Grant’s Desi Achiever
Earning karma miles
By SHAGORIKA EASWAR
Kalyan Chakravarthy has an inside view of exactly what goes into the daily operations of a municipal region.
As the Chief Information Officer (CIO) at the Regional Municipality of Durham, he is actively involved in making sure everything runs smoothly.
Social services, transit, the delivery of certain health services such as dentistry and immunization, road works, fire safety, collection of water billing and property taxes, fire and EMS services, recreational programs... all of these come under his purview.
“The Durham region is one of the fastest growing regions in Canada and my team provides support for the technical services for the region’s 5000 employees,” he says. “There’s a diverse set of stakeholders and therefore a lot of different kinds of services.”
Before taking up his current position, Chakravarthy led IT departments at IBM, Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO) and others.
He set up the network for the newly built TIFF Bell Lightbox and adopted the cloud strategy to reduce operating costs and make them scalable for future. He was instrumental in creating the new ticketing system implemented in 2013 which helped relieve the festival’s biggest pain point – the crashing of the system during the peak periods. He also helped introduce an e-solution for scheduling the events, achieving huge productivity savings and allowing flexibility for eleventh-hour schedule changes.
At AGCO, Chakravarthy introduced a new electronic service delivery system, replacing seven legacy systems, to help people get liquor licenses, special occasion permits and gaming licenses online. The regulatory intelligence he introduced uses analytics and big data to achieve operational efficiencies in the liquor inspection process.
He was recognized as IT Manager of the Year by ComputerWorld Canada and is a regular panelist in many the technology fora including Deloitte CIO Brief, CIO Toronto, CIO Symposium and Toronto Thought Leaders.
So, technology is his thing, one might say. In more ways than one.
He cofounded nCube Inc., a venture capital firm that invests in start-ups in India and North America.
The criteria for selection? The tech component.
“I invest in companies that are using technology to deliver services in new ways. And there has to be a maximum of two degrees of separation. I need to know the entrepreneur or know someone who knows the entrepreneur. Start-ups are the latest craze in India – everyone wants to be an entrepreneur! But I need to talk to them, ask them questions, gauge if they are really passionate about their project or if they are just following a trend.”
Chakravarthy also got involved in Rent Frock Repeat, something which might not appear to be his strong suit (pardon the pun) at first glance.
It’s a long story, he laughs. He saw a Montreal-based company pitch an idea for renting women’s clothes on Dragon’s Den and asked a friend why the idea seemed to focus on women’s fashions. Why was there not something for men? Men were, after all, so much easier to clothe!
His friend listed the many reasons why it was so. Chakravarthy remained unconvinced.
“But then I am terrible at fashion, what do I know?” he confesses with a laugh. “My wife says my sartorial sense is pathetic.”
The friend then suggested he meet this lady who had a store in The Path and was looking for advice on technology and strategy to take it to the next level.
“That was all the incentive I needed! I met Lisa (Owen) and we hit it off right away. We talked about changing trends, about how technology helped disrupters like Uber. And now I understand women’s fashion more than men’s, or at least I claim to! I still call every item of clothing a dress and Lisa will say, ‘That’s not a dress!’”.
The team has pivoted from special occasion rentals to monthly subscriptions and there are 5000 people on a wait-list.
“The idea has support from government agencies and from other entrepreneurs, it’s very exciting,” says Chakravarthy.
Illuminant, another company he cofounded, provides technology partnerships to leading institutions in India and also co-produces movies. Speaking of which, he is one of the founding board members for Scarborough International Film Festival (currently in its sixth year) and on the board for Durham Region International Film Festival.
“I have always been a film buff and working at TIFF gave me the opportunity to see the challenges filmmakers face behind the scenes. People only think of the glamour aspect of the film festival but it’s serious business with filmmakers looking to market their movies. So many movies never see the light of day. This knowledge ignited my passion to help create and promote small movies. To give those filmmakers the much-needed impetus. And you never know, they might be the next big name.”
Chakravarthy came to Canada from the US, having previously worked in the software industry in India, Japan, the UK and Hungary. It was while working as a program manager at General Electric (GE) Aviation, that he decided to pursue his dream of completing his MBA. He applied and was accepted at several prestigious universities and picked Queen’s. He quit his job and moved to Canada in 2006.
“Until then, all I knew of Canada was through visits to watch India and Pakistan play the Sahara Cup!” he laughs. “I came six times to the Niagara region and my friend would point to Skylon Tower and say, ‘Look, CN Tower,’ and I believed him!”
He graduated on the Dean’s list but says studying in Canada was a very different experience from what he was used to.
“We study differently in India. It’s more like read, regurgitate, repeat. Here, the university culture required a major adjustment. Also in India, if you are at a good institution, you get picked by a good company and you are done. It’s very structured. Here, on day two they talk about networking, something I was clueless about. That was a big cultural shock because I find small talk very difficult. Most international students do, I’d think. It’s not natural to us. I couldn’t tap into an existing network and it became a chicken-and-egg situation. I couldn’t get a job without networking and I didn’t have a network because I hadn’t worked here.”
He describes it as a daunting experience which was, at the same time, a life-learning one. He needed to do this if he wanted to live here. As a vegetarian, he also found it difficult to get the kind of food he wanted. But this was also the time he fell in love with Canada.
“I bonded with the friends I made on campus, they became my family in Canada.”
Chakravarthy remains an active alumnus of Queen’s (now called Smith School of Business) and continues to mentor future generations of graduates on sharpening their employability and negotiation skills.
“It’s about someone saying, ‘You’re doing a good job,’ or ‘Hey, give this guy a call,’” he says. “About pointing them in the right direction and connecting them with those who can help. One thing I realized is that everybody wants to help, they just lack the opportunities to do so. All I do is create that opportunity. I create a chain. Someone I helped in 2014 is now in a position to help someone else. They also create hubs to help others.”
He is married to Neha who works as a senior manager for business analysis at TD. He shares the fact that she is a singer and former child actor who played the role of Luv in Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan with pride. Their daughter Netra is 10 and he is active in the York Region School Board and was also until recently board member and treasurer at the Literacy Board of York and Simcoe.
“I’m a guy from a small village. From there to here was possible only through education and the exposure I received growing up. It gave me an edge. I believe that should be available to everyone and when I read of low literacy numbers in Canada, I feel bad. What can I do, I wonder, to help not only through education but also reskilling.”
He tells newcomers to seek mentors and to not be afraid to ask for help.
“We tend to be shy and reluctant to reach out. I know, because 10 years ago, that was me. It was very difficult to leave my ego and overcome my hesitation to approach someone. I’d wait for the other person to say hi first. But I saw that Canadians are ever-ready to help. And there are so many resources. If you are afraid of public speaking, sign up with Toastmasters. Join TRIEC’s mentoring programs. Organizations serving newcomers offer short-term placements. My friend’s parents came from India and his father, an accountant, signed up for a course at a Welcome centre for immigrants. They helped brush up his skills and now he’s being offered employment! That’s the beauty of Canada. There’s no other place like it – except perhaps India! ”
Helping people move forward in their career paths and their lives is something Chakravarthy finds very rewarding.
“It feels good,” is his simple answer. “When I bump into people at random places and they say something I did helped them, I feel happy. It gives a sense of purpose to my life. Sometimes I wonder if I am doing it for an unconscious selfish reason, earning good karma that I will redeem later.”
And then a thought strikes the techie:
“Hey, maybe I should develop an app where others give you karma miles for help rendered or good deeds!”
• Grant’s is proud to present this series about people who are making a difference in the community. Represented by PMA Canada (www.pmacanada.com).