From no running water to running a company

By Kash Shaikh
Kash Shaikh, CEO and President at Virtana, contemplates how humble beginnings keep things simple with a sharp focus on valuing what really matters...

As an immigrant to America from Pakistan, my personal and professional journey may not be unique, but it has profoundly shaped the human being and business leader that I am today. While I was born into a family that had no running water, I have held executive roles at Fortune 100 companies and am now a CEO running a software technology company in Silicon Valley. Every day, I am appreciative for my many blessings and reflect upon how grateful I am for my beautiful home and family. How did I get from no running water to running a tech company? My response is that mindfully selecting the values that matter the most and powering them by simplicity kept me on the best path.

From our house in Pakistan, clean drinking water was a mile away. At eight years old, I would walk down the hill to wait in line with two buckets in hand. When my turn arrived, I would fill the two buckets and trudge back uphill. It was my first job and it really mattered because this daily trip was for our family’s health. We did have instant access to non-potable well water, but drinking that well water was a chance our family could not take. If we got sick, there was no doctor readily available.

Our buckets also served to transport our well water to our shower, or toilet. We had to physically carry water where it was needed at the time. This took planning – especially in the winter. Before taking a shower, we would need to warm the water on a burner or stove. Our buckets were also used to carry our well water for cleaning our house. With just a few buckets, we were able to handle all our water needs.

At times, our well would break down. Our option was to get a mechanic or electrician, which could take a day or two. Since we still needed water for bathing and the toilet, I’d walk the mile to get drinking water and also water for the bath. It was a simple solution that took hard work, but it was critical for our health and survival.

While our lifestyle was harsh, I was blessed with loving and resilient parents. By the time I was an adolescent, my parents' hard work had improved our financial standing. In an act of selflessness, my parents prioritised education and enrolled me and my siblings in excellent preparatory education. It opened the door for me to attend NED University of Engineering & Technology in Pakistan where I earned a Bachelor of Engineering in Electrical Engineering. I was eager to further my education and exposure to the world. To apply for a university in the United States from a country like Pakistan or India one must take a GRE board exam to assure your education meets US standards. Luckily, my scores were quite high.

In 1996, I flew to Wichita State University in Wichita, Kansas where I earned my Master of Science degree in Electrical & Computer Engineering, with an emphasis on software programming. Because of my high GRE scores, I was offered a few full scholarships, but Wichita State was my best available option for two reasons. First, the university offered me a $400 monthly stipend for living expenses. Second, Wichita Kansas is a relatively inexpensive place to live. My rent was $100 per month and $400 more than covered all my expenses. By American standards, my lifestyle was frugal but from my perspective it was very comfortable.

While Wichita was a modest place to live, I learned that some Americans were obsessed with consumption. As I visited many homes, I often found no empty spaces. This was foreign to me. Coming from a world where I truly needed to fill a bucket, my approach is to only include furniture, appliances, and accessories that have a distinct function and a form that is harmonious with an environment. This ‘less is more’ philosophy has fostered my interest in minimalist designs, and this is reflected in my home.

Professionally, I pursued a career as a software engineer; a profession dedicated to finding the best feasible solutions. It is all about eliminating waste and unnecessary steps to find a simple solution. Excellent software breaks things down to bare elements and makes the complex look simple. It is hard work to make it look easy. The abundance mindset and atmosphere can clutter an office and a mind. My humble beginnings underscored that less is more, and my professional path has mirrored that mindset.

Steve Jobs and his return to Apple best illustrate the simple is hard example. He had just regained the reins of the company that had ousted him and pushed Apple to go back to its core of simplicity. With an intense focus on the user interface, Apple existed to make computing simple and powerful. Steve and his team gave people unfettered access to more computing power to increase their productivity to reach their potential. This juxtaposition of powerful simplicity, versus wasteful abundance continues to guide me in every decision that I make in my personal and professional life.

At this time, I was also influenced by the concept of ‘disruptive innovation’ introduced by the late Clayton Christensen. Finding simple, powerful solutions that make current technology obsolete, I believe is the responsibility of an organisation to its stakeholders.

It is the job of the CEO to remove friction from staff, so they have the freedom to create and innovate. This requires that staffers are tasked with the tools that they need and are free from distractions that can bog things down.

Also, at the front and centre of my job is continually building and engaging diverse high-performing teams. My family’s struggle to survive has shaped my workstyle and values. Anyone who can contribute to the success of an endeavour deserves respect, responsibility, and a seat at the decision-making table. Despite coming from an autocratic society, I am a servant leader who fosters the growth and development of my team to deliver stronger company outcomes. In essence, I am still carrying water for the greater good.

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