Yesterday, I had the distinct pleasure of addressing the graduates of my alma mater, the Indian Institute of Technology (BHU) in Varanasi. I’ve spoken to many audiences over the past decades about my personal history and perspectives on emerging technologies, security, entrepreneurship, and leadership, but this convocation address was truly special for me. (I invite you to view the video recording below.)
The first time I arrived on the IIT campus to study electronics engineering was more than 40 years ago. It hadn’t been my idea to attend; I had been encouraged by my teachers who believed in my capabilities. The university shaped me in part due to the rigor of the work, but also due to the people I met who would become lifelong friends and colleagues. After graduating, I received a scholarship from the University of Cincinnati, where I earned an MS in Computer Engineering, an MS in Industrial Engineering, and an MBA in Marketing. In recent years, I have been honored by IIT (BHU) with two awards: Alumnus of the year (2015) and Alumnus of the Century in Making (2019). I am humbled by the recognition, and grateful for IIT’s invitation to speak to this year’s graduating class, allowing me to share important life lessons that began at IIT and helped shape my path forward.
I had the opportunity to join great companies—IBM, NCR, and Unisys—and worked for 10 years in various technology roles, including engineering, sales, marketing, and management. It was at this time that internet adoption was beginning to skyrocket in the U.S. I was fascinated by the internet, as was every entrepreneur at the time, but my interest was different from the others I knew. This is where my first life lesson really emerged: Take risks and dream big. My family had no history of entrepreneurship. But in the mid-1990s, as the internet was just taking off and internet startups including Netscape had just gone public, I asked myself: Why can’t I do a startup?
Instead of viewing the internet at the time as simply a vehicle for commerce, I saw an opportunity to help companies navigate the new security challenges they would face with internet technologies. After pitching my ideas to venture capitalists and failing to raise funding, my wife, Jyoti, and I made the decision to put our life savings into a startup we called SecureIT. I managed sales and marketing, and Jyoti managed finance, human resources, and company operations. 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. In 1998, SecureIT was acquired by VeriSign, and most of its employees were able to reap the rewards of their hard work and dedication.
The experience with SecureIT taught me a lot about my ambitions and the factors that truly motivated me. I was driven by the sense of accomplishment that came with bringing an idea to life. My advice to young entrepreneurs—to anyone—is to follow your passion. Engage in fulfilling work that boosts your energy instead of sapping it. My second life lesson and one of my favorite mantras is: Uncover your passion and pursue it. If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.
My passion for building and executing fueled three more startups. One was an early SaaS provider, two were in security, and all three were eventually acquired. Even with the success of these companies, I remained driven by the desire to build something new. But as I looked to my next venture, I had a different purpose and I approached it with a changed mindset. I wanted to build something lasting.
At the time, enterprises were starting to use the internet as something more than a communications medium. They were conducting business operations over the internet, using services such as Salesforce for CRM and Amazon EC2 for big data analytics and other compute-intensive work. The enterprises had invested heavily in security technologies that provided a secure perimeter around the network, but with more business traffic moving over the internet and more employees using mobile devices off the network, the traditional network security paradigm was on its way to becoming obsolete.
About a decade after I graduated, I was at a conference in San Jose, California, and heard a voice that I recognized. It was actually the laugh of K. Kailash, my classmate at IIT (BHU), a brilliant computer scientist, and exactly the person who could help me realize my vision for transforming the security industry. Together, we started what would become Zscaler, the first cloud-native security-as-a-service provider. It was not easy to convince IT leaders that moving their security from the data center to the cloud would decrease risk, improve performance for users, and reduce costs and complexity. But those who saw the promise of cloud-delivered security also saw immediate benefits. Today, over 4,500 enterprises around the world trust Zscaler to help them securely transform their legacy network and security infrastructures for the modern, digital era.
Starting Zscaler in 2007, launching our platform and serving customers starting in 2008, going public in 2018, growing to 2,500 employees in 2021, earning industry recognition year after year, and innovating every day—it’s all been the journey of a lifetime, and it all began at IIT. I encourage today’s graduates to consider these two life lessons as they forge their own paths: uncover your passion and pursue it, and take risks and dream big.