If you’re questioning whether the American dream is still alive, one conversation with Bhushan and Swatee Kulkarni will not only restore your faith, but inspire you as well. Nearly 25 years ago, the couple left their homes in India for the U.S. to pursue a higher education and never went back.
Since coming to America, Bhushan has become an accomplished serial entrepreneur who has built four successful technology based startups—Quantum, InTouch, GDI InfoTech (an Inc. 500 company), and most recently, InfoReady. He has been named Ernst & Young “Entrepreneur of the Year,” Crain's Detroit Business “40 Under 40,” and “Who's Who in Technology Services,” and in 2002 won Crain's “American Dreamer Award.”
As Principal and founding member of GDI, Swatee has been working with GDI InfoTech, Inc. since inception. She is a key executive and is involved in varied areas such as corporate recruiting, solution development, marketing and client engagements.
“Between 1998 and 2001, we tripled our size in growth and revenue,” Bhushan said. “We were the number-one fastest growing privately held company in Michigan three years in a row, and we made it to as high as #32 in the nation in terms of growth. At our peak in 2000, we had 400 employees. When the dotcom bust happened in 2001 we were forced to change our business model and really targeted our focus around information management. Today, we have over 200 employees worldwide.”
The Road Less Traveled
Bhushan and Swatee grew up together, being both raised in the same town and studying engineering in Mumbai. Being three years ahead of Swatee, Bhushan was the first to receive his undergraduate degree and left for the U.S. to pursue graduate studies in mechanical and aerospace engineering at West Virginia University in 1985.
To figure out which university to attend back then was not an easy process. “There was no Internet, no way to quickly or easily check out various universities,” Bhushan said. “We would have to go to an American library, take books out one after another, then write to the universities we were interested in to request an application package. After a package would arrive, and you had a question, you would have to write them back, so it was a year-long process to just figure out which universities you wanted to apply to. Once you decided that, then it became an even longer process to send transcripts, test scores, and go back and forth before everything was final.”
Swatee added, “Generally you would find a concentration of foreign students at particular universities because students would write back to their friends and family about particular schools. They’d say come here or don’t come here, so it was word of mouth.”
“My eldest son is in his first year at MSU and when I dropped him off, I couldn’t help but wonder what my own father had been thinking when he dropped me off at the airport in Mumbai, never knowing when we would speak or see each other again” Bhushan said.
Phone calls home were rare. They were usually timed around someone’s birthday because it was so expensive, according to Bhushan.
“The first minute call to India was $2.60, every minute after was $1.50. So calling home was expensive. No texting, no Skype, no traveling. We mainly relied on letters to communicate with each other, which took three weeks to get there. So if you needed to ask for something, you needed to ask six weeks in advance,” he explained.
Michigan was never on their radar screen. After Bhushan received his M.S. in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and was studying for his PhD in 1988, advisors suggested he check out a summer internship at Ford Motor Company in Dearborn, as a means to obtain “real world” experience before starting the fall semester. Bhushan went to work for Ford and never went back to finish his PhD.
When Swatee completed her undergraduate degree, Bhushan suggested that she come to America and get her masters from EMU in Ypsilanti. She took him up on his offer and started her graduate studies at EMU, but then transferred to Toledo University so she could specialize in artificial intelligence and received her masters in electrical engineering. The pair married in 1989 and has been in the area — and together – ever since.
“I originally thought I’d come to the U.S., get a higher education then go back to India to start my own business,” Bhushan said. “Then it became get experience then go back, then it was get my green card then go back, then start a global business and keep going back — I never went back.”
Land of Opportunity
It was the opportunity to learn, to venture out and try new things that kept them in U.S.
“A lot of people take it for granted who have not seen the world,” Bhushan said. “We’ve traveled the world and this really is a land of opportunity. At the time we left India it was more who did you know, how much money did you have, not so much because you had a passion, were hungry and wanted to work hard and make the impossible possible. Of course India has changed quite a bit since then, but back then the expectation was that once you’re done with education, you’re done. There was no concept of delving any deeper and getting a higher degree or doing research. Then it was more academic, instructional education, not so much research or innovation-based. So I tell my friends you don’t know what you have until you get out and experience something elsewhere.”
The Kulkarni’s not only have created successful start-ups employing hundreds of people through the years, but they also believe very strongly in giving back to their communities. Bhushan is currently serving on boards of several non-profit organizations in Michigan. Some of these organizations include Ann Arbor SPARK, Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation, and Foundation for Saline Area School. Over the past 15 years, he has also served on the boards of Walsh College, Ann Arbor Area Chamber of Commerce, Ann Arbor IT Zone, Ann Arbor Art Center, Information Technology Association of Michigan (ITEAM) and the American Society of Engineers of Indian Origin (ASEI). Swatee is very active within the local community and is involved with the Science and Math Olympiad programs for middle school and high school students. They have instilled the same strong sense of community and entrepreneurialism to their three sons.
“We always tell our boys that we expect three things from them — to get good grades, find a stable and understanding spouse, and start their own business,” Swatee explained. “Starting your own business connects you with a much higher cause and makes you humble as you go through ups and downs.”
Surely the type of advice that will assure Michigan continues to benefit from the Kulkarni’s presence for generations to come.
The Kulkarni’s are definitely following their advice closely. While Swatee has stepped up to play a bigger role at growing GDI InfoTech, Bhushan’s new venture, InfoReady Corporation is growing rapidly right here in Michigan.