For Raj Sardana, becoming CEO of a $200 million company wasn’t the natural next step after a privileged upbringing and an Ivy League degree.
In fact, the son of an Indian government worker and school teacher enjoyed neither of those advantages.
Instead, he espoused a simple business philosophy: make the most of what’s at hand and never let your credentials get in the way of success.
Mr. Sardana is now CEO of Duluth-based American CyberSystems Inc., which employs 2,500 people around the world and recently launched a new subsidiary, HireGenics.
Mr. Sardana’s American story began in the 1980s, when he arrived at the Georgia Institute of Technology to study for a master’s in mechanical engineering.
After graduation he joined a company in Connecticut that supplied parts to aircraft engine giant Pratt & Whitney. He returned to Atlanta five years later to work with a provider of propulsion mechanisms for tomahawk missiles, a booming business during the Cold War.
But when the Berlin Wall fell, so did demand for weapons.
“I was kind of a casualty of the Cold War ending. It eventually worked out positively for me, but at that time I was kind of disheartened to see that I was the one who had to lose my job,” Mr. Sardana told GlobalAtlanta.
He could’ve climbed back onto the corporate ladder, but the whole experience made him wonder whether working for a large company offered the security his family needed.
“I found corporate America to be kind of a rough place to be, where you could just completely lose your job without any fault of yours,” he said. “Just when you think you’re on top of the world, you can come down in a heartbeat.”
This injustice provided the entrepreneurial spark for the youngster, who was stubborn enough to bet that the satisfaction of “controlling my own destiny” would outweigh the fear of venturing out alone, he said.
For someone who crossed the world for college on a plane ticket bought with borrowed money, the risk seemed a bit less daunting than it could’ve been.
“The spirit that brings you 10,000 miles away from your home is a spirit of moving forward in life, and it’s an entrepreneurship in itself,” Mr. Sardana said. “If you start from nothing in your life, then nothing scares you, nothing fazes you. You can do it boldly with confidence that you’ve come a long way, you’ve worked through that situation as well.”
He put engineering on the shelf and bought a small print shop on Memorial Drive in Stone Mountain, churning out brochures and other stationery.
“At that time I didn’t worry as much about my educational background and capabilities. The whole idea was to grow what I have in my hand,” he said.
He knew he’d be back to technology, but it would be years of long hours and shrewd financial discipline before he’d return on his own terms.
With savings from the print shop, he bought into a few gas stations and some dry-cleaning shops. Money was rolling in, but he began to get burned out from running multiple operations, some of them operating 24/7. It was time to return to technology.
During the late 1990s, heady optimism about the Internet’s potential was tempered by fear of how the new millennium would affect computer systems. American information-technology workers were inundated.
As he had done so many times before, Mr. Sardana saw the challenge as an opportunity. He decided to “import” IT skill from India on H-1B temporary visas through a company that would provide affordable services in the run-up to Y2K. He returned to his homeland and interviewed thousands of candidates in six cities, eventually hiring 120.
When Y2K passed without incident, he shifted to hiring American workers and landed a major banking client that carried him until the next big break.
Again, tragedy was the spark. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 spurred an American defense buildup, and Mr. Sardanawas ready. Familiar with the aerospace industry from his former career, he landed defense contractor Northrop Grumman as a client and, after a two-year government investigation, he gained clearance to work on top-secret projects.
American Cybersystems is planning to follow its clients into Europe soon, while Mr. Sardana’s newest venture, HireGenics, is focused on helping firms deal with the U.S. government.
Especially in view of new immigration compliance rules, companies need help following employment regulations, especially with contract workers, Mr. Sardana said. HireGenics provides a software program that identifies areas of noncompliance and offers suggested fixes.