Prem Radhakrishnan, CEO of 39 Degrees North, participates in a conference call last month at the company’s headquarters in Bloomington. (Kurt Christian / Herald-Times)
Prem Radhakrishnan, CEO of 39 Degrees North, participates in a conference call last month at the company’s headquarters in Bloomington. (Kurt Christian / Herald-Times)
Prem Radhakrishnan’s journey from immigrant to priority contractor for the United States government is — in part — as American as apple pie.

Last month, the United States Small Business Administration announced Bloomington-based 39 Degrees North’s acceptance into a program designed to prop up businesses owned by socially and economically disadvantaged people. Radhakrishnan, the company’s CEO, immigrated to the United States from India in 2000. When he stepped off the plane at the O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, there wasn’t a familiar face in sight.

Nearly two decades later, he sat in his company’s headquarters at 908 N. Walnut St. with co-founder and COO Chris Walls to recount the steps that led to his being stranded in a foreign land — and how he mapped a carefully calculated plan to turn those humble beginnings into an advantage.

Apple pie and rock music

Radhakrishnan grew up in a lower-middle class family in Kollam, a city in the Indian state of Kerala. He said, in 1996, he was the only one from his hometown accepted into the Indian Institute of Technology. He took on student loans and started working nights to put himself through college. Before long, he was enticed by some of the hallmarks of Western culture.

He joined a ‘70s cover band to play guitar and sing Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Deep Purple and Beatles tunes. He frequented an American restaurant and was partial to their apple pie, though, he’s since come to admit they make a much better pie in the States. He found himself saddled with student loans and had to ask his father for money to pay for graduate school entry exams.

After some friends in California helped him apply to and secure a spot at Southern Illinois University, Radhakrishnan convinced the bank to defer his student loans and headed to the United States. He was on his way to get a degree in underground construction and tunneling when he was left hanging at O’Hare.

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