The Fascinating Journey Of A Homeless Drug Dealer Into Business School

by Maya Itah on

srinivas rao pic

Once he gets his MBA this spring, Srinivas Rao will be working in Wells Fargo’s investment management development program

The average MBA student has made two career transitions.

Srinivas “Cheeni” Rao, a 39-year-old second-year at the University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business, has made four, starting off as a drug dealer.

Strap yourself in, because this is one hell of a ride.

Rao’s parents immigrated from India, and they raised him in a comfy Chicago suburb with the expectation that he would become a doctor or an engineer. “That was what formed my initial impression of what was possible,” he says. When he went to Williams College, though, he saw just how many possibilities existed. Soon after showing up at the leafy liberal arts campus in 1992, he began experimenting with writing, theater—and drugs, unfortunately.

WINDING UP HOMELESS ON THE SOUTH SIDE OF CHICAGO

“The moment I started to dip into those things, it was like opening Pandora’s box,” he says. “I did not realize the impact and the effect that these chemicals would have on me.” Addicted, dealing, and unable to keep it together, Rao got himself kicked out of Williams after four semesters and landed back in his hometown, where his family refused to take him in. He wound up on the South Side of Chicago and began using crack cocaine.

As Tyler Durden said in “Fight Club,” “It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.”

For Rao, rock bottom was watching his friend bleed to death from a stab wound. That moment led him to a treatment facility in 1995 and later to a halfway house. The people he met there convinced him to give college another shot. He applied to the University of Chicago, got in, and graduated with an English degree; in 1998, captivated by the magic of putting words on paper, he enrolled in the prestigious Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa.

‘SOME PEOPLE KNOW EXACTLY WHAT THEY’RE GOING TO DO AT AGE 12. GOOD FOR THEM’

Having become a seasoned writer, Rao started a ghostwriting business in 2000 and ran it for 12 years. At one point, the venture brought in revenues of nearly $1 million a year. In 2009, he even published a memoir, “In Hanuman’s Hands,” which chronicled his descent into addiction and homelessness. In one harrowing passage, his grandmother catches him doing cocaine in her bathroom: “It’s a new kind of snuff,” he tells her, “just like what Grandfather used.”

But while critics praised Rao’s book as a “lyrical and haunting” tale, it didn’t sell, and his ghostwriting business fell victim to disruption in the publishing industry. So, Rao made yet another change: The dealer-turned-writer-turned-entrepreneur sold the business and enrolled at Tippie, where he’s learning to make business decisions with more than just his instincts.

Once he graduates this spring, Rao will head to Scottsdale, Arizona, to work in Wells Fargo’s investment management development program. “When I look at my story all the way back, it’s just parts and pieces of myself that developed slowly over time,” he says. “I think for some people, at the age of 12, they know exactly what they’re going to do for the rest of their lives—you know, good for them,” he adds, chuckling. But he doesn’t wish to be one of them. “It took me a lot longer to realize what my strengths are, what I’m passionate about, but that’s enabled me now to move forward without any hesitation,” he says. “I’m excited about what’s to come.”

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  • Lifeisajourney

    Good article. As someone with similar skeletons in my closet, I very much empathize with this and it is an empowering story.

    One thing I am surprised about is that Srinivas was accepted to such an elite university after failure at a previous institution and an admitted drug addiction. It seems like the odds would be really heavily stacked against admission in this case. Don’t get me wrong, that is great and congrats to him for his successes, I am just a little surprised (and perhaps a little envious)!

  • Lifeisajourney

    I should clarify that I was talking about getting into Chicago.

  • Wolfsbane11

    He originally attended Williams, so you have to assume that his SATs and high school accomplishments were superior-it wasn’t a question of aptitude but desire. Coupled with his story of redemption (made clearer with his great writing skills) it;’s not all that surprising that an elite school would bite-imagine a straight A talent commuting to your school from a halfway house. That’s a story to be cheered (and exploited).

  • JohnAByrne

    I think the reason he got into Chicago has to do with both his honesty as well as his thoughtfulness in articulating what he learned from the experience. The tendency might be to hide something like this. Rao used it to his advantage. It’s a great testament to Chicago admissions that it worked in his favor.

  • CCger14

    thats why they are always ranked first at most rankings :)

  • Prem

    If he can build a million a year business with low overhead, why does he need an MBA?

  • Briana Banks

    Nice Story. Though is an indictment of Williams College.

  • Garrett McCoy

    Yeah makes you wonder how he got in. A favor or a pull of some strings by a family member or a major player.

  • Me-too

    Great story .. similar one this side. Not sure if its a good thing or not. In a nutshell – grew up dirt poor with little food in on the table in South Africa, slept on a couch while still at home with my single mom for most of my teen years. Finished high school with no college prospects as in South Africa you simply don’t go if you cant afford it.

    Got involved with drugs at around 19-20, eventually became homeless and slept in my car for months .. can still remember the cold Cape Town winters where I couldn’t even fall asleep .. once I cut my arm so deep to be able to go to hospital to get something to eat. This led to a terrible cycle of trying to survive and I ended up in prison for 1.5 years – believe me a South African prison is something out of this world.

    Anyway, after prison a got a break working for company and eventually managed to get them to pay for some courses to do. I excelled and eventually got offered a job out of South Africa. Years passed an I manage to get myself through an undergraduate degree and eventually an MBA.

    I have 2 successful european businesses at the moment. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about those hard times and where I come from. I wake up each morning and make a list of everything I am grateful for.

  • JohnAByrne

    Thanks for sharing your experience and congratulations for turning your life around. Your story is inspiring and so is your insight to be grateful for the good things in our life. Good luck to you.

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