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An accomplished athlete, he played cricket and soccer on the beach, a miles-long stretch where the Arabian Sea laps gently on the sand and sunsets draw thousands of spectators. He remains so inspired by this setting that the mention of it moves him to recite from memory a line from poet John Masefield’s “Sea Fever”: “I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky.”
“It was a fabulous place to grow up,” says his sister Smita Deshpande, who now lives in Cupertino and works in high tech. “It was exactly like Hawaii.”
His father, the Captain, was general secretary of a national pilots’ association, a tough outdoorsman who rode horses, hunted big game (he taught Ranadivé to be an expert marksman) and was known for his tenacity. During WWII, when India was still under British rule, he flew “the Hump,” a route that ferried supplies over the Himalayas to the Chinese forces fighting Japan. It’s still considered one of the most dangerous missions of the war. Pilots took off from a military base just 90 feet above sea level, then quickly had to pull their heavily laden planes up to 10,000 feet to clear the first peaks, before ultimately crossing into China at 15,000 feet. There were no reliable charts, weather was fierce, and planes crashed or were shot down often. The Captain went down once, but was able to walk away. “Nothing would faze him,” says Ranadivé. “He was just fearless and really strong.”
Shortly before Ranadivé came to America, the Captain got in a public dispute with the government of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. As a leader of the country’s airline, Indian Airlines, the Captain was concerned about a new plane that he didn’t think was safe. He was vocally opposed to putting it in use and told his pilots not to fly it. India had been an independent country for less than 30 years, and Gandhi was its third prime minister. The nascent airline, despite its poor safety record, was a source of national pride and grounding its new planes was not a popular move.
The situation took a turn for the worse in June of 1975. Faced with growing political unrest on multiple fronts, Gandhi pushed the government to enforce the Maintenance of Internal Security Act, suspending civil liberties, shutting down some newspapers and triggering the arrests of thousands of political opponents. It is a period of Indian history known as “The Emergency,” when it was unclear whether democracy—or Gandhi’s foes—would survive.
“Fear was the main thing,” says UC Davis history professor Sudipta Sen of the era. “Very powerful people were hunted down and put in jail.”
The Captain was one of those arrested.
Ranadivé remembers waking up and seeing his father’s picture on the front page of the newspaper.
“It affected us very deeply and I think it had a long-lasting impact on our lives,” says Deshpande, the emotion of the memory catching in her soft and melodious voice. “Overnight, the life we knew just disappeared.”
The Captain was released from custody, but it was just the beginning of his troubles. He was blacklisted, unable to earn a living, and faced a lengthy court fight.
“When my father went through this, it was a very stressful period,” recalls Deshpande. “It’s not quite the way it is over here. If the government decides to blacklist you or arrest you, then it’s a pretty serious thing.”
Ranadivé is more taciturn about it. “I was a teenager so I was doing my thing,” he says, shrugging off the stress of finding out that his father was a political prisoner. “Maybe that’s just how I was brought up. You just fight the fight, however it is.”
When the arrest happened, Ranadivé, 17, had already started college at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), the country’s most prestigious high-tech university. But he had also been accepted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and was determined to go, although he never fully discussed it with his parents. He had dreamed of coming to America ever since listening to the moon landing on his cousin’s transistor radio when he was 11 years old. “It was the middle of the night and I heard Neil Armstrong say those words,” he says. “I said, ‘You know, this is unbelievable. Who are these people that were able to take a man, put him in a box and send him 250,000 miles away to land on a rock flawlessly the first time? I want to be one of them.’ ”
But the Indian government didn’t allow its currency, the rupee, to be converted into American dollars at the time. He didn’t have a way to pay. His parents weren’t against MIT, but didn’t understand why IIT wasn’t good enough. That, coupled with his dad’s ongoing legal and political battles, made it tough for Ranadivé to ask for money.
“I don’t think I would have gotten a lot of sympathy for what I was trying to do,” he says. But he isn’t sure, because he never asked his parents for help. “I just looked at it and said, ‘I’ll just figure this out,’ ” he says. “I have always wanted to be my own man.”
So he camped out at the office of the governor of the Reserve Bank of India all day, until he got five minutes with the man and convinced him to convert the cash for one semester of tuition, room and board, with fifty dollars on top. Vivek Ranadivé was coming to America.
When he left, his grandmother, Tara, went with him to the airport. Tara was the matriarch of the family, and a woman of deep and loud convictions whom Deshpande describes as “judgmental and critical, all for the right reasons.” She was a lawyer at a time when it was unusual for most Indian women to have a career. She strongly believed that Ranadivés had an obligation to fight for social justice because of their caste (the Hindu designation of social rank). The family is Kshatriya—born to be warriors and rulers. It is the caste of kings.
“This class fights for everything they believe is right. It’s your moral duty to take a stand and to do something when you know something’s wrong,” says Deshpande. “And this was one of the principles my grandmother had. She basically said it so many times that it became second nature to us.”
So as they drove in a Hindustan Ambassador through Bombay’s roadways to catch a middle-of-the-night flight to a new life, Tara reminded Ranadivé not to abandon the old one, to hold on to this centuries-old legacy of standing for something larger than himself. “My grandma said, ‘Remember you are a Kshatriya [warrior prince], but the battle you will fight is with yourself—always do the right thing,’ ” Ranadivé says.
It was the last time he would ever see Tara, but he has never forgotten her words.
* * *
Ranadivé graduated from MIT in 1979, earning both a bachelor’s and a master’s in electrical engineering in four years, an accomplishment that would normally take about six. He did a short stint as a manager and engineer at Ford, but left because he didn’t like its ethics. One day, he saw an assembly line worker take the trash from his lunch, throw it inside the open panel of a car door, then seal the door up. “I came from MIT, which was amazing,” he says. “And then I went to this place where people just didn’t have the same commitment to excellence. I didn’t like that.”
So, based on a tip from a former classmate, he took a job offer from Irwin Jacobs, a former MIT professor. Jacobs had a company in San Diego—Linkabit, a precursor to Qualcomm, the wireless technology giant. (His sons Hal, Jeff and Paul are part owners of the Kings. Paul now runs Qualcomm.) Ranadivé moved to Solana Beach near Del Mar and instantly felt at home. “I just love the whole California thing,” he says. “That people have this adventurous, open mind-set.”
He met a free-spirited blonde, Deborah Addicott, on a blind date and married her not long after. A nurse who was living with her grandmother, she was “just a very sweet, gentle person,” he says. Ranadivé had been accepted to Harvard Business School, but had deferred it in order to earn enough money to attend. After two years in Southern California, he decided to return to Boston to get his MBA. The couple moved to the East Coast, but before he had even finished his degree, Ranadivé took a product engineering job in California for a Bay Area company called Fortune Systems. He went to school during the week, then flew out on weekends to work whenever he could.
After graduating in 1983, the couple returned to California to an apartment in Menlo Park, not far from where his home stands now. Their first child, Aneel, was born in 1984. Within a week of his birth, Ranadivé returned to India to say goodbye to his mother, who was dying of cancer. Her illness had left her almost blind, so she was unable to see a photo of the baby, but she had knitted a blanket for her grandson with a lock of her hair intertwined in it. “I was very close to her, so it was a big deal for me,” he says of her death, describing her as “almost not real—she was so sweet and nice.”
Once he was back in California, Rana-divé knew he didn’t want to work for someone else. He had an idea for a company and wanted to be an entrepreneur. Trained as a hardware engineer, he understood that computers are built with a “bus,” a physical piece that other components plug into. But when it came to software, chaos ruled. There were no “turnkey” solutions in this era. Software programs often couldn’t interact with one another. If you wanted a piece of information that one generated, you opened that program. If you needed to put that information someplace else, it had to be done manually. This made no sense to Ranadivé. Why couldn’t the software applications talk to each other?
So he created a software bus (the “TIB” in TIBCO is an acronym for “the information bus”). The idea was to create one basic system that would run all the core functions of the computer and allow software to “plug” into it to perform other tasks. The different programs could then all communicate and share information.
* * *
In 1985, Ranadivé walked into the New York offices of Goldman Sachs and found two things: a big mess and a big opportunity. He had just received $250,000 in venture capital from Berkeley-based investors to start his own company, Teknekron Software Systems. As a favor to his investors, he had gone to the financial firm to evaluate a computer system that his investors were considering funding. What Ranadivé immediately noticed at Goldman was that traders sat at desks cluttered with monitors and cords, struggling to combine information from dozens of sources. In an industry where time is money, he saw waste—and the perfect situation to try out his streamlined solution.
He grabbed his chance and talked his way into the office of Robert Rubin, one of the top executives of the company (later secretary of the U.S. Treasury). Rubin was so impressed that he invited Ranadivé to pitch his partners on his idea to streamline data management at breakfast the next morning.
He was jet-lagged, and it was early. He was 28 years old and nervous. Breakfast was in the penthouse of the firm. “I took the elevator to the top of the building and they had this room, which was very fancy, and before the market opened, the top five guys would sit down and have breakfast,” he says. “These guys ruled Wall Street. Bob said to me, ‘Tell us what you were telling me yesterday.’ So then I started talking, and all of the sudden the door opened and this guy walked in. Bob just sent the guy away. So I start talking again and the door opens and this guy walks in again. [Bob] said, ‘Go away.’ So then the third time it happened, he said [to me], ‘Son, you’ve got to stop tapping your feet.’ I was so nervous that I kept [tapping] my feet. There was a little switch under the carpet and when I did that, it hit the switch and would summon the waiter. So it was the waiter that kept coming in.”
Despite the tap dance, Teknekron got a contract with Goldman and is widely credited with digitizing Wall Street by bringing “real-time” information like stock quotes and news to the trading floor, all accessible from one computer. Data that had taken days or weeks to analyze and put together was now available in seconds. It was a transformative change for companies like Goldman Sachs.
But Teknekron’s success became a problem for Ranadivé. He grew it to about 200 employees and $8 million in annual revenue by 1992. Its much-larger rival, Reuters, decided it would make a good takeover—and Ranadivé’s investors decided to take their profit. The company was sold to Reuters for $125 million in 1993, with Ranadivé leading it as an independent subsidiary. It made Ranadivé a rich man, but at a steep cost—his big idea now belonged to someone else.
“I wanted to keep it, but I didn’t have a choice,” he says of the sale. “[My investors] just wanted to cash out and sell.”
Ranadivé stayed on as CEO with his new corporate bosses for four more years, continuing to help grow the business. But despite his financial windfall, he wasn’t satisfied. He wanted his company back. Over dinner at his home one night, he convinced the chairman of Reuters to let him split off on his own in 1997 (with Reuters taking an ownership stake), licensing back the technology and focusing on businesses outside of the financial sector, essentially paying rent to use his own idea. TIBCO still runs on this license today.
In July of 1999, TIBCO held a hugely successful IPO with a stock price that more than doubled on the first day. But only a month earlier, Ranadivé’s wife Deborah filed for divorce. There is a slight shift in his tone as he speaks about it. “Usually I found that you get to do what you want if you work hard,” he says. “I think the one area that didn’t happen in is when I got divorced, when my wife divorced me. I thought I’d done everything right, but it didn’t work.”
“I think there’s probably a lot of hurt,” says Aneel, the eldest of the three Ranadivé kids, who was a teenager when his parents split. “At the time, it just seemed like there were just cultural differences—I think Mom was on the far side of being a free spirit and my dad was on the opposite side of just kind of trying to be really focused and have things a certain way. And so in a way, to me, their divorce kind of made sense.”
Ranadivé remained involved with his kids despite the split, sharing custody. Aneel, who played multiple sports growing up, says, “I have memories of hours upon hours of him helping me drill, playing tennis, going out and playing catch. He was definitely there for all those moments.” But, he adds, Ranadivé wasn’t like the other “American” parents who were “patting their kids on the back and saying, ‘You’re so awesome.’ My dad would constantly be pushing me to expect more of myself. And I always really respected that.”