Narsi Narasimhan was as selfless as he was humorous, and his brutally honest business advice was seasoned with a levity that endeared him to many as he bridged the local Indian business community with his vast, overlapping networks of American executives and professionals.
Over more than three decades in his adoptive home of Atlanta, the native of the state of Tamil Nadu, India, became a near ubiquitous presence, which explains why his sudden death Friday, April 29, left so many organizations wondering how
they’ll fill the leadership vacuum created by his untimely departure.
Dr. Narasimhan, founder of the Indian Professionals Network, member of the Kettering Executive Network leadership team and a former Georgia Tech management professor, died Friday at his apartment of a heart attack, according to news reports and announcements from around the community. Among his many achievements and positions, he was a past president of the Georgia Indo-American Chamber of Commerce and the CEO of IT consultancy Palaam Inc. (Incidentally, Palaam means “bridge” in Tamil, his mother tongue.)
His personal vibrancy made his death even more shocking to those who knew him well. Expressions of shared grief and pleasant memories mixed with stories of personal admiration gripped the standing-room-only audience of a few hundred at the Wages & Sons Funeral Home in Lawrenceville Monday, May 2, as loved ones and colleagues paid their respects and sought to make sense of their loss. The succession of eulogies showed the respect Dr. Narasimhan had amassed in the community, even among those who knew him for just a short time.
Indian Consul General Nagesh Singh, who arrived 10 months ago in his Atlanta post, said the tireless networker was frequently behind the scenes — customarily forgoing the credit — to help the newly arrived diplomat make contacts with business leaders to improve India’s relationships with the region.
Something was amiss when the always-dependable Narsi failed to show up for a meeting that Friday, Mr. Singh said. It was only later he would learn a sad truth that would derail his outreach plans.
“The commercial wing of the Consulate General of India has shut down, because Dr. Narsi Narasimhan has passed away, and I don’t know what we are going to do to fill that void,” Mr. Singh said, acknowledging the statement as trivial given the gravity of his loss.
The central narrative woven throughout all the speeches was one of connectivity and care. With more than 19,000 contacts on the professional network LinkedIn, Dr. Narasimhan didn’t keep his circles walled off. He was happy to let them intersect, believing that he could improve lives by bringing people together. The Kettering network grew from 100 to 1,300 in his years on the leadership team, according to leaders who spoke at the funeral service.
One other mentee, Ritesh Desai, learned about Dr. Narasimhan’s generosity firsthand. When offered a gubernatorial appointment to a Georgia diversity commission, the elder Dr. Narasimhan passed it along to Mr. Desai and other younger leaders. And Dr. Narasimhan’s long-term, community-driven vision was evident in his business advice to Mr. Desai.
“He said, ‘If you start a company and become $1 million company, a $2 million company, you’re not doing anything; you’re just paying bills. It’s when you become $100 million company that you start having value to the people who are employed by you, and that’s how you become a successful company.’”
A nephew, Srini Chandrasekaran, shared that before visiting Atlanta from India each year, Dr. Narasimhan would send him a ledger of business contacts, telling him a make a list of the people he wanted to see and why. Then he’d make the visits happen, but he’d only pick Mr. Chandrasekaran up from MARTA transit stations. He had to get that far on his own.
“Every trip would always be a mixed bag of emotions for me. First it would be awe, to witness the respect and love showered on him by a community that was as big as a city. And always I used to feel a little sad. I could never tell family back home the impact he had had on this community,” Mr. Chandrasekaran said.
Narsi’s father had wondered why he needed to go so far away. Using nothing but a book for preparation, he’d passed the entrance exam of the Indian Institutes of Technology with ease and went on to graduate from the elite institution. Then he set his sights on the U.S. He ended up in a Ph.D. program at the University of Texas at Dallas before landing a professorship in Atlanta.
“Dad, I will have a bigger impact if I choose this route. I will change more lives. He was right. He sure was right,” said his niece, Sunanda Kameswaran, in her tribute.
But even as he helped create a community in Atlanta, he didn’t forget his roots. He always called relatives on birthdays and holidays, staying in touch long before the days of Facebook and Whatsapp, and forcing his nieces and nephews to speak in English when he caught them on the phone. Ever passionate about the transformative power of technology, he sent them a personal computer in the mid-1990s — before they even had a phone line or knew what a mouse was.
Narsi, as he was simply known in the community, also had a quick wit and a vibrant sense of humor. Asked about his seeming ability to be multiple places at once, he told Mr. Singh that he had actually cloned himself twice. When asked why he showed up in a t-shirt and jeans to meet a former Indian prime minister, he once dryly replied: “What? He’s not the prime minister anymore.” And one of his Kettering colleagues said their friendship was such that Narsi was bold enough to call on Christmas Eve and invite not only himself, but another relative, to what became a Hindu-Christian Christmas.
Others talked about his singular dance move, his decision to selflessly pass up a second chance at tenure at Georgia Tech, his love for tomatoes and Taco Bell’s “Mexican pizza” and his hospitality toward Emory University students arriving at the airport from India.
But his niece, Ms. Kameswaran, underscored the spirit that drove his efforts to mentor young people and foster connections among established leaders.
“Most importantly, he challenged us to think big and shoot for the stars, every single day.”
In addition to his many friends and extended family, Dr. Narasimhan leaves behind his mother, Saroja Sankararamaswamy and sister, Sugantha Narayanan.
Plans are in the works to create a foundation to carry on his legacy.
For Global Atlanta stories mentioning Narsi, click here.