Niranjan Shah embodies the American Dream. Born to impoverished parents in India’s Gujarat Province, Shah has come a long way from his homeland to become one of the most successful and distinguished entrepreneurs in the American Midwest. During this period, he became a staunch supporter of the Democratic Party as well as a fixture in his community and longtime home of Chicago, where he’s served on the board of a number of public and private organizations.
As the CEO of a major structural, electrical and mechanical engineering firm, Shah has grown his enterprise from just himself to more than 250 employees and has taken on major public works projects in dozens of countries around the world. Today, Shah has lessons he offers budding entrepreneurs based on his formative life experiences.
Niranjan Shah’s Humble Beginnings
Shah was born in 1944 in a tiny village in the Province of Gujarat in the far west of India. Though his village lacked some of what we may think of as necessities, such as electricity and running water, Shah grew up in an incredibly supportive community, which ingrained in him noble lifelong values, such as the importance of education and hard work.
Shah’s home life wasn’t perfect, but with the support of his community, he was able to attend Birla Engineering College at Gujarat’s Sardar Patel University, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in 1967. Shortly thereafter, Shah, by this time married, left India for the United States, where he furthered his studies at the University of Mississippi. After acquiring his Master’s degree, Shah found work as a structural engineer at Chicago-based Sargent & Lundy Engineering, a venerable century-old firm in the business of power plant and power transmission system construction. Shah later completed his education by enrolling in the Executive Education business management program at Harvard Business School.
Becoming an Entrepreneur
It wasn’t long before Shah grew restless and broke away from Sargent & Lundy to establish his own venture, Globetrotters Engineering Corporation, in 1974. The company worked on scores of major infrastructure projects, including Chicago’s 911 Emergency Communications Center, the Cook County I-355 South Highway Extension, O’Hare International Airport and the U.S. State Department’s Embassy Security Program. Today, Globetrotters integrates its own in-house architectural studio, GEC Design Group, and has more than 250 employees working on electrical, structural and mechanical engineering projects in numerous countries around the world.
Philanthropy and Politics
Along with his business success, Shah became a philanthropist, dedicating himself to serving multiple public and private organizations, including the Illinois State Police Merit Board, the University of Chicago, the University of Illinois, Northern Illinois University, Loyola University, Sangamon State University and Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, where he served on that institution’s governing board. In Chicago, Shah was touted as one of the city’s leading minority-owned company executives as well as one of the more prominent Indian-American citizens in the nation. He worked for Mayor Richard Daley’s Economic Development Committee and served as the vice chairman of the statewide Asian-American Advisory Committee established by former Illinois Senator Paul Simon.
During this time, through his philanthropic efforts helping people in his native India (Shah provided the funds to open a high school and medical clinic in Gujarat), Shah became known to former U.S. Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush.
But it was his relationship with former President Bill Clinton that helped cement Shah’s connection to the Democratic Party. Clinton praised Shah’s efforts to make governing officials more aware of the Indian-American community and its needs, stating that “During my administration, Mr. Shah was often a source of counsel on Indo-U.S. relations. He’s been a powerful force in gaining support in Congress for Indians and Indian-Americans.”
Shah went on to be an Illinois state delegate to the 1992 Democratic Convention in New York City and was a key leader of the Democratic Party’s Finance Committee. He also worked on the National Steering Committee for the reelection campaign of Bill Clinton in 1996 and was chosen by the president to be a board member of the Goldwater Foundation for Excellence in Education.
Shah’s Advice for Entrepreneurs
According to Shah, passion — not a desire for money — is the most important quality to possess for starting a business. Shah believes that if an entrepreneur only has a desire for money but no passion, they’ll be left feeling empty inside, even if and when their business is successful; people who don’t enjoy their career are bound to feel unhappy because their life is without purpose. Therefore, Shah is convinced that passion is a critical element of success; passion is what drives people to put in the long hours of a routine entrepreneurial workday.
How can one find one’s passion? Shah thinks that you can at least get a clue as to what that might be by studying your expenses. What do you spend your money on that’s a non-necessity? If you find yourself buying antique books, perhaps you should think about becoming a publisher. If you go to a lot of concerts, maybe the music business is your calling.
Another element to observe is how you spend your time. Do you like to spend time with other people? If so, a career in sales may be right for you. Do you like to be around your family? If the answer is yes, then a home-based business may be a good fit.
Along this journey, Shah believes that entrepreneurs should try to separate their technical skills from their natural tendencies and affinities. He believes entrepreneurs should hone these skills and try to find a business where they can leverage them to advance in something they’re passionate about. For instance, someone who’s good at designing and who also has a passion for computers might want to start a business building websites.
There’s a difference between deciding to start a business and being successful in one. Shah always tells entrepreneurs to “tune out” the negative comments and pronouncements of friends and relatives who may be envious of their talents or passion. Instead, they should focus their energy on trying to achieve success, which usually comes from hard work and keen strategy.
Is your passion strong enough to turn what otherwise might be a hobby into a career? Consider that even the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) separates hobbies from careers.
While passion is key to starting a business, so is having a business plan. Your business plan should include details such as how you expect to get clients and how you expect to outmatch competitors.
Remember also that it’s never too late to change your mind and follow another path. The world of knowledge and opportunity extends beyond what’s written on your college degree. You may have other knowledge that can lead you in another direction where you may be guided more by your passion.
Social networking platforms and organizations may connect you to like-minded people. If you have a strong professional background, consider joining the boards of a number of organizations that are related to your discipline.
The Nuts and Bolts of Business
Niranjan Shah believes that even if an entrepreneur is especially passionate and talented in a particular field, they can still benefit by taking one or more courses online about business. Typically, such courses teach practical skills, like how to price your goods and services or how to incorporate bonuses and incentives to keep both employees and customers satisfied.
One important skill to have in business is accounting. Even though you don’t necessarily need to have an accounting degree, it helps to know a few key techniques, such as how to process a payroll and how to produce an annual report.
Analyzing data is another important skill that can help you achieve success in business. Analyzing data will help you see where your business could use improvement, allowing you to improve revenues and gain customers.
Data can help in decision-making, yet another crucial business skill. Making the wrong decision can cost your business a lot — either now or in the future. If you have trouble making decisions, consider taking a course or hiring an advisor to help you.
Perhaps most critical of all is management skill. Management skill will help you get the most out of your employees while simultaneously earning their trust and respect. This skill will help when it comes to hiring, firing, managing resources and even conducting business meetings.
Communication skill goes along with management in terms of both motivating employees to perform tasks and listening to employees to decipher what’s really going on in your company. Many experienced managers would say that listening is a far more important skill than talking.
Another skill that’s underrated is negotiating skill. Negotiating will gain your business advantages that management, accounting and analysis skills won’t get you. Negotiating skill can also help you in your personal life.
Concrete Steps to Take to Actually Start Your Business
Niranjan Shah is very familiar with all stages of a business. Shah says that beyond a business plan (see above), most ventures need to be defined for the purposes of government authorities as a sole proprietorship (one person) or a partnership (more than one person). The nature of your business may determine which of these it needs to be.
Once your business begins to grow, you may consider hiring employees, but remember, there’s a cost associated with this, so alternatives like virtual assistants may be more economical, at least in the beginning.
File for all necessary business licenses with your local, state and federal government. Businesses that aren’t sole proprietorships must file for a Tax ID number from the IRS. Work with an insurance agent and a lawyer to make sure your business is protected from liabilities. Obtain an Internet domain name for your business, and consider creating a professional website, particularly if your business will have a strong online component.
Niranjan Shah reminds everyone thinking about going into business that there’s more to life than being an entrepreneur. He believes that business success needs to be complemented by a fulfilling home life based around family and a local community. These are essential to achieve true success in any endeavor.
Staying humble and true to the lessons he learned in his childhood allowed Shah to realize accomplishments he hadn’t even dreamed were possible when he was young.
After gaining his own success, Shah was able to give back to the country that raised him when he provided food, clothes and medical supplies to Indians who were affected by the Gujarat Earthquake in 2001. This aid included airlifting at least 200,000 pounds of necessary supplies to India, for which he was granted the Glory of Gujarat Award by the governor of Gujarat in 2005.
In 2006, the president of India, Shri APJ Abdul Kalam, conferred on Shah the country’s highest honor for an overseas Indian, the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman Award.
Shah believes that all successful entrepreneurs have within them the desire to follow their passion and do good for the world. If you do these things consistently, he says, profit is sure to follow.