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Goodbye Old Friend. R.I.P. Rajeev Motwani

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Updated, June 7, 2009Rajeev Motwani, one of the savviest angel investors in Silicon Valley, a Stanford professor and most importantly a close and personal friend passed away earlier today. He was 47 and is left behind by his wife Asha and kids.

It is hard for me to write this post — this morning the news of Steve Jobs’ improving health put me in a good mood. My day is ending with a broken heart and tears in my eyes. It is the day which reminds you of the unpredictability of life. Rajeev and I had been swapping emails, hoping to get together for a cup of coffee and discussions about technology. Alas, that shall never be.

After working tirelessly in anonymity, his tutelage of two Stanford University young grad students, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, made him a household name in Silicon Valley. He started the Mining Data at Stanford project (MIDAS) and was one of the earliest backers of Google. He was an early investor in Paypal and a special adviser to Sequoia Captial.

That success never came in the way of Rajeev’s quest for knowledge and innate desire to help others. There wasn’t a startup he didn’t love. Like his chosen specialization of search, Rajeev was searching for the unknown. He was still active as a professor and was teaching a couple of classes as recently as the last semester.

I have known Rajeev, his wife Asha and their family for a long time. Rajeev, like me, was from New Delhi. In my professional career (and personal moments of crisis) Rajeev was only a phone call away, sharing his vast rolodex. Just like a true friend. Only a few weeks back, I had a simple Indian lunch in his house with his family. I am sure, I am not the only one who has benefited from his generosity of time and knowledge and his ability to create connections and help others.

My prayers go to his young family. I hope god gives them strength and courage to navigate through these rough seas of life.

Update, June 7, 2009: The San Jose Mercury News reports that the Artherton police are waiting for an autopost report on Rajeev’s accidental drowning. The Silicon Valley chapter of TIE is planning a memorial service on Wednesday. Details of a memorial service to follow.

In addition, there were will be a visitation event on Monday June 8th at their home between 5-and-8 pm. Instead of flowers and gifts, family would like you to make contribution, please mail checks made out to “Rajeev Motwani Foundation” c/o Ash Chopra, Merrill Lynch, 101 California Street, Suite 2100, San Francisco CA 94111.

Tributes from around the tech community:

Sergey Brin pays his tribute on his blog. “…Yet his legacy and personality lives on in the students, projects, and companies he has touched. Today, whenever you use a piece of technology, there is a good chance a little bit of Rajeev Motwani is behind it,” he writes.

David Hornik of August Capital writes: Rajeev just wanted to be helpful. And he was. To so many of us. Perhaps that is why so many of us thought of Rajeev as a friend. It is one thing to be friendly with someone in the business world. It is another thing altogether to consider them a friend. Rajeev genuinely liked people and people genuinely liked him.

Dan Gould, co-founder of Newroo, emailed this story about Rajeev and wanted me to share it with you: “I didn’t know Rajeev well, but he was a great guy who helped us quite a bit. We were the classic two kids with some software who had just moved to California. I only knew him from using his Randomized Algorithms book in school, but he spent a bunch of time with us. He helped us improve our algorithms and ideas and introduced us to Ron Conway and to other folks which led to the acquisition of our startup. I ran into him several times since and he was always both kind and brilliant. I had hoped to work with him on a future project. While that’s not to be, I imagine dozens of other computer scientists-turned-entrepreneurs can tell the same story.”

If you have a Rajeev story you would like to share with rest of us so we can all remember and grieve together, please leave it in the comments section or email me.

203 Responses to “Goodbye Old Friend. R.I.P. Rajeev Motwani”

  1. Ram Gopalan & Kavita Murthi

    Surprised and sad to hear of the sudden demise of Rajeev Motwani whom I came to know thru my b-in-law who studied with him at IIT, Kanpur. Strange are the ways of the creator to take away a great soul so early. Our condolences to Asha and the family.

  2. Rajeev was one of the friendliest people to ever cross my path at the Google Cafe as well as my current restaurant calafia cafe. He and asha and family in tow frequented the restaurant on a regular basis.
    He always had a brilliant smile on his face and encouraging words to me when I was seemingly busy and distracted.
    You will be missed my friend.

  3. Just IM’ed him a few weeks ago. Great researcher and a very good person. Extremely sorry and perplexed to hear this news. Had several interactions with him when he started his small incubation fund few years ago.
    I pray to God and offer my hearty condolences to family

    Sukanta Ganguly

  4. Gururaj

    This is a very sad day for all of us. Aside from his brilliance, he was a wonderful person at heart. He genuinely enjoyed every aspect of life and touched anyone who was fortunate to come in contact with him. Go in peace, Rajiv. We will miss you!
    Asha, our condolences to you and the family.

  5. A great friend, I got the opportunity to work with him in a previous startup and he was also involved in my current startup. Rajeev was an amazing individual, he will be dearly missed. Condolences to his family, kids and wife.
    – Raj

  6. Raman Khanna

    Great loss for Stanford and Silicon Valley. I am having a hard time believing that Rajeev is gone. He was a true gentleman and a scholar. Just saw him last Saturday and as usual he was very excited about companies he was helping and his travel plans for summer. May God give Asha, their children and the extended family and friends courage to deal with this untimely loss.

    Raman Khanna

    • Danial Faizullabhoy

      Very sorry and shocked to hear the news. Rajeev was so easy to converse especially when it came to new technology and startups. Shared a few days with Rajeev and Asha on a trip to India and have fond memories of the conversations on the road trips. Deepest condolences to Asha and the kids in this difficult time.

  7. Sanjay Banerjee

    I am grieved to hear of this loss! I pray to the Almighty for giving strength and forbearance to his wife and other family members to bear this loss!

  8. I am so deeply shocked! What a loss to the world. He was my mentor…we considered technical projects together. He got me into entrepreneurship. Rajeev was one of the kindest, nicest, sweetest guys I’ve known. Despite his crazy schedule he was always there for me to talk, meet, help, guide on the shortest notice. We were to meet for coffee next week. I just cannot believe… My sympathies to Asha, his young ones, and his family. Rajeev, you will be missed. I thank you for being such a champion for my company and being so much more.

  9. I didn’t know him, but anytime you hear about someone helpful and bright passing away unexpectedly is like getting punched in the teeth.

    Condolences to his family and friends.

  10. Extremely, extremely sad news. Rajeev was the head of the PhD program committee when I started my degree at Stanford way back when– he was a brilliant, giving, generous person. As I mentioned in the acknowledgements in my dissertation, “he watched me grow in many roles– as a PhD student, as an engineer, and as an entrepreneur; I thank him for keeping an eye on me,” and I extend my deepest condolences to his family. We have lost an exceptional researcher, professor, angel investor, and mentor to many who have helped shape our world.

  11. Manish Punjabi

    Shocked by the news. He was a rare combination of academic brilliance with a strong startup intellect. He will be dearly missed by the entrepreneurial community in the valley. Our prayers are with Asha, kids and family.

  12. Jayesh Vyas

    Really shocking! I gave the final exam of his course (CS154-Automata) today from 12 to 3 PM, and did not see him in the exam room. But never imagined this… Just met him day before yesterday, and saw his lectures online all night. His lectures are still so fresh in my mind. Wish life is was more predictable.

  13. Mike Schroepfer

    Still can’t believe it. Rajeev had such a profound impact on the valley and so many people in it – including me. He’ll be sorely missed.

    • Not only is this not cool, it’s completely unfounded. Prof. Motwani was one of the clearest and best professors I’ve ever had. He was a very intelligent man and a devoted teacher.

    • “Lou” — that was classless. We are all entitled to our opinions, but you chose a poor moment to express your rancor.

      I’ve had occasion to talk with Rajeev. He was opinionated but effortlessly brilliant. He elevated the state of the art and science in Information Retrieval and left it on a much higher plane than where he found it, not the least of which was his participation in the genesis of Google.

      My sympathies to his family, to his friend Om, and to his friends in Search.

      • Prakash Iyer

        And how exactly did he elevate the state-of-the-art? This is not a rhetorical question; I am just curious.
        Anyhow it is interesting how people suddenly start overly eulogizing someone after their death. I doubt if they would ever sing such praises if he was alive now.

      • I did not know him but know a couple of of his students and knew of him by reputation. By all accounts, he was exceptional, both as a data-mining Guru as well as a human being.

        So Prakash, what is bugging you ? Are you jealous, cynical or just plain ill-bred ??

  14. Condolences to his family and friends. Still can’t believe it.

    Was sharing his website and discussing research topics with couple of budding computer science students. What a loss.

  15. Om–I am very sad to hear that you have lost a friend. It is never easy losing a friend/colleague…I am reminded of my own experience losing James Kim during my time at CNET. Please let me know if there is any way I can help–as you know in our tradition, we usually bring food to those in mourning. Send me an email if there is any way I can help out.

    • Anand

      I couldn’t agree with you more. It is such a tremendous loss to our little ecosystem and to the humanity at large. One of the true good guys. A day later, the shock of it is finally setting in.

    • Salik Syed

      I was shocked when I read about this on the bscs list. I took a complexity theory class from him just last spring. Brilliant guy with a very sharp wit and was always willing to stay after class and explain things to us — he would ask challenge questions after explaining something to make sure we truly understood.
      He seemed like a really good guy and will be deeply missed — this really makes you think about how unpredictable life can be.

  16. Om, thank you for sharing this. I met Rajeev and Asha at TiE and found both to be sincere, intelligent and generous. I shared a long bus ride with both of them in Malaysia and we talked about everything from startups to the meaning of life. I won’t forget that.

    • All of us at TiE, who have had wonderful times together with Rajeev and Asha, feel sad and want to share in the sorrow of this loss.

      Rajeev was a special person and will be remembered fondly, always. Asha and the children have our deepest condolences….Kalpana and Raj Jaswa

      • sri narasimhan

        It is surreal as I type this, I met Rajeev at TiE 2009 as I did TiE 2008, in the lobby on the second day. He had just sauntered in that Sunday afternoon when the conference was thinning out, wearing a light purple cotton shirt (or was it pink) and his trademark work-out Brahma boots, and characteristic gait. Unassuming, to most Valley newbies..and likely, making good on word he may have given an entrepreneur.

        It is clear now Rajeev was handed a mission from above. There is no doubt he over-delivered. Lets cherish a bit of Rajeev in things we do henceforth – selflessness, excellence, trust, patience.