It was one of those days when we were looking for answers to the semiconductor ecosystem in India. We had interacted with a US based Indian a few days back. He, in the process of setting up a power semiconductor product fab in the country, had shared his ideas on how India could have a complete ecosystem of semiconductor fabrication to services.
We put together his story and sent a thankyou note to him. In reply, he texted, “You must be happy, the Tatas are entering into the semiconductor game!” When we asked him whether he knew who was going to lead the semiconductors project for the Tata Group, he answered, “A gentleman who has dedicated his life to semiconductors and society.”
The gentleman is none other than Raja Manickam himself, who has worked with several semiconductor companies and founded one that was acquired by a corporate group. Not many professionals would know but he is also a trained army combat tank commander. This is Raja Manickam’s story as told to Mukul Yudhveer Singh, Business Editor, EFY
Born in Singapore, Raja came to India at the age of three when his grandfather retired from his job in Singapore and was eager to return to India and built a house in his village. Manickam’s father was working as a teacher in Singapore. “I am the first grandson, and hence I was pampered a lot by my grandparents. I came to India at the age of three with my grandfather,” says Raja who is named after his grandfather as per tradition those days.
Raja is the second eldest child in a family of five siblings. He recalls how tough the days were back then when he was a child as the finances to meet the family needs were always low. However, one lesson his grandfather always taught him was about the importance of education, and how it can change and revolutionise someone’s life. Thanks to his grandfather and reformist movement in the sixties and seventees in Tamil Nadu, Raja was exposed to liberal thinking and was highly influenced by great statesman like Periyar, and Annadurai and Kamaraj who preached equality in community.
“My grandfather was not a highly educated person and probably that is why he understood the importance of being educated. He would always guide me during my childhood and encourage me to pursue the route of education more than anything else,” recalls Raja. He adds, “It was all about education to him. He always made it clear to me that education would not just help me come out of poverty, but it would empower me to help the society as well.”
Raja’s mother, as he explains, was also a very big influence on him. Though she studied probably till the fifth or sixth standard only, she had leadership skills that brought the village people together. She encouraged all her children, five of them, to prioritise education. Each of them had a profession assigned to them. The oldest, Raja’s sister was to be a doctor, Raja was to be an engineer, the next one to be an accountant, and so on. That created a direction for the kids to work towards making their grandfather’s and mother’s dream come true. Raja enjoyed math and physics, which were directly relevant to engineering.
Raja’s wife runs one of the biggest not-for-profit schools for the Tamil community in the US, and there are about 20,000 people attached to it. His grandfather was a part of the Self-Respect Movement and Dravidar Kazhagam. These movements were against the Brahmanical dominance and gender and caste inequality in Tamil Nadu.
Though Manickam family belonged to the upper caste, Raja’s mother made sure that people from all the castes were able to go inside their Tamil Nadu home and interact with the family like one. “My grandfather, father, and all the other family members were against the caste system. I was also heavily influenced by their thought,” explains Raja.
Battle tanks to IIT Kharagpur
Raja is the first graduate in family. He was undergoing primary education in India when his father showed interest in getting him educated back in Singapore. Raja went to Singapore for further schooling but as fate would have it, he returned to India after completing eighth standard from Singapore.
Always wanting to be among the top students wherever he was studying, Raja drew inspiration from his fellow students and his elder sister to always excel in studies. He went to RSK Hr Sec School in BEHL in Trichy to complete his senior secondary, and was among the top students of the school. “My elder sister, Muthumanimoli, was always topping the school. I was heavily influenced by the way she was scoring top grades in school. Now a practicing doctor in the United States, I have always been inspired by what she has accomplished in life,” shares Raja.
Not just studies, Raja also excelled at sports. He was a regular on basketball courts and hockey grounds. Unlike many children, who wish to watch cartoons or play video games, he would always head to play outdoor sports with his close friends. He represented his school in hockey, and IIT Kharagpur in hockey and basketball.
There’s also a very interesting story about how he got into IIT Kharagpur. Before sharing that story Raja teasingly shares, “I was better balanced than my elder sister. She was a bookworm, and I excelled in sports as well as studies.”
Raja had never aimed for getting into an IIT. He was aiming to secure an engineering seat in REC Trichy. However, Raja was a Singapore citizen, and the Singapore government requires every citizen to serve in the Singapore Military for a brief period of time, so when Raja turned eighteen, he had to return to his country of birth.
It was in the military that he came to know about the scholarship being offered to Singapore citizens by the government of India. The High Commission of India was working with the government of Singapore to find scholars for offering sponsorship to study. Raja applied for the same and appeared for the entrance exam at the High Commission office in Singapore. Only two scholars were picked and Raja was one of them.
“I wanted to pursue electronics engineering, and only IIT Kharagpur was offering engineering in electronics at that time. I would rate that as one of the best experiences of my life. IIT Kharagpur made me what I am today,” says Raja.
He is thankful for the scholarship offered by the government of India, as without that he would have never made it to a prestigious institution like IIT Kharagpur, and also because the family’s financial condition was not good enough to afford the education fees at that time. “We had a very tough time in terms of finances as a family,” he adds. In fact, his father could never complete his graduation because of the tight finances, and Raja was also destined to start working after high school.
“Despite me not being a citizen of India, I was offered a scholarship by the government of India. That is why I want to do something for India,” he says, sharing one of his biggest dreams—the dream of bringing the semiconductor manufacturing ecosystem to the country. He adds, “If I am able to do that, I am sure the same will open a lot of flood gates for Indians to come back to the country. Not just India, I think the whole world will be able to benefit from the same.”
The scholarship that Raja was offered by the government of India included a sum of `400 credited to his account every month. This, when compared to the education, college, and hostel fee that Raja was paying at the IIT, was a big amount. The tuition fee at that time used to be around `25, while the exam fee used to be around `100. So, what did Raja do with the spare cash he was left with? Well, he helped economically poor students by paying their tuition and, in many cases, exam fees.
Raja recalls,”There were brilliant guys studying with me at the IIT, and some of them were facing tough times with finances. The excess money helped me fund the education of these guys. I think it’s the background I came from that encouraged me to do so.” He also got to lead at the college after becoming the hostel president. “I learned a lot of leadership skills in IIT,” he adds.
First job: Baptism by Fire
Raja had a choice to study up to PhD on the scholarship that the government had provided, but as the eldest grandson, and as someone who was well aware of the financial condition his family was in, he opted to start working as soon as he got the degree from IIT Kharagpur. Though he had no idea about semiconductors, he applied for a job at Texas Instruments (TI) as TI was the most sought after company for electronics engineers back then.
“TI, despite being an American company, had no problem training employees irrespective of the country they belonged to. On the other hand, there were companies who were not ready to train people on the latest technologies they were working on. TI’s eagerness to excel by training the best of knowledge to all equally was what attracted me to the company,” Raja explains, and this point makes it clear how open he has been while making choices. There are always strong reasoning points in whatever he has done and achieved in life so far.