A Gigantic Leap of Faith: Raghib Hussain

Mention ‘success’ and ‘Pakistani IT’ and the name Raghib Hussain pops out of everyone’s mouth. And quite rightly so, Raghib’s journey from Karachi to Silicon Valley and founding and running one of the fastest growing fabless semiconductor companies in the world, is a pretty incredible one.

Raghib was born tenth in a family of 12 children to parents who had migrated from India to Karachi with a meager Rs.250 a few years after Pakistan achieved independence. His father completed his basic studies in India and got married at an early age, a norm at that time in India. Forced to migrate with a one year old and with no financial sustenance, he had no option but to take on a junior level government job instead of pursuing education. The financial stability may not have been great, but he built a strong professional and personal life on the pillars of honesty, integrity and a strong work ethic; values that his children inherited in abundant quantities. By the time Raghib was born, his older siblings were also working and contributing to the household.

Raghib attended what is referred to as a ‘peela school’ or a Government-run school. While they aren’t known for imparting quality education, his siblings did help him through his education and the lessons discussed all around him, made him grow up very quickly. “We wanted to believe we were part of the middle class, but we didn’t even meet that financial benchmark. Being such a big family, there were always challenges,” he explains, “but I think it was the lack of resources that made us struggle even more.”
Raghib’s day was the same as any other school child, school in the morning and some playtime in the afternoon with two exceptions: they had to first focus on their schoolwork and though they could play amongst each other, they were not allowed to laze around. This may have been a side effect of the fact that one of Raghib’s elder sister was kidnapped at an early age when Raghib was a year old who was found fifteen years later. “It was a different environment to grow up in fear and financial distress, however, the mindset of hope and energy kept us focused and differentiated us from the other families in the area. There was a lot of focus on education and building a strong work ethic.”

It all started with Raghib and his eleven siblings in a house that had three rooms and spanned 120 square yards of total land. Today, the Cavium campus spans across over 200,000 square foot and has a presence that spans across the United States, India, Taiwan and China.

This is the kind of rags-to-riches life story that can inspire you to change the world.

Crowded House
“My grand parents were landlords in India.. When they migrated to Pakistan, they could not bring any assets with them and realized that if they wanted us to do anything significant in life, a strong education is key.” While at school, Math was his favorite subject because it appealed to his analytical mind. “In Pakistan,” begins Raghib, “there used to be a few standard studies people could apply for: Engineering, Medicine, Accounting and Business.” Though his background in mathematics was strong, he didn’t find much scope in Accounting because he didn’t find much innovation in the field. “Medicine was not for me because that required a lot of memorization and instruction, both things I was not very good at.” Raghib understood concepts and visualized them better than what was in the textbooks. Engineering allowed him to study and apply his knowledge in a constructive and analytical way.

Until Raghib began his studies at NED, his focus had always been on the grades, after all, that’s the only way success is measured in the school system. A subject that Raghib believe needs to be addressed. “My thinking completely changed at NED. Teachers like Professor Noman and Professor Neelofur Master had a lot to do with that mindset change.” The change in approach towards learning and developing ideas that had an impact was incredibly liberating and thus the entrepreneurial seeds were sown.

There is a strong NED fraternity of Tech Entrepreneurs in the Valley who were part of a group called YCP, or Youth Conservation Program. “It started like any other non-profit, social welfare type of activity where we’d go and improve the schooling in a very poor community or provide them assistance. In reality, however, it was a group of like-minded people who were on a mission to collectively solving big problems, one bit at a time. That sense of responsibility gave all of us in the group greater incentive to complete our education and make something of ourselves.” NED, is an educational institution, which, is full of shining stars. And the university, like any other in Pakistan, has its set of challenges, but the YCP kept them going and transformed them into gems. “We may have been deprived of a lot of things at the institution, but we had the appreciation of one fact: regardless of our background, we will be the ones responsible for what our life becomes.”

The difference between this group and the rest of the students at NED was becoming more noticeable. “90% of the students had their goals on graduating and landing a job. And we’d always see them learning beyond coursework, analyzing complex technical and social problems and challenging each other. All of us wanted to learn and use our knowledge to make an impact. All of them with innovative, out-of-the-box thinking and the willingness to make an impact. “If we don’t use the analytical power and capabilities, what we call ‘shaoor’ in Urdu, that humans have been blessed with, that’s just a waste.” For a few, that’s a serious concoction that could result in not just change, but transformation.

Answers have to be sought out. Students have to be given the flexibility and space to be able to learn how to think outside the box. This is how innovation is nurtured. “Rote learning and dictating questions and answers from books does not help. That only makes every individual a product of in a mass production assembly line producing corporate workers and removes the power of thinking. That is just not acceptable to me. And because the norm isn’t acceptable to me, the desire to create and innovate became stronger.”

1987 was a very turbulent time for Pakistan and especially Karachi. Universities had shut down for unknown durations forcing the entire education system to come to a halt. “I remember NED was shut for 6-7 months. Many of my friends who could afford it, escaped to the US. I personally had no funds to do so, but I kept thinking – if I ever got the chance, I couldn’t think of a better place than the United States. Whatever I had learned about different countries through my studies and the books I had consumed, I had the greatest respect for freedom, justice and equality in the US. If you have freedom and a fair system, people are treated equally and you can pursue your definition of success.”

These were ideas that Raghib had learned to appreciate throughout his life, reinforced through books in an age much before the age of Internet. “Most importantly, the culture of questioning anything and everything and to use the greatest gift Allah has given us, our brain and not accepting “this is how we have always done it” mindset. It was all of these things that made the United States a very attractive option.” The only way Raghib could have gone to USA was through a University scholarship F1 or through a company sponsored H1 visa, but he didn’t want to risk compromising his education.

As luck would have it, Professor Noman introduced him to Idris Kothari and Saeed Kazmi who had a company in Silicon Valley, Semi-Custom Logic and had just started a subsidiary office in Karachi. He was hired as a Design Engineer. It was a tough decision but Idris’s brother, Muder Kothari happened to also meet Raghib and over time, Muder helped Raghib define what he wanted to do with his career. In fact, when Raghib eventually moved to the US, the network of people like Idris, Kazmi and Muder, were his lifeline. Based on Raghib’s progress, Idris decided to invite him to USA for advanced training. On Raghib’s first day, when Idris introduced him to his new role, and explained what needed to be done during his stay, he asked Raghib where he wanted to be in 5 years. “I want to be in your seat” said Raghib. “I remember Idris appreciating my response and saying, ‘Maybe one day, I will be able to work for you.’ That was a huge confidence booster for me.”

Keeping in line with the culture of companies that have offshore offices, engineers are often brought out into the headquarters for purposes of training and exposure, and Raghib clicked right into place.

Onward to Cavium
The idea of Cavium was not the first thing that clicked for Raghib. His first exposure to entrepreneurship was when he was in NED and made an Anti-virus computer program. “I started studying how computer viruses work in an effort to learn creative programming. One day it occurred to me, to instead make a ‘good virus’, one that protects computer files instead of causing harm.” This thought drove Raghib to create a vaccine for computer viruses that he called general purpose virus protection system, because, once a good computer file gets protected by this, it could never be infected by any file virus.

After coming to the United States and transitioning from being a trainee to being a full time employee, Raghib experienced the whole cycle of a venture funded startup when he was part of founding team of an internet security startup, called VPNet. After working for several startups as a part of Cadence Design Systems, Raghib ended up at networking equipment giant Cisco Systems. At Cisco, Raghib was responsible for developing the services card of their flagship switching product. He had joined a team of a few hundred engineers working on a program that was eventually shelved. “We had all spent a lot of time and energy on the development and it was incredible how we, the engineers who built things, had no knowledge and control of the future of our own project.” While he understood the decision from a business perspective, the lack of control and knowledge was just not acceptable.

He quit Cisco and started doing a few things on his own in addition to a low overhead job. None of those ideas worked. The challenge was his lack of business understanding. “Again, Muder really helped me understand things more, especially on the business side of things. I knew I needed good and very skilled people around me if I wanted to do something big.” It was Muder who introduce Raghib to his present business partner and CEO of Cavium, Syed Ali. The partnership and chemistry between the partners can make or break businesses. “Syed has a strong business acumen and it complements my technical skills.”

Cavium was originally named Caveo Networks as our first product was focused on Network security and Caveo mean ‘to protect’. Later they had to change the name due to some legal and trademark related complications. Trying variations of it, they agreed that Cavium was unique and still relatable as the original identity they had started with.

A jobless Raghib hashed out the business plan and began laying the groundwork for Cavium with Syed. He couldn’t have quit at a worse time. He had no savings and was a first time homebuyer. His financing requests to the bank were rejected. Not only did he have a house to support but also a 3-month old son to think of. “I continued as a part-time consultant. My day would start at 6am, work 8-10 hours for the consultancy and the remaining 8-10 hours on bringing Cavium to life.” It was a challenging period to say the least because as is often the case, timing is everything.

Think of a startup as a short fuse, explains Raghib. “There is always the pressure of time no matter what. And things happen very quickly no matter how much you try to control things. We were focused and had well defined goals, but there were at least 6 other companies who were starting off in the same space. If you are aiming to be the best and the first, you have to work harder and faster than anyone else out there.”

Cavium’s approach to chip design was from the application side of things where most companies were focusing on the hardware solution. “Because I had experience in hardware, software and systems, I felt our approach was better because I could analyze all the ideas with a macro perspective and then design the interface and offload in a smarter way. Our product just gave better system performance because no matter how good your offload capability, if the integrating system doesn’t gain value from it, you are out of the game. That’s what differentiated us and we were lucky to have a good engineering team to be able to execute this design.” Cavium had a niche focus and a differentiated product, which was in tremendous demand by every company operating in the IT Security space.

Today, Cavium designs, develops and markets semiconductor processors for intelligent and secure networks. A provider of integrated semiconductor processors, Cavium enables processing for networking, communications, storage, wireless, security and video servicing the needs of Enterprise, service providers and data centers. Essentially everything in the networking world that has to be delivered fast, in an efficient and secure manner, the majority of this equipment runs Cavium chips in them. As the number of speed and content-hungry devices continue to explode, Cavium plays a critical role in aligning service providers and data centers to better manage this demand.

And demand continues to grow with the mobility explosion and the need for high-quality video, voice over IP, and cloud services playing a more significant role in the enterprise landscape. Users have zero tolerance for sluggish networks and competition is measured between companies who have less than a millionth of a second difference in performance. Network service providers look towards companies like Cavium to develop more performance-oriented technology that can make their products and services more efficient and optimized.

As a result, there is growing pressure on providers of networking equipment, wireless, storage and electronic equipment to rapidly introduce new products with enhanced functionality while reducing their design and manufacturing costs. Providers of networking, wireless, storage and electronic equipment are increasingly seeking advanced processing solutions from third-party vendors to access the best available technology and reduce development costs, and therein lies the niche Raghib and Syed positioned their company in.

Their customers include Cisco, NSN, Huawei, Palo Alto Networks, F5, Dell and NetGear just to name a few. Cavium has ranked as America’s Fastest Growing Companies by Deloitte’s 2013 Technology Fast 500 for the 6th consecutive year. Raghib himself has 17 technology patents issued to his name, though he has several pending patents.

Trendsetting the Future
Silicon Valley is known for hosting the world’s most innovative companies who embrace technology much before anyone else, explains Raghib. “Not only are you aggressive, but everyone who works here, is aggressive. The only way your product or company will grow is if it gives real value. That’s the only goal we had – whatever we created for whichever space we did, it had to provide real value to the end product.”

“While we were growing up, my father used to say, ‘’what one man can do, you can do’, always talking about the human spirit and how everyone has the ability to do the best; the only thing that differentiates them is their resolve and how driven they are. It’s a matter of what you are willing to sacrifice to achieve it.

Each person has been blessed with certain skills and talent, which, if used and nurtured, can help them do anything. “My strengths were my analytical skills, my ability to adapt to situations and listen to and trust the people around me. The belief in the fact that hard work pays off is almost magical. While I believe in luck and fate, I also believe that you can change your fate by focus and prayer” And who better would know it than Raghib Hussain?

Cavium is on a strong path to be the next billion-dollar semiconductor franchise. “We have a very good team, a clear vision and a great market condition.” In addition to his team, Raghib speaks very fondly about his wife. After all, had she not supported his decision to jump off a cliff, perhaps life would have been very different. “At the time, she had just come from Pakistan and she believed in me no matter what. That has always been very reassuring and I may not verbalize it but I have a great respect for that.”

Aligned with the vision of America Raghib had when he had first come, the culture in his company is open and equal for all. When asked about the business consideration of Pakistan, Raghib said that the law and order situation has to improve, otherwise it will be limited opportunities for foreign investment in Pakistan. In addition, government should improve infrastructure and make it really attractive to invite and support foreign business.

Raghib Hussain has achieved some incredible milestones in his life. Like many, he may have never envisioned his journey to lead him up a path where he would be one of the most successful companies in the history of tech. But what we see as his success documented over the course of a few pages, took a lot of hard work and skill to achieve.

Not bad for a young boy who had talent, skill and the commitment to change his life.

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