Octo Consulting Group CEO Mehul Sanghani delivered the keynote address at the Virginia Tech commencement ceremony, speaking about sacrifice, opportunity, the importance of public higher education, and the lessons learned as a teenager in his immigrant parents’ motel business.
Although Octo now boasts nearly 400 employees and $75 million in annual revenue, and has been named one of Virginia’s Fantastic 50 by the Chamber of Commerce and Corporate Philanthropist of the Year by Washington Business Journal, Sanghani’s speech centered on lessons learned in the humble beginnings of his career, helping his parents run a motel in Blacksburg, Virginia.
“Those nights I spent cleaning rooms served me when I had to stay up late, making sure all the employees had the equipment they needed, that the books were balanced, or that payroll was run on time,” Sanghani said. “Those nights greeting customers and hearing about their days, those served me well when I greet my customers and have to make them feel at ease about their business decisions. That motel, that motel that I grew up hating and loathing, that was my crash course MBA.”
Sanghani said he didn’t initially appreciate the sacrifices his parents made when they started the Red Carpet Inn, borrowing money to launch an unfamiliar business in hopes of building a better life for Sanghani and his sister. Instead, he resented giving up a normal adolescence for a life of cleaning rooms, scrubbing toilets, vacuuming carpets, doing laundry and making beds, Sanghani said.
“I hated that motel growing up,” he said. “I hated having to explain to the girls I was trying to date in high school that I lived in a motel. I hated the fact that while most teenagers spent their weekends doing teenage things, I spent my weekends helping my parents clean motel rooms. I resented not having a normal adolescence.”
In the long run, though, that work helped Sanghani appreciate what his parents had given up to build a better life for their children, and that taught him to make the most of the opportunities he was given as a result of those sacrifices.
Whenever he struggled in school, Sanghani remembered the “righteous indignation” his father—a former engineer—showed when Sanghani considered leaving the engineering program at Virginia Tech, which would have squandered his parents’ hard work in helping him get there.
That memory helped push Sanghani to do better and make the most of his opportunities. That included taking a chance on starting his own business, at a time when he was broke, with a new marriage and a new mortgage, and no money to payroll costs, until his father loaned him $25,000 to cover initial costs, Sanghani said.
Sanghani said his speech offered fewer “pearls of wisdom” and more “scars and bruises from the many, many mistakes I’ve made.” Among his regrets, Sanghani said, was that his father didn’t live long enough to see Octo thrive, as he passed away shortly after Sanghani paid back the initial loan that got the business started.
Sanghani said he and all the VA Tech grads were privileged to have benefited from higher education and to live in a time with many business opportunities.
“Don’t disempower yourself, is my advice to you,” Sanghani said. “Follow your heart, your head, and don’t disempower yourself from the opportunities you have. Failure is not a crime, but the failure to try, however, is.”
Sanghani also urged the VA Tech class of 2017 to become champions of public higher education, which is threatened by budget cuts in many states. He urged the graduating class to extol the role that higher education plays in society, promoting common good by training skilled workers and boosting local economies. He said there are few investments that offer the return on our tax dollars that higher education provides, and urged the current group of grads pitch in by give back to universities—and VA Tech in particular.
“Make no mistake: Higher education is at an important crossroads,” Sanghani said. “We, as a society, have determined that we are no longer willing to invest in higher education the way we did before, that the notion of higher education as a common good has been diminished … We, as beneficiaries of public higher education, must make the case for change. It is incumbent on you all, incumbent on us as a generation that has benefited from our higher education, to change that narrative.”