Forced Out Of His Home In Childhood, He Is The President Of India’s Most Promising Smartphone Brand Today

By Mukul Yudhveer Singh


What are the chances of you agreeing to do an interaction with your team, or with somebody from the media, on the day you are expecting to get a Covid-19 test done? Or what are the chances of you getting the coronavirus test done in the middle of a conversation with someone from the media?

This happens to be Sunil Raina, president and business head, Lava International. With Lava now manufacturing under the Performance Linked Incentive (PLI) scheme for smartphones, he is one of the busiest guys on the circuit today. When the team at Electronics For You magazine approached Lava International, it was made clear that finding more than fifteen minutes of Sunil Raina’s time would be difficult. But with the success stories of Lava doing the rounds, we were keen to deep dive into the lives and traits of people who are the pillars behind such success. One of those being Sunil Raina, the man who was forced out of his home in his childhood, the one who came from an Urdu educational background and had to learn how to read and write everything in English, one who slept in gurudwaras and dharamshalas while job hunting. This is Sunil Raina’s story!

The day I was giving my eleventh standard exam, there were gunshots firing inside the campus of our school. I, or anyone else, could not give the exam that day as we all ran to save our lives. The day we left Kashmir for Jammu we learnt that another Hindu living near our house was dragged out of his home and shot dead. There has been a lot of violence that I have witnessed in my life,” says Raina informing about his life incidents.

Belonging to a lower middle class family, Sunil Raina was born and brought up in a beautiful little village situated in the land that is referred to as heaven on Earth – Kashmir.

He is a Kashmiri Brahmin, one of those who were forced to leave Kashmir amid rising geopolitical tensions and violence that started around 1989. Raina was in the ninth standard when his family of six comprising mom, dad, grandma, and three brothers decided that it was time to leave Kashmir and head to Jammu in search of a better life. His dad, despite the financial disability that the family would have to face upon leaving Kashmir, was sure about the relocation. One, he had no choice, and two, he wanted to educate his children for their betterment.

“I was in the eleventh standard when this trouble in Kashmir started taking an aggressive form. We practically left Kashmir behind with just a few clothes. It was a bus journey, a long one, one that took us away from home,” explains Raina.

While Raina fondly remembers his school days back in Kashmir, he has not been able to get in touch with the teachers or friends of that school till date. However, he cherishes being able to meet a childhood friend from those days. This friend is now a maulavi at one of the mosques.

Raina’s schooling was split over Kashmir and Jammu. He attended a school that was located in a small village of Kashmir till the ninth standard and did rest of his schooling and graduation in Jammu.

“My school story is very different from what most people can imagine. The village my school was situated in did not have electricity or roads or tap water. It was a typical village of India. The only school we had in the village was an Urdu medium school run by the J&K government. English medium schools were completely out of reach for most of the families like ours. The number of children studying in that school was much more than the building had space for. I remember sitting outside in the open and being educated amid the beautiful Kashmir surroundings,” recalls Raina.

He adds, “It was in tenth standard that we moved to Srinagar in Kashmir. My dad got me admitted to an English medium school. That meant that the student who had read everything in Urdu till now had to start following English for every subject. We, as students, were introduced to English alphabets in the sixth standard. Getting admission in an English medium school made life tough initially.”

Sunil Raina with elder brother Anil Raina
Sunil Raina with elder brother Anil Raina

Learning English was one among many struggles

Raina, who has done marketing for big companies including the likes of Airtel, Telenor, Reliance Communications, and Hughes Telecommunications, found learning English to be the first biggest challenge of his life. Studying everything in Urdu throughout most of his schooling, he found the language of English as completely alien.

“Although I was able to give exams in the Urdu language, teachers in that school only taught in English! As a result, I was not able to perform well in the exams. This was when I decided to pick up on the language and develop it as one of my strengths. In fact, English was the language that was the first indicator that a much larger world existed out there,” he says.

“I, for most of the time, was not able to make sense of what the teachers or my fellow students were saying. It was a tricky situation there,” recalls Raina who has been the general manager of marketing at Reliance Communications.

Raina’s schooling was spread over three schools. One in the small village of Kashmir he was born in, the other in Srinagar, and the last in Jammu. The life of the Raina family was filled with struggles when they moved to Jammu from Kashmir. Being referred to as a refugee in his own country, Raina’s classroom, when he was in the twelfth standard, happened to be a tent.

Such open schools were started by the authorities back in the day for people migrating to Jammu from Kashmir. However, this was just a small part of Raina’s daily life. Struggling with finances, Raina’s father was constantly advised by his new friends to employ his three kids (all sons) in order to meet the family expenses as he was the only one supporting a family of six, which included Raina’s grandmother. Raina’s father was of a different view altogether and wanted his sons to finish their education before they started working.

“I have never seen someone as committed as my father. Despite all the challenges and financial disabilities, he made sure all of us three brothers never had to compromise on education. He made it clear to all in the family that until we finished our schooling, none would even think of working. I am, and will always be, thankful for what he did for us. Those were the toughest times and I never saw that man complain about a single thing,” explains Raina.

The Raina family used to live in a spacious house back in the days at Kashmir, and when they migrated to Jammu, all they could afford was an 8×8 room. The kids had to study in the same room where their mother cooked and grandmother rested. A lot of other families that had also migrated to Jammu had already started employing the sons of their families in order to survive financially. Raina’s father, on the other hand, believed in long-term goals and was sure at all times that education was more necessary than being able to survive financially in the short term.

My father’s message, in simple words, was, “Complete your education first and do whatever you want to do later on!”

Raina’s childhood were those days when, forget OTT or the Internet, even getting a good reception of national TV channels run by the government was a mountainous task. He recollects that the only cartoon series he remembers from his childhood was the popular He-Man. He, sometimes with his brothers and sometimes alone, used to go to a neighbour’s house every Sunday to watch it.

He says, “I remember vaguely that the intro of this cartoon happened to be a statement like The Master of the Universe,” and Raina today has truly become a master of his trade!
“There was not a single comic series available in Kashmir back then. Owning a TV was like leading a super luxurious life. We had to go to a neighbour’s house to see the series every Sunday,” Raina’s eyes sparkled as he recalled those precious moments from his teenage years watching He-Man, and while he saw some other cartoon series as well, this is the only one he remembers clearly.

Sholay, the iconic blockbuster Bollywood film, also brings back cherishable memories for Raina. His family owned a tape-recorder (the one that plays audio cassette tapes), and Raina would play the audio cassette of Sholay every now and then. Raina, who has never seen the movie even once on a TV, remembers all its dialogues from just listening to it on the tape-recorder!

Raina explains that the biggest turning point of his life was the ability to read and write in English. His endeavours to learn the language included reading newspapers, magazines, and watching news broadcasts in the English language.

“There came a time when publications started printing my articles written in English. I think the hard work around English has played a big role in my success story,” he says.

Blending history, mythology, and politics into communications.

Although Raina watched some cartoons on TV in his childhood, he has completely given up on watching TV now. Books around history, mythology, and politics are what satiate his entertainment needs. In fact, Raina was active in politics during his college days, and was one of the most well-known student leaders in Jammu. The only shows he has watched, or plans to watch, are around history, ancient kingdoms, and how these were ruled back in the day.

“What excites me is the way ancient kings managed their kingdoms. The history of different people and different communities helps me understand our race better. If I am not watching anything on the history front, I turn to war movies. These again help one understand the strategies that make one the winning side and the other the losing side,” says Raina.

Raina is a keen reader and has read most of the religious books that exist today. The list of religious books that he has read include ‘The Holy Quran, The Bible, The Bhagavad Gita, and many others. Apart from the business and marketing books, you will also find a lot of mythology books placed on Raina’s bookshelf.

“There are a lot of stereotypes in your head that are usually imposed by society. You are always told that whatever is there is the right thing. Sometimes religion prohibits you from exploring ‘the point of view’ of others. Doesn’t everyone exist like the way you exist on this planet?” explains Raina.

He adds, “The books around history, religions, mythology, and war help me understand things and people in a much better way. These helped me break those stereotypes in my head. Believe it or not, these books to me are the way towards learning about human psychology. I have been a communications guy and these books give you a lot of insights into how humans behave.”

Raina has been an avid watcher of the popular series Bigg Boss. The events in the series, as per him, have helped him understand humans better. “What you realise eventually is that it is not about a person but all about the situation that a person is put in,” says Raina.
“You see celebrities do a lot of charity and stuff, but it is interesting to see how these celebrities react to different situations when put in different situations inside the Bigg Boss House. This is true to all of us as human beings. Different situations make us react in different ways,” he adds.

But what separates great leaders from human beings, as per Raina, is the ability of these leaders staying true to themselves in every situation.” If you look at the likes of Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, or Martin Luther King Jr, you will find that these leaders stayed the same irrespective of the situation they were in,” he explains.

He adds, “Such people stay true to their values in any and every situation, and this is where they ensure long-term success and respect for themselves. I think the path of greatness leads through a life where you respect your values more than anything else.”
Connecting the dots between books and leaders, he says, “All the successful people are similar fundamentally, but different methodologically. Similarly, most of the books I have read drive the same goal point but with different approaches. I think that the ways of achieving a goal can be different but the fundamental core of achieving any goal will always be the same.”

Politics and rajma chawal

Raina was active in politics as a student during his college years. It was time when, as Raina recalls, having a girlfriend meant being able to talk to someone from the opposite sex in the college. He is more of an introvert and likes to keep a lot of things to himself. This interaction with him made it clear to me that being able to let him talk freely about his life would be a difficult task, but once you befriend him, he could turn into that guy who is referred to as the soul of a party.

“I think it is because of my job that I have learned to open up with people. Apart from being active in politics during my college days, I was always on the introvert side,” he says.
For the record, he holds a BSc in electronics from Jammu, which he completed in five years. Not because he flunked exams or performed poorly, but because the violence in Kashmir had its effects on Jammu as well, and the exams for graduation those days kept on postponing one year after the other. This also gave him an opportunity to be more active in politics. As a matter of fact, there was a time when Raina was considering a career in politics.

“I was also into student politics and was a member of a student’s political organisation during my college days. I was the one organising student rallies and a lot of those things. I was very serious about politics as a career that time. But then, bread and butter issues have the capability of breaking any dream,” he shares smilingly.

It was at this point in the conversation that we stumbled upon our mutual love for India’s extraordinary dish called Rajma Chawal, and this dish happens to be Raina’s go-to favourite, no matter what his mood. Even now, he enjoys the dish every Sunday. And not just any rajma, the only rajma he enjoys eating are the ones sourced from Jammu and Kashmir. If you have ever tasted Kashmiri rajma, you would know the difference between the rest of the variants of the same dish from different parts of the country.

The first job and continuation of rajma chawal

Raina’s first job was with Hughes Telecom. He was placed in Bombay (now Mumbai) as assistant manager of the company’s marketing department. While the interesting story of how he landed this job follows after a few paragraphs, the next few lines explain how much he loved rajma chawal back then and continues to love enjoying the dish even now.

“I never knew how to cook and still do not know how to, and it was a big challenge in the initial days. But fortunately, I found a dhaba in Bombay that was run by an individual from Jammu. It was for two years that I ate nothing else but rajma chawal for lunch. The guy running the dhaba became so aware of my choice that he stopped asking my order and would straight away bring a glass of water and rajma chawal as soon as I sat on one of the tables. The rajma chawal served at that dhaba was the Kashmiri version and hence I was able to enjoy it for two straight years,” Raina shares about his love for the dish.

Raina shared a room with four unknown guys in order to survive in Bombay during his first job. Fresh out of his MBA college, he was appearing for interviews in different cities, travelling by public transport, and sleeping in dharamshalas and gurudwaras—another chapter of his life that let him meet new people and interact with them. The story of his interview at Hughes Telecom, and getting placed there, is also as interesting as the part where he enjoyed rajma chawal for two years.

He went to Hughes Telecom for a walk-in interview that he saw being advertised in a newspaper, but was asked to leave after the group discussion round. Thinking that he was not able to impress the company, he continued with the process of giving interviews at other companies. Mobile phones at that time were a luxury, and all that the world relied on for communication were landlines. Everywhere Raina went for an interview, he left the landline number owned by his landlord.

One day, his landlord called him and told that a company had called and wanted to speak to him about offering Raina a job, but as destiny would have it, the landlord was not able to remember the name of the organisation.

“My landlord did not remember the name of the company that had called and left a message for me. While I was also not sure about which interview I had given the best, I took a chance and went to Hughes Telecom, looking for answers. Though I was sure that this would not be the company, they had actually called to offer me a job in the sales and marketing department,” he shares, smiling.

He adds, “I was initially given the role of a sales trainee for six months before being given a higher designation after standing second best performer in my entire batch.”

Hughes Telecom was later taken over by Tata Group. Raina spent around six years with Hughes Telecom and Tata Group. Raina’s first job, however, was as a teacher. He started teaching for a monthly salary of one hundred rupees when he was pursuing his graduation in Jammu.

Lava happened over single malt

Raina, today, has become the face of one the most promising smartphone brands in India. Lava, as we know it, is also a participant in the production linked scheme for manufacturing of smartphones in the country. The scheme, close to the heart of our prime minister Narendra Modi, envisages to create champion smartphone brands from India, and Lava is a part of the same.

Narendra Modi also happens to be the politician Raina admires greatly. He believes that the way PM Modi has risen in his life and his process of doing things is a success lesson for all entrepreneurs out there.

The story of how Sunil Raina got associated with Lava involves an evening with friends and single malt whiskey. Vishal Sehgal, who is one of the co-founders of Lava, called Raina one fine day and explained everything about Lava and his plans for the same. This was on the same call that Sehgal invited Raina for evening drinks and a dinner meet.

Do note here, Sehgal used to be the reporting manager of Raina at Airtel. Raina fondly looks up to Sehgal as his brother, mentor, and guide. Interestingly, the designations of Sehgal and Raina at Airtel, at that time, were CEO and marketing head, respectively. “He called me and I was at Gurgaon at that time. He said let’s have a drink together. I went to him and he told me to join the team of Lava,” explains Raina.

What triggered Raina to join the Lava team and leave a great job at one of the best companies to work in India was the respect and admiration he had for Sehgal. Second, as Raina explains, the team at Lava was very clear about the vision they had for the company. He explains that his past always compelled him to do something about the country, and he saw that chance with Lava.

Please note that it was a time when the country was filled with brands that called imported smartphones as Indian, white labelled them and sold them in India. Lava, as per Raina, from the very beginning excited him with its vision, which was to be truly Indian. For the records, Lava was the first company to pull out all of its R&D setup from China and set base in India.

“I always loved hoisting and carrying the Indian flag back in Jammu and Kashmir. It was clear to me that Lava would be my chance to do something for the country. We are now trying to build a global brand here in India,” says Sunil.

This was the moment where I jokingly asked him what he was drinking that evening when he made the decision to join Lava and he laughed and said, “I think single malt!”

His parting thoughts at the end of the conversation were, “I have realised that human resilience is far greater than any challenge that is thrown at it. The bigger the challenge, the bigger is the opportunity for a human to evolve and find a solution to that challenge.

People who are ready to take up challenges never complain about time, conditions, or anything else. They just find a way around. The greatest example of how big the human resilience is the pandemic of last year. The whole world was about to collapse but look how magnificently the human race has come out of it. Everything that happened during my childhood made me realise that human beings are much more powerful than they know.”
It was also in the middle of the conversation that the coronavirus test personnel appeared at Raina’s doors. He was in a self-imposed quarantine when this conversation took place.
Everyone’s an introvert unless everyone finds their true passion. The story after that is simply everything minus anything being an introvert.


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