My Parental Heroes

Today I was interviewing Sridhar Vembu, CEO of Zoho. They have a really cool suite of services you can use to collaborate with your coworkers. I am enjoying using several of their applications and Sridhar and Raju Vegesna (he writes Zoho’s blog) showed me a bunch of stuff and think they have some really interesting services that are going to change the way we work. But more on that when I get the video up.

During the interview, though, I asked Sridhar if he worries about Microsoft or Google crushing his 600-employee business. He said he doesn’t worry about such things cause his business has been around for 10 years and he says he’ll always find a way to compete. But in his eyes I saw something that most CEOs didn’t have. I’m not sure how to describe it, but I’d say it’s a deep confidence along with lack of fear that was coming from somewhere I didn’t understand. I didn’t know how to pull it out of him on tape, but after the camera was turned off they invited me to Peet’s for coffee and we started talking about our kids. I’m not even sure how the conversation turned that direction, but Sridhar told me his son was autistic and that turned the conversation in a whole new direction.

Maryam’s best friend from high school has an autistic child and I’ve spent some time with them so know the hell they go through. The parents, that is. Maryam’s friend’s kid is five. He doesn’t talk. He is hyper active, but doesn’t have conversations with you like normal kids do. Barely even recognizes that someone new is in the room. Other kids will at least look at you when you come in the room. His parents cry regularly and are different people than when I first met them. Somber. Older. Exhausted.

And it just gets worse from there. If you’ve never met a heavily autistic child you have no idea of the hell these parents are going through. They don’t have social ability to try to please you, which Sridhar told me is an important component in learning ability. They also frequently act out, or do very strange/embarrassing things in public. Because they often otherwise look normal these outbursts can prove especially vexing for parents.

Sridhar, over the next hour, gave me a personal tour of his life and the kinds of things they are trying to do to help their child become a functioning member of society (not likely for many of the worst cases).

He told me some things that blew my mind:

1) The cases of children with autism have gone up about 10 times in the past few decades. About 1 out of 100 children will be autistic now. He believes that something in our environment or vaccinations are causing this increase. Most people have never known an autistic child or seen how difficult raising one could be.
2) He personally believes that something about the vaccinations that we’re giving our kids triggers it, or plays a role. He understands that this is a controversial belief, but he says he noticed a major regression after his son had three vaccinations in one day.
3) Some kids do see improvement. He’s working with doctors around the world and said he’s seen a huge improvement in his son’s case with changes in diet and other treatments.
4) He says the Internet is a lifesaver for parents with autistic kids. Google’s result set for “Autism.” He told me that lots of families keep in touch with each other over YouTube (search for Autism, but be prepared to cry) and that he believes that information shared over the Internet is going to find what is causing this and also help in its cure. He says he and his wife participate in a Yahoo group on the topic that gets hundreds of messages a day.
5) The kids with the worst afflictions will cost millions of dollars each to school and then house over their lifetimes (in school they need almost 1:1 instruction) and many autistic kids will never be able to survive in regular society, so will need to be housed in homes where there’s a care-giver present.
6) Silicon Valley has a very high rate of autism, Sridhar told me, but he says that could be that Silicon Valley attracts parents with autistic children for two reasons. 1) The rate among educated people is higher. 2) Silicon Valley has the best trained professionals to deal with autistic children.

Anyway, early on in this conversation Sridhar turned to me and said something like “now you understand why I’m not worried about Google or Microsoft when I go home at night” and added that when you face something like this in your personal life that life at work seems pretty easy, even when facing challenges that the rest of us would think are pretty scary.

Sridhar also rattled off a list of CEOs and famous technologists who are raising autistic children and says he moved to Palo Alto because the schools there are especially good at working with autistic children.

After watching Maryam’s friend deal with her child I can’t even imagine the difficulties raising a child like this. My hat is off to all those parents who are raising kids like this. You are my heroes. I can’t even begin to understand. Thanks to Sridhar for sharing your story with me. I’m glad I took the time to turn off the camera and get to know you.