New Delhi: By some accounts, he might be the richest Indian in the US today but very few people have heard about entrepreneur Manoj Bhargava. We speak to the man behind 5-Hour Energy, a heady concoction of caffeine, vitamins and nutrients.
Here's the full transcript of the interview:
NDTV: By some accounts he might be the richest Indian in the United States of America today. So why is it that so few people have heard about Manoj Bhargava? Is it because he prefers it that way? Well, even if you haven't heard about him and don't know much about him, we're going to change that today, but you'd have certainly heard or seen or perhaps even tried the one product that has taken him to the headlines. It's called the 5 Hour energy drink and that's right, it's meant to be a heady concoction of caffeine, vitamins and nutrients. So what's the Manoj Bhargava story all about? Well, he is our newsmaker tonight. Here we are going to find out. Manoj, let me start by asking you the obvious question. Why don't we know more about you?
Manoj Bhargava: In the beginning, there was no purpose. I always felt, I tried to do everything that, it has to have a purpose and being famous, all you get is a bull's eye on your forehead. So, there was no attraction there. The reason everything changed is basically, actually, mostly because of India. I wanted to do charity here and apparently if you want to do charity here and you're a rich guy and nobody knows you, then you must be a thief. So there was a lot resistance to me doing anything.
NDTV: Resistance from which quarters?
Manoj Bhargava: Pretty much everywhere. I mean they were saying, who are you? Do you have some other motives? Agenda? Look we are giving money to the poor, we are building, and we are taking care of the poor, what other agenda do I have? But there was a lot of that just everywhere. So I said "alright! I give up, fine I'll come out and everybody's been chasing me over there as well. So I said fine, I'll do it" and so the first thing was Forbes.
NDTV: And you've only just begun to sort of break your media silence, in a sense you are slowly coming out of that shadow of silence. You say that in a sense that fame means nothing to you, but is it also that you like your privacy, you like to stay under the radar? You've quipped before that if you Google 'Manoj Bhargava', it might take you to some lawyer in Singapore?
Manoj Bhargava: Well, my view is this, look I am not an MBA type of a guy. I am more of common sense. So the common sense says 'if you become famous, the first thing is you become a target.' Now how is that attractive? To me, that is
NDTV: That comes with a turf, right?
Manoj Bhargava: It was a price I wasn't willing to pay. But on the other hand, for charity sake, I think it's worth it. If I didn't think, I mean if for everything you have to pay, if you don't think it's worth it, then don't pay, don't buy. The way I look at it is "Ok if you guys are making me do this and that's the only way I can get this charity side done, fine, I'll do it". But other than that I don't really, I don't have this hobby of being famous. I don't think it's bad for other people. It's like a hobby. Some people collect stamps, other people like to be famous. I don't have that hobby. I just look at it in that sense.
NDTV: And you don't collect stamps but you do collect great stones. I have to explain this to our viewers, which is basically that ever since your product '5 Hour' energy drink became such a huge and gigantic success, you had copycat products, 6 Hour energy, 8 Hour energy and I believe you have a little symmetry in your office, you chase these copycat guys with lawsuits and the moment you win, you know there is that little flag of victory that goes on into that tombstone. So is this story for real?
Manoj Bhargava: I think it's expanded a little bit. I mean I think there was one little tombstone in there because one of our creative guys put it up there as a little "REST IN PEACE" and everybody used to talk a lot of it.
NDTV: So have you seen many attempts to copycat 5 Hour energy?
Manoj Bhargava: Yes, there are about, there are somewhere between 250 and 300 that included Coke, Pepsi. Everybody came in after us. And so the ones we went after, I know the article says the secret of my success is I sue everybody, but that's not true, that's just silly because you know we sold 500 million bottles last year. We didn't sue all our customers to get that.
NDTV: Do you use 5 Hour energy yourself?
Manoj Bhargava: Everyday.
NDTV: Do you?
Manoj Bhargava: Yes, and twice and when I play tennis, three times a week. I never play without it.
NDTV: So what's in it without divulging trade secrets?
Manoj Bhargava: No, actually it's right on the label. It's basically nutrients that make you focus.
NDTV: And you've said "it's not an energy drink, it's a focus drink", right? So what is it? Because you did arrive in a market where Red Bull for example already existed. So you know everybody's notions back then of an energy drink. So how did you think that this would be different?
Manoj Bhargava: Well look I found it at one place.
NDTV: At a natural products fair?
Manoj Bhargava: Yeah and I thought "Wow, this is amazing". So I could sell this and so I figured it out. Basically what it has in it is brain nutrients, for brain health. So there is caffeine in it, but the purpose of caffeine is to get everything else absorbed. Most of the people don't know that one of the great qualities of caffeine is it allows you to absorb nutrients and it does it quickly, and so when it does it quickly, you focus and when you focus you think you have energy.
NDTV: Or rather your personal journey has attracted a lot of attention because it's unusual. You know you moved to the USA with your parents, you dabbled in all kinds of jobs, but you dropped out of Princeton, you hate Princeton. Most people in India you know will give a leg and a dime to go to Princeton. So why did you drop out of Princeton?
Manoj Bhargava: First of all, I don't hate Princeton. That was a misrepresentation by someone who went to the University of Pennsylvania.
NDTV: Okay, so beyond the college rivalry or the school rivalry, why did you drop out?
Manoj Bhargava: Well, The Princetonian just interviewed me just a few days ago and I wanted to clear the air, because I never said they were bad, and the purpose really to me was, "look, it was great for a year", and they said "why a year?" and I said " look it's the same reason why nobody stays for 5 years." Why 5, why 4 years? I mean it's an arbitrary number. I got what I needed out of Princeton in 1 year and I didn't think it was useful. Partially because, look you go to school and the prime reason is you want to make some money, get a good job and make some money. It wasn't important to me. I mean I thought my friends were some of the richest people in the world and they were a little bit, they weren't really together, they were sort of messed up, a lot of them, and I thought "What is this, I am trying to be like them? That makes no sense." So then I thought "Okay I don't need this. Let me find something that is more useful."
NDTV: But you moved back to India at this point. And if in the Western narrative of you, you become a monk and you've explained that you know, maybe the Western press doesn't have another word to describe that approximation. But you do spend several years living in ashrams. What leads you to that?
Manoj Bhargava: Well, look what happened is I don't know if it's too much information right now . I read Vivekananda and I thought when I was a youngster, if he can do it, so can I and that's what I did. I followed what he did, not what he said, and it was the greatest education. Now things are easy. I compete with guys who are MBAs. I love that because they have no clue.
NDTV: But how many years did you spend in an ashram?
Manoj Bhargava: 12.
NDTV: 12 years and then you suddenly go back and become this entrepreneur?
Manoj Bhargava: Well look it's not a change. 90% of what I make goes to charity. So I don't live that differently. To me, it's really simple. If you have more money than your lifestyle, then you can either do something stupid or smart. That's not much of a choice. That's like saying "You are on the roof, you can either take the elevator or you can jump". That's not a choice. So, the only reasonable thing is you do something for other people.
NDTV: Do you find that the philanthropy debate though is also mired in a certain degree of cynicism, because sometimes people see it here in India especially as a way of saving tax? You will find that when Forbes profiled you, they also suggested that your own charity had been subject to scrutiny, that there was a suggestion that you were making use of a convenient law to actually invest within other operations that also brought you money. So that you know, in a sense, a lot of people look at rich people who donate say "Hey, it's just a way of saving tax".
Manoj Bhargava: Look, for me to not save tax would be stupid okay, then I would be called 'stupid rich man'. The thing is we are, we've set up an organisation here and what we do is give to, last year we gave to 400 organisations in India, because it's very hard to do charity in India. I saw a piece that you did on Ted Turner and so on, and a lot of the ideas are false. I mean the people have ideas which are just not true.
Manoj Bhargava: Look, instead of IT, what you really need is common sense. You know for example if you go to a poor man and he is starving and you say "look let me give you books, let me give you a computer." Then he's going to look at you "are you out of your mind? I am going to die tomorrow and you are going to give me a computer". Or the guy's blind and you say "You know I am going to give you a vaccine". Wait a second. It's simple, just as business is. You go to a customer and you say "what is it that you need?" Not what I want to shove down your throat. There is a lot of charity that is being done that is pointless, because the rich people sit behind big desks and you know fancy houses and they have never been there. Have they ever done anything? Have you been down to the where everybody is living?
NDTV: And in a sense, you have seen life from the other side of the tracks as it were. You have driven a cab in New York. You've, I mean if the stories are correct that you've bought a car and worked in a low income housing colony, bringing down debris, got down and dirty in a sense, as you made your money. How much of a rough life have you seen according to you?
Manoj Bhargava: Well I don't know. I don't really consider it to be rough, but yes I carried stones in construction. "Patthar dhoey hain".
NDTV: Literally "Patthar dhoey hain"?
Manoj Bhargava: Literally and I almost broke my back doing it and I did work in the ghetto. I did drive a cab and I did work in a press, and I did do all of those things. Look it gives you a perspective you can never get in some fancy school, and if you, look in where we are, in the US, they call us founders. You've built a large business, you are a founder apparently and I have met these other guys. I mean we all talk to some extent and they are all a lot like me, in the sense that they are not fancy educated. If there were some common element among us, we are all stubborn. We all don't tolerate nonsense. We are not politically correct and we don't really care what anybody thinks.
NDTV: There is a word if you are familiar with it called "Jugaad", that you innovate, when you don't have a conventional answer, you innovate, but some also use it as a byword. Some use it as a byword for innovation others for mediocrity, for not putting systems in place.
Manoj Bhargava: No, I think there is a big bias in India for educated people, you know it's like "Oh, IITian and IIM, must be smart." No, that only means he is smart in studying. It doesn't mean he is smart in business. But no, we only hire IIT and IIM, which is total nonsense because they come out of these schools and they are clueless. They are taught by people who haven't done business. Would you be willing to be operated by a surgeon who was taught by somebody who never did surgery? I mean it's ludicrous.
NDTV: So you are saying over-emphasis on pedigree, on degrees, on that whole circuit that Indians are obsessed with. But can I ask you ...
Manoj Bhargava: I have a quote on this. I don't usually quote authors but this one was just great. It says, "I have never let schooling get in the way of education". That is from Mark Twain.
NDTV: That's a good one. I hope Princeton doesn't take that personally in your case, but so be it. Let me ask you in the end. You did say that in your interview to Forbes that you are probably the richest Indian in the USA, and you said it in this 'off the cuff' way you know. But you are also saying simultaneously that ostentatious display of wealth for you is a problem. It doesn't mean that much to you, the money. Is that what you are saying?
Manoj Bhargava: I don't say that it's bad. Everybody has a hobby is what I said.
NDTV: What's yours?
Manoj Bhargava: I guess my life would be the charity side. That's what my hobby is. This is what I do.
NDTV: So, now that we've taken out the reclusive Manoj Bhargava and put him in the media spotlight, what next for you, last question as we end?
Manoj Bhargava: Well I've got projects that, I've got 4 projects that are all sort of world-changing, if they are successful. So I am doing things which, I mean there is a non-profit side, but I am also doing other things where one of the largest projects, the largest out of the 4, is we are able to find the technology that will clean ocean water, 80% cheaper than currently and it can be used in agriculture, which current technology cannot, which would change the world. Plus we are working on diesel which reduces diesel consumption by 20%. Also this week actually, it has been tested, the technology for coal, which will take 98% of mercury out of coal and 60% of sulphur dioxide, which again would change everything. So we are investing. These are not called non-profit, they are definitely for profit and I don't pretend that I am saving the world or anything, it's just business. On the other hand, it turns out that doing really large projects, all of a sudden I am green. I didn't even know it!
NDTV: Best things in life just happen circumstantially, but somehow I have a feeling that you won't stay away from the media spotlight for too much longer, because probably the media won't let you. Manoj Bhargava, thank you so much for talking to us.