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Hard work pays off—and how! All of 38 years old, Manoj K. Mishra has aced the corporate world, and thanks to his outsized endowment to Georgia State University, his alma mater, he has rightfully earned the coveted status of a philanthropist. Tracing his rich career trajectory is a thrill ride, and it’s less than half over.
How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?
Manoj Mishra recalls a critical experience that prompted him to apply to law school—and it’s a good one. Then a junior at Loyola University in Chicago, he was studying for his Bachelor’s degree in history. Father John Piderit, then President of Loyola, had been high school friends with Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and convinced his esteemed former classmate to come speak to the students. At the reception that followed, Manoj boldly struck up a conversation with the Justice. They chatted for a good fifteen minutes. Impressed with the young college student, Scalia remarked, “You’re a pretty sharp kid, you should consider going to law school.” Surprised, Manoj demurred, responding that his goal was to become a history professor. But the seed was planted. The very next day, he asked his advisors whether law school would be a better option than pursuing a Ph.D.
New Delhi-born Manoj immigrated to Chicago with his family in 1980 when he was three years old. His mother was a trained nurse, and there were tremendous opportunities in the medical field at the time, especially for Indian and Filipino immigrants. The family decided to take a chance and seize the opportunity to come to America. Manoj grew up in Chicago. In 1995, just as his parents made the move to Atlanta, he enrolled at Loyola for college.
After graduating in 1999, he now had law school on his mind. Manoj wanted to rejoin his family in Atlanta, but he was also conscious of the cost of law school. Considering his options, he decided the best choice was Georgia State University College of Law. He applied and was accepted into the Class of 2002 and was one of the few Asian American law students matriculating that year. Manoj moved to Atlanta in May 1999 and that summer, he got a job selling used cars to help pay for his tuition. He even continued with the gig part time as a first year law student.
By his second year, Manoj got a job teaching Friday Property Law tutorials, which involved reviewing law school lectures with first year students. In exchange, GSU gave him free tuition, a stipend of $1,500, and free books annually. Thus began Manoj’s love and affinity for his alma mater. “It was an incredible deal—I got to go to law school basically for free. I graduated with virtually zero debt, which provided tremendous freedom. It gave me the luxury of seeking a position that was right for me.”
What was your career path after graduation?
Graduating in 2002, he first joined a small corporate and estate-planning boutique, Robertson & Gable, LLC in Duluth. He began practicing corporate law, contracts, and commercial real estate transactions. “I was there for five and half years—it was a great firm, great people, and it gave me a great foundation.” When it was time, he took the leap into the corporate world. He applied to go in-house at SAP America, Inc., one of the largest business software solutions providers in the world. Although he did not have a technical or computer background, SAP was looking for negotiators. “They figured as long as I had a strong background in negotiating deals and contract law, they could train me in the technical aspects, which I grew to find interesting.”
Manoj hit the ground running in the contracts department, handling software licensing and support services. “A contract’s a contract, after all.” After three years, SAP decided to throw him into the Wild West of software, or more accurately, the “Wild East.” He was sent to SAP India, as Deputy Legal Counsel, and also appointed Lead Counsel for SAP Thailand.
How was the experience working in SAP India?
Arriving in Bangalore (now Bengaluru), Manoj recalls the culture shock. “It was a dramatic adjustment in every single way.” The first two months was sensory overload. One of his Indian-American friends invited him out early on for drinks. Bemused at Manoj’s disorientation, he gave a toast: “Here’s to Manoj finding out what being Indian really is!”
“But it’s funny how quickly you learn and adjust. After a while, you stop noticing the noise and pollution, the vast numbers of people, honking cars. The traffic is crazy, snarled for hours due to any number of reasons, including random livestock. For Indians, if a sacred cow stops in the middle of the road, you just have to get used to the idea that no one will do anything about it! You learn to accept it, kick back, relax, and read a paper until the cow moves. You learn to work in a different manner and pace from what you are comfortable with in the U.S.”
When asked what he noticed the most about the difference between living in India and America, Manoj observed, “We see things as so separate in America. In India, there is no separation. It’s hard to find anywhere where religion is not present—Hindu gods and gurus are everywhere, a part of daily life. At SAP India there was a giant Hindu god in the lobby where employees would make puja offerings daily. It seemed like there was a festival going on every single day. Getting work done was challenging at times, especially with the Indian cricket team doing phenomenally well when I was there. Our team interaction and dynamics were unique, and I had to find new and fun ways to solve these challenges. ”
The exciting times in Bangalore were spreading throughout India. Driven by the IT boom, the atmosphere was dizzyingly international, with a lot of expats relocating there for work and many Indian-Americans returning home. Manoj was impressed by the energy and drive of his peers. “Two thirds of the population of India is under the age of 35. You have to realize—I was the old man, the one they looked to for experience. I was surrounded by youth and enthusiasm and treated as a senior leader. Living there made me truly realize how youth and technology are changing the world. If you look at how Silicon Valley started in America, it started out of the garages of geniuses like Gates and Jobs. That’s how Asia is like today. What’s happening over there right now is thrilling.”
Manoj lived in Bangalore for nearly two years, traveling to Singapore and throughout Asia as needed. Just when it seemed that he had gotten used to the rhythms of India, SAP called him back to the U.S. in May 2013. He was assigned to support SAP America’s Western Region, out of Palo Alto and later the Central Region out of Chicago as well.
What was your next move after SAP?
At that time, a colleague was making the move to ACI––a publicly traded company on NASDAQ (ACIW) that provides banking and payment solutions and powers electronic payments for more than 5,000 organizations around the world. He suggested Manoj come along. Manoj declined since he had just returned to Atlanta from Asia. A year later, however the same colleague courted him with an offer to join ACI as Director of Field Operations for U.S. Banks— an offer he could not refuse. More than 1,000 of the largest financial institutions and intermediaries as well as 300 of the leading global retailers rely on ACI to execute $14 trillion each day in payments. “It was a way for me to challenge myself beyond the legal world. I was looking for an opportunity to pursue the business side of work. This was the best way to do it, especially with a rapidly growing company like ACI.” He joined the company in May 2014 and currently manages a $350 Million annual P&L, out of ACI’s office in Norcross.
How challenging was the transition from inhouse counsel to senior business executive? “I’ve never worked harder in my entire life to make that learning curve as short as possible, to become a resource for the team as quickly as possible. I had to also learn ACI’s business, which was entirely new to me. But I’m not naïve to think I know everything—that’s foolish and arrogant. I hope to learn until the day I die.”
What does Manoj notice most about the difference in perspective? “Lawyers approach problems in ways that may not always be pragmatic. We want to have as much information as possible, but counsel to make the least commitments possible. However, in business, you must be prepared to make authoritative decisions with the least information available. This makes lawyers very uncomfortable due to our training. A lawyer is a strategist, a very valuable asset to any team or organization. But a general is the decision-maker. You have to live—and die—by those decisions. Not everyone is comfortable with such responsibility.”