Photo by Christa Neu
Sanjay Shah ’89 MBA—tech entrepreneur, founder, CEO, and chief architect of international enterprise software giant, Vistex—joins us on this episode of Lehigh University’s College of Business ilLUminate podcast. Shah discusses the American Dream, entrepreneurship, bootstrapping, adapting to "tectonic shifts" in your own business environment, and the importance of philanthropy, among other topics.
He was back on Lehigh's campus to deliver the 14th lecture in the Donald M. Gruhn ’49 Distinguished Finance Speaker series. His lecture kicked off the new Year of Learning in the College of Business, focused on the topic: Limitations of Technology? Friction versus Leverage. Watch the full lecture on the College of Business’ YouTube channel.
Shah spoke with Jack Croft, host of the ilLUminate podcast. Listen to the podcast here and subscribe and download Lehigh Business on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.
Below is an edited excerpt from that conversation. Read the complete podcast transcript.
Jack Croft: I'd like to start with a quote from an interview you did with the Chicago Tribune in 2019, where you said, "I was born in India, and I'm living the American Dream." I wonder, what is your conception of the American Dream, and has it changed over the years?
Sanjay Shah ’89 MBA: The American Dream for me is uninhibited access to opportunities to unleash your potential and talent, and having an ecosystem that actually nurtures it and supports it. That, to me, is the American Dream. And I believe that I have had the good fortune of not just seeing it from the outside, but actually experiencing it myself on the inside.
Croft: And going back to the first part of the quote, what was your life like growing up in Mumbai, India?
Shah: Life for me in Mumbai was what I would call a closeted bliss. What do I mean by that? My entire family, that includes my extended family, was in a one-mile radius, and that actually included my grade school, high school, and college all within a one-mile radius. And so it was a closeted bliss and was a great support system.
Croft: Going from that closeted bliss to leaving the only home you'd known to attend business school in the United States 10,000 miles away was certainly a pretty bold move. What was it that led you to do it, and what specifically drew you to Lehigh's College of Business?
Shah: Maybe it was an epiphany that led me to think that I need to step out of my comfort zone. And as I was going through my undergrad program [in Mumbai] and you are exposed to more things that are happening in the world of accounting and finance and management, pursuing an undergrad degree, you thought there was this whole world outside of this one-mile radius that I spent 20 years in.
As a part of our curriculum, as part of current events back then in the mid-'80s, we were introduced to Lee Iacocca, who single-handedly, as we all know, had revived Chrysler. And I was simply fascinated by what he did. It was a bit of a fanboy moment at that time. And I went home wondering, "Where did he go to college or where did he get his education from?" And I found out that that was Lehigh. And coupled that with my desire to step out of my comfort zone, I said, "All right, that's the place I want to go."
Croft: Looking back now, in what ways did attending Lehigh's College of Business, getting your MBA here, help prepare you to pursue the American Dream?
Shah: I think first and foremost, especially for me, coming straight out of undergrad into an MBA program, I think the foundational aspects were extremely important for me, the basics of business, for somebody that didn't have any prior work experience, if you will, or didn't have any meaningful work experience. I think that was extremely important.
But more importantly, I think the potential of what business can do for society and for the economy in general is what really I got exposed to here. And having also shared classrooms with a lot of folks who were pursuing it on a part-time basis and that came with a lot of work experience, and to hear their stories at work as well, for somebody that didn't have any meaningful work experience, really opened my eyes to the possibility of, "Wow, there is such vast potential," especially here in America, which I said is uninhibited access to opportunity. It's like the only thing you need to bring here is your talent and passion.
Croft: At what point were you bitten by the entrepreneurial bug? Was that something that you had started forming as a dream when you were still in India, or was that something that ...?
Shah: In all candor, not. I was actually more of a corporate person. Right out of my undergrad, my parents wanted me to be an accountant. So right after grad school, they urged me to take up a job with an accounting firm, which I did. I started with Pricewaterhouse back then. It wasn't PricewaterhouseCoopers [at that time].
And then went on to work for General Motors, and then went on to work for SAP. These are large global companies, so I wasn't really on an entrepreneurial journey. I am what I consider more of an accidental entrepreneur. While working for SAP in R&D, I had an idea that I wanted to build at SAP. And for some odd reason, they said that they were not going to pursue that, at least in the short term. And I felt so compelled that this actually was a wonderful thing to provide to the marketplace, I asked them, "What if I break away and build it myself? Would you support me?" And they did. So here we are, 23 years later.
Croft: From the start, it seems, you were determined to bootstrap the launch of Vistex, to get your new company up and running without any outside investors. Why was that so important to you?
Shah: I come from a family of accountants, and so equity and your share of the overall pie is very important, is looked at very astutely. So I grew up with that mindset, and I said, "Hey, I want to do this." And frankly, for the first year or so, it was just me. I thought I had enough skills to write the software, to be able to sell it, implement it, and also do the accounting for it. And so I felt — hey, perhaps, youthful exuberance, I guess — that I could do it all.
And I really don't need capital to do this because I can do it all myself. I don't need to hire people to do this. I wanted to bootstrap it. And then I felt that as soon as the initial successes came about, and perhaps it was good fortune that my timing, turns out, was impeccable, because it was '99 and 2000, the year 2000, and companies couldn't spend money fast enough because they all thought computers, the systems, were going to come to a grinding halt with the year 2000. So for me, it was very fortuitous timing.
Croft: What were some of the most important keys to the development and growth of Vistex in those first years and then over the years since?
Shah: I quickly realized that this is not a one-man operation. It could be argued that maybe it should have been a multi-person operation from the get-go. But anyway, hindsight is always 20/20. The first thing I wanted to do was to build a team of engineers, because, having been in R&D, an accountant person, a CPA, coding software is a little unusual, back to sales and marketing software. But I quickly realized that I needed to hire engineers, and that's where I started.
And then slowly, over time, I was looking for enough like-minded people that I could persuade to join the cause, and it was gradual. For me, it was never about, "I want to grow 50% next year or I want to double in two years." I never really had any such ambitions premeditated or predetermined. For me, it was just about take the opportunities as they arise.
Croft: It strikes me that one of the reasons that you're living the American Dream is because of your willingness and ability to adapt and change as circumstances dictate. And I think the clearest example is the Cloud Revolution of the past decade or so, which has seen software largely move from a product that was purchased to run onsite to a cloud-based service. So if you could talk about how you've navigated what surely was a disruptive change in the enterprise software world.
Shah: Over the 23-plus years that we've had Vistex, the Cloud Revolution is the single most important, what I call, tectonic shift in how we go to market and how we provide our products and services. The democratization of enterprise software that is enabled by cloud computing is just staggering. And so what our challenges and what we have done, I would say arguably a little better than others, is to see how we can adapt to the current mindset of how folks want to consume software. Sometimes, when you've done things a certain way for 20-plus years, it's hard to shed that.
My favorite quote in the technology space is from Andy Grove at Intel: "Only the paranoid survive." We've been paranoid all along that some tectonic shift's going to happen, which may render us less valuable or less attractive. So I would say we are still on the journey towards the cloud transformation. We are not there yet. We are not a born-in-the-cloud company, but we have to figure out a way to preserve our core, and yet, find growth with our initiatives in the cloud.
Croft: Finally, I wonder if you have any advice for the budding entrepreneurs who may be listening to this podcast, who hope to live their own American Dream one day?
Shah: I would say a couple things. One, be authentic. What I mean by “be authentic” is, do not put on a demeanor or a show just for the sake of accomplishing something short-term. Don't be pretentious. It might work for you short-term. It never really works for you long-term or even mid- to long-term. So be authentic.
And the second thing I would say is have great pride of ownership in everything you do. Whether you are mopping the floor or providing advice to the world's largest companies, have pride of ownership. If you are going to put your imprint on something, have pride of ownership. It's amazing. Once you have that mindset, it makes a big difference to your output.