Ragu Bhargava is not only a successful serial entrepreneur, he is probably the most optimistic one.
In his view, there is no problem that cannot be solved. Ragu’s driving idea – the idea that animates his life, that guides his business and makes him show up to work at 4:00 am – is that there is always a way. Whether it is people, process or technology – everything can be made better with the right skills and the right tools.
This month we caught up with Ragu who told CEO Today about his journey from India, to Alaska, to the Silicon Valley, and his prescient take on the limitless potential of saying ‘yes’.
Ragu is the CEO of Global Upside and its sister companies Global PEO Services and Mihi Software. Collectively, the Global Upside group provides HR, Payroll, Accounting, Tax, Compliance, PEO, and Talent Acquisition services in 100+ countries.
Ragu is an award-winning entrepreneur and a highly sought after expert on international business. In 2017, he won the “Pride of India” Award at the House of Lords in London; appeared on Kathy Ireland’s show ‘Worldwide Business’, which aired on Bloomberg and Fox Business across the globe; and was among a select group of US entrepreneurs invited by the Chinese Government to attend the China’s OBOR Summit. He regularly speaks at industry conferences and most recently, Ragu was the keynote speaker at the World Trade Centre Entrepreneurship Summit in Alaska.
Ragu is also a philanthropist who avidly supports children’s education and end-hunger programmes.
Prior to co-founding Global Upside, Ragu was the Chief Financial Officer at ActivIdentity (NASDAQ:ACTI) and held leadership positions in several companies including Deloitte and NetIQ (NASDAQ: NTIQ), where he played a key role in helping the company grow from $20 million to over $300 million in revenue.
Yours is not the typical Indian-American Dream story – a nerdy Indian starts a computer company in a Silicon Valley garage and makes it big. Your road to Silicon Valley came via Alaska – tell us about your journey.
Yes, Alaska is an unlikely choice for someone who grew up in the hot desert region of India. I came to Alaska as I had family there and felt that there would be some support structure for me, though in reality, we were pretty much on our own from very early on. I came to the US with my wife and mother – got into school, worked multiple jobs and so began my journey to where I am today. I chose to study accounting and worked very hard to do well in school. I came to Alaska with mere $5 in my pocket due to strict currency controls. I had to support my mother and wife, very quickly realizing that it wouldn’t be an easy ride.
It’s interesting you chose this route even though you were born to a very privileged family. Tell us why?
I was indeed born with a silver spoon – having everything I needed, but as luck would have it, I was given a chance to come to the US. I didn’t have to come here but I did – it was a huge risk, yet something in me told me to take it. Once I was here – it’s wasn’t easy but I knew that I wanted to give it my best shot. It meant working hard and working smart, so I focused on getting a good education and doing jobs that allowed me to stay focused. I eventually got a job at Deloitte where I quickly moved up the ranks. After 10 years in Alaska and Silicon Valley with Deloitte, I transfered to corporate life and became Controller and then CFO of public companies; in these roles, I handled complex M&As and IPOs and even more complex finance and accounting challenges.
In hindsight, I was lucky enough to be exposed to some very challenging situations and was smart enough to say yes to take them on. It laid the foundation of what’s been the driving force for me – in the words of Thomas Jefferson: “I am a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it.”
How did Global Upside happen?
Gita, my wife was also working in accounting, and I saw a challenge in the market. There was a lot of work as companies were growing at an explosive pace – they needed back office support with knowledgeable people who could run their accounting and finance operations efficiently, while they focus on their core business – and there was a tremendous shortage of qualified personnel. We quickly moved to fill this gap. We put together a small but highly talented team, led by Gita, and built our own technology solution to help us work fast and efficiently; internet connections in those days were not as reliable.
What truly differentiated us is our can-do attitude and ability to think out of the box. We were a brand new company, so winning client trust was difficult, but our technology was a real game changer. It allowed us to work on client data overnight without being at their site and have everything ready for them when they came to work in the morning.
A large Silicon Valley company asked us why they should hire us. Gita’s response was to ask to visit their office. She went on site, reviewed their accounting process, and interviewed key stakeholders. She gave the client a simple list of what was wrong, how we can fix it, and how quickly. No frills, no big spiel. We won that client.
Are you an accidental entrepreneur then?
I am an opportunist – Gita and I share that same spirit. We saw an opportunity and decided to go for it.
Immigrants don’t leave their home country to necessarily run a company; they leave their safety net to really succeed and make something for themselves and their families. Life gave me an opportunity and brought me to a point where I could choose the comfort of my home and a very successful family business or take a risk and start from scratch. I chose the latter – to take a chance at making a better life for myself and my family.
You are very successful in your own right but also married to an equal maverick. Tell us what it is like to be a power couple.
Yes, I am married to an incredible lady. Gita is a talented professional and a very dedicated wife and mother. She is the one who ran the company while I was busy being a CFO, all the while raising our three kids and taking care of my aging mother. She is the COO of Global Upside today and personally manages all aspects of our client service and delivery. Our client retention rates are a testimony to her skill. I truly look up to Gita – she is my closest adviser and friend.
There are no conflicts?
Plenty, especially since we are in business together. The hardest part sometimes is getting on the same page and not constantly bringing work home. But after 30 years, we’ve figured it out.
Every success story has its dark moments. Tell us about yours.
We have had our setbacks. Global Upside had won a big client and we were in a great place. Business was doing well, we were getting better and better at our service delivery, and were beginning to plan for the next phase. But then we suffered a major loss – our largest client, who represented a very large portion of our revenue, gave us notice of termination.
It was a sink or swim moment for us. But setbacks are great teachers. If nothing else, they teach you to survive. I didn’t see it then, but it turned out that losing this client was the best thing that could have happened to us – it made us reinvent, rethink, and work harder than ever before.
We entered one of the most creative periods of our lives. During the next few years, I worked hard on diversifying our client base and expanding our global reach, which now spans 100+ countries.
How has the company grown in terms of operations and service offerings since 1999?
We were once known primarily for our accounting expertise, but most of the time, clients need more. In response, we added comprehensive human resources, payroll, finance, and talent acquisition capabilities – essentially everything you need to run a business. Think of us like an innovative operating system that keeps business running wherever you operate.
Our growth has mirrored our client needs. We acquired a staffing company because we realized finding good talent continues to be a challenge globally. We founded Global PEO Services to cater to a growing need for a lightweight solution for hiring employees overseas quickly.
Most recently – and this is my favourite story – we became a software company after a client commissioned us to find them a technology solution. They needed a software to manage time and attendance and benefits for their global employee base with built-in measures to keep them compliant. We did extensive research and found there was no single software for this. You had to combine multiple solutions for different countries. We went to the client with a PowerPoint of what was available in the market and added a final slide with Global Upside on it. We came to them witha proposal for building this technology that could solve their challenge and explained why we could do it. Their faith in us lead to the birth of Mihi – our global time and benefits management system.
Tell us more about Mihi.
Mihi is a SaaS software for time and attendance, leave management, and benefits administration for companies with a global workforce. It has global in its DNA, simplifying day-to-day tasks – like tracking leaves or filing expenses – while management gets accurate visibility into global workforce data and improved compliance.
What makes Mihi a game changer?
Collecting employee/payroll data in the right format while ensuring compliance with local laws, data privacy, and data transfer regulations is one of the biggest challenges for global employers. With Mihi, employers have one version of the truth. We have built Mihi to have an understanding of global compliance, labor, wage, and workplace regulations. It is a game changer for companies who want to stay compliant and work efficiently without building an internal army of HR and payroll experts.
Global Upside is a growth accelerator – what is your vision for how companies manage growth. How are you changing or improving that?
In my 20+ years in this industry, I have seen a global growth revolution of sorts. You can go global literally 5 to 10 times faster. It’s far easier for the global workforce to communicate or for companies to ship goods across borders. However, legal entities need to be set up, people need to get paid, taxes need to be filed, benefits need to be provided, employment laws need to be understood – the list gets quite exhaustive quite quickly. We make sure our clients don’t have to do this alone. They don’t have to start from scratch or combine disparate service providers across multiple countries.
We tell our clients: innovate, hire the best talent, do what drives you, change the world; we’re standing with you every step of the way ‘crossing every t, dotting every i’ making sure there are no legal, HR, payroll, tax, accounting, or other operational issues slowing you down. Whatever comes your way, in whichever country you are operating – we will handle it. This is our “Ultimate Client Experience.”
The Ultimate Client Experience seems to be today’s buzzword, what does this mean to you and Global Upside?
We are living in a hyper-competitive economy – every brand is out there with a client experience strategy. At Global Upside – we treat “Client Experience” as a moving target. It changes with each client’s journey and we are all trained to be cognizant and responsive to that. The governing rule is to assess every decision, every strategy, every action based on whether it will amplify or enhance our client’s experience.
For example, a client was in a difficult spin-off situation and several employees and their families were left in an immigration limbo due to their work visas going out of status. It was an extremely stressful time for our client’s employees. Our HR team quickly set up a helpline and fielded questions 24/7 to reassure employees that teams were working on their cases. It was well beyond our scope of work, yet our team operated non-stop for them. For our client, it was an invaluable help.
The key takeaway from this interaction is that our people felt empowered to make decisions and change the scope of work to create this special service for a client. Their focus was not to just do what is outlined in the contract, but to be responsive and proactive in creating the “Ultimate Client Experience.”
You’ve done a phenomenal job creating Global Upside. What’s next? What’s going to keep driving you?
I have a 100-year vision. A vision for a company that will stand the test of time. I am very driven by success and the challenges that come with it. I have been running Global Upside for nearly 10 years and no two cases have been the same. Beyond internal challenges the challenge of the next client is a huge inspiration and driver for me: how can we solve every new situation?
I’m an eternal optimist. I think there are enough good and smart people out there who will continue to do wonderful things and Global Upside will be the engine empowering them to realize their dreams. There is more opportunity than ever before for companies to get into the global marketplace and that trend is sure to continue. Global Upside is ahead of this trend; we are continuously innovating and evolving to become the growth enabler that will solve complexity for companies of all sizes. Our goal is to be the brand every company wants to engage to fuel their growth. The provider of choice.
Can you tell us about your involvement in the community and its impact?
Well, early on I was not an A+ student, but I quickly realized the power and importance of education. I could not be where I am today without the education I received here in the US and my early years in India. So, education has turned out to be a strong passion of mine.
Several years ago, I was invited to an event by a non-profit called City Year. I was surprised to find out that literally thousands of children in the US are struggling to stay in school – typically students from under privileged communities. I have since been an avid supporter of the organization and am on the board for their San Jose/Silicon Valley chapter. Gita and I continue to support the group monetarily and by raising awareness to their cause. I am proud to share that our efforts have helped thousands of children get a quality education and graduate high school. Many have gone on to college and do wonderful things. I feel success is incomplete without helping others succeed as well. It’s our humble way of doing something for our communities, our children.
If you weren’t an entrepreneur, what would you be?
Oh, there would be many things. I love to be close to nature so perhaps a wilderness or mountaineering guide. If I could, I would also want to be a Formula 1 race car driver. I think I would have eventually ended up dividing my time being a guide in the mountains, racing cars, or even driving trucks so I can travel and drive at the same time (laughs).
If you could share one piece of advice with CEO Today’s readers, what would it be?
To those just starting out, I’d say – find what you love and be the best at it. For those more seasoned, I’d say – don’t give up on your dream. As Thomas Edison said: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that the light bulb won’t work,” but if he had given up we would still be in the dark.
About Global Upside
Global Upside solves business complexity with world-class HR, Payroll, Accounting, Tax, Compliance, PEO, and Talent Acquisition services. With our integrated, end-to-end support, companies can focus on innovation, growth, and excelling in their fields. Founded in 1999 in Silicon Valley, Global Upside today empowers companies in 100+ countries and is dedicated to solving complexity for companies everywhere they do business. Learn more at www.globalupside.com.