Meet Your Neighbors: Naeem Zafar
By bayareadesi team on 12 Apr 2011
Naeem is a world citizen whose career was shaped in the high-tech industry having started or worked at seven companies and advised several dozen startups. He has distilled his knowledge and personal experiences in his writings and teaching to help guide entrepreneurs all over the world. He is a faculty member of the Berkeley-Haas business school at the University of California, Entrepreneur, Mentor and authored many books benefiting entrepreneurs. Get to know Naeem as he talks to our team on all things bay.
Tell us about yourself? How long you have been in Bay Area?
I was born in Lahore, Pakistan. I have one younger brother but have close 17 cousins. My kids are born and brought up here but we have taken them back home every 2 years to connect them to our culture as much as possible. It’s not easy since my wife is non-desi, she is from Turkey. So it is split between 3 cultures and for some reason they love their mother's country more.
I grew up going to public schools in Pakistan nothing fancy but I achieved some early success by being 1st in 10th & 12th grade in Punjab state board (Province exam), that sort of put me in track of local fame. Two gold medals later I had a choice of scholarships which I used to go to Engineering school in Turkey. After two years my whole plan was to come to MIT, though I didn't get there but got admission in Brown University where I finished undergraduate in Electrical Engineering and further to University of Minnesota for graduate school.
Fresh out of college I worked for Honeywell Research as a chip designer for 5 years. I started my first company when I was 26 along with 3-4 other guys and raised $4 million sold some specialized computers that we made but we were inexperienced, made lots of mistake and ended up coming to California 21 years ago. Overall, joined 6 start-up companies and was CEO of 3. One of them Israel - went to Jerusalem every month for 2 years; which was very interesting, another was based out of Texas. One of the products we made was fingerprint censor for laptops, we invented that technology (1997-99), had first 16 patents later got caught up in dot com bust and ended up licensing the technology to Fujitsu, HT Micro & few other who made it real.
After that I had to make a choice of either continuing or do something which has bigger impact in life, so I decided to get into teaching. I have been involved with Haas Business School, Berkeley of last 5 years, where I teach entrepreneurship, innovation and e-venture finance. I also work with lot of US state dept. I travel throughout to lecture about innovation, how Silicon Valley works because I think entrepreneurship can be used as a tool of diplomacy. I have advised more than 1000 entrepreneurs and have been on the advisory board of 30+ companies. I have just started my 7th start-up 3 months ago.
Do you have your immediate family here?
No, only 5 out of 17 cousins. I highly discourage people to come to this country specially when they are in their 40's & 50's as they become prisoners here. The culture back home is so much richer with touch points & the support system. So when we go back everyone shows up and we have frequent parties which is very common back home. We enjoy that very much.
What do you like about bay area?
Bay area is such a unique place specially being an electrical engineer. It is source of innovation. The eco-system is such that you have access to some of the smartest people. Any party you go to someone knows about marketing some other knows management, etc. This is one place in the world you feel like back home, being a desi does not feel strange and you are accepted as normal people. There are so many desis & desi things around like restaurants unlike Minnesota where I was the odd ball. There you never fee quiet at home you feel like a foreigner. But in bay area there are concentrations of culture considered to be good and smart ones. From the start it never felt there were not enough desis here.
For Entrepreneur to Educator, Mentor to Author you have done it all. How has been your journey so far?
It is been pretty exciting but in many ways I feel I am just starting. It took so long to put pieces together and now is the time to accelerate. The energy you get from people around you, the environment is just tremendous. I am more energetic and run around doing things more than 10 years ago, which is hard to believe and my wife to put up with me. It is has been good hectic like being a musician what you like to do is play music so you play music all day that is not hectic that is what it is supposed to be. Now the idea is after so many years and lectures people would come to you and recognize you and your work. I get emails from people who have been benefited by the book quoting "this is been the best book they read", I didn't ask for it but it is unsolicited. That is very satisfying. I started out by saying that I am going to touch 1 million lives when I was going through the transformation. The only way to do so is by using media like books, TV shows, radio, etc. I think we have some obligation towards the society as we have take so much like a sponge now is the time to release. As someone said “your net worth is not how much bank balance you have but what changes you have done, people impacted, how much have you given away.” If you keep with you it does not benefit the society so you have to package the knowledge and distribute, that's how you measure your worth.
What inspired you to become an entrepreneur?
It was not any inspiration in the beginning, I didn't even know how to spell "entrepreneurship", which I don't still always know. I had to re-do one of the book because of the title entrepreneur was misspelled. We did it because it was fun to do, we needed some tools and nobody was making so we had to. We did it out of necessity. But later on you realize it is very powerful to teach people how to fish. I always say there is a job-giver and job-taker, even if you employ 1 person you are a job-giver. When you are impacting people by giving them opportunity, to see them grow it is personally satisfying. That is what entrepreneurship is about "enabling people, enabling their inner self, unleashing their power". When we are 3 years old we are full of optimism but our current systems beats it out of us. I think entrepreneur is like a young child for him everything is possible, magic happens! You believe in magic. To me this is amazing like human at its purest like we were when we were babies. It connects you to energy, optimism and anything is possible.
Did you always wanted to be one?
Like I mentioned before it came out of necessity. I always wanted to be an engineer because I wanted to make things, that clarity was there. Other reason why I like being an entrepreneur is you make the rules, you don't have go through an approval process.
What are the top tips for the entrepreneurs who are starting out?
There are two things. Firstly you are not going to do anything useful or scalable without a team. Your first job is to assemble a team of like minded people with mutual respect. This may take years. It took me 5-6 years. Second is increasing you networks going to events, reading blogs, learning, connecting, etc. This is like feeding you mind, you feed your stomach 3 times a day how often do you feed your mind to make it really active. In my book 7 Steps to Successful Startup where I talk about 5 filters. You can take the idea and filter it quickly. Developing those filter is an innate ability that I want you to learn.
Read more of Naeem on Entrepreneurship & Start-ups
You are also involved with nonprofit organization like TiE, OPEN; tell us a little bit more about your involvement with them.
These are platforms just becoming a member doesn’t make you smarter. Question is what are you willing to do. TiE for e.g. I am actively involved in mentoring, involved with TiE institute where I am teaching, giving workshops, remote mentoring at global committee level, finding best practices between chapters.
I am involved with OPEN for last 8 years. I am the president now. We create leaders and building capacity of people. I am also part of many other organization Berkeley has couple of them, IEEE, US state department, Aspen Institute, Pakistan board and the list goes on.
I have started my next start-up 7th three months ago but has long way to come. Bitzer mobile, which will enable to look at enterprise data as native app. Browser based access on mobile have been for many years but it is not easy to use or convenient that is why companies like Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Chase, LinkedIn, Kayak have developed their own apps to customize how it should look on mobile device. You don't have to see everything but enough to get the job done. That's what we do we mobilize the application on the server e.g. a company may want to provide to its employee access to company directory or approval process of purchase order / expense report. That could be handled by multiple mobiles like blackberry or iPhones. It could be like this guy is looking for taking a vacation, approve yes or no and you can just do it on your iPhone. Another example could be you are an insurance agent want to access customer information like age, data, policy, etc. you can finish the transaction right there. On you iPad you sign them you are done. Since you have to do five transaction per day like go visit the customer, take the information, get it signed, type into your computer, wait for something, send the policy hopefully they will approve. Now with iPad you can close the transaction in real time. It’s all about employee productivity. We are excited about this.
Which are your favorite restaurants in bay area?
Nothing can beat Shalimar in terms of quality of food. I am so tired of Indian buffets it's just sitting there. You will never eat that at home. Why would you eat that when you can get fresh. The other one I have tried is Shezan at Castro St, it is suppose to be like Shalimar except less oily. For upper class there is Amber, an old stand-by. Ofcourse, Gaylord use to be there but I am always on the hunt of discovering new ones.
What are some of your favorite Activities? Places to go?
I like Golfing. I also enjoy hiking near where we live like Page Mill road, Windy hill on 35, Arastradero or San Antonio. The question is finding the time to do it and also need to find a buddy to do it with. I usually listening to my audio book on my iPod, huffing and puffing but learning something at the same time.
If you had one piece of advice for South Asians, what would it be?
Have clarity of mind. Most of the South Asians do not have clarity of mind. If you are using too many words to explain something you do not have clarity. It is important in your professional mind, talking to your customers even your children.
How can people learn more about you & stay connected to you in future.
I have a website www.naeemzafar.com , people can contact me through that. I am also on Facebook, Twitter & LinkedIn. I often have several speaking engagements every month.