How I Did It: Prathiba Ramadoss CEO, Business Integra
As told to Nitasha Tiku
Industry: IT Services
2007 Inc. 500 Ranking: 118
Three-Year Growth: 1,450.2%
Prathiba Ramadoss emigrated from Chennai, a coastal city in southeast India, to St. Paul in 1999; she was 21 years old, newly married, and determined to start a business. Two years later, with a six-month-old in tow, she launched an IT staffing firm, Business Integra, from her garage, doggedly calling 50 to 60 companies a day until her husband, Selva Jay, a software consultant, came home to help her tackle the West Coast. With Jay as her CTO, Ramadoss has transformed her company (now based in Maryland) into a full-scale contracting firm and software developer with $4.7 million in sales. Along the way she has developed a hybrid Indian-American approach to doing business.
It was very difficult initially. When I called companies, they wouldn't listen--probably because of my accent. They would just hang up the phone. I don't blame them; they tend to get numerous calls a day. But I was patient and persistent. I would call the next day and say, "Sorry, when I called you yesterday the phone got disconnected. That was my fault, but I have some good consultants looking for a project, so if you have anything coming up I'd be happy to help." Now one of the companies that hung up on me calls me every day to get into our vendor program.
My degree was in zoology, but my husband's experience in IT made it easy for me to transition. Otherwise, I would have gone into biotech.
They say behind every successful man is a good woman. Well, I have a good man behind me. Selva molded me into this level. It would have been different if I was in India, but here I am shy. He taught me the business way of talking. Like when we speak to clients, we should refer to our consultants as resources, not people. Because of my background in science, I also didn't have an in-depth knowledge of things like Dot.NET, Java, and data warehousing, which he explained to me. I'm planning to enroll in an M.B.A. program--once I have a little more time.
Almost half our consultants are from India. This year, the quotas for the H1-B visas were filled in two days. It was a surprise that they went so quickly, but we were lucky. Out of the 125 applications, we got 76--some companies didn't get any. We're not H1-B dependent, though; we also have other avenues like recruiting foreign students in American colleges, H1-B transfers from other companies, green card holders, and American citizens.
Right now, only 20 percent of our revenue is from federal contracts. We want to increase that. If you look at the federal IT sector budget, there is $60 billion to $70 billion spent within 45 miles of Washington. So in 2003 we moved our headquarters from St. Paul to Greenbelt, Maryland. At the same time, we opened an office in Chennai. Right now it's mainly back-office processing for our recruiting efforts. But the goal eventually is to also place the consultants we recruit there in outsourcing operations within India.
When we bring consultants from India on a new H1-B, we provide them initial accommodations at our guesthouse in Maryland until they get their first project. We adopted this practice from India, where larger companies often have guesthouses in other cities where their employees can stay. Food is on us, whatever their needs are. Everything is on us.
In order to diversify, we started developing two kinds of software targeted toward small businesses. It's the nature of the industry. We have a good hold on staffing, but we can only do so much with it, so the next level is product mode. Consultants from our board come in to help us.
Working in a country where I was not born has been a mind-boggling challenge. This is kind of a big country compared with my India.