Reprinted with permission from USA Today.

SUNNYVALE, Calif.--In these chilly dot-com days, who would begrudge an enterprising soul some insurance against Wall Street's cold shoulder?

Some start-ups might keep overhead low; others put off an initial stock offering. But for a few dozen technology start-ups born recently here in the heart of Silicon Valley, staying on the right side of fate has meant calling in a priest.

The companies in question are all run by techies whose family roots are in India. Analysts estimate that this growing ethnic group is behind roughly 900 high-tech firms in the Bay Area.

The religious ceremony in question is a Hindu religious rite called a puja, which implores various gods to run interference on undesirable fiscal obstacles. "In business, they say you need the element of luck, of being in the right place at the right time," says Manjunath Kashi, CEO of Avakai Information Networks, a business-to-business web portal that was blessed in April.

"In our culture, we take care of everything in advance," he says. "We do our due diligence on our business and, if you will, in our religion."

Has prosperity visited yet?

"Well," Kashi says with a smile, "two VCs [venture capital firms] called the other day."

Puja results flow two ways.

In addition to an honorarium for his time, the priest who conducted the pujas, Umashankar Dixit, has received stock options. They have blossomed enough to help him build a temple in Bangalore, his hometown in India. Although Dixit declines to discuss his stocks in detail, he does acknowledge a productive gift of 500 shares from K.B. Chandrasekhar, chairman of Web-maintenance firm Exodus. The shares netted him $12,000.

He plans to return to India after his three teenage children go to college. "My whole goal here, and back in Bangalore, is to promote our culture," says Dixit, who arrived in the United States in 1991 to serve as priest at the Shiva Vishnu Temple in nearby Livermore, Calif.

Although to Western ears, the concept of praying for a windfall could seem a bit jarring, in truth most Eastern religions embrace the notion of asking deities to contribute to one's financial as well as physical and spiritual well-being.

"It's not unlike asking the bishop to bless a racehorse," quips Mark Mancall, professor of South Asian history at Stanford University. "It's all simply for good luck. Whereas we might carry a rabbit's foot, Indians perform a puja. Every sensible person would."

Specifically, prayers are recited to both Ganesh, the multi-limbed elephant god of good fortune, and to the female goddess Lakshmi, who perches on a lotus flower and oversees the wealth of the universe.

CEO Kashi has a modest shrine to both gods in the corner of his start-up's cramped $2.75-per-square-foot offices.

On a battered, empty Compaq computer box sit a small statue of Ganesh, a framed image of Lakshmi, and $108 in either silver dollars or quarters. The coins represent the 108 gods prayed to during the one-hour ceremony.

"You know, you can't really keep your concentration focused 100% during the whole ceremony," admits Kashi, with a sheepish smile. "So this way, you assume, with 108 gods, some of them heard what you were saying."

Executives who have invited Dixit to perform a puja are quick to stress the cultural foundation of the ceremony.

"Whether we have grown up in India or here in the United States, we all are raised with these sorts of traditions," says RamaSharma Kristipati, president of VetHeaven.com, a medical-supply start-up. "Even though we are sitting here at the tip of the high-tech world, we try to keep in touch with the old world," he says. "That keeps us balanced."

When Deepak Chandani scheduled his puja -- its date is dictated by the founder's birthday, the alignment of the planets, and the name of the company -- he made sure his Western employees were included. Some 60 Indian and Western staffers of Reez.com, a real estate services website, jammed into a conference room to hear Chandani and Dixit chant. Some even joined in.

"Initially I didn't understand what was happening," says COO Michael Lancaster. "But soon I realized that what was being discussed was basic corporate ideals: aiming for success and reducing obstacles."

Back at Avakai Information Networks' office park, CEO Kashi is eating at an Indian restaurant next to his small suite.

"We want to be a Yahoo for B-to-B commerce," he grins between bites of chewy nan bread.

And if the puja doesn't bring Avakai such web-world glory?

"That's OK," he shrugs. "Hinduism isn't all about success. It's about a way of life."

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