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April 4, 2000

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Programs in his belfry

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Shanthi Shankarkumar

While other teens loll around malls or spend hours before video games, Pankaj Arora builds computers, markets software and designs Web sites.

This 17-year-old high-school student from Rochester, Minnesota, has such a passion for his own business that he has turned down a number of job offers, some of which offered him salaries over $100,000.

"A lot of teenagers have fun in the mall, which is not a bad thing at all. But I'd rather stay at home working out things on the computer," said Arora.

Arora first discovered computers when he was just 4 or 5. He watched his father, Jagdish Arora, type out commands on his VT 101 and would mimic his actions. And since then, the computer whiz has just blossomed. He taught himself more and more about computers and wrote his first program when he was 10 or 11. He was not afraid to screw up things because he loved to fix up things he'd messed up. That, he believed, was the best way to learn.

Pankaj's parents understood his need to "break, fix and learn" and so never lost their cool over a broken computer. "I tried reading books, but that puts me to sleep. You don't get to do anything. The only way to learn is by doing," said Arora.

His father, a computer consultant who often works with IBM through a contracting company, came to the US in the early Seventies. The family moved to Minnesota in 1981. Mother Anita is a neurophysiologist at Mayo Clinic. He also has a brother, Sumeet, four years younger to him.

"Sumeet is into sports and computer games. They are different personalities. Sumeet is easygoing while Pankaj is a visionary and pretty serious about his career," said Jagdish Arora who remembers Pankaj as a very curious boy who liked fiddling around with the stereo and computers. He described his son as a "very focused boy with a good business mind".

All that meddling around paid off in a big way. When he was just 15, he started Pankaj Arora Software .The company markets software designed by people as far away as in Croatia and other places. But his main venture is paWare, a company that builds computer systems and does web designs. Business is so good that Arora has been forced to turn down orders, since school is, and will always be, his top priority.

"I've done pretty much no promotion. It has been a word-of-mouth thing. So, for no promotion, it has been going very good," said Arora, while politely refusing to provide any figures to show exactly how good.

Since it is still primarily a one-boy show, Arora has often been forced to turn down prospective clients. A deal with Fox TV for the supply of computers as part of an ad campaign was never completed. Arora knew he would have to hire more hands. It would also mean more commitment. And that was something he is not ready for -- yet.

"I have a list of 30 people who are more than willing to work for me, so I would have found the capacity to fulfil that order. But now I'm trying to keep school my top priority. It's a time thing," said Arora.

The time factor also kept him from helping out with the Web site of Jesse Ventura, governor of Minnesota. But he has been more than willing to help out friends and his school. When Mayo Clinic donated 60-80 computers to his school, Arora was in charge of setting them all up.

"Every time there is a problem with any computer in his school, he is dragged out of class," said his father. Friends constantly email him for help or approach him to set up their computers. Arora has designed the Web site for the Indian organisation in Rochester free of charge.

Arora also helps major companies, for whom he sometimes tests software. He tested Microsoft's 'DirectX' and 'Fighter Ace' before their public releases. Typically, he does beta testing free. "You get experience from it and you get stuff before it is released," said Arora.

Not that Arora really minds. Money is the last thing on his mind and he is happy to help out his friends free. "I'm not in this for the money. Personally, I'd do it for free. Sometimes my friends offer me $20-30 and if they shove it down my throat, I accept it. Even for my Web designing, I charge much less than the market price. Money hasn't been a motivation at all. I've a passion for computers. Not even a million dollars can replace that," said Arora, a trifle dramatically.

Quite naturally perhaps, Arora's personal idol is Bill Gates, a billionaire also known for his philanthrophy.

"He is the richest person in the world, but he's not really after money. He's having fun getting to the top and making his work matter. Being another Bill Gates is a possible goal, but the most important thing is to have fun," said Arora.

That is why he has also turned down lucrative job offers.

"If I pursue a job, it'll cut into school and that's a priority now. I could always drop out of school and pursue one of the jobs but, in the long run, it'll be good having an education. Down the road, there'll be more job offers," said Arora.

Right now this straight A's student is still undecided about going to college after school, but he is in a post-secondary programme, doing his junior high school and taking classes at the community college simultaneously.

"Even if I don't go to college, I'll at least have something to fall back on," said Arora. His father admits that when the time comes to deciding between being a full-time entrepreneurship and going to college, the latter is probably going to be put on hold for a while. "He understands college is important, but he is getting a lot of business offers. I'm having trouble holding him away from them," said Jagdish Arora.

Pankaj is already devoting his energies to a couple of new projects. He will talk only about one of them, an online tech magazine, Arora promises that "it'll not be like any other tech site".

So does he have the time to do "normal" teen stuff like hanging out with friends and taking in a movie? Arora says he makes time for both. He does party, but most of those are computer parties! At his last birthday party he had his friends bring over their PCs to his house! He has been trying to learn the guitar and every so often plays a game of tennis, but most of the time he is preoccupied with computers.

"Some people like playing soccer. I like computers. I find it the most fun, interesting thing to do," said Arora.

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