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May 25, 1999

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Gurdaspur to Los Gatos: The $ 250 million story of Jessie Singh

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Sonia Chopra

Jessie Singh The clue to the man's dreams, hopes and personality lies in his company's name BJS Electronics. By Jessie Singh is abbreviated to BJS a bold and individual signature of a man determined to reach the top and leave a legacy for his children and the world.

"I believe in that. If you have the determination, you can do it. Sometimes it still looks like a dream, it really does," says Jessie Singh, 40, who owns two companies which employs 72 people and has annual sales of about $ 250 million with offices in New York, Arizona and Mexico City, Mexico.

The companies, which distribute central processing units and assemble computer memory for manufacture in Europe, Canada and the United States, evolved through a process of trial and error for the immigrant Singh, who tried to build businesses based on hand tools, cotton garments and retail items, unsuccessfully.

A friend in New Delhi offered to split any savings Singh could generate on the purchase of electronic components. "I thought I'd give it a shot," he recalls.

In December 1986, he filed the $ 100 order and made a $ 9 profit. That was the start of the Milpitas company that added a software consulting business last year.

"I know I am very lucky and I don't take it for granted. I am still working very hard, every single day. It is fun and very challenging," Singh said, in a phone interview last week.

It has been quite a change for the immigrant who tried farming in Yuba City, then delivered pizza and worked at a gasoline station all these jobs at minimum wage for 16 hours a day, while his wife Surinder, 35, worked as an assembler at an electronics company.

"We were struggling, we were hardly making ends meet, so I figured out that I could not live my life like this in America," said Singh, explaining that his wife was responsible for his immigration.

In 1984, Surinder, who had migrated to the US 27 years ago, returned with her mother to find a suitable match for a traditional marriage arranged by her parents. "Out of the one billion people, I don't know how she found me," Singh said. They met, became engaged the same day and were married two weeks later.

After he arrived in the US, Singh enrolled at the Cogswell Polytechnical College to study computer engineering. There he met Nirmal Singh, an Indian who was head of the math department.

"I went to his office and told him how hard life in America is," Singh said. "And he told me, 'You are the only you who will decide how far you go in your life. So stop crying. Have a dream and work towards it. It will take time, but you will succeed.' "

Advice, he says, he has religiously and persistently followed. Today, he lives in a house in Los Gatos, built on 18,000 square feet which has a shooting range, an arcade, an indoor basketball, a swimming and a movie theatre, among other things. A far cry from the "one bedroom apartment, whose rent, we could hardly afford," he remembers.

Singh was born in Gurdaspur, Punjab, and took a Bachelor of Technology degree at Punjab Agricultural University in Ludhiana. He returns to Punjab twice a year with his wife and three children -- Sunny Singh, 14, Gary Singh, 12, and Shelly Kaur, 10.

Back from a lunch of lightly steamed fish and vegetables, Singh reminisced about life in India.

"I love going back. I love to visit my family. Things don't change there," said Singh, who someday hopes to open a school and develop some light industrial projects in his village.

He admits he might have been successful in India too, "but the magic of Silicon Valley gave me a special opportunity. If I had ended up in Yuba City or Sacramento, I think my life would have been totally different," Singh said.

Not that he has any complaints about the way this life has turned out. Besides being successful in business, Singh said he is "very active in politics and social activities."

He is the first Indian businessman to have US Vice-President Al Gore visit him. Gore described him as a 'prime example of the American dream.' Singh has worked with the Indian, Vietnamese, Chinese and Hispanic communities to form the first Indo-Philippine senior center, local homeless centers and youth organizations.

There have been accolades too. He was the first Indian to receive the Civil rights award the Edna Magee Award from the Santa Clara County in 1998. He also went to the Philippines as a state guest in 1996 and was honored by the Pope for helping to raise money for Vietnamese refugees stranded in the Philippines.

Singh says his company was the first to hire senior citizens, and that Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren mentioned this in a speech in Congress and urged other companies to do the same. Last year, he was awarded the Punjab Rattan Award along with state Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal and former Union finance minister Manmohan Singh.

In parting, Jessie Singh says his secret to success has been his philosophy: "Be fair to everyone. Whatever you do, good or bad, it will all come back to you. Learn from mistakes, both yours and others and make sure that your family and employees are happy."

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