Education is life changing. It may take a village to raise a child, but educating one from a poor village creates change for generations to come. I am a prime example.
I come from a small village in southeastern India, one of six children in a mud house with no running water. There were days when we had no money for basics, but my father was determined to educate his children. He mortgaged our meager land so we could go to school and I walked one way for six miles each day to get that education.
In elementary school, a teacher discovered that I excelled in mathematics and convinced me that I had the potential to achieve. My brother had a job as a bank teller and I lived with him while attending pre-engineering school. When I got into one of the few engineering schools in the province, it felt like a totally different world. Barely able to speak English, I struggled at first, but eventually graduated with the highest honors and was part of just the second group in India to graduate with an advanced degree in computer engineering.
As a result of my education, I was the first Indian to be employed by Microsoft in 1981, and I retired comfortably in 2003. Though I consider myself very lucky, I worked incredibly hard and my wife and I made many sacrifices. Ironically, I was never interested in money; that came through my stock options without intention. Instead, every step I took was to earn the respect and recognition of my superiors and to honor my family. This goal has been more difficult to obtain, and more enlightening.
To my great fortune, Satya, the woman my family arranged for me to marry, was understanding and supportive of my drive to succeed, because to tell you the truth, I worked all the time. I was hired by one of the first Indian computer companies, DCM, to do programming. I thought I had reached the top when they gave us a small apartment and a car, at a time when my family scraped together my sister’s dowry.
In 1979 I worked on a small project with Microsoft employees, which then led to a job offer. Remember, back then, there was no email and no one had ever heard of Microsoft. Taking a big risk, I left my family in India on a Saturday night and started work on Monday in Seattle. There were fewer than 50 employees at the time.
When Microsoft became bigger they developed good support systems to help foreign engineers adapt, but as the first Indian employee, I had to cope with the linguistic and cultural challenges myself. Even when Satya came over with our daughter, there was no one to help her adapt to the new culture.
In those days Microsoft was an exciting place to work. There was lots of creativity and teamwork as we raced against Apple and IBM. In 1982 they put me to work on a project called Interface Manager, which became Windows. I worked very hard and felt proud when Bill said “Good job, Rao,” giving me a nice office and more responsibility.
There was a big push to get Windows done. I wanted to go back to India and visit my mother who was sick, but I had to wait until after the launch. My mother died before I could return; there was not even time to go to her funeral. I still feel very bad about this but that is how it was.
By the early 90’s Microsoft was growing fast and so were my stock options. But everything changed. As the company grew, it was no longer the same place to work. Since 1988, I wanted to start a Microsoft Development Center in India, but it became clear I would never realize that dream. So after many years there, it was time to move on.
I retired early in 2003 at the age of 52. At first it was terrifying to think of leaving because Microsoft was all I had really known. But eventually I discovered new joys in life: hiking, skiing, running the family foundation, and volunteering on non-profit boards. For the first time in my life I am my own master, free from the stress of meeting someone else’s expectations. I no longer need recognition or approval from others.
Now, I feel very grateful. Thanks to Microsoft I have more money than I could spend in many lifetimes. I was happy to help extended family members thrive. Satya and I also started our family foundation to support education, health and basic needs in the US and India because we know firsthand how those issues can make such a difference in life outcomes. At first it was overwhelming to decide which projects to fund, especially with organizations on another continent. We turned to the Seattle Foundation to help us find high quality groups in India and in the Seattle area that met our guidelines. Their staff has so much knowledge about grantmaking and non-profits; they really helped us get started on the right foot.
Our daughters, who both attended Carnegie Mellon University, help us manage the family foundation. They are great at researching organizations, teaching us about public health, education, and how they are connected. Our older daughter, Srilakshmi, helps with the education grants and our younger daughter, Srilata, helps with the health grants. It is a way for our family to stay connected and work together; supporting groups we care about, changing the systems for good.
I know Satya yearns to do more for India, but our extended family has been brought closer across continents by the very technologies I worked on at Microsoft. I am proud that the “Windows” project changed the world. When I look back through my own “window” of time, I see myself trudging down that muddy road to school, not knowing where my education would lead. Now, I am happy that I can help children see the world clearly by supporting organizations like the LV Prasad Eye Institute in India. My daughter Srilata, the health advocate of the family, always says, “Health is a key to life. You have nothing without it.” And it is also fitting that the Remala classroom we funded is in the Gates School of Computer Science at the university our daughters both attended. The school’s website quotes our daughter Srilakshmi as saying, “Education is absolutely a humanitarian interest. ...You’re enabled by your education.”
And so my life comes full circle. We cannot live without health, and education is absolutely a humanitarian interest. In fact, it is sometimes miraculous.
I come from a big, loving family with six sisters and four brothers. When I was 13, my mother passed away and I went to live with my sister. Even though education for girls was not encouraged in India, I was able to go to different cities to study so that I could support myself if needed. At the age of 19, my brother arranged for me to marry Rao, who came from a distant city. His family did not have much money, but what I really liked about him was that he was honest and hard working.
We lived in Delhi for a few years and then I found myself on a plane with one suitcase and our one-year old daughter. It was pretty hard to leave my family, but I always tried to be positive and look forward rather than back. I worried most about my daughter and how she would adjust. I tried to keep busy in those days, but since I couldn’t speak English well and there were few South Asian families, I mostly kept to myself.
I feel very fortunate that things turned out well. Eventually Rao was making enough money not just to support our family, but also to start a foundation. We started small at first, putting just enough money in for tax purposes. Education was most important (especially for girls) and health was just as important because so many of our family members died of serious illnesses.
Giving brings our family together and now it is a tradition for all of us to gather every Sunday for dinner. I don’t play a large role in the family foundation because we want our daughters to take more responsibility. But through our foundation, I discovered that the more we gave, the more fulfilling it was because we could see and feel the difference we were making. We increased our giving, creating scholarships and funding cancer research. We are proud that our daughters are involved in helping to make the world a better place.
We’ve been quiet about our giving because we don’t want others to feel obligated to give back to us. Our reward is knowing that we are making a difference. But we tell our story now, hoping that other families who are doing well financially will give what they can to support the community. People don’t have to give thousands of dollars, but can give more than they do now, whether it is $50 or $1000. This American idea of giving to non-profit groups is different from South Indian culture, but there is also a wonderful Indian tradition of supporting community. We hope that others join us in creating this new community of giving.