If building a company isn’t hard enough, some of India’s most celebrated entrepreneurs have done it while going through immense personal grief and tragedy.
Zoho founder Sridhar Vembu, who is one of India’s richest startup founders and has made headlines by choosing to work out of a village in Tamil Nadu, has opened up on his divorce proceedings and the story of his child who suffers from autism. Vembu’s comments came after a Forbes article alleged that he had transferred ownership in his company to prevent his wife from getting her fair share in their divorce settlement.
Vembu had graduated from IIT Madra,s and then had joined Princeton for a PhD in 1989. He met Pramila Srinivasan in graduate school, and married her in 1993. He along with a co-founder and his brothers, founded AdventNet, which later rebranded to Zoho. While Vembu returned to India permanently in 2020 to work out of rural Tamil Nadu, Pramila Srinivasan stayed back in the US. She has now approached the courts alleging Vembu abandoned her. “My husband of 29 years not only abandoned me and his son with special needs in 2020,” Srinivasan said in a court filing. “He decided to make fictitious transfers or ‘sales’ of our most valuable community asset to his family members without their paying any cash or other consideration, and without ever telling me or asking my permission,” she adds.
Vembu says he did not abandon his wife, and differences between them arose over their son, who suffers from autism. “I moved to India to devote myself to my dream of rural development and revival, powered by technology,” he says. “I tried to get (Pramila) to come to India with Siddhu [our son] but she refused and the pandemic laid waste to any hope of reconciling. I have never left her or Siddhu to any financial hardship,” he says.
Vembu has now opened up about his personal life in a Twitter thread. “My personal life, in contrast to my business life, has been a long tragedy. Autism destroyed our lives and left me suicidally depressed,” he wrote.
“My wife Pramila and I were in this fight against autism for over 15 years. She is a super mom and her passionate cause is curing our son of autism. I worked hard along with her. To ensure his safety I also took some of his treatments so I could know what they did to him,” he says.
“As our son got older (24 today) I felt the endless treatments he was under were not helping much and he would be better off in rural India, closer to loving people and helping to lift up people. She felt I was giving up. Our marriage collapsed under that stress. Unfortunately the end of our marriage brought a new conflict. She is making unfounded allegations in court about my ownership interest in Zoho Corp and she has chosen to go to the press too. The matter is in court in the US, my filings are public,” he continued.
Vembu also defended himself against the charges of moving around the ownership of Zoho. “I will say this unequivocally: I never ever transferred my shares in the company to anyone else. I lived in the US for the first 24 years of our 27 year history and much of what constitutes the company was built in India. That is reflected in the ownership,” he said.
“It is complete fiction to say I financially abandoned Pramila and my son. They enjoy a far richer life than I do and I have supported them fully. My US salary for the last 3 years has been with her, and I gave our house to her. Her foundation also is supported by Zoho,” Vembu continued.
He went on to blame his Uncle for the entire situation. “All of this mess was caused by my uncle Ram (my father’s younger brother) living in the US, who I gave shelter to due to his terminal cancer, taking out his own long running frustrations with my father. He is doing that by spreading malicious rumours about me and my siblings. My uncle Ram from Alaska was estranged from my father and us for decades and we had little or no communication until I invited him to live with us in California a few years ago, purely on compassionate grounds due to his terminal cancer and his lack of family to care for him. My uncle was never part of our lives for decades. Sadly Pramila has chosen to trust my uncle Ram who still lives rent free at our home, due to her own frustration that she feels I abandoned the fight on autism,” he said.
“We have lived this tragic personal life. Now due to my uncle Ram’s falsehoods, the tragedy has added a messy legal dimension. I have always supported Pramila and my son and will continue to support them as long I live. I am confident truth and justice will prevail,” Vembu said. “I have endured vicious personal attacks before and I will endure this one too. I will continue to build institutions and capabilities in rural India, my only remaining purpose in life. My prayer is that someday my beloved son will join me here. Please pray for us,” heconcluded.
It’s a heart wrenching tale, and shows how even the most successful people are often fighting bitter — and lonely — battles as they build their companies. Sridhar Vembu is one of India’s most celebrated entrepreneurs, run India’s most profitable internet company, and has been conferred with a Padma award, but is fighting tragedy and discontent in his personal life. It remains to be seen how Vembu’s court battles play out, but his story is a sobering reminder that very often, entrepreneurship is often even harder than it appears to be from the outside.