office Building. The agency numbers 1,200 people. He supervises 26.

He has had such duties as traveling to Arizona as part of an advance team to set up all the communications for a fundraising visit by former president Bush on behalf of John McCain during the run for president. In his two years in his current position, he has worked directly on four presidential events.

Asked how he felt about a black president, Thornton responded: “If you work hard and have your things in order, America is a great land of opportunity.”

When he was stationed in Texas, Thornton, a native of Georgia, was overjoyed to get orders for the ROTC program at Georgia Tech. At the last minute, his assignment switched to Michigan Tech.

He looked up Upper Michigan on the web and found out the winter would be the same as he had encountered in northern Japan: cold and snow, which he hated. He begged, “I’ll go to Kuwait. I’ll go to Korea–anyplace but northern Michigan.” His pleas were unanswered, and he was bummed. Then he came to Michigan Tech. “I’m glad I did. It was wonderful. The people are so friendly.” He singled out Associate Professor Patricia Sotirin and Professor Robert Johnson.

Early in his career, Thornton was in intelligence. Lately, he has been in human resources. In May he will go to Afghanistan as a personnel officer, basically helping to direct the “flow of people” who are being deployed there as part of the surge in the number of troops being sent to that country. He will leave behind two children, one in high school and one in college, and his wife, Caryn, a high school administrator.

It’ll be his first posting in a war zone, if you don’t count anti-drug and anti-human trafficking operations in Latin America.

He takes his new duty in stride, for he believes that where he is, is where he’s supposed to be.

His community service includes the National Board of Directors of the Parent Teacher Association and the Boy Scouts.

He told the students that, despite the ailing economy, there are many job opportunities in government and the military. He personally knows a dozen Tech alumni who work in the National Security Agency.

One student at Thornton’s speech definitely got message. Joe Scheinkoenig, a senior in electrical engineering from Waukesha, Wis., and a member of ODK, summed up the gist of the presentation: “You should put your workers first, then what you need from them will come.”

Summer and Fall 2009 Doctoral Finishing Fellowships

The Graduate School is accepting nominations for Summer and Fall 2009 Doctoral Finishing Fellowships. The Graduate School anticipates funding up to 10 fellowships per semester with support ranging from $2,000 to full support (stipend plus tuition).

Applications are due Monday, March 16th at 4pm in the Graduate School.

Full details can be found in Tech Today or on the web.

Please direct any questions to Debra Charlesworth (ddc@mtu.edu) or Heather Suokas (hlsuokas@mtu.edu).