The first hurdle Featured

9:44am EDT July 22, 2002
In December 1968, Monte Ahuja left Bombay, India, aboard a Zurich-bound Swiss Air flight. He’d scraped together enough money for the flight and to complete about two quarters in The Ohio State University’s graduate engineering program.

But what should have been a routine flight was hampered by a series of mechanical problems, dwindling funds and weather delays. It gave him his first lesson on an issue any future entrepreneur needs to know —how to handle adversity.

Shortly after take off, the plane developed mechanical problems.

“So instead of going to Zurich, they landed in Athens, Greece,” Ahuja recalls. “They put us in a hotel overnight, at their cost.”

With no flight available (planes didn’t run as regularly 30 years ago as they do now), the airline offered the passengers a tour of the Hellenic city, the birthplace of civilization. It was something Ahuja couldn’t afford on his own, so he took full advantage of the airline’s largesse. At the time, the Indian government allowed travelers to leave with only about $15, he says.

A flight was arranged and Ahuja was on his way. Then another problem hit — the weather. A snowstorm in Zurich forced the pilot to reroute to Frankfurt, Germany. After an overnight stay, and a very brief exploration, Ahuja finally reached Zurich.

“We actually had a tour of Zurich,” Ahuja says.

He and some friends each contributed $2 (the first money Ahuja used of his limited funds).

“From there, we went to London” for a planned two-night stay.

Ahuja planned to spend the layover with a friend living in London, but missed him because of the delays. With nowhere to stay, he tried to get a free bed in an embassy, but was turned away and forced to spend a few of his precious dollars on a bed and breakfast. (He later met with his friend’s family and spent his remaining time in London with them.)

Ahuja finally arrived in New York, again during a snowstorm.

“So they put us in an international hotel,” he recalls. “By this time, I was totally sick of it. For five days I had not tasted our food, and I was alone in New York in the middle of winter. I didn’t have an overcoat because I wasn’t prepared for (the weather). So I could hardly even get out.”

Late the following afternoon, the storm abated enough to allow a plane to depart for Columbus. Just before leaving, Ahuja asked the airline to send a message to an international students group assigned to greet him and take him to the university. He’d been trying to keep the group up to date on his constantly changing itinerary.

It was near 9 p.m., two days after Christmas, when the last plane landed in a nasty snowstorm at the Columbus airport. As the last few passengers and employees deserted the building, Ahuja learned he’d been abandoned by the people assigned to meet him.

“They finally gave up on me,” he recalls.

But in response to all of Ahuja’s messages, they’d left one of their own — an address and the suggestion that he take a taxi.

Checking with a passerby, Ahuja learned the $3 left in his pocket wouldn’t get him to the university. Without a coat (he wasn’t familiar with Midwest winters), without knowing anybody in town and no way to get to his new “home,” it wasn’t the auspicious start to American life for which he’d hoped.

But, luck being what it is, Ahuja found someone heading to Ohio State.

“He looked like a hippie,” Ahuja says. “I was scared shitless. I don’t know who he was and nobody knew I was here. That was something that kept bothering me. If something happened, then not a soul was going to find out who it was (that did it).”

The man turned out to be a professor, and he dropped Ahuja at the school without charging him for the ride.

So it’s no surprise that Ahuja is the first to tell you fate has as much to do with his success as anything he’s ever done in the business world.

Daniel G. Jacobs (djacobs@sbnnet.com) is senior editor of SBN.