Shrink the World

In fast-paced Silicon Valley, where what's next is already old, the man who once made our calls connect faster is now working on the connections that truly matter

Kaitlin Thomas Orfitelli - 19 December 2015

As a boy growing up in India, Rohit Sharma would watch the satellites in the night sky and wonder about the people who had created the technology travelling so far above him.

"At the height of summers in India, we often all slept outside on the terrace," he remembers. "In those days, India was not so polluted and we could see the band of stars that is the Milky Way, horizon to horizon."

He can still remember those terrace nights at age eight or nine - the sharp shadows cast by moonlight, the binoculars his father shared with him, the feeling of excitement as they tried to spot a comet.

"I did not have the tools to understand then, but it gave me a reason to think," he says. Boyhood questions about satellites, stars and how long it took light to get from here to there began to take hold and feed his curiosity - to make him realize the world extended beyond what he could see.

Thanks to his father - a Harvard-educated physicist who plied his son not just with binoculars but with magazines such as Aviation Week & Space Technology - Sharma was introduced to scientific thought at an early age. Technology was, as he says, "a comfortable companion" throughout his childhood. "Everything was to be tinkered with - toasters to TV," he says. "The great gift of a physicist father at home wasn't figuring out how things are put together, it was that you could always take them apart - and learn." (Sharma's father, in fact, learned to tinker as a boy, regularly fixing his family's Canadian-made Cockshutt tractor. He later paid off the tractor out of loans from his Harvard Fulbright scholarship.)

As Sharma grew older, his intellectual curiosity melded with his drive to connect with what lay beyond that night sky. As an undergraduate, he realized engineering gave him access to what he calls the biggest thing humans have built: the communication network. "This was pre-Internet, but it occurred to me that you could be connected to people all over the world by the phone." It was after graduate school at the University of Alberta that he truly began to appreciate the technology. He had moved to California to be closer to Silicon Valley. Far from friends and family, without the funds to visit in person, his only links were phone calls and Internet connections.

He also gained valuable uninterrupted time to work - time when the kernel of an idea for a new invention began to form. Sharma developed optical switching, which has gone on to significantly improve the reliability and speed of voice, data and video connections. Even today, when he is in certain parts of San Francisco, he knows his phone calls are going over equipment he helped develop. There is something immensely satisfying about that, he says.

Rohit Sharma with his son

The technology came easily, but the lessons of entrepreneurism were tougher. "I didn't know anything about venture capital or how a company was structured or how you raise money or what financing looks like. I knew none of that." Today, Sharma shares those learned lessons with new company founders. Since 2002, he has become an angel investor in seed stage technology ventures.

He also devotes time to passing the gift of curiosity along to his own son - talking, dreaming and helping him make up a game for the iPad that manages to bring together dinosaurs and castles. Sharma says he, too, learns from these interactions.

"Technology is going to change every five to 10 years," he says. "Changing people's lives is much more meaningful. It's deeper, it's longer lasting, it has an impact at a very personal level."

Sharma's gifts to the University of Alberta are also motivated by a desire to build personal and lasting connections. His largest gift endowed the Rohit Sharma Professorship in Communications and Signal Processing within the Faculty of Engineering. The post is currently held by Witold Krzymien, a man who also came to the university from a world away (Poland, in his case) and has brought the university closer to the world through collaborations with colleagues in Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, the United States and the United Kingdom.

"I give because I think I have a fundamental responsibility to enable others to receive the quality of education I did," Sharma says.

"I was fortunate enough to study on scholarships all the way through undergraduate years in India and graduate degrees at the U of A. The freedom of choices I could make as a student receiving scholarships comes with a responsibility to share my learning, my knowledge, my resources. What I give back will never be equal to what I received, but I hope it enables someone to learn more."