From humble beginnings
Named the Glenbrook South High School Distinguished Alumnus of 2021, early in his acceptance speech Ravin Gandhi sounded more suited for truant of the year.
"I am willing to bet that never has there been anyone who has been selected for this award that had a worse track record at Glenbrook South than me," the 1990 graduate said.
He said CNBC has posted his high school grades on the internet, marks that included C's, D's and F's.
Why would CNBC be interested? Because Gandhi stopped making excuses and "embraced the failure," he said, and has since made a bold success out of his life.
He is the CEO of GMM Nonstick Coatings -- he retained the position after selling the company -- which operates facilities around the world. Along with that, Gandhi said he spends about a quarter of his time professionally in a "moonlighting job" as a startup investor in technology.
"I'm actually just a CPA, an accountant," he said.
Gandhi was born in Waukegan in 1973. He and his sister, Bela, lived there with their mother, Renu, and father, Kanti, who in 1969 emigrated from Mumbai, formerly Bombay, India. Later, Kanti Gandhi became an entrepreneur himself in coatings for pots and pans, which is where Ravin got his first experience in the field.
The Gandhis moved to Glenview in 1984, where Ravin attended Springman Middle School and then Glenbrook South before barely being accepted into the University of Illinois where it all clicked.
Married 15 years to his wife, Sonal, they have two children, Pierce, 9, and Grant, 11. For many years they've lived in the John Hancock Center in downtown Chicago.
Already a board member for the educational organization City Year Chicago, on July 27 Ravin Gandhi kicked off the Cooke SPARK program at his elementary school alma mater, Andrew Cooke Magnet School in Waukegan. The SPARK program, which Gandhi founded and funded, is designed to increase parental involvement with the goal of enhancing student achievement and well-being.
Gandhi lived in Glenview only six years, yet they were a good six years.
"It was a great place to grow up for those years," he said. "Great, great families, and a great community. I made a lot of good friends later in high school that I'm still friends with today."
Following are Ravin's emailed responses to several questions posed by the Herald.
Herald: Can you describe what GMM Nonstick Coatings does?
Gandhi: Sure. GMM is one of the world's largest suppliers of nonstick coatings to the $9 billion American housewares industry. Our clients are all household name brands, such as Calphalon, KitchenAid, Wilton, Pyrex, Baker's Secret, George Foreman, Farberware, and Caraway.
I founded GMM in 2007, and we were acquired in 2018 by SDK, a $10 billion Japanese conglomerate. I am still the CEO, and today we have plants all over the world with hundreds of employees.
Herald: You're a CPA by trade -- how did you get involved in this line of work?
Gandhi: When I graduated from the University of Illinois in 1994, my first job was as an auditor for KPMG. However, the next year, my dad convinced me and my sister to join his company which was called CCC. CCC made nonstick coatings, and I spent four years working there. It was an amazing experience; even though we only had 35 employees, it was the best education I could have imagined. My big accomplishment was putting a deal together to sell CCC to Akzo Nobel, the largest paint company in the world.
After leaving CCC, I got my MBA at Northwestern and then in 2007 I started my own business in the same space. I have to say, though, being a CPA is a fantastic background for building a business, because in the end it really is about profits.
Herald: What else have you been involved with professionally in your career?
Gandhi: I have a couple "professional hobbies." The first is venture capital investing, particularly in the technology space. I have a real passion for meeting young entrepreneurs and backing the ones that I believe in.
I have done investments in robotics, consumer goods, ag-tech, and SaaS ("Software as a Service"), and together these businesses have raised almost $500 million in funding.
The second hobby is in media, writing about entrepreneurship for business publications like Fortune and Forbes, and doing TV commentary for CNBC, Bloomberg, CNN, MSNBC and other outlets.
Herald: Tell us about your experience making the 2019 movie, "100 Days to Live." You won awards for First Time Director and Best World Premiere at the San Diego International Film Festival.
Gandhi: Well I would call that more of a "midlife crisis." Since my 20s, I always wanted to make a feature film, and never had the time. I assumed it would be one of those unfulfilled dreams.
But after I sold GMM, I had a "carpe diem" epiphany and wrote a melodramatic little thriller and decided to shoot it. It was harder than I expected, but also more fun than I expected. I am pretty good at getting things done once I put my mind to something.
The surreal part was doing a film festival, and selling the movie to Amazon and having it get released. That was a trip. Most of my friends and colleagues still think I am insane. Someday if the stars align I'll make another one.
Herald: What were the lessons you learned from your parents?
Gandhi: From my dad, I learned anything is possible. Here was a guy who showed up in America with nothing, and worked in a factory in Waukegan for many years until he was able to become a successful entrepreneur using persistence and risk taking.
From my mom, I learned the value of education. She was born dirt-poor in India, and lived for 20 years in a 16-by-16 room with her parents and three siblings. Yet she was at the top of her class, and later was a huge help to my dad in starting his company. From her I inherited my passion for reading, and also my financial sense.
While I am clearly biased, my parents are truly one in a million. And when they retired, we convinced them to leave Glenview and get a condo downtown in the same building I live in, 18 stories up. So my two boys have grown up with their grandparents just an elevator away, which is priceless.
Herald: How did it feel to be named Glenbrook South Alumni of the Year in 2021?
Gandhi: It was a great honor. I struggled about what to say in my speech, since I was such a lazy student in high school. I started to have "impostor syndrome" until I realized the most authentic thing to do would be to talk about my failure and how it can be a good thing. It ended up being a super experience, and I'm thankful to the students and faculty who were really supportive.
Herald: Any memories of Glenview you can share?
Gandhi: I only lived there from 1984 to 1990 for junior high and high school, but it was an amazing place to be a teenager. We lived by the Glenview Naval Air Station and I would sometimes sneak onto the base with kids from my block and watch planes take off.
When we first got to Glenview, I remember riding my bike all around town in the evening and thinking "this place is quite different from Waukegan" in quite a few ways. It was a firsthand lesson in socioeconomics.
Herald: What's something about you that even those who know you might find surprising?
Gandhi: Most of my friends think I am the biggest extrovert who loves to talk nonstop. But when I am at home with my wife and kids, I am the one who talks the least. And because my job involves talking so much, I really love solitude when I am in the right mood.
Herald: What do you do for fun?
Gandhi: I have played guitar for almost 30 years and I have now taught both of my sons to play, so we have little jam sessions. I also love running on the lakefront. However, after I ran the Chicago Marathon in my 30s, I tore cartilage in my knee so I can't do much more than 6-7 miles these days. I also love to snowboard, and play card games.
I am in a very fun phase of life where my kids are still young, so they still love to spend time with me. I worry what will happen when they are teens, so I am keeping my fingers crossed.
Herald: What are the best lessons you have learned in your life?
Gandhi (listing a number of them): Nothing is more important than staying healthy, physically and mentally;
The only way to be truly happy is to be working your ass off on something;
Experiences are far more valuable than "things";
To accomplish anything, action is usually the right answer -- the people I respect most DO stuff, and don't just TALK ABOUT STUFF;
I have had some climactic days (selling businesses) -- however, the main emotion I felt on those days was anticlimax. The value of achievement is in the achieving;
Never confuse activity with progress -- I carve out many hours to read or think;
Everything worth doing will be hard as hell, so embrace the difficulty.