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How I Made It: Deepak Chopra defends airport scanners

Chopra is the founder and CEO of OSI Systems, which makes airport security equipment, including the full-body X-ray scanners used by the TSA. He says worries about the scanners are overblown.

May 01, 2011|By Stuart Pfeifer, Los Angeles Times
  • Deepak Chopra, CEO of OSI Systems, shares a name with an internationally recognized author and holistic medicine practitioner, which creates a little confusion.
Deepak Chopra, CEO of OSI Systems, shares a name with an internationally… (Mark Boster, Los Angeles…)

The gig: Deepak Chopra, 60, is founder and chief executive of OSI Systems Inc., which manufactures airport security equipment, including those controversial full-body X-ray scanners that allow Transportation Security Administration workers to see underneath travelers' clothing. The Hawthorne company is publicly traded and employs 3,700 workers around the world, about 900 of them in California. OSI last year reported net income of $23.6 million on sales of $595 million. Its stock hit an all-time high early this year.

No, not that Deepak Chopra: The businessman shares a name with the internationally recognized author and holistic medicine practitioner, something that creates a little confusion. "I do get junk mail regularly. People will send their manuscripts or write about their personal problems," Chopra said. The staff of a hotel in Portland, Ore., once left a copy of the other guy's latest book in Chopra's room, along with a note asking if he'd autograph it. Instead, Chopra left a signed copy of his company's prospectus. There are some benefits. "It's a great way to get restaurant seating," he said.

California love: Born in northern India, Chopra earned a master's degree in electrical engineering at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and took a job with RCA in New Jersey. "They made a mistake. They sent me to Redondo Beach for a conference in November," he said of the 1974 trip. The sunny beaches made a quick impression. "Back home it was snow and ice. I thought, 'This is paradise,'" Chopra said. "I quit by telephone. I told my boss I wasn't coming back." He worked for TRW and then Intel, but quickly decided that he wasn't suited for big companies. "There is no innovation, no enthusiasm. Everyone is compartmentalized," he said. "I wanted to be an entrepreneur, a small-company guy."

Parents know best: In 1978 Chopra returned briefly to India at his parents' request. There was someone they wanted him to meet. "I had an arranged marriage with a lovely girl I courted for three days," he said. Chopra and his wife, Nandini, have been married 33 years. They live in Palos Verdes Estates and have two daughters, Chandini, 30, and Deepika, 27.

Best advice: In 1987, Chopra left his job as chief executive of a company that sold optic sensors and decided to use some of his wealth to invest in Del Taco franchises. "My wife said: 'You're an engineer. What are you going to do with tacos? You have no clue. Do what you know best.'" So he sold his house and used $500,000 of the proceeds to invest in a start-up company that would become OSI.

Company culture: There are no "suits" at OSI, not even in the CEO's office. "We have an informal company. People can say, 'Deepak, you screwed up.' If repercussion is not there, you get the best out of people," he said. "Why hire people if you don't want their opinions?"

Defending full-body scanners: The company has sold more than 250 full-body X-ray machines to the TSA, just a blip of OSI's total revenue — about 2%, Chopra said. But the devices have been the source of much of OSI's publicity, largely over privacy concerns. Chopra said those worries were overblown. "The machine cannot store images. The person checking the screen is in a different location and cannot see the person who is on the screen. Look at the alternative: You're spread-eagle and somebody is feeling you everywhere," he said. "How would you feel if someone was able to smuggle explosives onto your plane because the machines weren't there?"

Proudest moment: "Walking through an airport and telling my kids, 'I made that machine.'"

Personal: Chopra travels, plays tennis and collects art (India landscapes are a favorite) and antique cars. "I like mechanical gadgets. You look at a car 80 years old — it's older than me and it still works."

Advice for aspiring entrepreneurs: "The most important thing is to follow your dream. If you believe in something, especially in America, you can make it happen. Hard work is important and you have to take chances."

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