From not knowing where money for his next meal would come from, and not being comfortable conversing in English until he was in his 20’s, to running a successful company in the US and earning revenue of almost $2.5 million a month – the story of NRI Saravanan Nagaraj (35) is inspiring.
Born in Virudhachalam, a small town in Tamil Nadu, Saravanan’s father ran a cycle rental shop, amongst running other small businesses, and his mother managed their home and her two kids, Saravanan and his younger sister, Priya.
Living in Virudhachalam was an experience that anyone who grew up in a small town would resonate with– life went on, people grew up with limited or no big ambition, and there was no “exposure”, says Saravanan, to what life could be like.
Computers – opening up a whole new world
When asked from where a small-town boy like him drew inspiration, Saravanan is quick to say it was computers. “It all started with computers – when I was in eleventh grade, the government had mandated that all students be introduced to computers, and that truly opened up possibilities for me. A small computer centre was set up in school and in eleventh and twelfth grade, I opted to study computer science,” he says.
Saravanan was so taken by the subject that he enrolled at NIIT for a follow up course. “The teacher, Vekatesh, at the centre loved my curiosity and took all the time in the world to explain things to me, which further kindled my interest. I knew I wanted to work with computers in some way, at that time, I wanted to become a programmer,” he says.
Putting in words the feeling Saravanan experienced when he was working with computers, he says, “It was like candy for a kid. Everything about it was alluring and I used to dream about it.”
First job at NIIT for Rs 750
“The first job I landed was just after I had written my Class 12 examination and was at NIIT for Rs 750 a month. I was expected to work all seven days of the week,” he says. He was all of 18 years of age and was already teaching computer languages to students pursuing engineering, MCA, and other graduation courses. “I found that being around computers and teaching it made me the happiest,” he says.
“Luckily,” Saravanan adds, “there wasn’t any pressure from the family in terms of what I needed to do in life. Whatever pressure came my way was all external and did not really shape the way I lived my life.” Saravanan also says he never heard anything from his parents that pulled him down or made him question any of his choices. “For that I am eternally grateful,” he says.
Moving to Chennai in search of better things
In 2003, Saravanan decided to move to Chennai. “I knew I wanted to do more, but had no idea what it would be. I came to Chennai with dreams but had nothing to really back myself,” he says. He recalls how not knowing English was a huge drawback. Speaking about some of the early interviews he attended in Chennai, he says, “I remember the interviewer asked me to introduce myself and beyond giving him my name I could not utter a word.”
He continues, “I sat in the reception and heard people around me talk in English, it was like an alien experience for me. Nobody in Virudhachalam spoke in English, even the English teacher in school never spoke an entire sentence in English.” Every interview Saravanan attended thereafter left him feeling the same way. He decided that learning English would be the obvious next step towards realising his dreams.
Starting from scratch
Saravanan enrolled in a two-month English speaking course where he developed his communication skills in the language. It wasn’t an easy journey for him and he says, “There were so many moments when I thought of giving up. I am very thankful to the ‘Saravanan’ who decided to not give up. That gruelling phase is what has helped me become the person I am today.”
Saravanan recollects going to the classes early everyday just so he could stand and watch a bunch of kids who would play outside speak in English. “I would just stand there and watch them all speak to each other in English – they were oblivious of my presence,” he says.
During this time, in 2003, Saravanan’s family also moved to Chennai and he says they were in a very bad place financially. “There were days when I borrowed money from friends only so we could have one meal for the day,” he says. Eventually the little money the family had saved up also ran out, and they had to start selling some of the jewellery Saravanan’s mother had collected. “Those were truly distressing times,” he says.
From Mobilink to Airtel and finally Sutherland
For Rs 1,700, Saravanan landed his first job in Chennai at Mobilink. “All I was told was that I would have to work all seven days and would not be eligible for any leaves whatsoever. If I was willing to work a night shift, the pay would increase by Rs 20, and I jumped at that,” he says. Saravanan continued working at Mobilink for a few months until an opportunity at Airtel came up.
“My next job at Airtel paid me Rs 4,500 and that was a huge jump from my previous salary,” he says. Saravanan was happy at this job and managed to perform well year on year, until another opportunity at Sutherland pulled him away. “This stability of a job was great, it allowed us to pay our rent and subsequently even move to another better house,” he says. This also gave him much-needed confidence, and in 2005, he applied for a job at Sutherland. He got promoted rather quickly, and five years at the job bagged him the opportunity to go to Fredericksburg, Virginia for 15 days.
America – the land where dreams come true
“For me, being in America was a dream come true,” he says. In 2010, Saravanan spent 15 days in the U.S. office and ensured he spoke to every single person there, whether they were part of his team or not. This very habit led to him meeting a colleague from another team, who sowed the idea of Saravanan becoming an entrepreneur in the U.S. “It was Kristiana Beard who felt that I would be able to run my own enterprise. I came back to Chennai, only to quit my job at Sutherland, which was paying me Rs 55,000 then, and decided to start something in the U.S.” When asked what made him quit, he says, “I knew the worst that could happen was me failing. I was willing to take that risk, rather than live with regret of never having tried.”
At the age of 26, in 2010, Saravanan set up Vanan Innovative Services (VIS), a data transcription company in Chennai, and left for the U.S. in the hope of being able to bring back projects for his company. Since he was still on a B1/B2 Visa (a temporary/non-immigrant U.S. visa that permits visitors to enter the U.S. for business purposes for up to six months and may be renewed once for up to a further six months), he shuttled between the two countries as often as he could.
“Even though I packed my bags and left for the U.S., I had no job in hand. I took up various odd-jobs and kept saving money along the way. What worked for me was the dedication that I had,” he says. All through this, given that Saravanan was on the B1/B2 visa, he kept coming back to India every few months. In 2011 Saravanan got his big break – a project that led to many other clients signing up with him for the services that his company was offering.
With the business picking up, in 2013, Saravanan moved his office from Gummidipoondi to Chennai and in 2015, moved to a bigger office in Chennai’s Ambattur area.
In 2016, Vanan Online Services was set up in Virginia with an initial registration fee of about $300, and a strength of 12 employees. In achieving all this, he credits a lot of his success to his sister, Priya, who manages the work in India.
In 2017 Saravanan packed his bags and left for the U.S. for good. He manages a team of almost 130 employees across U.S. and India. While before the pandemic, the company was able to make almost Rs 1.5 crore every month, it has been making close to Rs 75 lakhs every month now.
To those who might be looking for inspiration, Saravanan says, “Dream big and fail big. When you have that burning desire in you, you will find ways to improve and get there.”
If you wish to connect with Saravanan, follow him on Instagram here.
(Edited by Divya Sethu)