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Entrepreneur Raxit Shah Shares His Story

Indian-born entrepreneur Raxit Shah brought in a catered dinner for a group of information systems students in November, providing them with authentic Indian cuisine before he talked with them about his life and career. The warm, effusive business leader repeatedly urged the group of mostly international students to fill their plates with the warm food before the lecture.

"I want to give them a glimpse of who they can become in my talk with them, but first I wanted to give students a taste of home because I know they miss the food," Shah explained before the presentation.

The first in a series of "My Stories" sessions presented by the USF Information Systems Decision Sciences Department, Shah said he was pleased to be the part of the series featuring people who personify the American dream of upward mobility, achieved through hard work. The founder of Liberty Group, which specializes in commercial real estate investment, Shah has led the company in more than $370 million in commercial real estate investments throughout the United States and the United Kingdom.

Shah opened his remarks by congratulating the audience of mostly Indian students on making it into USF's competitive information systems program.

"By coming to USF and Tampa, you have already succeeded," he said to the 30 or so attendees. "You have been selected to study at one of the top universities in Florida and I can only imagine how hard all of you must have worked to get here."

Shah said that many of them were likely living out their parents' dreams by coming to America to learn and he urged students not to forget the hard work that their parents had to put in to get them here.

"I visit India at least three times a year to meet many students and families," Shah said. "I know the struggles, anxiety, and blessings parents and families have for sending students abroad to study," he added. "It is for one reason: your success."

Explaining that his father died before Shah's first birthday, the real estate and banking entrepreneur, who holds a bachelor's degree in credit and collections from the University of Toronto in Ontario, Canada, credited his mother with instilling in him a strong work ethic and desire for success.

"My mother was 29 years old, with four kids and a very small salary," he said. "We had few pots and pans in the home, no color television, and little money – she worked for 150 rupees a month, the equivalent to $3 a month," Shah added.

Today, all four of those children now have master's degrees.

"My mother made us work hard, and that is the idea behind this speaker series," he said. "We want to give you information about how hard work can pay off and the prosperous life you can have," Shah told the students.

He started by telling them about one of his first failures.

"I was fired from my first job as a security guard in 1970 after three days," he said. Explaining that he felt he was better than the overnight job, Shah said that being fired was a learning experience.

"In the back of my mind, I thought to myself, 'I have a bachelor of commerce from MS University and I do not have to wear a uniform'."

"I was wrong," he said.

That lesson was a good one, Shah said. Being fired taught him what he didn't want to do, but it also taught him to be frugal as he was going to school. He told students how he worked full-time as a cost accountant and attended classes at the University of Toronto in the evenings, walking home late at night to save the 25-cent subway fare.

Shah said he would sometimes dream big during those walks home in the freezing weather. He would think about working for himself or being a successful businessman. He would dream about owning a company.

He urged students to think big – and act on their dreams.

"Today, I have sold or owned more than 50 hotels," Shah said. "I have more than 700 employees working in several brands." But it all started with saving those subway fares.

"I had a dream to be my own boss and, in 1980, I had saved enough money to buy my first hotel and moved from Canada to America – the land of opportunity," Shah said. Buying that 52-room hotel was risky and adventurous, but very rewarding. He explained that the work was grueling – sometimes he worked 48 hours straight by sitting in the hotel lobby, taking the occasional nap when it was slow. He discovered that the lesson he learned by being fired as a security guard – that he was not above any job – was especially true as he worked those long hours.

"I was always eager to make that extra dollar, to work hard and move forward," he said. He worked in nearly every role at the hotel, he said, from delivering towels to managing the property.

Today, Shah is the executive chairman of The Liberty Group. The Liberty Group specializes in management intensive, value-added real estate opportunities; the firm recently opened a $25 million Aloft hotel in Tampa. Today, Shah is responsible for the strategic governance of the company and serves as a board member for the group's private equity fund. His son, Punit, is now in charge of the company and has expanded company holdings substantially. His younger son, Prem, is actively involved, developing and managing Alzheimer's assisted living facilities.

While he is proud of the company and its accomplishments, Shah told the students not to judge his success by money. Instead, he said, they should judge it by his happiness and his commitment to the community. He urged students to make connections with one another, to help younger students coming behind them, and to remain connected to USF and the community that they are now part of.

"We must do our part as responsible citizens in the community, no matter where that might be," he said.

His key points of working hard, dreaming big, and giving back resonated with the students like Gaurav Mehta, an information systems major who came to the United States from India just four months ago. He thanked Shah for coming out to speak to the students – and for the food!

"The food was awesome – it was authentic and typical Indian food that we missed. But more importantly, I really liked hearing what he had to say," said Mehta, who just started an 18-month graduate program.

"There are always lots of speakers who talk about getting a job after graduating, but he brought a different scenario for us," said Mehta. "He talked about a new prospect for many of us when he talked about bringing up your own business."

For Mehta, the idea of using his degree in an entrepreneurial way was a new one.

"Mr. Shah said that maybe an opportunity will come around the corner five or 10 years down the line that isn't expected. We might want to grab it but we might be afraid. He showed us that we can do it. He did it. He set an example for us."

Shah closed his remarks by telling students, like Mehta, that it is okay to be fearful but not to let procrastination or fear ruin their tomorrows.

"Tomorrow is today," Shah said. "If you plan to do something tomorrow, do it today and your tomorrow will be less stressful, full of joy, and worry-free."