As U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara ’93 has ascended to one of the most important and prestigious legal positions in the nation. Meanwhile, his entrepreneurial whiz kid brother, Vinit, who followed Preet in the Law School Class of 1996 and co-founded the wildly successful website Diapers.com, is garnering plaudits from far and wide for his business acumen.
Earlier this year, after five months of waiting for approval from federal antitrust regulators, Vinit Bharara ’96 sold the online diapers business he co-founded to Amazon.com for $540 million in cash.
It was, he says, one of the most memorable days of his life, and no one was prouder of Vinit—who is known to friends and family as “Vinnie”—than his big brother, Preet Bharara ’93, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York.
The Bharara brothers, who rose to the top of their respective fields by their early 40s, are the product of a remarkable family. They represent the only children of a Hindu mom and a Sikh dad who came together in an arranged marriage in India more than four decades ago. Preet and Vinit’s parents, as children, had both been displaced by conflict after the British withdrew from the country in 1947.
Rather than treating those circumstances as a distraction, Jagdish Bharara, Preet and Vinit’s father, buried his nose in schoolbooks. He became the first member of his family to attend college. Then, following his marriage and the birth of Preet, Jagdish made the difficult decision to leave India—and, temporarily, his young family—to start his medical residency in England. After reuniting in the early 1970s, the family moved to the United States, where the Bhararas settled for good in Monmouth County, N.J. Jagdish built a thriving pediatric medical practice while his wife stayed at home to raise their two sons.
Preet Bharara nodded to his father’s lingering influence in the family on the October 2009 day he was sworn in as U.S. Attorney. “Given the sacrifices he has made, the example he has set, and the life he has led, he will never be more proud of me than I am of him,” Bharara told the numerous federal judges and New York City dignitaries in attendance.
Fast forward a couple of years. On a warm spring night in April, Preet has traveled to Washington, D.C., to address Columbia Law School alumni gathered at a restaurant near Georgetown’s harbor.
On this evening, as white lights sparkle in the leafy tree behind him, Preet has another story to tell about Bharara family pride. But this one involves his mom and his kid brother.
“It was not until the day my brother’s deal was announced for over half a billion dollars,” he told the crowd, “[that] my mom called up [CNN medical correspondent] Sanjay Gupta’s mom and said, ‘Eat your heart out.’”
Humor is a virtue, it seems, for all of the Bhararas.
Back in New York City, the two brothers have gathered to talk about their careers in a sunny eighth-floor space at the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, where Preet has Bruce Springsteen songs playing in an endless loop. He takes a moment to needle his kid brother about his choice of clothing—specifically, his jeans. “You couldn’t find something else to wear?” Preet asks, before concluding the jeans were probably far pricier than the no-name denim pants they wore as children, and in whose pockets Vinnie used to hide “piles and piles of lima beans” from their unsuspecting mother so he would not have to eat them at dinnertime. But Preet ultimately reveals that his brother was a good kid growing up.
“Vinnie was very, very well behaved . . . in the upper echelon of good behavior,” Preet declares. “The problem was, I was even more well-behaved.”
Their oldest friends describe the Bharara household as a warm and welcoming place where a funny, outgoing mother fussed over visitors and insisted on fixing guests something to eat regardless of whether they were hungry. The brothers became each other’s closest adviser as teenagers, a pattern that continues to this day.
“Preet taught Vin a lot growing up that carried through,” says Lax Chandra, who met the Bharara brothers as a kid. “I think Vin would say one of his biggest influences, if not his biggest influence, was his brother. Preet set a really high standard.”
Ask the Bharara brothers what motivates them to achieve, and they will point you to their 72-year-old father, Jagdish Bharara, who instilled the importance of academics and public service every night at the dinner table.
“[He was a] very stern disciplinarian; education was everything,” Vinit confirms. “School, studying, grades—it was ultra-competitive.”
Characteristically, Preet met the challenge directly. During his younger days, he excelled on the forensics team as a natural devil’s advocate. He adopted the role of a lawyer in a campus production of Barefoot in the Park, the Neil Simon comedy about a starchy young attorney charting his new marriage to a spitfire wife played by classmate Jessica Goldsmith Barzilay, who has maintained friendships with
Back in the old days, Barzilay recalls, “Preet would always talk about wanting to make a difference. ‘I have to make an impact,’ he would say.” Vinnie spent a lot of those years thinking about “something that would excite him, another puzzle to solve,” she adds.
The first big challenge Preet and Vinnie faced as youngsters involved trying to avoid a career in medicine, since the Bhararas, like many high-achieving Asian parents at the time, had decreed their sons would be doctors.
Ultimately, in a rare case of domestic resistance, Preet simply said no.
“I declared pretty early on I didn’t want to be a doctor,” he recalls. “In seventh grade, I read Inherit the Wind, which was phenomenal.” Preet soon came to idolize the defense attorney portrayed in the play, Clarence Darrow, for his incisive, skillful witness examinations and his quest for justice. (Preet still watches the DVD of Inherit the Wind every so often, but only the version with Spencer Tracy.)
“I figured if you are going to become a lawyer, you want to become the kind that argues in court,” he says. Preet recalls the inspiration he gained from a course in trial practice taught at the Law School by then district court judge and eventual attorney general Michael B. Mukasey. “He held you to an incredibly high standard,” Preet says, adding that Mukasey provided a practitioner’s view of preparing opening and closing statements.
Just as Preet was graduating, his younger brother arrived at the Law School. After taking some constitutional law classes in college, Vinit found that he thoroughly enjoyed the process of examining arguments and searching for gaps in logic. It didn’t take long to convince his parents that law school, not medical school, should be his next step.
But Vinit was also a sports nut. During family meals, while Jagdish sat at the head of the table debating the death penalty or discussing current events with his sons, Vinit’s attention often drifted. “I was looking at the box scores, following the Yankees,” he recalls.
It was no surprise when, following law school, his initial plunge into the world of business involved baseball. Back during the heady Internet boom days of 2000, he and longtime friend Marc Lore talked regularly about potential business ideas that could incorporate their mutual interest in sports.
“We pushed each other,” Lore recalls. “It was the heyday of the Internet, and we [liked the idea of] being your own boss.”
After lots of conversation, the pair founded and successfully launched ThePit.com, a kind of stock exchange for trading cards that allowed fans to buy and sell the rights to cards bearing images of professional athletes. The value of the cards went up or down based on how the athletes were playing. Topps, the sports card company, bought the website after just a year, in 2001, and Vinit began working as an attorney at Topps. He became the company’s general counsel a few years later.
Vinit says his legal background has been instrumental to his business success. “As a lawyer, I bring certain types of skills to a business,” he says. “Lawyers can connect concepts together and tell narratives. [In business,] you need to connect everything together and see what it sounds like, whether it makes sense. That’s what you get trained for. I think lawyers can do that better than most.”
In 2005, Vinit put that training to the test with a new business venture. He again linked up with Lore, this time to start Diapers.com. Now more experienced, the entrepreneurs did painstaking research and identified new parents as a market segment where, if companies built up trust, the business relationship could extend for years.
By this time, Preet had tried numerous cases in New York as a federal prosecutor and moved to Washington, D.C., to serve as the top legal adviser to Senator Chuck Schumer.At his speech in Washington this spring, Preet recalled the day his brother told him about the new company . . . selling diapers.
“Like door to door?” Preet responded.
“‘No, on the Internet,” Vinit shot back. “Marc and I are thinking about launching a diapers website and quitting our jobs.”
“I said, ‘Knock yourself out with that,’” Preet told the audience. But he knew better than to bet against the success of his brother. Diapers.com went on to sell more than
200 million diapers last year alone, with 550,000 customers.
Last year, in a switch of familial dynamics, Preet visited the Diapers.com headquarters for some advice. The prosecutor, who oversees more than 200 people, wanted to learn more about how the company manages its employees. Though it may have gone unspoken, the experience meant the world to Vinit. “I know Vinnie really looks up to his older brother,” says Lore. “He’s learned a lot from Preet.”
The Bharara brothers have a long way to go in their careers. But Preet is already working at his self-described dream job, one that he refers to as “the honor of my life.” He has played down speculation about political ambitions, which have proved irresistible to some of his predecessors as U.S. Attorney. Preet is quick to point out to audiences that as a naturalized U.S. citizen, he cannot be president. But aside from that, his future appears to be limitless.
Meanwhile, Vinit, who rarely follows a straight line in his career, is not about to start now. For the time being, he is serving as Diapers.com’s top lawyer, but he is in the process of passing that baton to another employee.
His next big idea is anybody’s guess. Vinit says he likes thinking about the Constitution and that public service is important to him, just as it is to the rest of the Bharara family. So do not be surprised if another Bharara winds up in government someday. And this one, born in the U.S.A., actually could be a contender for the nation’s highest office.