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Internet Evangelist

The Internet represents the cutting edge of computer and communications technology and Hugh Francis is at its cutting edge. His academic qualifications: ninth standard. Here is his fascinating story.

Most people think that the software behind Internet technology is esoteric and they are right. Amazingly, a person who lives right in our midst in Marol is at the forefront of this technology. His name is Hugh Francis, and the software company he runs -- Axon -- will soon put up 16,000 pages on the Internet. Fewer than 100 other companies in the world have put up a greater number. What makes this all the more creditable is that Francis has done this without any formal educational qualifications. But his story is even more inspiring because it is the story of a man who confronted adversity in the form of blindness and triumphed over it.

When Francis was about nine years old he was struck in the eye by a cricket ball. Soon after he complained of not being able to see very well. Family members thought it was a case of sore eyes. But the problem persisted for months and years. Later it was diagnosed as detachment of the retina. Surgery was performed but rather than help Francis, it resulted in an infection and he went totally blind. At this time he was in the ninth standard.

Not wanting to be a burden on his family, he got a friend to take him daily to Churchgate. From there he would go to a company office and sit with the telephone operator so as to learn how to be a telephone operator himself. After getting trained, he managed to find himself a job. By this time he had been blind for two years. Fortunately for Francis, another surgeon, Dr Maskati, suggested that he might benefit from an operation. The operation was successful and he recovered his sight. However, he decided not to continue his education. For some more time, he worked on as a telephone operator though he had reached the conclusion that it was a dead-end job.

He decided to set up in business for himself and began by selling fire crackers. Then, along with a friend, he grew interested in electronics. They began to read books and learnt to assemble amplifiers. "By a fluke we got it right the first time," recalls Francis. Afterwards, he went into manufacturing medical appliances though he gives the credit to his brother-in-law. Later he grew interested in the stockmarket and in the technical analysis of stocks. By 1992 he had become a registered share consultant.

One day, a client came to his office when his secretary was out. Wanting to answer the client's queries about his portfolio, Francis tried to extract the information from a computer. But his attempts only drew the response "WRONG COMMAND" from the computer. Francis decided it was time he learnt more about computers and began teaching himself software programming. A reputed software education firm declined to admit him because he was partially blind. Soon after, the riots of 1992 intervened. A client of his who had made large purchases was killed. The shares had to be disposed of, but because the market collapsed, Francis sustained a huge loss and had to sell his car and other assets.

But all these troubles had a good effect. They hastened his move into software. After a few months Francis wrote a software package for the stock market involving artificial intelligence and sold one to a broker friend for Rs 10,000. Later, a large securities firm offered to buy the rights from him for an obscene sum but Francis declined. In any case, the software package brought him acclaim and consulting jobs which paid well.

In 1994 a friend from the US visited him. The Internet was already the rage in the US but it had not yet come to India. Using the friend's account and password, Francis logged on to the Internet through an international call. This was expensive and Francis could not remain online for long. But the experience excited him and he decided that this was what he wanted to do. He bought books and taught himself and when the Internet came to India two years ago, Francis was ready.

His site ( will put up details of about 8,000 Indian exporters and importers. Axon, his firm, does not charge anything but considers it a service to the country. In a few months it will also put up a stockmarket software on the net, with which a web surfer can do a technical analysis of any of 6,000 listed companies. Axon finances itself by writing software and publishing web pages. Francis says it just about expects to financially survive for the first year.

But its site will attract attention. Axon will be one of few firms that have the ability to set up what in web jargon is called "interactive pages". This means that a reader will not simply read what is on the page. He can ask it questions, search for a particular product that he wants to import and export, and send queries to the company that sells it or wants to buy it, and so on. In November this year, the company will also put up live on the Internet an international medical seminar.

Many people believe that a long string of degrees and formal academic qualifications is a must to succeed in life. They might want to look at Hugh Francis and change their minds.

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