It was one of those days when we were looking for answers to the semiconductor ecosystem in India. We had interacted with a US based Indian a few days back. He, in the process of setting up a power semiconductor product fab in the country, had shared his ideas on how India could have a complete ecosystem of semiconductor fabrication to services.
We put together his story and sent a thankyou note to him. In reply, he texted, “You must be happy, the Tatas are entering into the semiconductor game!” When we asked him whether he knew who was going to lead the semiconductors project for the Tata Group, he answered, “A gentleman who has dedicated his life to semiconductors and society.”
The gentleman is none other than Raja Manickam himself, who has worked with several semiconductor companies and founded one that was acquired by a corporate group. Not many professionals would know but he is also a trained army combat tank commander. This is Raja Manickam’s story as told to Mukul Yudhveer Singh, Business Editor, EFY
Born in Singapore, Raja came to India at the age of three when his grandfather retired from his job in Singapore and was eager to return to India and built a house in his village. Manickam’s father was working as a teacher in Singapore. “I am the first grandson, and hence I was pampered a lot by my grandparents. I came to India at the age of three with my grandfather,” says Raja who is named after his grandfather as per tradition those days.
Raja is the second eldest child in a family of five siblings. He recalls how tough the days were back then when he was a child as the finances to meet the family needs were always low. However, one lesson his grandfather always taught him was about the importance of education, and how it can change and revolutionise someone’s life. Thanks to his grandfather and reformist movement in the sixties and seventees in Tamil Nadu, Raja was exposed to liberal thinking and was highly influenced by great statesman like Periyar, and Annadurai and Kamaraj who preached equality in community.
“My grandfather was not a highly educated person and probably that is why he understood the importance of being educated. He would always guide me during my childhood and encourage me to pursue the route of education more than anything else,” recalls Raja. He adds, “It was all about education to him. He always made it clear to me that education would not just help me come out of poverty, but it would empower me to help the society as well.”
Raja’s mother, as he explains, was also a very big influence on him. Though she studied probably till the fifth or sixth standard only, she had leadership skills that brought the village people together. She encouraged all her children, five of them, to prioritise education. Each of them had a profession assigned to them. The oldest, Raja’s sister was to be a doctor, Raja was to be an engineer, the next one to be an accountant, and so on. That created a direction for the kids to work towards making their grandfather’s and mother’s dream come true. Raja enjoyed math and physics, which were directly relevant to engineering.
Raja’s wife runs one of the biggest not-for-profit schools for the Tamil community in the US, and there are about 20,000 people attached to it. His grandfather was a part of the Self-Respect Movement and Dravidar Kazhagam. These movements were against the Brahmanical dominance and gender and caste inequality in Tamil Nadu.
Though Manickam family belonged to the upper caste, Raja’s mother made sure that people from all the castes were able to go inside their Tamil Nadu home and interact with the family like one. “My grandfather, father, and all the other family members were against the caste system. I was also heavily influenced by their thought,” explains Raja.
Battle tanks to IIT Kharagpur
Raja is the first graduate in family. He was undergoing primary education in India when his father showed interest in getting him educated back in Singapore. Raja went to Singapore for further schooling but as fate would have it, he returned to India after completing eighth standard from Singapore.
Always wanting to be among the top students wherever he was studying, Raja drew inspiration from his fellow students and his elder sister to always excel in studies. He went to RSK Hr Sec School in BEHL in Trichy to complete his senior secondary, and was among the top students of the school. “My elder sister, Muthumanimoli, was always topping the school. I was heavily influenced by the way she was scoring top grades in school. Now a practicing doctor in the United States, I have always been inspired by what she has accomplished in life,” shares Raja.
Not just studies, Raja also excelled at sports. He was a regular on basketball courts and hockey grounds. Unlike many children, who wish to watch cartoons or play video games, he would always head to play outdoor sports with his close friends. He represented his school in hockey, and IIT Kharagpur in hockey and basketball.
There’s also a very interesting story about how he got into IIT Kharagpur. Before sharing that story Raja teasingly shares, “I was better balanced than my elder sister. She was a bookworm, and I excelled in sports as well as studies.”
Raja had never aimed for getting into an IIT. He was aiming to secure an engineering seat in REC Trichy. However, Raja was a Singapore citizen, and the Singapore government requires every citizen to serve in the Singapore Military for a brief period of time, so when Raja turned eighteen, he had to return to his country of birth.
It was in the military that he came to know about the scholarship being offered to Singapore citizens by the government of India. The High Commission of India was working with the government of Singapore to find scholars for offering sponsorship to study. Raja applied for the same and appeared for the entrance exam at the High Commission office in Singapore. Only two scholars were picked and Raja was one of them.
“I wanted to pursue electronics engineering, and only IIT Kharagpur was offering engineering in electronics at that time. I would rate that as one of the best experiences of my life. IIT Kharagpur made me what I am today,” says Raja.
He is thankful for the scholarship offered by the government of India, as without that he would have never made it to a prestigious institution like IIT Kharagpur, and also because the family’s financial condition was not good enough to afford the education fees at that time. “We had a very tough time in terms of finances as a family,” he adds. In fact, his father could never complete his graduation because of the tight finances, and Raja was also destined to start working after high school.
“Despite me not being a citizen of India, I was offered a scholarship by the government of India. That is why I want to do something for India,” he says, sharing one of his biggest dreams—the dream of bringing the semiconductor manufacturing ecosystem to the country. He adds, “If I am able to do that, I am sure the same will open a lot of flood gates for Indians to come back to the country. Not just India, I think the whole world will be able to benefit from the same.”
The scholarship that Raja was offered by the government of India included a sum of `400 credited to his account every month. This, when compared to the education, college, and hostel fee that Raja was paying at the IIT, was a big amount. The tuition fee at that time used to be around `25, while the exam fee used to be around `100. So, what did Raja do with the spare cash he was left with? Well, he helped economically poor students by paying their tuition and, in many cases, exam fees.
Raja recalls,”There were brilliant guys studying with me at the IIT, and some of them were facing tough times with finances. The excess money helped me fund the education of these guys. I think it’s the background I came from that encouraged me to do so.” He also got to lead at the college after becoming the hostel president. “I learned a lot of leadership skills in IIT,” he adds.
First job: Baptism by Fire
Raja had a choice to study up to PhD on the scholarship that the government had provided, but as the eldest grandson, and as someone who was well aware of the financial condition his family was in, he opted to start working as soon as he got the degree from IIT Kharagpur. Though he had no idea about semiconductors, he applied for a job at Texas Instruments (TI) as TI was the most sought after company for electronics engineers back then.
“TI, despite being an American company, had no problem training employees irrespective of the country they belonged to. On the other hand, there were companies who were not ready to train people on the latest technologies they were working on. TI’s eagerness to excel by training the best of knowledge to all equally was what attracted me to the company,” Raja explains, and this point makes it clear how open he has been while making choices. There are always strong reasoning points in whatever he has done and achieved in life so far.
A lot of employees used to refer to TI as a pressure cooker. This was because when you are given training on the latest technologies, it is expected of you to deliver the very best of results. The pressure cooker, for Raja, was even higher because it was his first job straight out of college. His managers may or may not have expected a lot from him, but he always expected nothing but excellent work out of himself. “When you are young, and in your first job, you go through Baptism by Fire. You learn through your own mistakes, and you learn a lot,” he shares.
The lesson of “Baptism by Fire that he learnt from his innings with TI, and several other companies, can be clearly seen embedded in startup Tessolve Semiconductors that he founded. The young, as he points out, learn and become the best of themselves when they are pushed to the limits. The only point that this ‘push to the limits’ thing should include is open and equal transfer of knowledge to youngsters. He says, “I would tell every senior person at Tessolve to push youngsters to the limits without regret. However, be very open in transferring knowledge at the same time. Don’t give them an easy life during the initial stages of their career.”
His message to youngsters, “Learn the core fundamentals of what you are doing professionally during the first five years. Don’t haste towards big money or designations but stay hungry to build a solid foundation.” This is where Aamir Khan’s character from the Three Idiots movie started popping up in my mind saying, “Chase success and the money will chase you.”
The formula to one becoming successful in life, as Raja explains, lies in starting to work from the bottom. It is at the bottom, he says, that one can learn the true fundamentals of anything and everything life has to offer. When someone starts at the bottom, and reaches the top, he is the one most likely to be the leader everyone else wants to become.
A brief look at his CV reveals how he has risen from the bottom, worked with the likes of TI, National Semi, STATs ChipPAC, DTS, founded Tessolve, and now is the CEO of Tata Electronics’ OSAT unit. A closer look reveals how he has accepted different roles (from sales to engineering to business development) with these different companies. While Raja’s first job was as a test engineer, he later learned chip design, SPICE modelling and a lot of other things around semiconductors. Raja’s favourite subject at IIT used to be solid-state physics, and solid-state physics and semiconductors go together!
Raja has also been on the front side of running a semiconductor factory for National Semiconductor in Malaysia. Although he had moved to the USA to work with National Semiconductor, the company asked him to run the engineering side of the Malaysia factory as part of their strategic move. He directly managed teams consisting of 300 engineers and was the man behind a lot of new product introductions for National Semi. He stayed in Malaysia for about three years before moving back to the States. Once in the States, he decided to move to the mecca of the startup world—The Bay Area.
There comes a point in almost everyone’s life where they want to start something of their own. Most commonly referred to as the startup route, not all can muster courage to walk this road. But when you are in the Bay Area of the States and are reading about new startups coming out in the area every day, the air around becomes more than what is required to fuel the bold step. Once you are in the Bay Area, you start talking more about starting companies than anything else. I took the step in 2004 and started my own company,” recalls Raja.
Wait, the journey to start a semiconductor company was just not fuelled by the air of the Bay Area. Raja was not happy with the quality of people he was working with before starting Tessolve. Every evening he would return home frustrated and tell his wife about the lack of eagerness his co-employees had in the companies he was associated with in the Bay Area. He would complain that people around him had no idea what they were doing.
On one fine evening Raja, as usual, returned from work, and started complaining again. To which his wife replied, “If you are so smart why don’t you start your company?”
This was the moment, and probably the question that made Raja realise that he was not happy being an employee anymore. However, it was also the time when his kids were on the brink of completing their education. Leaving a job and starting something of your own at that moment would have been a risk, but Raja calculated the ups and down and took the decision!
Before proceeding further, it is important to note here that Raja’s wife, Vetriselvi, comes from a political family. Her father has served as an industry and law minister in the Tamil Nadu cabinet. He was the youngest minister in the Tamil Nadu cabinet in 1967 under the first DMK government. Raja admits that his father-in-law taught him a lot about statesmanship, and at the same time leading a simple life. Raja’s wife runs a non-profit Tamil School in the Bay Area, which has over 20,000 volunteers.
Back to startups, Raja asked his wife that he was keen to do it but what if something went wrong, and they lost everything they had saved? His wife’s reply was, “As long as you do not sell my jewellery, we will be fine! Sell the house or whatever else you want but do not sell my jewellery.” Vetriselvi translated to English means victory!
Most of the community members from Manickam’s community are either into agriculture or are into small-time business. It was Vetriselvi’s father, the minister, who reached out to Raja’s parents in the same community with a proposal for marriage. It was an arranged marriage, and the most romantic thing that Raja says he has done for his wife is taking her along to every meet he attends. Raja was employed with TI when the couple got married. Raja and Vetriselvi have always encouraged each other to follow dreams and given each other the independence to do so.
Tessolve was Raja’s first venture as an entrepreneur, the one he funded by taking a loan against his house in the States. This was also the first time that Raja was embarking on a journey to start a venture in India, as he wanted to start giving back to the country which had helped him become what he was today. “I met a couple of brilliant guys while starting Tessolve. I must say that I have been lucky my entire life. You always need a little bit of luck, and these brilliant guys I met were my share of that good luck. This pinch of good luck enables you to cross the line,” says Raja.
Not only the hard work of Raja (he prefers to call it luck) started paying off in terms of the people he was able to hire, but Qualcomm also decided to invest in Tessolve, and it was Qualcomm’s first venture investment in the country. Similarly, Applied Materials also invested in Tessolve, followed by Jafco.
However, things were always not a cakewalk for Tessolve. The startup lost most of its projects after the crash of 2008 and was on the verge of bankruptcy. “I was sure that survival was not possible but what kept me going was the faith that what I was doing would reap good results for India and for the semiconductor industry. I had faith in the expertise and delivery that we were developing,” notes Raja.
Then followed the beg, borrow, and steal approach. Raja would knock every door he knew asking for a loan. Raja shares, there were three times he thought that Tessolve would go bankrupt. And once the president of the company walked up to him and told him that they should tell employees that Tessolve would not be able to pay salaries!
Raja in such cases would usually ask for a day or two and borrow all the money he could and try to pay salaries. “It was fortunate that we survived every time. If you believe in something, then you must be ready to do everything to make sure that something survives. I did not draw a salary from Tessolve for almost two-and-a-half years, but I never missed a payroll. That is what has helped us build integrity at Tessolve,” Raja shares.
He recalled an incident where one of the leading banks of the country had loaned around eighty million rupees to Tessolve, and the startup was finding it difficult to pay the installments. This was during the crash that happened around 2013-14. Raja would walk up to the bank and try to explain what was going on and why the company was missing installments. “I had a rule that whatever was going on and hurting the business, I will go to the banks, the vendors and everyone else included in Tesslove to explain the complete situation,” explains Raja.
“I will give credit to this national bank that they understood my problem. The officer who was incharge of the Tessolve account was also incharge of the Kingfisher deal, and he would tell me sir here you are explaining what’s delaying the payments, and then there is this Kingfisher guy who only God knows is where. He owes us thousand crores and he is not showing up,” Raja shares jokingly.
He adds, “But he was also bound by the rules of the bank, which required him to put up a notice at our office about the payments. This got me worried as my employees reading that message would create a negative environment. The bank officer himself suggested to put the notice at night, so we could remove it overnight and not alarm the employees about the company’s problem to pay bank dues.
Tessolve made it a point that in case the startup had to delay payments to its vendors, it will never delay the payment of small vendors but request big companies to give the startup more time. This was done keeping in mind how small vendors were dependent on Tessolve more than anybody else. The most important thing, as Raja points out, is if he would have succeeded the way he had planned, it probably would have made him arrogant. But the way he got successful, by going through those ups and downs, is what taught him to stay humble no matter what.
“The idea with Tessolve was not to fill up spreadsheets of any kind to make it look attractive to investors and clients. The idea with Tessolve was all about making it the topmost semiconductor services company,” he adds, and that is why Raja’s contribution to the company stayed with it for a long time, even after it was acquired by the Hero Group. Raja’s daughter is still working with the company as one of the top business development professionals at Tessolve. Tessolve today has offices located in different parts of the world.
“If you build anything, build it to last,” he explains. Tessolve originally was meant to be the first manufacturing ATMP in India, but as Raja learnt that no one was interested in funding such a venture in the country, he had to change course and focus on semiconductor services. This is probably why Raja is with Tata now, working on establishing an ATMP/OSAT in the country. Raja still remembers a professor who had once told him, “Raja you are not made for writing codes or doing software. You are made for doing something revolutionary in the field of electronics manufacturing.”
The man behind India’s semiconductor dream says, “Those words still echo in my mind.”