In two years, Tej Dhawan moved from anonymity to a recognized leader of the Central Iowa startup scene.
Friday, August 30, 2013 7:00 AM
Jann Freed likes to tease her longtime friend Tej Dhawan about being mentioned in the media so often lately.
IN HIS OWN WORDS
What is your guiding principle?
Tell the truth. Tell it early. Don’t mince words because they just tend to confuse, rather than help.
What is your biggest challenge?
Staying healthy while doing the things that need to get done. Keeping weight and diabetes in check. I’m a Type 2 diabetic, so just managing my health. But luckily, I’ve got awesome trainers at the YMCA who have actually improved my health significantly in the last six months.
How do you manage your work-life balance.
The place I am in life right now, from fiscal planning and so on, life events take priority. Activities with kids and family are number one. Everything else falls two and later. I can work 70 or 80 hours if I want to, but being involved in my kids’ events ... takes significant priority over anything else. Because ultimately, I could be gone tomorrow.
The public persona Dhawan has developed since co-founding StartupCity Des Moines, a technology company incubator, two years ago stands in contrast to his behind-the-scenes nature.
The thing is, before StartupCity opened, nobody really knew who he was. He spent most of his time working on his own business, Advanced Technology Group Inc. Heads down, so to speak. Dhawan acknowledges that “if you were to look for my name pre-July 2011, it will not be in any print media.”
In October 2011, Dhawan and co-principal Christian Renaud opened StartupCity as a place to help entrepreneurs grow their budding tech companies. That got Dhawan’s name in the newspaper, and opened the door for many more opportunities to be involved in the tech scene.
Today, Dhawan has become a recognized leader of Des Moines’ emerging technology startup community, and a representative for Des Moines and Iowa on a regional and national level.
Dhawan’s work includes helping run StartupCity and mentoring the entrepreneurs there. He and Renaud obtained loans from the state, city, county, and others, to fund the incubator for three years. During which time they are essentially volunteering their time to operate the organization.
Dhawan also helped launch StartupIowa, a statewide initiative aimed at providing visibility to Iowa entrepreneurs, and has been heavily involved in the Startup America Partnership. He has helped Gov. Terry Branstad’s science, technology, engineering and mathematics council, the Technology Association of Iowa and Plains Angels, a group of tech investors in Greater Des Moines. A native of India, he’s also been an active advocate for changing laws that limit the number of highly skilled immigrants allowed into the country. As part of those advocacy efforts, Dhawan, has had conversations with state and national politicians and spoken on the issue at the White House. He even runs his own startup, a web browser for children called Pikuzone.
“I think at this point, were he to detach, were he to move or something like that, there would be half a dozen vacuums that were created, not just one,” Renaud said. “Because the guy is legitimate.”
How did Dhawan go from being someone no one knew to someone everyone knows?
By being himself.
The quiet doer
“Technical people, by their very nature, tend to be quiet doers,” Dhawan said. “They see a problem; they tend to be problem-solvers.”
Dhawan has always been an entrepreneur and problem solver. Freed, who taught for 30 years at Dhawan’s alma mater, Central College, first met Dhawan when he came to her class to talk about an environmental advocacy group he started on campus.
“Even as a student, he was always thinking about ‘what can I start?’” Freed said.
He started his own company, Advanced Technology Group, which makes software that helps prisons manage inmates and inmate activities, and he helped run that company for 14 years. When he sold his share of Advanced Technologies in 2010, he saw another problem he wanted to solve. Startup companies in Des Moines needed help. He and others often refer to the startup community as an “ecosystem.” That ecosystem didn’t really exist in 2010.
Mike Colwell, executive director of the Business Innovation Zone, introduced Dhawan and Renaud, who had remarkably similar thoughts about what was needed to help startup companies succeed in Des Moines.
As Dhawan and Renaud prepared to open the incubator, Dhawan proved he was able to complete tasks very quickly, but still thoughtfully. Renaud, who has worked with his share of entrepreneurs, said he has seen that quality in very few people. Those qualities helped StartupCity open just days after its final funding was approved.
“I like to see things happen,” said Dhawan.
Says Suku Radia, a friend and occasional mentor to Dhawan: “When he is working on any project, he really does his homework. There are people that get caught in the euphoria of things going right and take things for granted. I think he’s cautious, he’s optimistic and he’s very realistic.”
Leaders typically fall into two categories, Colwell said: those who are appointed, and those who are recognized. In the startup world, Dhawan is recognized.
Renaud didn’t know Dhawan until Colwell introduced the two. And Colwell says nobody really knew who Dhawan was at that point. Dhawan had spent most of his career so heavily focused on his company that he hadn’t made that many connections in the tech industry.
“StartupCity was what published my name and made it into a Des Moines name. It wasn’t planned by any means,” Dhawan said. Prior to that, being in the spotlight just wasn’t his style, he said.
Those who know Dhawan say he’s always had the leadership skills that have put him in the forefront now. Colwell sees it as a matter of Dhawan finding his comfort zone.
From Dhawan’s perspective, “I think I’m still just doing the same things I do.”
“There’s no PR agency at StartupCity, right? So, we see a problem, and we’re trying to solve a problem,” he said. “What we’ve been lucky with is the community in Des Moines has just stepped up to support it.”
It used to be a running joke that Renaud knew everyone in the startup scene and he would constantly ask Dhawan, “How the hell do you not know so-and-so?” They both made a concerted effort to get Dhawan more involved in the community.
Since then, “Tej has gained the respect of everyone he’s met,” Colwell said. “I really don’t know anyone who doesn’t respect the man.”
Freed calls him a ‘visionary,” and says people naturally want to follow him because of his strong convictions and intellect.
“If I were lost on an island, I would do anything Tej said, because I believe in him,” Freed said. “And I would also believe that he had my best interest at heart.”
An advocate on immigration issues, Dhawan went to the White House last year as a representative of the Startup America Partnership to speak to other startup owners and policymakers. A political staffer coached Dhawan on what to say to the group, a message Dhawan said he wasn’t fully comfortable sharing. Together, they were able to work on a message that pleased both.
“My conversations are largely unguarded conversations. They are generally my opinions and not filtered through any specific things,” Dhawan said. “Sharing my opinion is natural.”
His general nature is to thoughtfully come to his own conclusion. Renaud shares an anecdote: Most people read about a political bill in the newspaper. But Dhawan will read the entire bill.
Once Dhawan develops his conclusion, he won’t change it just to tell someone what they want to hear, but he will thoughtfully consider opposing viewpoints.
Dhawan has more of a megaphone to share his thoughts now, but it hasn’t really changed his methods, said Freed.
She recalls a controversial issue dealt with by Central College’s board of trustees, of which Dhawan is a member. Dhawan was the lone voice on one side of the issue.
“I was pretty emotional about it. He was cool,” Freed said. “He said, ‘I spoke, I had a vote, I voiced my opinion, we took a vote, and it went the other way.’ He moves on. No grudges.”
He takes that same approach to mentoring entrepreneurs, Colwell said. Dhawan has an ability to give an honest opinion and challenge someone’s ideas with respect.
“He doesn’t try to anticipate what somebody wants to hear and then tell them that. He’s not a politician,” Colwell said. “He’s more the business guy who will tell you the truth.”
It seems a bit opposite of Dhawan’s demeanor that Freed compares him to late Apple Inc. co-founder Steve Jobs. Her comparison is drawn from the way that Dhawan is able to think about innovative solutions, seeing something before it’s there – not so much from his personality.
It doesn’t surprise Freed, though, that Dhawan has taken on a leadership role in the tech community.
“I just really respect his intellect, and I know he has high ethical standards,” she said. “I think Tej is always trying to do the right thing.”
“And it isn’t for recognition,” she adds.
Maybe not. But that probably won’t stop Freed from giving him some recognition anyway.
“Every time I turn around, he’s in the paper, and I’m teasing him,” Freed said. “I go, ‘Tej sighting! Tej sighting! More face time for Tej.’ And it’s all in good humor because that was not him.”
But, she said, “we’re lucky he stayed here, and we need more people like him.”
Tej So Far