Arriving in Ohio
Rajagopalan made the move to the U.S. in late 1991, first to further his education. He studied at the University of Toledo in Ohio, earning a master's in public administration, along with an MBA. He took an internship in late 1993 with the former Aeroquip/Vickers business, which later was bought by Eaton Corp. in 1999. Between Aeroquip and Eaton, he was with the organization for 25 years before taking his current role with Polyhose in 2019.
"I learned a lot from both Aeroquip and Eaton," he said. "Both are fantastic companies with good products and good people. They have all-around good ethics, and a lot of learning in terms of doing the right things."
While many who choose to move to a new country face obstacles in terms of cultural differences, Rajagopalan said many of his challenges were self-imposed.
"Since I didn't come to this country when I was very young, my accent is very profoundly Indian," he said. "So I used to be very shy and withdrawn in team meetings, not so much because my English was not good, but because my accent was not American."
Rajagopalan said he used to feel the need to practice a statement once or twice in his mind before he would say anything, because he wanted to make sure it came out the right way. The people within Aeroquip, however, were quite supportive. A boss during his annual employee evaluation asked him why, with his knowledge, he was so quiet in team meetings.
Rajagopalan told him he didn't know if it was OK to open up.
"He said, 'Feel free. You have 11 years of experience in the market in a different culture. Why don't you start interacting more?' Which I did," Rajagopalan said. "I think he created a monster."
He said he began to overcome this fear as a graduate assistant at the University of Toledo, teaching a Business 101 class, which meant having to talk in front of 35 students.
"That helped me a lot in terms of talking to many white faces in the audience, who were basically born and brought up here, and who may or may not have seen an Indian trying to speak English," he said.
Rajagopalan said one student's evaluation was particularly gratifying.
"The first 30 minutes of the first day was the most disastrous because I was trying to understand what this joker is talking about," the evaluation read. "Once I got over the first 30 minutes and got over his accent and the way he talks, then I found it a very interesting class."
When he joined Aeroquip in 1993-94, as an intern he obviously was not part of management. And in the hose and fittings language of the business, he was a "guppy," he said.
"I was not sure whether they had a diversity program at the time or not, but they were very welcoming," Rajagopalan said. "I didn't feel as though I was just an intern. They gave me a lot of responsibility. I was part of the team."
He also was in learning mode. He had his back to the wall as an immigrant in the U.S. (he earned his citizenship in 2008), while trying to push himself to be accepted with the company. He had to learn new systems and was a novice when it came to working with computers.
"As far as feeling I was an outsider, at Aeroquip I never felt like that," Rajagopalan said. "It was very good. My initial bosses, some were very tough while others were more encouraging. But the positives outweighed the negatives."
Things started taking off for his career when Eaton bought Aeroquip. The conglomerate had a well, laid-out program. It was globally operational and open to people of different backgrounds. He also was able to transition into a management role and learn more about its diversity programs.
Even though Eaton had consciously put together a strong program for diversity, it always hired the best candidate for the job.
"We didn't hire a candidate because of ethnicity or background or religion or diversity," Rajagopalan said. "We hired the best candidate, which is why the company has been very successful and continues to be successful."
The hose and fittings industry isn't the most diverse, but the Polyhose executive believes change must come naturally.
One way that may occur is through independent distributors who consolidate after their owners retire—and the next generation of family doesn't want to continue the business.
When larger companies make acquisitions, it is their leadership teams managing the integration. "And as they are hiring from various backgrounds and ethnicities, I think it is natural that diversity is going to happen, even if somebody doesn't do it consciously," Rajagopalan said.
He also believes that while diversity and inclusion plans are there, the most important thing for every company to do is hire the best person for the job.
"You can't compromise on that," he said. "The important thing is that instead of interviewing similar people, you need to interview dissimilar people. So as long as the funnel is wider, it certainly enlarges the pool, and at the end of the day you need to select the right candidate."
There also needs to be more effort put into recruiting people into an industry that he says is not very sexy.
Tires, hose and fittings employ a tremendous amount of technology, but nobody talks about making a career in the hose business. But there are places for designers, engineers, business entrepreneurs and many others.
And candidates should know that there is a lot of money to be made in the hose industry, according to Rajagopalan.
"I think money is sexy," he said. "So that's what we need to tell people. Even though it might not be high technology the way they see high technology, it really is high technology."
While he enjoyed a long run at Aeroquip and Eaton, Rajagopalan was part of an Eaton reduction-in-force program in November 2019. He knew two key people at Polyhose, and they invited him to be part of the firm's plans to become a rising force in the U.S. industry.
And with Polyhose based out of India, one of Rajagopalan's friends quipped that he was returning to his origin. "I wanted to be part of an entrepreneurial experience, to build and grow a company in the U.S.," he said. "I am very excited because Polyhose has a great future, and I want to be a part of the building blocks of the company in the North American space."