Meet a Member: Chandu Shah
Continuing with our feature series on the members of TiE Boston, we spoke with TiE Boston Charter Member, Chandu Shah, President & CEO of S4 Inc., about his entrepreneurial journey and how TiE was a part of it.
Born in a small village in Gujarat, I grew up in Bombay and came to the US in 1984. My background in business started in Bombay. With a Bachelors in Business and Accounting, I started my career as a lecturer in economics at one of the colleges in the University of Bombay. Having just recently graduated, I felt like one of the students. With a class of only 120 people, I was able to experiment around. One Friday afternoon for class, I changed up the lecture and took all 120 students to go see a newly released movie in a theatre nearby. By the time I was 22, I was the Vice Principal of a newly-started junior college. Between all of this, I ran a professional theatre group in Mumbai and was popularly known as a young Gujarati poet.
After coming to the US in ’84, I first worked at an investment firm (Putnam) in downtown Boston for about 5 years, before going to work for my brother’s company in the aerospace defense area. I worked there for about 10 years as a financial officer before starting my own company in 1999 in the same aerospace defense industry. Working at my brother’s company gave me the chance to learn the basics of the defense contracting business and reach a point where I thought I had learned enough. I was lucky that I had a mentor and a company to fall back on, as many people aren’t that fortunate to have a place to go back to should they fail. I started a one-person company on my own and had to go find my opportunities. I tapped into my network and was lucky to have an opportunity to go and interview in Omaha, Nebraska for a large company called TRW. Luckily, I was successful and ended up on the team for their bidding contract. Ultimately, they lost the bid. Despite this, the excitement of working hard for six months fueled my desire to stick with entrepreneurship and motivated me to keep searching for opportunities. I was so passionate to win that first contract that I ended up buying a small company of 5 part time people from the winning team. At first, it was not a huge revenue generator but it became the catalyst for landing one big contract in Orlando. That was really the start of my company, S4 Inc.
How did you get involved with TiE Boston?
I was involved with TiE before TiE was TiE. My friends Samir Desai, Yash Shah, Santhana Krishnan and a few others used to meet in Carlisle, MA in Bharat Patel’s garage once a month to connect with other business people and talk about things. So TiE Boston is actually a start up from a garage. At that time, I hadn’t started my own business yet but that was the beginning that gave me courage to accomplish something new in business. Unfortunately, I can’t work with many companies that are a part of TiE network due to the classified nature of my business. That being said, I am good friends with a lot of initial founders of TiE. TiE has become a very good platform to meet people and network.
Have you ever faced challenges or adversity? How did you overcome those obstacles?
Just like many other entrepreneurs, I have my own share of struggles. There have been times where there was no money to make the payroll, so I had to borrow money by giving away shares of the company. If possible, aim to have some financial support. In my case, my wife, Eshani, kept working so we would have one salary coming in, which makes her a co-founder of my business. For a few years into the business, I could not really take out any money. The early budgeting can ultimately be the toughest part of any entrepreneurial journey. Sometimes, one will be surprised by the unexpected things that end up helping them out. For example, after two years of starting my own company and really not getting anywhere, and being a little frustrated too, I was at a big Air Force IT conference when an old man and I were joking around. He told me he could get my company some work and I ended up taking the gamble. I told him I’d give him half now, but if he was successful I’d pay him double. It worked out and we ended up winning our first Air Force contact. Following that, he continued to bring us more and more opportunities. It’s still strange to think our meeting was just by chance and that got my company started.
Advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?
In one word, I would say persistence. You do not give up. If you have a vision, if you know what you want to do, if you know where you want to go, if you know how you’re going to go there, do not give up. After a few years, my company S4 Inc. and I were featured by the Small Business Administration (SBA) as a regional success story. This was featured in 22 metro cities in the US with journals like Boston Business Journal. SBA Boston office recognized me as the ‘Minority Business Person of the Year Award’ in 2008. But the lesson is that all of that took time and persistence.
There are a lot of talented people who have not started their entrepreneurial journey just because they are just sitting on the fence. If you have an idea, if you want to do it, I think you should just do it. There’s no other way. You could be thinking about it for years and years, and you still won’t be ready. Find a mentor somewhere in the industry or even outside industry, but someone who was successful and has seen some of the obstacles and can advise on how to get through them. Simplicity and clarity will get you through. Focus ! Focus ! Focus !
The other thing I would say is one has to find and retain the right talent. Without that, it is always a struggle, because there are a lot of areas operating a company that need unique skills and competences. This also means you need to trust the people you hire.
Could you share your other pursuits beyond your company?
I have two books of poetry published and written many stage musicals in my own language (Gujarati), including an adaptation of West Side Story. One of my poetry books is all about blue jeans. The language is in terms of blue jeans, but it talks about our human genes. In my language, Gujarati, both the jeans are spelled the same way. Both my Gujarati poetry books were subscribed as text books for masters students in SNDT College, University of Mumbai. Boston Consulting Group did a study for three years on what poetry brings to business. As part of that study they selected 10 poets from the world who are also successful CEOs. I was one of the 10 that was included in the publication, by University of Michigan press, titled ‘What Poetry Brings to Business’. They also took us to MBA classes to speak to students about how a CEO who is an artist or a writer might have a different approach to entrepreneurship. In addition, I have made some films in Bollywood and as an independent filmmaker in the US. I recently executively produced a film with Ben Kingsley as a star titled ‘Dali Land’ based on the life of famous Spanish Artist Salvador Dali. The film was shot in UK in March 2021, with a tentative release later this year. While all these pursuits exist outside of my company, they have influenced and nurtured my business approach for years.