George Kadifa (MS '82) is currently a co-founder and managing director with Sumeru Equity Partners, focusing on the firm's software investments. Since studying electrical engineering at Caltech, Kadifa has led startups from inception to acquisition, and has experience as an executive with multiple billion-dollar technology companies, including Oracle, HP and IBM. ENGenuity spoke with Kadifa to learn more about his career after Caltech and advice he has for other Caltech students and alumni.
ENGenuity: How would you describe your professional contributions?
George Kadifa: I have held a variety of positions, but about seven years ago, we founded a growth capital firm called Sumeru. What we do is work with founders and management teams to help them grow their businesses. Typically, these are businesses that have a product market fit with $10-20 million in revenue and we try to take it to $200 million and above.
The contribution we provide is creating significant businesses for entrepreneurs who have gotten things going but need help to take it to the next level of success. That's what we've done over and over again with dozens of companies.
ENGenuity: Has this been something you've done throughout your whole career?
Kadifa: My career has been a bit unusual. I didn't go and spend 30 years in one company. Every five years or so, I moved or changed what I did. After Caltech, I spent five years in research and development (R&D) working for two labs. One was Fairchild Semiconductor and the other one was Xerox Palo Alto Research Center.
Then I went to business school. I changed dramatically from working in R&D to wanting to learn more about business. The first thing I did after business school was go into management consulting for three years, working for Booz-Allen to help companies and large organizations. From there, I went to Oracle. During my seven years at Oracle, the company grew organically from $1 billion to $10 billion in revenue.
Then, in 1999, there was a new thing called the Internet. We were trying to figure out how to run enterprise software on the Internet in a way similar to how you run software on your PC or your internal servers. So, I founded a company called Corio to try to figure out how we could run enterprise software on the Internet and if we could do it in a subscription model. Software was not sold as a subscription in those days, it was sold as a license. I spent six years building that business, and at the end we started competing with IBM. IBM then bought Corio, so I joined IBM as an executive. Suddenly, I went from a start up to the largest tech organization on the planet.
The constant in terms of my contribution is seeing enterprise technology evolve from research to growth, new technologies, new mediums, and new ways of doing things and doing it from a different perspective.
ENGenuity: Throughout your career, how was your Caltech education influenced you?
Kadifa: What Caltech gave me is a focus on fundamentals, not to accept something because of the way it is but to improve things based on fundamentals—trying to understand how things operate and work and then figure out how to make them better. It's not just in terms of math or physics or computer science or anything like this; it's a way of thinking that Caltech gave me which is unique.
At Oracle, I was in sales, but I was one of the few people who understood what the product did versus other people in sales who didn't care; to them, it was a box, and they would go out and sell it. My knowledge helped me build better relationships with the development and engineering organization and to solve problems with customers in a much more intelligent way.
Even in business school, my Caltech education really helped me in understanding financial modeling, analysis, financial engineering, marketing, metrics, and operational processes. So overall it's been a great foundation for me.
ENGenuity: Is there a particular project that you're most proud of, or one that you found most challenging?
Kadifa: I have several. At Oracle, for example, I went into a new business area. Oracle was very strong on the database side, and they decided to get into applications, where they weren't strong. We had a major competitor, a German company called SAP, that basically came in and took over the whole U.S. market. So trying to recapture market share and compete with them and build new products took us three years, but we were able to gain share and business away from them. That was one project I personally drove where I was able to succeed and make a difference in the marketplace with significant revenue implications. At the end, it was a billion-dollar business that we started from practically zero.
Another example was at Corio around the idea of how to run software on the Internet. We talked to a large company to get them to invest in us and they said it will never work; the telecommunication cost and infrastructure will not allow it to happen. We had to go and solve every problem in that journey, but in the end, we made the model work and the technology work and the products work. So that's another one I feel good about. And now, cloud computing is everywhere, so we were way ahead of that in those days.
Today, what I really feel good about is partnering with young founders who have great ideas and who want help to take a company from zero to 100 million. It's very rewarding when we do that.
ENGenuity: Is this what brings you the most satisfaction with your work?
Kadifa: Recently, yes. It's great to see a lot of these companies that didn't exist 10 years ago. The fact that someone has a new idea, gets to a certain level of maturity, and then partners with us and we take it to the next level of success is quite rewarding. It's not just financial and business value, but it's also social value in terms of what we've been able to do that's very rewarding in this.
ENGenuity: What advice do you have for the next generation of Caltech students and alumni?
Kadifa: Everyone I've met with or been associated with at Caltech is a great expert in one area and my advice is to go broad, don't just remain deep in one area. Broaden. And when you broaden, you can contribute more and more. You can broaden within your own domain, or you can broaden in different domains. In my case, I broadened into different domains, but the fundamentals from Caltech have always helped me across the board.
ENGenuity: What originally inspired you to become an engineer/scientist/researcher?
Kadifa: Curiosity on how things work. I remember when I was a kid just throwing a rock and saying, "why is this rock going in this trajectory versus another trajectory?" Math and physics were really my interests and that led me into electrical engineering.
ENGenuity: What is your favorite story and why?
Kadifa: Star Wars, at least the first three (Episodes 4-6). The Star Wars movies made an impact on me because I grew up with them.
ENGenuity: Do you have a favorite character from Star Wars?
ENGenuity: What is your favorite destination?
Kadifa: I like Kona, Hawaii. If you go there, there is this Kona mountain coffee, it's on the main highway there. They have the best coffee in the world.
ENGenuity: What keeps you up at night?
Kadifa: Right now, what keeps me up at night is this malaise we're living as a society these days, how fragmented and how divided we are as a nation. Whenever you go on news or social media, it's like we've almost lost a sense of decency and instead everyone is trying to win on their own. It bothers me because, in some ways, this is not the Caltech way. Caltech is great at multi-disciplinary work where people cooperate, and great stuff happens from it. Recently, I'm ignoring everything, which is not good because you start disconnecting and you need to remain connected in the world.
ENGenuity: What gets you out of bed in the morning?
What gets me up in the morning is really what I'm doing right now, working with these founders and entrepreneurs, trying to do new stuff. I have a special interest in education technology as an example; I feel like this has a social contribution, not just a business or a personal contribution. I've been involved with Caltech recently within the Electrical Engineering Department on the Sensing to Intelligence (S2I) initiative, and I love what they're doing. That's where you get the component of hope—people who want to do the right thing, who are focused on fundamentals, and want to make a massive difference.
ENGenuity: What is a typical day like for you?
Kadifa: A typical day for me is I wake up between six and seven if I don't have phone calls, sometimes I have early phone calls, especially with people overseas. These days I have more flexibility, so I don't need to go to the office every day. I try to get an hour or so to exercise, from hopping on the Peloton or doing some weights or just stretching. Then, I typically have meetings with people where we look at new deals and new investment opportunities to review. Before COVID, I was traveling a lot and I used to spend at least a couple of days a week on the road. Now, I don't, and frankly, I'm liking it better this way.
I have five children and they are all gone right now, so I try to keep in touch with them throughout the day. I keep in touch with at least one, two, or three of them every day.