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.”