Suresh Kamath, the managing director of Chennai based Laser Soft Infosystems Ltd is an unusual man. Unlike most other entrepreneurs, he does not aspire to create a business empire; his sole ambition is to provide employment to 10,000 people. He also plans to reserve 40 per cent of the jobs for the disabled.
Suresh started Laser Soft in 1986 with just Rs 200 and five people. Today, the company is a force to reckon with in the banking software arena.
In recognition of his commitment to the disabled, President of India A P J Abdul Kalam felicitated Suresh with the Best Employer award in December 2005. He also won the Best Employer award from the Tamil Nadu government. He has been awarded the NCPEDP shell Helen Keller Award for giving equal rights and gainful employment to persons with disabilities.
Read on for the inspiring story of Suresh Kamath
Ambition as a child
I come from a poor family. We lived in a one-room-kitchen house in Mysore. Though my father struggled very hard, he did not let his penury affect the lives of his children. Unemployment, depravation, hardship pained me and right from my school days my ambition was to create employment in this country. As a child I was motivated by Mr Laxman Rao - one of my teachers at school who always advised me to do something for the country.
I heard tales of poverty and struggle from my father and grandmother. How my father could study only up to the 10th standard, as he did not have money for further education. My mother too did her schooling only till the 8th standard. But all this hardship did not stop them from encouraging us to continue with our studies. I was the eldest among my siblings and took up the mantle of setting an example. Encouraged by my performance - I was always a rank holder - my younger siblings too did very well in studies.
As far as my career was concerned, my father gave me full freedom and I decided to study engineering. I joined the National Institute of Engineering in Mysore in 1975 in electronics and then did my M Tech in computer science from the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras.
Life after graduation
I was keen to start my own company immediately after my post graduation. But since I did not have any job experience I was advised against any such move. So, I joined Tata Consultancy Services and worked for a year. I noticed that all the major Indian software companies were into services; they were not into creating products and it disappointed me. I was convinced that India could create excellent products thanks to the huge talent pool available here.
While at TCS I found that most of my colleagues aspired to go abroad to further their career. But I was not interested in overseas assignments.
Even at IIT, I was the only student in our batch of 20 who did not go abroad after studies. On hearing of my ambition, many of my friends ridiculed me and even called me a 'fool'! I took their scorn in my stride. However, my parents were very supportive. They encouraged me not to pay heed to what others were saying and encouraged me to strive to give shape to my ambition.
After TCS, I joined another company that was into hardware because I wanted some related experience. I worked there for three years.
Starting Laser Soft
When I was 28, my father told me to get married. I decided to marry the girl of his choice. By then I had decided to quit my job and start my own company. I told my fiancee of my plans and asked her if she still wanted to marry me. She said, 'Yes. I have faith in you.'
On May 1, 1986 I launched my company. I intentionally chose May Day as it is also labours' day.
With initial capital of Rs 200 and five technical people from NIIT the company was launched. I told them, 'I will give you whatever I can afford but all of us will draw the same salary.' I did not even try to hire any engineers, as I was convinced that they won't work for a small company like mine. Also, I strongly believe that you don't need engineers for programming. What you need is logic. I also wanted a team that would be the foundation of the company, who would remain with the company.
Why Laser Soft? Because the word laser - meaning accuracy and precision - appealed to me, and soft is of course from software. Our office was a room in my house, and our first job was to get visiting cards and letterheads printed.
We decided to focus on banking and healthcare. Banking because it was a gargantuan sector and had huge potential. At that time automation of the banking system was a faraway dream. We approached the State Bank of India and Apollo Hospitals and told how our products could facilitate their work. SBI admitted that they had a six-month backlog in the DD purchase for Madras Fertiliser Ltd. Since we did not have computers, we requested SBI to allow us to work in the bank in the evening. They agreed.
Our product for SBI was out in two weeks' time and the backlog was cleared within a month. Our first product was thus a big success. Both SBI and MFL were very happy and we were paid a remuneration of Rs 5,000.
Sensing that we could help them in various quarters, SBI sent us to their overseas branch -- which incidentally was their largest branch in the South doing business of over Rs 5000 crores. Everything was done manually. On any given day the branch could take only 25 bills from the exporters. Our product, readied in a week's time, was exclusively for handling export bills.
From 25 bills, they were able to handle 200 bills a day and the profit of the branch zoomed to Rs 55 crores (Rs 550 million).
End of first year
By the end of the first year, our turnover was Rs 128,000, and our staff strength had doubled to 10. With Rs 1000 as monthly salary, we could manage. After the success of the export bills, SBI assigned more work to us. As our work pressure increased, we hired more people and by the end of the second year we were 25 people and our profit stood at a handsome Rs 600,000. In five years' time, we computerised 70 SBI branches all over India.
Then one morning in 1987 Parthasarathy - we call him Partha - came to meet me. He was disabled and was not an engineer but had undergone a computer course that the government had offered in an institute. I told Partha, "I like to employ people like you."
And it was not a wrong decision. Partha had an amazing zeal and his disability did not stop him from being mobile. I thought it was the right model for any industry to follow.
I was not doing any charity by employing him because my company benefited more from Partha than vice-versa. I have noticed that physically challenged people are more committed than others but unfortunately we pay scant attention to them. Business houses talk about attrition. I tell them, 'Look at these people, they will never leave you.'
At that time our office was in the first floor and Partah had difficulty tackling the stairs. Seeing him struggle, I decided to make the entire office disabled-friendly. Our ground floor is now exclusively for the disabled people, and we have ramps in our office and there are special toilets for them too. We have also built houses for them near the office so that they can avoid long travelling hours.
After meeting Partha, I decided to hire more disabled people. We waited six months to get a disabled person who could be our receptionist.
I don't look at employing disabled people as charity. I look at this as my responsibility. This country has spent money to educate me and I feel it is my duty to do something for the less privileged.
It had been a great experience working with them. Seeing them work, get married, settle in life and have children is a wonderful experience.
We have 550 employees now, and 15 per cent of them are disabled. We go to engineering colleges looking for disabled people but find only one or two in each college. Parents don't send them out. The biggest challenge for the physically handicapped is the attitude of their parents. We, at LaserSoft, hire them even if they are not engineers.
Other than the physically challenged, we have people suffering from cerebral palsy too working for us. We find them good in graphics. Many of our employees are deaf and dumb.
Best employer award
I was elated when I won the award but with all humility, let me say I am doing very little. I am very disappointed to see that I was chosen when there are so many business giants in India. Seven per cent of India's population is disabled but all of us turn a blind eye to them. I realised that if I could get an award by doing so little, it means that others are not doing even this much.
I was honoured to meet Dr Abdul Kalam. He is a wonderful person, a real motivator. He asked me, 'What exactly do the disabled people do in the company? Do they do software or menial job?' I told him barring two all are involved with technology.
My ambition is to create 10,000 jobs, and I want to reserve 40 per cent of that for the disabled. We also have a light top model as far as salaries are concerned. We don't give huge salaries to those who occupy the top positions but distribute the money to all the employees.
Reservation based on caste is going to divide us further. Reservation should be based on economic criteria alone. We should learn to forget our past and start looking at the future. What have today's children got to do with what some people did in the past?
What difference does it make if you are a brahmin or a non-brahmin when you are poor? How many IITs and IIMs do we have? How many good medical colleges and engineering colleges do we have? We have such a vast population but not enough resources. Instead of starting more colleges, and there should be special colleges for the disabled, the government is talking about more and more reservation.