Breathing Through “First-Time Silicon Success”

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No one is born a leader, but the choices we make in life propel us to become a leader. For Chitra Hariharan, an innocent fascination for electronic appliances, which were slowly entering the Indian markets then, pushed her to make it big into the miniaturising world of electronics. With four successful silicon and electronics product startup exits, Chitra has led the chip design ecosystem for 35 years, contributing to almost 125 semiconductor products. She dreamed of making a difference and dared to choose the unconventional path, never giving up on an opportunity—she seized it and ran with it. This is Chitra Hariharan’s story as narrated to EFY’s Yashasvini Razdan

Born into a lower-middle-class family in South Tamil Nadu to a state government employee father, Rajagopal, and a homemaker mother, Gowri, Chitra had a modest upbringing. Within the confines of their 1HK house, Chitra watched her father shuttle from one place to another, engaging with weavers’ associations, working hard to educate his two daughters.

“Our monthly treat, that Amma bought for us, was a small cream biscuit packet that my sister and I had to share,” she reminisces.

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Being the elder of the two siblings, the burden of responsibilities accompanied by the unflinching sense of duty was inculcated very early on in young Chitra’s mind. While the breadwinner of her family moved from one place to another to educate his daughters, Chitra went on to make the most of every opportunity that came her way.

Happy family

“I was the regular goody-goody first bencher and liked by all my teachers in school. I wanted to be the best in everything. I knew I had to get a job and I had to work hard to get what I wanted and make things better.”

Chitra had set her eyes on the post of a government telephone operator, by aiming for an education in Maths, Science, and Chemistry, the last being her favourite subject. While her father armed her with diligence, her mother taught her ingenuity. “In those days, it was mandatory to choose a hobby class. While other parents sent their kids to dance or music class, my mother, a very enterprising lady even today, knew that for my dream job, I would need to know Hindi, so she sent me to learn a third language at the Dakshin Bharat Hindi Prachar Sabha.” Little did she know then that this decision would be the foundation for her to become a strong and effective communicator, skills that are paramount for a leader.

Number one or no one

Tenacious Chitra knew that she would not be a winner unless she was at the top of the scoreboard. Later in life, she continued to give utmost importance to the academic records of all the team members she hired while building her engineering teams.

“Getting into a professional course was incredibly tough. You had to have the perfect academic record. I applied to the Government College of Technology, Coimbatore, hoping to get into one of the Applied Science courses, to secure the job of a telephone operator. With my perfect academic record and incredibly high marks, doors to the engineering course opened. In those days, we did not have any career counselling or any elders to guide us on which subject to choose. All I knew was that a professional engineering course is better than an Applied Sciences course.”

Even though Chitra had already paid fees for the latter, being a volleyball player, she grabbed the opportunity thrown at her and went on to apply for the engineering course. But soon enough, another choice lay in front of her. “I got a seat in civil engineering. That was the last thing I wanted to do!”

Fascinated by the Sony record player and Walkman, young Chitra’s eyes used to twinkle at the sight of the shiny screens in electronics product showrooms. “I did not necessarily want to open up those products, but I was always attracted to them. So, I decided, I want to do electronics engineering.” Once she had made up her mind, nothing could stand in her way. As luck would have it, one of her friends wanted to take up civil engineering in the same college. The two exchanged seats, paving the way for Chitra’s chariot into the chip industry.

Chitra’s son with his grandfather

Chronicles of the cycle

Engineering for a middle-class day scholar from a humble background in 1980 was no mean feat. Every morning, the neighbourhood in South Coimbatore’s Saibaba Colony saw a young girl dressed in a long cotton skirt, ferociously pedalling her way on an ancient, modified men’s bicycle, the front bar chopped off to revamp it into a ladies’ bicycle. Behind her, in the carrier seat, sat a younger demure girl, holding on tightly to a huge container. The rider dropped off her sister at the bus stop and then cycled to her grandmother’s house, filled up the water container and cycled back home, without spilling a single drop.

“After dropping my sister and delivering water for Amma at home, I picked up my bag and cycled back to my college, which was another three-and-a-half kilometres away. My friend Sivakami, another day scholar, sat behind me reading out lecture notes,” recalls Chitra. Sivakami is now a retired General Manager in the telecom circle.

What about the lampooning and the ridicule that college students engaged in? “Who had time to dwell on that! While the hostellers bunked classes and went for movies, being a day scholar, I had to rush to my classes and occupy the first bench to take down all the notes and be the first one in the library to get my hand on the books. I could not afford to be late anywhere,” she quips.

Nerdy Chitra knew that being late to the library meant someone else would get the required books before her. These seeds of punctuality started sprouting, later aiding her in rolling out silicon tape-outs on schedule with successful first-time working silicon.

Team behind 100+ tape-outs

Learning Kannada

As a part of the first four-year batch of engineers, Chitra completed her graduation in 1984, but the joy of a white-collar job in DRDO or Bharat Electronics did not materialise for her. Chitra and her batchmates graduated along with their seniors, further delaying the placements. Recognising her responsibilities towards her family and a younger sister, who was studying medicine, Chitra knew she had to have a job, the day she graduated. Taking up the role of a teacher in her alma mater, Chitra contributed to her family income for two years, till she landed a role in the quality assurance department in the Indian Telephone Industries in Bengaluru.

Best Design Team award-winners for Open-Silicon

“A job at ITI was a matter of great prestige but I wasn’t building anything! I wondered what I would even do in quality assurance, but now that I look back at it, this was where I developed an eye for detail—an essential skill in chip design,” says Chitra.

Every morning, the shop floors of the ITI, Bengaluru office saw a lanky 24-year-old girl chatting with an old technician reading a Kannada newspaper. “They had been working for many years on the shop floor. They would not answer the queries of a young girl, who spoke an entirely different language. I had to be one amongst them and the best way in was through the language. I used to stand beside the people reading the newspaper and ask them about the news. Slowly, I picked up words and incorporated them into my vocabulary. I even recognised letters. Till date, people are surprised when they come to know that I can read and write Kannada!” she quips.

While engineers were not expected to go to the shop floor all the time, Chitra established a camaraderie and gained the respect of the technicians who would answer all her inquiries about the workflow and willingly accept her suggestions.

Sailing through love and loss

Throughout her journey at ITI, Chitra donned multiple roles: a senior manager, a daughter, a wife, and a mother. “It was an arranged marriage. While I was busy working, my sister and my father sifted through prospective grooms for me. Even today, whenever there is a big festival or function, my sister, now a doctor, has a brand new saree ready for me because she knows I would not even bother thinking about it,” laughs Chitra. This is the beauty of having a lovely sibling!

The following years saw Chitra undergo various transitions in her personal and professional life. While donning the hat of a wife in 1990, Chitra also transitioned to the Madras VLSI Design Centre of ITI. She needed to move to Chennai to be with her extremely supportive husband Hariharan, who was then a dairy manager of the Aavin milk cooperative in Tamil Nadu, and father-in-law Sankaralingam. The following year, Chitra, who was soon to become a mother, lost her father. “We named our son, Rajagopal, after my father,” she says.

Beginning of New Semicon India

With the support of her father-in-law and husband, Chitra did not dwell on the loss and quickly took on her duties as a mother while also being a part of the research and design team at ITI. “My father-in-law never let me feel the absence of my father. He encouraged me to go ahead and aim higher. When I moved to the USA to join RealChip Communications, he took on the role of a second mother for my son, and never once let anything come in the way of my career aspirations,” she recalls.

“We had a 30-minute calling card for international calls in those days. There were times when the phone call just got cut while my son was in the middle of narrating an exciting anecdote from school. Those were the moments when the mother’s guilt seeped in, but I consoled myself knowing that my child was safe and loved,” she reminisces.

Celebrating VLSID success

In the epic battle of Mahabharata, Hindu deity Krishna, drove Arjuna’s chariot throughout the battle, while the latter fought the mighty battle. A staunch devotee of the Hindu deity Krishna, Chitra acknowledges her strength and determination to Krishna, her charioteer, who charted her into a lifelong adventure on wheels—an adventure that started in Coimbatore on the modified-men’s cycle.

Wheels instead of feet

In 2001, Chitra saw an opportunity at Intel Microelectronics, a startup within Intel that wanted to set up a hardware design centre in Bengaluru. Little did she know that life would take her places and bring her back to Intel as the Head of Strategy for the HPG Group, in another 15 years. Propelled by her pragmatism and the opportunity to come back home, Chitra took on a new challenge and entered her era of building startups. As usual, every decision that Chitra had ever taken till then came with tough choices. This, too, did.

While the distance between oceans narrowed to two states, Chitra had to choose to continue to shuttle between Chennai and Bengaluru. She spent her weekdays in Bengaluru and took the first transport back to Chennai on the weekends. “To date, my friends and family say that you have wheels instead of feet!” she jokes.

Raising a child while building a startup from scratch was no mean feat. While her family supported her dreams, Chitra recalls a Wednesday morning phone call from her son’s school in Chennai. “I just picked up my purse and rushed to his school from Bangalore. The teacher notified me of an error in one of Prem’s assignments, and then went on to reprimand me for the same. I listened to everything she had to say, came back home, and cried my heart out,” she narrates.

Reflecting on that incident, years later, Chitra wishes that she could spend more time with her son, now with roles reversed. “All I wanted for him was to get into a good professional engineering course!” she exclaims. Prem completed his post graduation from Barcelona Supercomputer Centre and followed his mother’s footsteps of building chips by joining Intel. Currently he is working with NVIDIA, which is driving the advancements in artificial intelligence chips.

Three Proud Moments for Chitra
1. Building Open-Silicon; Winning the Best Design Team Award
2. Building Google’s first Pixel Phone SoC
3. Indigenous Smart Parking solutions Installation for Intel

Iron lady

Her entrepreneurial journey shifted to the next gear when the team of Dr Naveed Sherwani and Dr Satya Gupta, who earlier started Intel Microelectronics, decided to move out of Intel and build a new fabless semiconductor start-up Open-Silicon supported by Pierre Lamond of Sequoia and Promod Haque of NVP. Once again, Chitra faced the tough decision of leaving a fast-progressing career at the largest and most prestigious semiconductor company and joining a startup. Sticking to her guiding philosophy, “Don’t wait for things to change and get better, become the change and make things better,” Chitra took on the challenge to build a brilliant silicon design team at a successful semiconductor chip startup.

Building and leading a silicon engineering team in a chip startup with global ambitions was challenging but Chitra remembers them as the most satisfying six years of her career. With venture capitalists monitoring every move with a hawk’s eye, Chitra’s inherent nature to be on top of every aspect of the project and customer requirements allowed her to have on-time chip tape-outs and first-time silicon success. As a founding member in Open-Silicon, she was part of more than 100 chip tape-outs. Her diligence, project execution, and customer management earned her the nickname of ‘Iron Lady’ from Promod Haque of NVP.

Like mom like son

Open-Silicon triggered multiple unique engagements with leading Indian universities, especially with IIT Madras. She recalls her conversations with Prof. Kamakoti of RISE Labs and reveals how her dynamic work ethic was appreciated by him. “Till date Kama calls me Tiger, because of my vigour in the work place!”

End-to-end governance was a quality deeply ingrained in Chitra. “As we neared the tape-out deadline, the amount of time at work increased,” she says. Every tape-out was a celebration with the whole team and usually happened late at night or in the wee hours of the morning.

While building a strong silicon engineering team, Chitra forged deep bonds with her team members and even their family members. Recalling an incident from her days at Open-Silicon, Chitra says, “A colleague Kailas had gone to the ATM to withdraw some cash and for some reason the card didn’t work. When he returned empty-handed, his daughter Kasturi asked him, ‘Kya hua? Chitra aunty ne paise nahi diye kya?’ She thought that I was sitting and handing out money. We all had a hearty laugh the next day.”

Proud mom and daughters

Amid the laughs and the late nights, Chitra had a constant companion—chai. In the initial weeks of setting up Concept2Silicon—her third chip startup venture as a founding member, and this time co-founder—funds ran low, and aspirations soared high. The year was 2009 and the global economic crisis had rattled the investors’ spirits. “Everyone was ready to invest to accelerate but nobody wanted to provide seed money. We had a team ready to work, but no salaries to pay,” she says.

When spirits started running low, Chitra infused the team with her zest and vigour. “I told them, for the next month we will work hard enough to fund our chai! The team responded with action and the next month it was working for our chai and lunch. We bagged our first customer in just three months of founding the company,” she recounts.

A believer of simple living and high thinking, Chitra stuck to her humble roots, taking pride in her hard work and achievements. For a long while, she navigated through Bengaluru traffic, chasing design wins in her Maruti Alto. “The conversation regarding the acquisition of Concept2Silicon by HCL happened in my Maruti Alto with the HCL leader and my co-founders, Dr Satya Gupta, Ravi Srinivasan. I had that car for a very long time and refused to part with it. It was only after the acquisition that I decided to buy a bigger car and rewarded myself with a Honda City,” she shares.

Exemplifying the story of the squirrel helping Lord Rama, the hero of the epic Ramayana, and incarnation of Hindu deity Vishnu, Chitra believes that a leader should value and acknowledge the contribution of every team member. “Inclusivity and recognition are two wheels of the same bicycle that ensure on-time and first-time successful silicon tape-outs,” she says.

Happy family 2023

Recounting the first time she felt she was a part of building something big, Chitra proudly recalls her time at the Madras VLSI Design Centre of ITI. “I was a part of the team that designed a chip for ISRO’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV)!”

As a woman in electronics, Chitra believes that diversity isn’t just confined to gender alone. “It is about taking everyone along with you and respecting everyone’s views and contribution to get the best results for the team,” she says.

Some Favourites of Chitra
Favourite food – Curd Rice
Favourite drink – Chai
Favourite actor – Rajini
Favourite actress – Suhasini
Favourite music – Devotional music
Favourite movie – Meera (1945, Starring
MS Subbulakshmi) and Munnabhai MBBS (Tamil)
Texts she reads – Sanskrit verses

Slowing down? Nah!

Chitra calls herself a go-getter, and true to her nature, to date, she has never stopped grabbing the horse by the reins and steering it towards her goals. After shuttling for three decades, four successful semiconductor startups, and a strong connection with the venture capital community and academia, Chitra is now actively improving the VLSI and chip design education by bringing foundational changes and aiding semiconductor startups in building connections with VCs and real customers.

A firm believer and enforcer of purpose-driven collaboration, as the Secretary of the VLSI Society of India, Chitra is now actively working to bring together the courses necessary to strengthen VLSI hardware design education on one common platform to enable knowledge sharing. “This way every institution can learn and evolve its curriculum to churn out the best hardware designers in the country,” she declares.

With no regrets, was there anything that she would do differently? “I really wish I was born 20 years later because this is the golden era for India and semiconductors. We have waited for these kinds of growth opportunities for a long time. The playing field has levelled and there are equal opportunities for women. You just need to grab the opportunities and run with them,” she opines.

“The policies, incentives and environment are extremely conducive to build electronics and semiconductor products for India. With the right focus on education and product startups, India is poised to become a strong hardware product nation in the coming decades,” she concludes.

Chitra Hariharan is currently working for Renesas India, heading the Academia Relations, Government Affairs, and Startup Collaborations.

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Yashasvini Razdan
Yashasvini Razdan
Yashasvini Razdan is a journalist at EFY. She has the rare ability to write both on tech and business aspects of electronics, thanks to an insatiable thirst to know all about technology. Driven by curiosity, she collects hard facts and wields the power of her pen to simplify and disseminate information.


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