Immigrant Success Interview Series: Raj Rao

Originally from India, Raj Rao is currently the Senior Vice President in the Products and Technology Group at SAP. SAP is the third largest software company in the world, with $13.3 billion in revenues for 2006.

An outstanding leader and innovator, loving husband and father, and dedicated tennis player to boot, Raj came to the U.S. about three decades ago to pursue the American Dream. He studied at the Florida International University, and over time earned himself three master degrees covering computer science, management and business administration. Prior to joining SAP, Raj was Vice President and Chief Operating Officer at PeopleSoft in charge of their Human Capital Management (HCM) Products Group.

In the backyard of Raj’s beautiful home in Cupertino, Raj shared some of his immigrant experiences, insights and tips with Edith in this exclusive interview:

Raj’s Beginning
Edith: What brought you here to the United States?
Raj: After finishing my bachelor degree and working for a very short time in India, I knew I needed to go overseas to expand my horizons. India’s economy was still behind the curve in the early 80’s. In retrospect, I am very glad that I chose to come to the U.S. I was the first person from my family who went to college and moved overseas. I did not know what to expect. I was very fortunate that my family was very supportive of me mentally and also financially. They used their life savings to support me coming to the U.S. For this, I continue to feel very grateful. My family took a big chance on me. It was something like the equivalent of 8 times my father’s annual salary to send me to the U.S. Looking back, I don’t know if I would do the same for my kids.

Edith: What did you study when you first came to the U.S.?
Raj: My first master degree was in computer science. It was a tough subject for me. After I finished my first master degree, I decided to pursue a second master degree in management to learn about business. I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it. Now, when asked for advice, I tell people one master’s degree is probably enough.

Edith: How do you feel about being an immigrant in the U.S.?
Raj: For many immigrants, I think we feel that things can be easily taken away from us, and therefore we sell ourselves short. This is true in the workplace, you can work very hard for an employer, but if it doesn’t work out, what can you do? You’re in a tough position as someone in the U.S. on a work visa. I’ve worked hard. Very hard to go after everything I set my mind to. When I was in school, I saw many foreign students forget about their roots and immerge themselves in U.S. college life and partying. I didn’t want that to be me. I felt and I still feel responsible for my parents and my family back home. I had an expectation to live up to.

Raj’s Success

Edith: What have been the keys to your success?
Raj: Being the person who empowers others to succeed. The more I want to accomplish, the more I need to motivate my managers to achieve more. It is not about me anymore, it is about helping others come up with the right answers on their own and feeling good about themselves and their accomplishments. Also the ability to listen and distill feedback from other people is important. Most people love to give you their opinion and do come from good intentions, but it is based on their own experience and background which can be very different from yours. You need to distill information and apply them accordingly based on the specifics of the situation.

Edith: What’s made you so successful?
Raj: Love what you do. I love what I do. I just love it. I get up at five thirty am in the morning and work until seven in the evening everyday. It is not work for me. I can’t imagine not being passionate about my work. I started my career in Telecommunication. I loved and learned a lot from that industry. Then I moved on the software industry. There is always more to learn. I am constantly learning and have a lot of fun doing it.

Edith: What would you say is your biggest success or your claim of fame?
Raj: My close relationship and strong ties with my family.

.Raj’s Advice
Edith: What kinds of issues or problems do you think immigrants need to overcome in the U.S.?
Raj: Be nice to ourselves. As immigrants, we all work very hard and often put ourselves in misery when things are not happening the way we want. We blame ourselves for not doing enough. We are very harsh to ourselves. We need to change our perspective sometimes. Do the best we can and trust that things will happen just the way we want.

Edith: What success advice would you give other immigrants?
Raj: Discipline and priorities. When my daughter was younger, I worked very hard and let work consumed me. One thing I sincerely regret is that I missed her kindergarten graduation. I was acting like the typical Asian parents, similar to how my father missed my college graduation. I thought ‘What’s the big deal with a kindergarten graduation?’ There’s something special about being there for your family, no matter what the occasion. My lesson learned is that no one is more important than your family. I could have been more focused when I was younger. You have to set your own priorities and have discipline.

Raj’s Life

Edith: If you had more time, what other activities outside of work would you pursue?
Raj: I’d like to learn how to sing, play piano and get more regular exercise. I love tennis and I play six hours on the weekends, but that’s not enough. I want to get back to a regular exercise schedule.

Edith: Do you work seven days a week?
Raj: Almost… I travel a lot and I work a lot because I love it.

Edith: What time do you get up in the morning?
Raj: I go to bed at about midnight and I wake up by five thirty am.

Raj’s Favorites

Edith: Who is your favorite role model?
Raj: The first one that comes to mind is Nelson Mandela. He is an amazing leader and when I try and put myself in his shoes, it’s amazing how he behaves and treats his former tormentors. I truly admire his ability to forgive and not hold any grudges. My second role model is Bill Clinton. He is an incredible speaker and I am moved when I hear him speak. Bill is also has a voracious ability to consume and assimilate knowledge – I’ve read that when Bill was in the White House, he would read approx 600 pages of de-briefed information per day. A third role model would be Warren Buffet. I love his management style and how he develops trust and empowers his people to do their best. Warren invests in simple businesses and gives people the freedom to do what they do best.

Edith: What is your favorite book?
Raj: I have two favorites right now. The first one is “Turning the Thing Around” written by Jimmy Johnson. Jimmy Johnson and I arrived Dallas around the time same and I watched how he turned the Dallas Cowboy around. Here was a team, in 1989 with a record of 1-15 (Win-Lose), and within a few years they won the Super Bowl. The won the Super Bowl 3 times between 1993-1996. He was incredible. The second one is ”What Got You Here Won’t Get You There,” by Goldsmith, an executive coach. I absolutely agree with his advice on how to get to the next level of success no matter what your profession.

Raj’s Concluding Thoughts

Edith: If you could do it all over again, would you choose the same path? Any regrets?
Raj: Yes. Same path. No regrets. The only difference is my family and I probably would have moved to the Bay Area a lot earlier. We love this place.

Edith: Any last advice or words of wisdom for readers?
Raj: Continuously learn and improve yourself. Love what you do. Have discipline. No regrets!

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