(Edit note: 17 April ’17. This is the unaltered text of the TEDx talk of Rakesh Shukla at TEDx ICT Mumbai 2017. This accompanying video is illustrative. The official TEDx video will be available here when released. There was no teleprompter so the actual spoken word will vary.)
Living with 750, I learnt to fight like a dog to survive
A few days ago, I received an invitation to speak at ICT Mumbau. After all, I am the dog-man (I like it much better than the unoriginal and punny dog-father, and it reflects the reality of being half man, half dog better). 25 years ago I was very active on the circuit of technology and engineering. It may be surprising to those who don’t know me from then – but there was a (then) fairly niche space in mathematics called Fuzzy Set Theory. Reading it for years as a graduate student, I had found what I thought were some new insights and I wrote half a dozen papers on that – which led to many awards and talks around the country, and publication in an international peer-referenced journal.
I was always a proud man and never asked my father for money throughout my education. I’ve painted and sold custom t-shirts to dozens of hostel-mates, I’ve taught software engineering to my engineering batchmates, I’ve later taught fellow students in the B-school I went to. Anything that I could do that could earn me something. But it was never nearly enough.
It was also the first time I traveled across India myself – Chennai, Manipal, Delhi, Mumbai. Since I couldn’t really afford the travel, I mostly traveled ticketless, sleeping on a newspaper between berths if I was lucky, and between toilet doors if I was not, on overnight trains.
Once I had a couple of such events in Mumbai. There was a week or so between them and it did not make sense to go all the way to Mumbai and come back. I decided to live on the then VT platform (the same place that was later the venue of the Mumbai attacks). It was the cheapest place to stay — I’d buy a platform ticket for two bucks for the day, and the toilets even then were relatively clean.
I haven’t left Bangalore in 4 yrs. I don’t leave Bangalore because of my babies, and turn down any travel plans. And ICT did not ring any bells… Till I looked it up. Matunga seemed familiar! I then realised this was the then UDCT (University Department of Chemical Technology), and a venue for an IEEE talk. The place along with VJTI that I had travelled to all that time ago.
And I smiled for it is indeed a small world. And here I am.
I’m Rakesh Shukla, and I founded a technology company called TWB that works with the world’s top names in technology the biggest companies from software to silicon, electronics, aerospace and defense. Microsoft, Intel, Lenovo, Harman Kardon, Beechcraft, Cessna are all TWB customers. But that isn’t why I’m standing here in front of you. In fact, the last hundred-odd interviews I’ve given to the national and international press are about something else entirely — about my first love for stray dogs. 4 years ago, the first TV documentary said ‘The dog-father of 150 dogs’ now it is ‘The dog-father of 750 dogs’.
But what I am talking about is not the journey of starting VOSD and what VOSD does, but it is the story of love and inspiration. I have also lived to see that love that is noun has little meaning but the love that is a verb moves mountains
I founded TWB 10 years ago, and I founded VOSD 5 years ago. I think of myself as highly intelligent but more than that I’m highly motivated and hardworking. I’ve worked at great places before becoming an entrepreneur. If I have a failing, it is my inability to take advice easily. In fact, it is my legendary impatience that led to the creation of VOSD in the first place. I had grown tired of begging NGOs to help dogs in need, and then following up with them for updates, and more often than not, losing the dog due to incompetence. So I built VOSD, ground up, to be very, very different. Because there’s no blueprint for this kind of system, we had to create our own:
So I built VOSD, ground up, to be very, very different. Because there’s no blueprint for this kind of system, we had to create our own:
- We are both ‘No-kill’ AND ‘No-refusal’ – any rescue will tell you that these are opposite sides of the same problem. We keep the dog for life. We do not deny any dog any help or treatment, no matter how sophisticated, expensive or long term. We do not euthanise a dog due to lack of space, or money, or complication of treatment, or any restriction like that. Ever.
- We made the world’s first large-scale management system to integrate GPS data, photo storage, digitise all tests and diagnostics, capture and track all prescriptions and match them against treatment. Essentially track a dog through every treatment through to its eventual release and report every step on mail, SMS and mobile app to the person who reported the dog.
- We made the world’s first rescue app that allowed someone to just download this app and report the dog in sufficient detail. It integrates with the management system.
- We set up the first blood bank for dogs.
- We run the world’s largest legal, data and analysis website on stray dogs.
In the next two years, VOSD was already a one-of-a-kind rescue service, free to all who needed it. Dogs were picked up quickly and sensitively. No expense was spared, and no dog was put down due to costs or lack of space. A sophisticated CRM provided real-time updates to the person who reported the dog. We were rescuing 10 to 15 dogs a day, and fighting for every single dog. My dogs had artificial tendons, aggressive treatment of cancers, distemper, and parvovirus. We didn’t take a rupee from the government, and were privately funded. We had our own facilities, a trauma shelter in the middle of the city, and a 3.5-acre farm on the outskirts. 30 full time employees. A fleet of 10 vehicles. We were bristling with technology. We were managed as well as the best-run hospitals. Nothing like what India had ever seen.
But it not just the hard things that make us different, it is the small things that set us apart. One of the many things that make VOSD, VOSD is that all dogs are rescued or caught by hand. I have never, and I never allow anyone to use anything – even a lasso or a net to catch a dog. They have to be picked up with bare hands. And with never anything more than a blanket or a towel. That one decision defines VOSD – and me.
But did you know ‘stray’ dogs is a business and it is run by a mafia? The same organisations run the government-funded Animal Birth Control programs across cities. I know because I was a member of the AWBI, and the largest legal and investigative data on these organisations across India is on my website vosd.in. My investigations closed half a dozen rogue NGOs. I certainly have not been a popular ‘animal welfare’ person by any stretch of imagination. An NGO called AWS that had been the bane of Mumbai dogs and it could not be closed despite years of reporting of malpractice was closed in Bangalore. Threats had been made many times in different ways. One of the ‘shelters’ run by Animal Rights Fund (ARF) closed by my investigation had threatened with doing bad things to ‘my children and family’. A scanned copy of that page is still there on our website. Sarvodaya Sevabhavi Sanstha lead by a Vinay Moray was the other. And they propped up It came to a point that I started keeping gunmen for my personal security carrying licensed weapons. But the threats were not empty and neither could they be averted with weapons.
The first attacks were on me. The second wave of attacks were on TWB and the third were on VOSD itself.
It began three years ago with a police complaint. Then another. And another. My dogs were poisoned in two different incidents both times we made FIRs both times we knew it was the same people connected with the same NGOs. A rescue vehicle and its crew were attacked in broad daylight. Civil cases started piling up in different courts also by the same NGOs led by Sarvodaya ARF and people propped up by them.
But the biggest one was yet to come and it was not aimed at VOSD — but at the foundation of VOSD — it was aimed at TWB and me. Three years ago, almost to the day, the first criminal complaint was registered against me. Then the same complaint in other police station. Not allowed by law especially because I had taken preventive bail. But you can’t fight people who will spend any amount of resources. The day that complaint was made our servers had a massive a Denial-of-Service attack so we could not ‘publish’ anything for a week.
On a Saturday I was arrested by plainclothes policemen who entered my home without a warrant. My wife had to throw my clothes out of the window to let me dress. The press was co-opted and it made front page news for the next two days. Copies of the FIR and these reports were sent to all our top clients — the world’s leading technology MNCs.
Three years ago, I was standing in a police station across the table from the complainant whom I had never met before in my life or spoken to. She had charged me with attempting to outrage her modesty and much else. She told the Inspector standing in the room, “Tell him to close down VOSD and I’ll take back the complaint.” I refused point blank. Even though the matter is sub judice, the said charge is not in the chargesheet so I can talk about it.
From the community of ‘dog lovers’ poring over newspapers and sitting on social media, there was not one tweet, not one post. And as I focused on the legal battle over the next three months, I had no idea of the storm to hit. For three months, no deliveries happened to my customers. The sales team did not bring home a single customer win. Marketing did not discover a single customer lead. Overnight, we went into not just negative cash flow but I was now liable for millions of dollars in breach of contracts. Like VOSD, TWB was also made on my own. It never had no debt and there was not one paisa of VC funding.
Even as I went to banks to fund these three months of negative cashflow, I realised I had nothing left to service any debt with. Essentially, in three months, a company that had the biggest technology brands as customers with several hundred employees was bled dry, and left with zero revenue and millions of dollars in debt and liability.
The VOSD and TWB Admin and Purchase were common, and together, they over-invoiced to the tune of Rs 5-10 lacs per month, for three months straight. A vet placed a single large order earning a 30% commission and left the day it arrived.
If you know the Indian business system, there is no real bankruptcy protection or a winding down procedure. 10 years ago, I was in a place where I could (and did) buy a Mercedes-Benz on a charge card on a whim — and 20 other cars. And watches. And other such stuff. Before the three months were out, banks had closed my accounts and suspended my credit cards. Now I didn’t have food but I still had 400 babies to care for.
I sold three houses, liquidated all three TWB offices, sold all the cars and bikes including 4 VOSD ambulances but kept 6 of the largest VOSD vans and trucks. Sold the watches, jewellery, everything I could to keep my babies fed and healthy.
Throughout this time, if there’s one message that the lawyers and the cops and family have routinely delivered to me, it is this: “Close down VOSD, and this goes away.” But that would never happen. Ever.
We’ve all been told how success brings friends but you are alone in your adversity. There’s nothing truer. You are totally and truly alone. The friends from far and wide, the ones that knew never bothered even calling me – I know because I could ask for money, help, something. I remember when the Maggi controversy broke, it didn’t make a difference to me because Maggi was Rs 30 a packet and we’d already shifted to a Nepalese brand called Wai-Wai that was Rs 10 a packet. My wife and I would share sometimes. At work, I was still fighting and put on my best suits for meetings, trying to salvage what I could, but one day, my last pair of shoes came apart at the sole in a customer office.When the storm hit three years ago, I had to dig down deep just to stay alive. Everything I brought to the table, I learnt from not some great book of wisdom but from the dogs in front of me. And these are the lessons I share with you:
When the storm hit three years ago, I had to dig down deep just to stay alive. Everything I brought to the table, I learnt from not some great book of wisdom but from the dogs in front of me. And these are the lessons I share with you:
- Leadership. There is little to do but to forge ahead. Just like dogs do. In packs they quickly develop a hierarchy. When driven out of a pack by a social, environment or a human challenge, they seek new territories to establish an order. But they are great judges of leadership as well. They look for that in their own and in people. I attribute my own success in managing even the dogs with the worst reputations to that. They know I am fair and that I get their allegiance not being harsh but being the provider.
- Calmness in adversity. if you see a dog being hit or injured, it yelps and cries the second it happens. Then it becomes quiet. I see it dozens of times a day. They get a look in their eyes that has detachment, but hope.
- Hunker down. What you can’t change and during the time you can’t change it, you hunker down and wait for the storm to pass. Dogs do that as they weigh their chances.
- You keep fighting alone. It’s an important lesson from a dog. When they are hurt or grieving or in adverse circumstances, they do not have the type of help people have. There is no one coming with a cheque or with an ambulance. A dog knows that. And still preserves his incredible will to live. They are grateful for company and help, but their default status in injury and disease is being alone.
- Tenacity. Most driven and successful people are tenacious, but look at my dogs. I have a dog who escaped from our Trauma Center, with one leg in a cast, by jumping a 7 foot high fence and walking 15 kilometers through the middle of the city to reach its lane where we found him the next day. Still wagging his tail.
- Courage. We have a dog who had been tied to a railway track with a metal chain and his legs got cut even as he tried to avoid the train. But that cut the chain as well and he kept going without two front paws but with his companion who did not leave him through the ordeal.
- No self pity. Dogs don’t feel pity for themselves. They don’t blame others. Of course they don’t have the same sense of self as us but even then, living with them as I do, I’ve never seen the attitude that something has happened and they are in a corner that they don’t want to fight out of. You can’t just look inwards – you have to look out. Corners can only be fought out of, they don’t disappear.
- Problem solving. Dogs are ace problem solvers. I have dogs that can’t be kept in an enclosure because they want to leave — and go to the nearby village and kill chicken! They will test the fence meticulously. In that enclosure, the fence is to the ceiling and they will find any gap even at that height. When even that access was blocked they would test the ground and eventually found a weak area in the floor and eventually dug a tunnel under the fence to the other side!.
- Pain threshold. Dogs have a tremendous pain threshold even though studies clearly show that they feel pain, and on a scale same as we do. I’ve just given you a couple of examples. A dog will live with and through indescribable pain 5% of which is unbearable for a person. If a dog lives through the pain and does not catch an infection, he will not just survive but will thrive.
- Trust. No matter how much a dog has been abused or is nervous, his wanting to trust never completely goes away. A person who has gone through similar circumstances would perhaps behave very differently. Eventually there were a few remarkable people who came through for me, whom I could trust. They were all new!
- Delayed gratification. That’s the single biggest trait of achievers. They have the ability to go through years of toil without commensurate return because they can delay gratification. Funnily, dogs show the same traits. A healthy dog will share it is food with its family, especially offspring. In a non-competitive environment, a dog will eat the best pieces of food last. I have seen dogs when even nearly starving, they will eat only a small part of the meal and bury the rest for later. And that’s great advice to hold you through many years of uncertainty.
- Playing the hand that you’re dealt. A dog doesn’t complain. If they are missing two legs or are completely blind and completely deaf they will adjust to it so well that unless I told you, you would never know. A lot of dogs are abandoned because the owners have not known for years that they were deaf or blind.
- Grief does not paralyse them. Dogs have a capacity for love unlike any other but they know when to move on. I see that with mothers that have lost pups or pups that have lost mothers. Beyond a point, they move on.
Today, I still don’t have a credit card or a car, but VOSD is still standing. In the last two years of limited rescue, I’ve still added 350-odd dogs — aggressive dogs, handicapped dogs, military dogs… I only take dogs with no future. But I’ve kept working, developing on the lessons from these dogs.
- We have a much-loved franchise of standup comedy called Barking Mad and for live music called Howling Mad that draws the best talent at the finest venues.
- We run the largest and the most successful bake sales as Monster Bake in India.
- I run VOSD for People, which provides medical and educational help for villagers around the Sanctuary. We’ve taught 2500 children for free, and are in the process of establishing our own school. This month, we’re distributing 1500 sarees for women on the Kannada New Year.
- In the past few weeks, we launched a series of dog care products called VOSD Dog Care.
- We’re in the middle of a crowdfunding campaign called #PatriotDogs that is being supported by the likes of Virat Kohli, Chris Gayle, Boman Irani, Rahul Dravid, Nana Patekar and Soha Ali Khan and many more. And as far as my company goes, the customers have started returning.
- I have serviced direct debt to lenders in millions of dollars.
- TWB opened an office in the US last quarter and we have a new US-based CEO.
But I believe the biggest success is that almost no one around me knows just how bad these three years have been except perhaps two people who stood with me in my life and work and home. I have firmly believed that winners have challenges and losers have alibis. Before today, I wouldn’t let anyone know the real depth of the problem because ultimately it is each dog to himself. I talk about it for the first time because I know I might have lost two legs like that dog on the train tracks but I survived.
Interestingly now, in the last three months BBC, CNN, Al Jazeera, The Times of India, The Hindu and any number of publications in India, Asia, Europe, South America and the US have written of this miracle of having 750 dogs and the place I have created. But the real miracle is that I have done that with my back to the wall and with almost nothing in my hands. Or in my pocket. If I must measure my life by something, then that would be it.
To the few people who cared to ask me how I was in this time, and there were very few, I would always say ‘I’m a dog I’m licking my wounds, I’ll be back’. While the media calls me the dog-father, I really am a Dog-Man. And for those who say I fought like a lion, I say No — it was like a dog.
About success, I know now it is not the multiple houses, and cars and watches and visas I though it did. It is having the means and the opportunity to spend each day doing what you love.Thank you.