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Srinivas “Cheeni” Rao’s story is a redemption story and so let’s say up front that it has a happy ending, with marriage, family, advanced UI degrees, a published book, and a hopeful future in business. But to get that happy ending, you have to go to some dark places, because that’s how redemption stories work, and in Rao’s case, they are quite dark and ugly.
Petty theft, aggravated robbery, homelessness, hustling, arson, drug dealing, assault, battery, the Mob, family rejection and finally, watching a friend get stabbed and bleed to death right in front of him, unable to do anything to help.
All of this after growing up in a comfortable, well off Chicago suburb, with all the accompanying social and financial advantages, which is the worst kind of crime in America; to have everything and throw it all away for drugs and homelessness and violence.
“Second chances are not often given to people who have pushed so far over the line,” says Rao, who nevertheless has managed to create for himself a second chance that has brought to him to the University of Iowa, first to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and now the full-time Tippie MBA program.
Rao said he was a straight-laced kid with a fairly conventional upbringing for the son of Indian immigrants. Academic success was vital, he says, and a career as a doctor or engineer or some other highly regarded profession was expected. Maybe even a Hindu priest, which is what many of his relatives had been. He won academic competitions in science and math and played sports. He went to prestigious Williams College in 1992 with designs on a career in medicine, like his pediatrician father, and nobody thought he couldn’t do it.
Looking back, he realizes childhood also made him proud and stubborn, two traits that help when training to be a doctor, but which could also become a flaw if not put to good use. At Williams, they proved to be an almost fatal flaw.
“There was a schism that had formed in me that started to show when I went to college, between the expectations of my parents and Indian culture, and my Americanized self wanting to break free and be independent,” he says. “Every movement seemed to be regulated up to then, and I wanted to be free of that regulation.”
And so he started drinking, and then he drank some more and then he started doing drugs and dealing drugs. He didn’t do this as a form of outward rebellion, though; as some kind of kiss off to his family, an outward defiance of unreasonable expectations. He still wanted to be a doctor, he still loved his family, and he still wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps. He still wanted to be straight and narrow—the rebellion sort of leaked out of him—and so he thought he could keep up his grades and his academic work.
“I had an overblown sense of who I was and what I was capable of doing,” he says. “I thought I could drink and keep myself together.”
But most of those who try eventually crash, and Rao crashed hard. Expelled from Williams, he returned to Chicago only to find his family had rejected him. “I can do nothing more for you. You are now in Hanuman’s hands,” his mother said to him, calling upon a Hindu god to help the drug-addled son she refused to let in the house.
Now homeless and alone and too messed up to even think about gainful employment, he wound up on Chicago’s Southside dealing drugs, brawling, stealing and committing petty crimes. A life that once looked out to limitless horizons was now reduced to looking ahead no more than a few hours.
“When you are unemployable and unable to subsist, you do whatever it takes to make it to the next day,” he says. In the Loop, he saw well-dressed people in business suits going to their high-power jobs in banks or law firms or hospitals. He realized then he was no longer on that high-power track. He wasn’t even on a medium- or low-power track.
“Now, I’d become the person on the fringe, when I thought that I’d be the person in the suit and tie,” he says.
What finally convinced him that he could live this life no longer was watching that stabbed friend bleed out in front of him. He wound up in a treatment facility in 1995, and then a halfway house—Oasis House. There he found a group of similarly damaged men in similar circumstance who helped him realize what a mess he had made of his life and convinced him to change it.
“They made me see beyond my own selfish desires, and they helped me understand I could be a part of something larger than myself, that I had the potential to give back and help others,” he says. “I realized I was not hopeless. I’d had a happy childhood so I knew I could be better, I knew I could wear the suit and tie, I knew how to get there. For many of these other men, they didn’t know how to get there. For them, it did seem hopeless.”
He also re-discovered his love of writing and artistic self-expression. He had never thought much about writing growing up. He was mostly a left-brained science and math guy. But when he was a freshman at Williams, a traveling theater troupe came through and he auditioned to perform. He wound up doing a one-man show in which he played three characters—his grandmother in India, his father the immigrant, and himself the first-generation American—and discovered his brain had a right side, too.
“It was the first moment I could articulate these things roiling inside myself, and I could communicate it to others and have that understanding reflected back to me,” he says. “That was when I fell in love with writing, but I also fell more in love with alcohol and drugs.”
When cleaned up, that love of writing was still there. He majored in English at the University of Chicago and then came to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1998.
"I was pretty uneducated when it came to anything about writing,” he says. “I didn’t understand publishing or the business of writing or the craft of writing, and here I was with people who’d wanted to be writing since they were 12." Another challenge was turning down invitations from classmates to hang out at bars. "I’m sure my classmates got sick of me saying ‘I’m an alcoholic, I can’t drink.'"
But he thrived, even without alcohol. He developed his writing, talked about where a good story comes from, and then he picked up his first break. A bulletin board posting went up in Dey House that someone was looking for a ghostwriter to help with an historical fantasy romance novel, a genre he didn’t know even existed, and since it was spring break and he was the only student in the building, he got the job.
That led to other ghost writing jobs, one with Hayden Fry, another with Dr. Jack Kevorkian for a book that became the basis for an Emmy-winning HBO movie starring Al Pacino. There were others, too, none of which he can talk about because of contractual obligations, but enough to make a living. It also led him to start his own business, IowaBookDoctors.com, that specialized in ghost writing, editing and creativity consulting. He hired a staff and at one point had revenues of nearly $1 million a year.
He learned what a good story was, and that his own life was a good one and so he wrote it. In 2009, he published his memoir, In Hanuman’s Hands, which tied together his own life, his parents’ immigrant experience, and how Hindu spirituality guided him back from the edge. Critics praised it. Publisher’s Weekly starred its review, Booklist called it “fiery” and “poetic,” the Wall Street Journal said it “beguiles,” and Barnes & Noble named him to its Discover Great New Writers series for the year. It was, critics agreed, the junkie memoir reinvented.
But nobody bought it.
“That’s the nature of the publishing industry,” he says. “I’d dreamed of big paydays and literary celebrity, and woke up instead with a minimum-wage writing career.”
His life had other changes, too. Marriage and a child made a stream of income more important, and upheaval in the publishing industry made it a challenge to keep Iowa Book Doctors afloat. His management decisions were all based on instinct because “I didn’t know anything about business going in, other than dealing drugs.” He realized he needed to learn more about how business works so he sold Book Doctors to a partner and started at the Tippie School of Management, where he’s now a first year MBA student.
Rao still writes when he has the time. He has an agent and three manuscripts under consideration by publishers. But his focus now is on using the Tippie MBA program to help turn his entrepreneurial experience into a career. Where that takes him, he’s not sure. He’s in the Tippie Finance Academy and is looking for consulting or leadership development opportunities. Though he has the most experience in the publishing and entertainment industry, he’s still keeping his options open because he knows that’s not the only industry where he can make an impact. Whatever happens, he sees this as another starting point in his life.
Rao knows he’s going to have a hard time explaining all this to prospective employers. A quick Google search of his name turns up dozens of hits for In Hanuman’s Hands so it doesn’t take much effort to learn about his difficult past, and corporate culture isn’t always friendly to people with his background. Even if it happened long ago and he’s moved so far past it he can barely see it in the rearview mirror.
“It’s an uphill battle,” he acknowledges. “But I’ve fought a lot of uphill battles.”
Update: Rao will start work in the investment management development program with Wells Fargo in Scottsdale, Ariz., after he graduates from the Tippie College of Business in May 2014.