Agrawal’s entrepreneurial heritage can be traced back to his family’s business in the small village of Lakhanpur, in the state of Madhya Pradesh, India. Although he lived in a small village, Agrawal grew up steeped in the lessons of India’s business class. His father owned a fabric shop that grew into a kind of general store that he operated as a wholesaler, retailer, and general merchandiser. Young Agrawal helped his father during busy afternoons by calculating the customer’s accounts in his head. “Yes, I learned a whole lot about the business there, you know, because that is all I had seen since early childhood. I would help my father all the time doing accounting. Even when I went away from high school, when I came home for holidays…I would be helping in the shop again. So that is where I got the business background.”
Lakhanpur during Agrawal’s youth was a small village of about 900 people. There was no railroad, no electricity, and no water supply. “We used to light kerosene lamps for reading,” he said. The Agrawals were a deeply religious family and raised their seven children—Durga along with three brothers and three sisters—in the Hindu faith. Many of his fondest memories are of those occasions when the family gathered together to celebrate religious holidays. Here he developed his devotion to family and his deeply held religious convictions. As a child, Agrawal enjoyed competing in sports—especially volleyball and soccer. In school he was an excellent student with an affinity for mathematics.
In those days Lakhanpur was too small to have a high school, so Agrawal moved to the nearby town of Ambikapur, about an hour’s drive to the northeast, to complete his schooling. Here he followed a course of study that emphasized math, chemistry and physics. Agrawal graduated at the top of high school class and earned a gold medal in recognition of his academic achievements. But in 1962, war broke out when China attacked India and the country needed every ounce of gold to buy military supplies. Consequently, Agrawal and other students of the class of 1962 never received their medals.
Still, he had earned a scholarship to attend the Delhi College of Engineering in New Delhi. He studied mechanical engineering and gained extensive practical experience while training in one of the factories owned by the Indian business conglomerate, Tata. Agrawal graduated from the University of Delhi with a Bachelor’s Degree in 1967. During his final year of college, he decided to apply for admission to graduate school in the United States. As he later remembered, “I sent letters to a lot of universities and got admission into two or three places. One of them was the University of Houston. Many of my friends—four or five of the other guys that I knew—were coming here from Delhi, so I decided to come here. And the plan was to get a Master’s Degree and go back and do something in India…help my father in his business or get some kind of industry started there.”