The Big Raju
When someone knocks on his door and asks for help, Ajay Raju answers
Published in 2006 Pennsylvania Rising Stars magazine
on November 27, 2006
Updated on October 10, 2016
At 36, he’s a handsome, smart and funny television personality with a corner office at a leading Philadelphia law firm. So of course it would be easy to dislike or dismiss Ajay Raju. The problem: He’s far too nice to dislike and far too accomplished to dismiss.
As the head of Reed Smith’s securitization and finance team and a partner in the firm’s business and finance department, Raju — known as A. J. — leads an international practice. This year he will bring in $6 to $7 million in revenue. His work centers primarily on representing servicers of commercial mortgage loans. He is also a leading authority on doing business in India, and co-heads his firm’s India practice.
Engaging, smooth, diplomatic and rarely at rest, Raju advised former Gov. Tom Ridge’s Stadium and Exposition Task Force regarding financing options for constructing sports stadiums in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh; founded the Global Indian Chamber of Commerce (GICC), a catalyst for trade between the United States and India; served as national chairman of the legal and regulatory affairs committee for Realcomm; and is a regular on Channel 6’s Inside Story, a Sunday morning news and current events roundtable.
Phew. Let’s catch our breath here for a moment while we consider how Raju has packed so much into three and a half decades — and why his ascent appears far from over.
“I came to know him the way most everybody comes to know him,” says Oliver Franklin, president and CEO of International House Philadelphia, a nonprofit that houses nearly 400 students from more than 65 countries with the aim of developing cultural and business leaders. “You get up on Sunday morning and you see him on TV and you think, ‘Who is this guy?’”
Franklin and Raju are working together on initiatives to promote international business in the region, including an effort to encourage commerce between Pennsylvania and India. Motivating people is one of Raju’s strengths. He combines hyper-competence with a sunny disposition and a natural charisma.
“He is quite a guy, a real go-getter,” says Franklin. “We need 30 more of him around here.”
He gets the same reaction in New Delhi.
“A. J. is an absolute bull terrier — throw him a transaction and watch him go for it until the very end,” says Rajiv Luthra, managing partner of Luthra & Luthra in India. “He knows his stuff and minces no words … and I am glad to have been on his side of the table on all occasions.”
Raised in upper-middle-class Bhopal, Raju arrived in Philadelphia when he was 14 with his parents, his brother and an appetite for everything American. They didn’t come to the United States out of desperation. Back home, his father was a high-ranking official in the state transportation system and his mother was a nursing school professor. His parents packed up their two sons — Raju and his brother, Vijay, who would become a Fulbright Scholar and today owns an executive placement firm — to give them a shot at reaching their fullest potential.
“We had what I would call a very comfortable life,” says Raju. “But back then in India there were many, many educated people but not a lot of opportunities. So they said, ‘Let’s go, and see if you guys land on your feet.’”
On the first day of class in his new land, his eighth-grade teacher wrote his name on the blackboard, Ajay [AH-jay], which the class immediately translated into “A. J.” At that moment an American was born. He even got a nickname: Scarface, after the gang leader in the 1983 movie — a nod not just to his accent but also to his leadership skills.
While his leadership abilities would grow, his accent would soon fade, thanks to his incessant mimicking of his TV hero, Peter Jennings, right down to his pronunciation, for a time, of “a-BOOT” for “about.”
“You learn to be a chameleon,” Raju says. “You figure out how to survive.”
But he wanted to do more than survive. He was driven — wound tight, in the classic immigrant sense, out to prove he was as good as anybody. He ran track and played football (wide receiver) in high school and earned top grades. Within three years of his arrival, he was a leader in the growing Philadelphia Indian community. At 17 he became general secretary of the region’s Indian Catholic Church organization, serving as the lay counterpart to the pastor and helping with the church’s social services. It was a time of awakening for him.
“I realized there were a lot of people like me,” he says. “They feel they have to prove themselves before they get invited to the club. America loves people who have something to offer — so offer something and people will embrace you.”
He set his sights on medical school and gave motivational speeches to Indian organizations. One of his themes was the wealth of opportunity in America. Don’t dream narrowly, he told his audiences. Consider all your options. Then someone called him on his own advice.
“So you are telling Indians to consider all their career options, but you are doing the same old thing — medical school,” an audience member said. “Why don’t you practice what you preach?”
It made sense. He wanted to make things happen. He could certainly do important things in medicine, but it would be on an individual basis. With law, and maybe politics, he could work with a broader brush. So he set his sights on law school.
“It was the best decision I ever made,” he says.
He went to Temple University for his undergraduate and law degrees, graduating cum laude from both and delivering the commencement speech at his law school graduation. A rainmaker even in college, he created a job for himself by hiring some of the best DJs in the city and finding them work, taking a cut of the profits.
“I had a lot of friends who were disc jockeys, and I guess I had an entrepreneurial mind,” he says. “The DJs were great at what they did but they didn’t have a business mindset, so I found them work. It covered college expenses and cars and all that other stuff. I was making a lot more than anybody my age.”
It also changed his life. One New Year’s Eve he hosted a big event and when it was over, one of the guests needed a ride home. He gave her one. Her name: Pamela. They now have two children, Madison, 7, and Genevieve, 3, and are expecting a third in April.
“Pamela brought me stability and put me on the right path,” he says. “I was pretty popular and I was getting my dosage of partying and fun, and I think I would have become a womanizer if it wasn’t for her.”
Though he had worked as a summer associate at Saul Ewing in Philadelphia, he was recruited by Weil, Gotshal & Manges in New York, where he practiced real estate. He enjoyed his time in New York but returned to Philly after a couple of years. He felt stymied by the Big Apple, where there is an almost impenetrable hierarchy: media people, entertainers, sports stars, investment bankers, politicians, advertising executives, Fortune 500 businesspeople. Lawyers, even the best ones, are too far down the list to be heard.
“In Philly nothing happens without the support of large law firms,” he says. “They are there with money and leadership, so for me it was not just about making a living but being in a place where I could make a difference. The camaraderie here among lawyers is special. It’s a big-city mentality with a little-city feel. New York is a very noisy place. There was too much competition for attention. In Philly I think lawyers get more attention and respect. And there’s no Puffy Combs to compete with.”
He landed at Morgan Lewis before moving on to Reed Smith. That’s when he began to direct his attention back to his homeland.
In India his father told him that any knock on the door must be answered. So he does. He raises money for community needs, helps friends get their children into college, solves personal problems and brings business partners together.
“I need people to want me,” he says. “The nightmare is if the phone stops ringing.”
In 1999, he used his knowledge of India and America to create the GICC, which now has more than 20,000 members throughout the world. The idea for the nonprofit came to him while he was talking to his brother, who was in India working on his Fulbright Scholarship and studying the liberalization of the country’s then mostly state-run economy. As they talked, Raju realized he was in a good spot to build something.
“It hit me really hard,” he says. “Here I am working at a global firm, and the types of companies India is trying to attract are the types of companies I can access with the click of an e-mail, and those companies are the ones who are interested in doing business with India. I thought, ‘Let’s create a bridge of commerce.’”
What developed was a “virtual organization” that serves as a think tank for those who want to learn about commerce in the country. The organization hosts CEO summits, conferences and trade missions. Raju maintains a hands-on role.
“I spend almost every morning on the phone with folks in India getting a feel for the hot-button issues,” he says. “We act like any other nonprofit, except that we ignore formal organizational structure to achieve efficiency.”
He travels to India about once a year and is struck by how some things haven’t changed. There is still extreme poverty and desperation. But now he sees hope where before there was none.
“Now there are so many more opportunities in India for a large segment of the population,” he says. “Even though life continues to be desperate for many people, now there is hope.”
Though he believes “workaholic” is “an ugly word,” he readily admits he is addicted to his BlackBerry, which often chirps bedside at 3 or 4 a.m. with calls from India. Because his legal work and his India work and his community work are all interconnected, he is always working.
“I am not a very domesticated creature,” he says. “I cannot vacation.”
Much of Raju’s success can be attributed to his willingness to sell himself and his vision. In essence, he is building a franchise — call it Raju Inc. — and “you can’t do that in hiding.”
“You need somebody to be the face of an organization, and that involves promoting yourself,” he says. “If you are not perceived as important, your organization will not be perceived as important.”
His appearances on Inside Story help. The Sunday-morning forum gives him a chance to roll out his Republican-leaning economic theories, which focus on individual choice and drive. His style on the show is much like his approach in real life: He is not loud, he doesn’t interrupt, but he will articulate his viewpoint respectfully but forcefully.
“I was brought in to be the GOP voice, but to my surprise and that of the producers, I have turned into the moderate voice,” he says. “I balance out the left and the right … I’m a voice for the majority who stay out of political debates.”
He doesn’t rule out a run for elected office. Neither do others.
“It is my sense and the sense of many others who know him that A. J. has not even scratched the surface of his ultimate accomplishments,” says Jeffery D. Kaiser, vice president and assistant general counsel at Trefoil Properties Inc., who has squared off against Raju around complex real estate transactions. “It would be absolutely no surprise to me to find out in the future that he is the leader of either a major corporation, a major law firm or even a national politician.”
If there is one thing Raju shares with those he left behind in India, it’s drive.
“There is an entrepreneurial spirit in India like you would not believe,” he says. “If you work hard enough, you are going to get there — that is an attitude that was not there before. I have never seen such hunger in people’s eyes — [American] kids have no clue what they are about to compete with. These kids in India study knowing their time will come — and it is coming.”
Just like it did for him.