I am already 20 minutes late for my appointment with Mohanjit Jolly at his Bangalore office, but Jolly flashes his trademark warm smile and brushes aside my apology, saying he has often been a victim of Bangalore’s snarling traffic.
Dressed in a red and white polo shirt with sleeves rolled up, the 42-year-old looks dramatically different from his counterparts in the venture capital (VC) world. For one, this investor believes in giving people a chance.
“Any person who comes to your door deserves respect. I have the ability to connect with anyone from a baseball bum in Los Angeles to a Fortune 500 company’s chief executive,” he says.
Jolly’s ability to connect with people across the spectrum reflects in the kind of investor companies he has added to the Silicon Valley-based global venture capital firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson’s (DFJ’s) portfolio since he joined in 2007 as managing director of DFJ India.
DFJ’s India portfolio currently has 20 companies, including Cleartrip, Komli Media, Gingersoft Media and iYogi. The VC firm has exited one investment in India so far—Reva Electric Car Co. last year—with a profit, after Mahindra and Mahindra bought a 55.2% stake in the car maker. Jolly refuses to discuss the returns from the Reva deal, saying a fund’s success is measured by its portfolio, not by individual companies.
Globally, DFJ has been investing for over 25 years and has backed at least 600 companies. Last year, DFJ raised $350 million (around Rs 1,575 crore) for its 10th fund. Of this fund, DFJ India manages about $50 million. Early stage investment funds are of particular importance in an emerging market like India, where over 90% of start-ups die prematurely owing to lack of capital and mentoring support.
Emphasizing his personal focus on technology, Jolly has just closed DFJ’s latest deal, which is in the clean technology space. The deal will be announced in mid-September.
Right investment: Mohanjit Jolly says failure does not frighten him. ‘I don’t strive for it, but I am not afraid of it. That’s what makes a VC investor.’ Jayachandran/Mint
Jolly spent the latter part of his childhood in the US. His family—parents and younger brother—moved from New Delhi to Los Angeles when he was 13, in search of better job prospects.
His father Inderjit Singh Jolly used to work as part of the ground staff at Delhi’s Palam airport (now called Indira Gandhi International Airport). The feisty teenager was infatuated with planes and could watch them taking off and landing for hours.
The migration to California was not easy for the family. The US was grappling with unemployment. His mother Baljit Kaur, a trained nurse, worked double shifts to keep the family going. His father faced many rejections in job interviews because he was a Sikh. “I caught him crying several times,” remembers Jolly. Americans live in a state of “ignorance and arrogance”, they don’t want to learn, he adds.
He was singled out too for his patka (the turban that young Sikh boys wear), and his inability to understand the American accent, but Jolly quickly learnt to cope—he studied hard, topped every subject in class and would help his American classmates. Soon, he was friends with most of them—perhaps the first sign of his ability to “connect with anyone”. His mother became a full-time nurse, while his dad got a job at a bank, where he rose to the post of a loan officer.
Jolly recalls the first American classic he was introduced to: a McDonald’s burger, which he was quick to dislike because of the “strange meat smells”. The quick service restaurant chain is still not his “go to” destination.
Yet, the Jollys stayed on in the US because they saw opportunity. “In 1983, everything was big there—cars, buildings, even people were big. There was 24x7 colour TV. Capitalism at its best got the best of us,” he says.
For someone who was so fascinated by planes, a BS in aeronautics and astronautics, and a master’s in the field of space propulsion from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), were perhaps natural choices. After his master’s in 1993, he joined Boston-based Itek Optical Systems (then a Fortune 500 company) as a structural engineer. But he was yearning to be on the business side and two years later, approached the chief executive of the company, requesting a change. He got it, and was part of the team which clinched a $100 million contract for spy cameras. It was then that he began thinking about getting into business school.
But with loans to pay off from his MIT days, Jolly was not sure if he could manage without his salary. Around this time, he accompanied a friend to an interview at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). As luck would have it, the dean of admissions was excited about Jolly’s background and asked him to apply. “I applied and got a scholarship. By then, I was pretty sure that I wanted to do something related to entrepreneurship and technology.”
After his MBA from the Anderson School of Management at UCLA in 1998, he joined Mattel, Inc. as a strategic planning manager. The toy company was developing technology that could be embedded in the toys of the future. The turning point came when he got a call to join investment banking firm Garage Technology Ventures in mid-1999.
This took him on a different career path. “We were supposed to go public. As the markets were bad, we couldn’t. But as we had raised capital, we shifted from being an investment bank to a seed fund,” says Jolly.
When Garage was at the end of the first fund, Jolly visited India to see if there was any interest among limited partners (corporate houses) here for investment funds. While here, he was invited to an ISB/TiE (Indian School of Business/The Indus Entrepreneurs) event in Hyderabad. Sitting next to him was Raj Atluru, a managing director with DFJ. Atluru and Jolly got talking and three months later, Jolly joined DFJ and shifted back to India with his wife and children. “My DNA is early stage investing, which comes down to the gut,” he says. “In early stage, there is no data to go back to and cross-check things. You look into the eyes of entrepreneurs and ask if they can execute, is the market opportunity large enough?”
While early stage investments, or investments in start-ups less than five years old, will always remain close to Jolly’s heart, DFJ will now also start scouting for growth stage deals in India. DFJ Growth Fund, a partner fund that focuses on growth stage deals in the US, has started looking for a pipeline in India and has identified at least two-three technology companies with an average annual revenue of more than $10 million, the investment threshold for DFJ Growth.
Jolly, who has seen the Indian VC market developing over the last four years, says investing in both early and growth stage has become difficult, with deals getting more competitive. But despite the competition, high valuations and lack of fast-growing companies, he is hopeful of creating “gems” in his portfolio. A few are shaping up really well, he says. “There is nothing on the exit side that I can discuss right now, but we will be in good form with some of them.”
When not scouting for deals and mentoring start-ups, Jolly likes to spend time with wife Vini and their three children—two girls and a boy aged 11, 8 and 7, respectively. He travels at least once a week domestically, so he is zealously possessive about his weekends.
“This is the time to see them grow,” says Jolly. Besides domestic travel, he goes to the US four times a year to meet DFJ’s global partners, besides visiting Dubai and South-East Asia for conferences and conclaves.
Jolly is a romantic at heart. He proposed to his wife at the stroke of midnight on 31 December 1997, at Half Moon Bay (a coastal city in San Mateo County, California), after they had been dating for a year. Thankfully, she said yes, chuckles Jolly. “She is my support system,” he says, adding that his Gucci-loving wife is still trying to get him to wear designer brands.
“I refuse to wear anything that I cannot spell or pronounce.”