As a small business owner, it’s important to seek out mentors who can help you think through the challenges and opportunities of building your business. One of my favorite mentors is a man named Suku Radia, who is CEO of Bankers Trust, a bank headquartered in my home city of Des Moines, Iowa. It’s no exaggeration to say that Suku Radia has an amazing and inspiring life story. He’s now the CEO of a bank, and a respected community leader, but he started out years ago as a young college graduate with only $4.87 to his name.
If you’re thinking of starting a business but you feel like it’s impossible, or that you can’t overcome your challenges, or that you “don’t have enough” time, money, energy or opportunity…read Suku Radia’s story. It will make you re-evaluate your challenges and move forward with a new spirit of purpose.
Suku Radia was born and raised in Uganda. His family is originally from India, but they had lived in Uganda for several generations – Uganda had a large Indian community, many of whom owned businesses, and Suku’s parents owned a successful company. Suku came to the U.S. to go to college at Iowa State University in 1971, and when he was a 19-year-old sophomore in college, the notorious dictator Idi Amin (subject of the film “Last King of Scotland”) came to power in Uganda.
Idi Amin expelled all Indian families from Uganda and forced them to surrender all of their businesses and savings to the Ugandan government. Suku’s family lost everything – their business, their savings, their home. Suku’s parents and other relatives fled to Britain, and Suku was suddenly stranded in the U.S. with no money and no country to go home to.
This was a devastating turn of events, and many people might have given up, or become embittered, or allowed this misfortune to cloud their outlook on life for many years to come. But instead, Suku Radia decided to stay positive and keep pushing forward.
He had no money and no family nearby. So what did he do? He worked. He studied. He made friends. He worked multiple jobs to put himself through college. He got his U.S. citizenship. He finished his degree in accounting. He married the younger sister of one of his best friends (and they’re still married 38 years later and have raised three hard-working, talented kids).
Suku Radia started his first job out of college with only $4.87 in his bank account. He remembers thinking to himself, “Well, I’ve got enough money to buy gas and drive to work, and payday is in two weeks.” Today he’s a well-respected CEO and community leader.
In spite of his busy schedule, Suku spends several hours each weekend mentoring young professionals (like me) and he’s incredibly generous with his time and his connections. And he’s humble. He often says, “I’m not that smart, I’m just lucky.” Every time we meet, he always asks about my family and encourages me to focus on family and work-life balance first, not money. “Even if your business fails, you’ll bounce back from that,” he says. “But you can’t drop the ball on your family. It does no good to work 90 hours a week if it costs you your marriage and your family.”
When asked how he wants to be remembered, he says, “I want to be remembered as a good husband, a good father and someone who cared about his community.” He’s just a heck of a good guy all around. He deserves all of his success, and I wish all of America’s companies were being run by CEOs who are as good of human beings as Suku Radia. (And he’s hit two holes-in-one in golf.)
If you’re an entrepreneur or thinking of starting a business, what are some lessons to learn from Suku Radia’s story?
- Seemingly impossible challenges can be overcome: Many people would love to start a business but they focus on all the reasons why “it can’t be done.” “I don’t have enough money, I don’t have enough time to start a business, I don’t know where to begin…” Ultimately, these are excuses that hold us back from doing the things that we know are possible. If a 19-year-old can fight his way back from losing his home and country, and if a young person can go on to become a CEO after starting out with less than $5 in his bank account, then you can start a business.
- Internal resources are more important than money: Suku Radia got where he is not by having tons of money, but by his own skills, talents, determination, inner strength and an ability to build relationships and influence people. He started out with $4.87. Even if you don’t have a lot of money to start a business, you can succeed by drawing upon your inner strength and force of will.
- Give and you shall receive: Suku Radia is a true philanthropist. He’s always giving, giving, giving to others – not just with money, but with time and thoughtful advice. He’s an incredibly busy person but he still makes time every weekend to have coffee with people like me – and he says that he gets big benefits from his mentoring conversations as well. What can you do to be more generous with your time, talents and energy? What’s holding you back?
Many thanks to Suku Radia for making a difference in the lives of so many people. I always come away from our weekend coffee sessions feeling a new spirit of purpose and focus. I hope you all can take inspiration from Suku’s story, find inspiring mentors of your own, and better yet, become inspiring mentors to others.