Blog Post

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

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. Markus Fromherz

    I’m very sad to hear about Rajeev’s sudden death. I met him for the first time in the early 90s, when we briefly collaborated on a real-time scheduling problem. He was generous with his time for a new researcher. In the following years, it was exciting to see his success as professor and investor. I’d like to express my deepest condolences to his family and friends. He is leaving a big hole in many lives.

  2. Kaushal Chari

    Rajeev was a year senior to me at IIT Kanpur. He was a very likeable person. I remember him making significant contributions to student activities at IIT Kanpur as the audio secretary.

    My condolences to his family.

  3. Om, I’m so sorry for your loss. I didn’t know Professor Motwani or even much about him, but I know how much you value warmth and your friends and also how busy you are, so I can tell that he must have been an amazing man. My condolences also to his wife and children. What a terrible thing to happen right before father’s day. I hope when those children grow up and they can still read all these blogposts and comments and know their father through them. And to all his students, my condolences—there is something so tragic about losing a great teacher, especially a young one—because every future accomplishment is tinged with sadness, not being able to show it off to them. I hope they carry his work on.

  4. My heart felt sympathies to everyone,

    Yogi says in Hindi:

    “I pray to God, for peace for his soul. Mai bhagwaan se prathana karta hun ki Asha ji ko aur unki 3 saal ki beti ko ye sadma sahane ki shakti mile.”

    This was a beautiful way to say that we pray from the bottom of our hearts for his wife Asha and her young daughters, that in this time they find strength. Om, my translation is lacking right. Hindi to English is not easy.

    Reading all these comments was very moving. As Om says we should learn from his legacy. I hope that the world acknowledging this great loss is at least a tiny seed of strength for his family and friends in these terrible times. God bless his soul. Anyone that knew him was clearly honored.

    I would personally like to thank someone I never knew for being such a huge inspiration. I hope in your absence we make you proud. I promise to do my very best every day, in your memory and those of friends we have each lost. RIP Rajeev.

    Stay strong OM. Jai Shri Krishna.

  5. Jack Horner

    I think he drowned in his pool with accidental causes, though they are investigating. Very nice guy who was gracious and kind even to his servants. Never looked down upon people lower than him.

    He was a great friend to all entrepreneurs

    Very tragic!!
    May his soul rest in peace.

    You will be sorrily missed, my friend.

  6. Sasha Camacho

    It is with deep sadness and eyes full of tears that I type these words…

    My heart goes out to all of Rajeev’s family and especially to Asha and his children. Rajeev’s tragic passing has shaken many to the core. It was much too sudden, so not fair and yet so true.
    May his legacy live on in the hearts and minds of those he touched personally and those who have and will continue to benefit from his contributions.
    A bright star in the universe has dimmed from his passing, but his light will continue to shine in our hearts.

    May his legacy live on forever and may the universe heal the hearts of those who loved him dearly.

  7. Everyone,

    First of all thank you for sharing your thoughts and emotions here with me. We should all learn from Rajeev – he left behind a legacy of doing something for others all the time. Perhaps that is why we remember him so fondly – caring and giving.

    Maybe we can take this opportunity and become more helpful to each other. Sharing knowledge, lending a helping hand and more importantly, just listening. I am sure we can find ways to do that.

    I know I am going to try and be that way.

  8. I am in shock and disbelief about this really sad piece of news. I met with Rajeev a couple of times and was touched by his enthusiasm for startups and new technologies and his eagerness to help. His immense base of knowledge and experience was a great support for so many of us.

    I want to extend my condolences to his family in this tragedy.

    You will be missed my friend, RIP.

  9. Keshav Sharma

    This is extremely sad and unbelievable. I have been wanting to meet him on many of my trips but unfortunately ended up just exchanging mails or talking on phone. My memories go back to Hall V quad and the CS classes…it all seems so recent.

    I am sure all of us will cherish our memories of him. May God give all the strength to his family to bear this great personal tragedy.


  10. I am not known to Mr Rajeev n Family…..Its a very tragic event.. From all people of INDIA condolences to his family
    “May his Soul Lie in Peace” …. If the family needs any help let us know… we can try our best…

  11. Ritu Raj

    I am shocked, really inspiring investor and an icon to the Indian community, just exchanged emails with him a couple of days ago… My condolences to the family.

  12. I just saw this. This is devastating. I spoke to Rajeev a couple of weeks ago. Shattering news. He was a truly good, kind, generous, thoughtful man. There’s a huge hole in the universe today.

    All my love, thoughts and prayers are with Asha and the family.

  13. Sasrabjeet Chugh

    Very sorry to hear this tragic news. He made us Dilliwalas proud, a true inspiration to us budding entrepreneurs. He was a nurturing force for many startups. Silicon valley pays tribute to a real life hero!

  14. rohit

    Rajeev exemplifies what makes this valley tick… gave his time freely, invested where he thought there were intriguing possibilities, and introduced entrepreneurs to venture capitalists whenever they asked. Probing questions, a professor’s patience, and a belief in startups made him invaluable to so many of us entrepreneurs. I hope each of us who had the benefit of his intellect, inputs, and friendship carries his work forward the way he would have. He is of this valley – will always be here.

  15. Ashish Goel

    Rajeev was a brilliant man, deepest among theoreticians, most visionary among technologists, most savvy of investors. He helped me at every stage of my professional life. Dear friend, dearest of colleagues, rest in peace.

    • Prakash Iyer

      Hm, ‘most’ literally means more than any other. Can you give me a clear explanation of how he was more visionary than any other technologist, deeper than any other theoretician? I haven’t heard such superlatives applied even to Einstein. Rajeev himself would cringe at such lavish praise, him being such a logical person.

      We Indians tend towards such servile adulation, it is embarrassing. Please try to keep it eulogies sensible and closer to reality.

      Personally what i remember impressive about Motwani is when I first encountered his Randomized Algorithms book. First of all randomized algorithms is a very difficult subject and quite mentally taxing. It is a deadly combination of the 2 tough problems of algorithm analysis and probability problems! When I saw the book, I couldn’t beleive that someone has the awesome patience and mental energy to devote their research time to and write an entire fat book on this frustratingly difficult subject! All this when the fact remains that the results-to-effort-ratio in this difficult subject is very low. As far as I know randomized algorithms do not lead to any siginficant performance leaps in most real-world situations. You end up greying a lot of your hair but your work doesn’t impact society much in the short or long term. That makes devotion to this subject all the more awesome ;)

      • Prakash,

        On the contrary, randomized methods can be proven to be more
        efficient than algorithms for some classes of problems. Whether this
        is true in general — known as ‘B=BPP?’ is an open research problem
        at the time of writing (2009).

        That is the theory; in practice, randomized
        data structures such as Bloom filters that were invented in the days when
        computers didn’t have enough RAM to store everything are now being
        re-tooled to solve problems so huge and difficult that even Google’s
        half-a-million cluster of machines cannot address them with traditional
        means. An example is statistical machine translation, where many teams
        now use randomized statistical models learned from data.

        Another two high-impact examples from technology is Web search, where the Random Surfer notion in PageRank is directly related to randomized methods, and fast Web duplicate detection using shingling and randomization.

    • Prakash:

      You need to get your head examined, buddy. Are you angling for the role of “Mr Spock” in a Star Trek movie or a play ? “Eulogies” are supposed to be “sensible” ?

      And are you trying to kill ( a deceased ) man with faint praise, as the saying goes ?

      Man, get off this board please. Else, you wouldn’t receive any eulogies after you depart this world.

      • Prakash Iyer

        I do sincerely examine my head very often and find some things good, some things bad. I suggest everyone do the same. It’s an exercise in honesty about yourself.

        Adulations and exaggerated praise whether of living or dead has no place in my life. When we talk of other people, we must be truthful. Anything else is vulgar gossip.

        > Are you angling for the role of “Mr Spock” in a Star Trek movie or a play ? “Eulogies” are supposed to be “sensible” ?

        If you prefer nonsense to sense, you have a serious problem.

        > “Man, get off this board please. Else, you wouldn’t receive any eulogies after you depart this world.”

        You sound like a childish teenager in a chatroom. I suggest it is you who must kindly vacate the premises.

      • Prakash:

        I am probably way older than you.

        This is not the time or place to practise your misplaced principles of “honesty”. Remember the famous Sanskrit proverb:

        “Satyam vad, Priyam vad,
        Ma vad satyam apriyam”.

        When you get ready to pen his unauthorised biography, feel free to tear him to shreds. Nobody is perfect (neither Dr Mortwani nor you nor Mahatma Gandhi). Take your cue from Christopher Hitchens’s biography of Mother Teresa.

        Show a modicum of respect to the dear departed.


  16. vivek

    Even though I never had the good fortune of meeting Rajeev in person, I’ve heard and read great things about his professional brilliance, and feel a sense of loss on his untimely demise!

    May god give his young family and loved ones strength and courage, to remain positive in these challenging times.

  17. Krishna

    One of the best professors to have taught us. A great, simple and an inspiring person. The news is shocking. This is indeed a great loss for all of us. :(

  18. Yogi Mahendra

    I can’t believe it that, Prof Rajeev Motwani has passad away. One of my friend told me that he fell down in swimming pool accidentally, and unable to swim. Very sad news.
    I pray to God, for peace for his soul. Mai bhagwaan se prathana karta hun ki Asha ji ko aur unki 3 saal ki beti ko ye sadma sahane ki shakti mile.

  19. Prasanna Ganesan

    I worked closely with Rajeev during my PhD at Stanford. His was one of the most brilliant minds I encountered there, and he was a splendid teacher to boot.

    This is a huge loss for the Computer Science community. My condolences to Asha and her family.

  20. GaryB

    Just saw him talk informally a few days ago — really a shock and a great loss. He was a rare combination of a set of talents — will be hard to find the equivalent.