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December 19, 2001
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B Suresh Kamath: Man with a mission

Shobha Warrier in Chennai

B. Suresh KamathAn unemployed young mother of two suddenly found herself orphaned when her husband, a bank officer, passed away. The bank refused to give her a job on compassionate grounds. On reading her plight in a newspaper, a software firm in Madras called her and offered her a job. As she was a postgraduate in English, she was assigned the documentation work of the firm.

Karunakar, an M Tech from the IIT Chennai, was denied a job wherever he went. The reason: he is physically disabled and immobile without a wheelchair. On reading about him in a newspaper, the same software firm offered him a job as a programmer.

Chandran Nair is 75 years old. Ever since he could remember, he was staying as a cook with a family in Chennai. When both the old members of the family passed away, he found himself an orphan, with no place to go to. The chairman of the same software firm, who had met him earlier, came to know of Nair's plight and offered him a job to run the office canteen. He was also given a place to stay in the office campus.

"He may be more than thirty years younger than me but I call him my big brother because he is the person who gave me a second life," Nair says, gratitude dampening his eyes.

Ramesh is a graduate but works as the chairman's driver. When he found that his boss's firm gave free software programming classes for the economically backward, he asked him, 'Can I also learn when I am free?' And now he is learning programming so that he can soon join the same firm as a programmer.

"I don't think I will ever find a boss like him," says Ramesh.

Parthasarathy had passed only his 12th standard examinations and was in search of a job when his friend told him about a firm that he had just joined. Parthasarathy was denied job at many places because he was a physically disabled person. Now that he had been with the firm from the very beginning, he says, "This is my life. This is my company. I have no life other than this. I come early in the morning and sit till late at night. I come all the seven days. I can't believe that I am a senior project manager now!"

The firm all these people are talking about is Laser Soft Info Systems Pvt Ltd. And its unassuming young chairman and managing director B. Suresh Kamath.

B. Suresh Kamath getting the Distinguished Alumnus Award from IIT ChennaiRecently, the Indian Institute of Technology Chennai conferred upon him the Distinguished Alumnus Award - not just for entrepreneurial excellence but also for his service to society and commitment to the underprivileged.

Suresh Kamath has indeed become an icon amongst his peers.

At the Laser Soft office, you hear such amazing stories from almost every one of its employees.

No, it is not run by a philanthropist but an entrepreneur. It is not a very small firm but one that is worth Rs 1 billion, with branches in all the major cities in India, and has nearly 500 people working on its rolls.

The banking software products developed by Laser Soft today are used in over 1,000 branches of various banks. The firm handles around Rs 70 billion of transactions daily.

Incredible as it may sound, 10 per cent of Laser Soft employees are physically disabled, and Kamath has reserved 60 per cent of the posts in the firm for the physically disabled, economically backward and socially downtrodden women.

Hereafter, his expansion plans are in the smaller towns that are neglected by all the major companies.

After completing M Tech in Computer Science from the IIT Chennai, the only dream Kamath had was to start a firm of his own and create as many jobs as possible for the educated youngsters of India.

Having come from a poor family, Kamath knew how difficult it was to pursue higher studies in India. Fortunately for him, scholarships came to his rescue all the time.

When his father retired after 38 years of service, his salary was only Rs 2,500, remembers Kamath. "We were five children, and I was the eldest. I know the difficulties that the middle class and lower middle class families face in India. So I decided quite early in life that I would start a company of my own so that I could provide opportunities to many less privileged youngsters."

"It is easy for those who come out of the IITs and IIMs to get a job. But what about those bright students who pass out from other universities? Just because you did not get admission in the IIT does not mean you are not entitled to a good job. There are some extraordinarily brilliant students out there who need opportunities to show their mettle."

In just four years, his dream came true. He started a firm of his own with just Rs 200 and two people to work with him. His first client was the Apollo Hospitals, which had also just started its operation in Chennai then.

B. Suresh Kamath with some members of his teamThe problem they faced then was that they did not have money to buy computers. So, they worked at night in the hospital and developed the software. After six months of working at night and thanks to the loan offered by the State Bank of India, Kamath could purchase the first computer for his firm. By then, he had decided to concentrate on banking and finance software.

"Those were the best days of our lives. We didn't sleep for many days; we just worked day and night. We were young, too. In 1986, we had taken a vow that we would have a building of our own by year 2000. But by 1998 itself, we could achieve that."

The other thing he decided was not to hanker after money or leave the nation. He was dubbed a fool when he declared that all his dealings would be extremely transparent. "People called me an idealistic. They warned me not to be so foolish. But I wanted to prove everybody wrong. I also wanted to prove my school teachers at Mysore, who inculcated in me the courage to do right things, right. Two books that have influenced me tremendously are the Bhagavad Gita and the preachings of Swami Vivekananda. They have taught me how to lead an honest life."

Laser Soft is quite unlike any other hi-tech software company. You don't see the glitz, glamour and pomp associated with software firms here. Outside the office, more than the glittering new cars you see three-wheeled scooters used by physically disabled people. Instead of shining marble steps, you notice ramps in the front. And once you enter the cramped office, you see only wheel chairs everywhere.

This is what makes Laser Soft different from all the other software firms.

Kamath says, "My ambition is not to own a Rs 10-billion company but to create more and more jobs. I want all the people in India employed. I also want to motivate more entrepreneurs to create jobs in our country itself. I will be satisfied when my driver, Ramesh becomes a programmer here."

Photographs: Sreeram Selvaraj
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