Arivozhi Adiaman, also known as Vozhi, is a passionate Tamil-American real estate entrepreneur, rap artist, and community activist. He is also the recipient of “425 Business Magazine, 30 under 30 award.”

Vozhi’s purpose is to build vibrant and encouraging communities, particularly around his ancestral identity, Tamil. As a deep lover of technology, Vozhi started his professional career by getting his bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering in 2011. The next several years, he worked technical, and later managerial positions, with companies such as SAP, Microsoft, Accenture, and T-Mobile.

Always wanting to become self-sufficient entrepreneur, Vozhi found his lane by founding his real estate investing and consulting company, ‘VOZHI LLC’. Over the years, Vozhi and his team have quickly been able to establish themselves in the Seattle real estate investor community as trusted agents, partners, consultants, marketers and facilitators for various real estate projects.

You seem like you have the same challenge as me because you have different projects you’re working on.  If somebody asked you what you do, how would you respond?

I’m a real estate investor, rapper and a community builder. 

It’s not easy having multiple projects happening at once, but I do my best to categorize my brand into three main buckets: entrepreneurship, music, and community impact. Anything I give attention to gets prioritized within these buckets, and I just pick and choose the most pressing thing(s) I want to work on. Over the course of my journey, these three verticals have proven themselves to have complimentary effects towards one another, and I attribute that to the specificity of my mission statement:

 “Vozhi is a company that integrates real estate entrepreneurship with culture, music and technology to inspire positive change in the community.”

It seems like the first half of your career was a bit more traditional with stints at Microsoft and Accenture.  It looks like the last 2 years have been more entrepreneurial-focused.  What prompted the switch?

The short answer is that I always wanted uncompromised creative, and financial control in my life. 

I recall a while ago, before I went full time with my mission, I wanted to take time off between jobs. Then someone told me that the gap would “look bad” on my resume. Though this is a question I would’ve thought about differently in the past, at that particular moment I sincerely asked myself the question “look bad for who?” A deep reflection led me to realize that I don’t want to work for anybody who judged how and when I work. So I decided to not look for a job and pursued freedom instead.

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Danny was born in Sri Lanka in the 1970’s and raised in a rural community without electricity or running water. He was displaced by the brutal civil war which led to him migrating to Australia at a young age, before moving to the UK in 1998.

I had the pleasure of chatting with Dhananjayan (Danny) Sriskandarajah, who was appointed CEO of Oxfam Great Britain in January 2019, about his work, what motivates him, his advice to young people and more!

  • Danny graduated with a Bachelor of Economics and Social Science from the University of Sydney
  • He proceeded to complete his Masters and PhD from the University of Oxford where he focused on Development Economics and International Development
  • Prior to joining Oxfam, he was Secretary General and CEO of CIVICUS, the Johannesburg-based global alliance of civil society organisations and activists with members in more than 180 countries. He joined CIVICUS in 2013 and was previously Director General of the Royal Commonwealth Society (2009-13). Between 2011-12 he was seconded to be Interim Director of the Commonwealth Foundation. 
  • I encourage you to watch Danny’s TEDxLondon talk here “Looking back, looking forward at Oxfam” 

Your organization, Oxfam, strives to eradicate inequality and poverty, challenges which are monumental with no quick solutions. In that landscape, how do you keep yourself motivated to continue to progress and achieve in your work? 

I find it incredibly important to remind myself that the injustice of poverty is not inevitable. It’s encouraging to remember that the world has made amazing progress in recent decades, for example raising the poorest people’s daily income, connecting people via mobile phones and the internet, and empowering women and girls. There is of course a long way to go, but this helps me to stay optimistic that further progress is possible. I see huge opportunity in the great upheaval of the coronavirus pandemic to think again about how we look after everyone in our societies – regardless of where they are born or how much money they have – including what basic social safety nets and support they are entitled to. 

Can you recollect a failure, or apparent failure, which set you up for later success?   

I have a habit of keeping rejection letters from applications for scholarships, internships, jobs and such. I have loads of them and they are a good reminder of how important it is to pick yourself up after each setback – and makes the successes one does have that much sweeter.

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Jay Vasanthararajah is a Toronto-based entrepreneur and investor.

How did you go from working full-time at Deloitte to becoming a full-time investor? 

The short answer is, by reinvesting all my earnings. The long answer is, by jumping into entrepreunership first, which allowed me to rapidly increase my cashflow (in comparison to my Deloitte salary). From there, I heavily reinvested profits into a diverse portoflio of real estate, stocks and private businesses. After a while, my passive cash flows from my portfolio basically covered my living expenses, which allowed me to focus full time on investing.

Love your break-down of the Wealth Roadmap – how did you come up with this?  

By reflecting on my path. It’s not something that I planned in advance, but easy to see in hindsight. I’ve met a lot of entrepreneurs that jump straight to “Phase 2” and have gotten stuck there, and it inpired me to tweet/write about it. 

What does your typical day look like? 

Looking at various deals and investment opportunities. Working with my partners and team members to grow my portfolio companies, scaling and growing my eCommerce business, and reading/writing as much as I can.

In recent years, there’s been a glamourization in the start-up world around raising money and growth at any costs, how do you feel about this? 

Well, I guess it depends on what you want to do. If you want to build something that’s going to change the world, that path makes sense. But if your goal is to build wealth for yourself, I really don’t think it’s the best way to do it. After I put out the Tweetstorm about the Wealth Roadmap, I had a ton of people reach out to me, thanking me and saying that they’ve previously been convinced that they needed to start the ‘next big’ thing in order to generate wealth…only to realize a few years later, that there are other (more effective) paths.

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Hamsha was born in Sri Lanka and immigrated to Canada at the age of five due to the civil war and currently calls Yellowknife her home. After completing her Bachelor of Science (Hons.) in Zoology and Forest Conservation from the University of Toronto, she followed up with a Masters of Environmental Science in Environment and Resources Studies from the University of Waterloo, where she undertook research on implementing a multistrata agroforestry system in Kilinochchi, Sri Lanka to improve biodiversity and increase food security for impoverished communities in the region. She has also volunteered on various projects in Nigeria ranging from gender equality, land rights, green entrepreneurship, and wildlife conservation, and is currently involved with setting up sustainable farming initiatives in Central America. She is a former board member at the Ontario Council for International Cooperation.

I had the pleasure of chatting with her about her latest initiatives.

How did you become a Wildlife Biologist for the Government of Northwest Territories? 

That’s a long and winding story but it started when I was really young. I grew up watching wildlife documentaries with appa, and was already naturally inclined to all things wildlife and outdoors. I would spend hours looking at birds and squirrels and observing their movements. I’d climb pine trees (and other trees), to the detriment of my face and arms, just to get a better look at nests. By twelve, I knew most of our urban bird inhabitants. Seeing how I grew up in Toronto, beyond the occasional foxes, raccoons, and mice, I didn’t have much else to observe but that didn’t stop me from wanting, to one day, cross the Atlantic Ocean and go to Africa. India didn’t cross my mind until I started watching documentaries on tigers, and soon after that the country made my hit list too. I always knew that I wanted to go into the sciences, and by the time university applications rolled around, I was able to put a name to my passion. I wanted to become a zoologist and that was that.

I completed my degree at the University of Toronto in Zoology and Forest Conservation and eventually went on to complete my graduate studies at the University of Waterloo in Environmental Science. Somewhere between fourth year and first year in graduate school, I shifted my focus to go from pure wildlife conservation to biodiversity (includes flora and fauna) conservation through sustainable livelihoods, and that took me on a journey to Vanni, Sri Lanka.

The focus of my research was on how to remediate degraded soils in farm lands within a post-war context while also focusing on food security and livelihoods. I worked with farmers to gain a better understanding farm production, and whether implementing an alternative form of agriculture system, such as agroforestry, would improve soil fertility, and thereby increase food security and biodiversity in the region. The goal was for the farmer to become self-sustaining and no longer dependent on agrochemicals for production. Fast forward 2.5 years, I was a newly minted graduate student with absolutely zero work experience other than a handful of contracts on urban forest conservation. That’s about when I lost hope. I didn’t quite know how to leverage my degree to my advantage to get work. I was still living with my parents, I was unemployed, and I wasn’t contributing to the family in any way. I was still passionate about my field of research, and at one point, emailed over 20 professors to ask them if they would supervise me for my post-graduate degree. I went to a conference on global food security in Ithaca, New York to “shop around” for a professor only to hear that Sri Lanka was too small and nobody worked there, and if I wanted to shift my focus to Ghana or Kenya or Tanzania, I would have better luck. I didn’t want to shift my focus. I wanted to go back to Vanni, I wanted to support those farmers make that transition, I didn’t want to give up on them because Sri Lanka was small and unlikely to get post-graduate funds. That led to nowhere. That’s around the same time I received an email to attend a “how to become a Foreign Service worker” seminar at the Balsillie school of International Affairs at the University of Waterloo.

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From her TEDxTalk discussing the epidemic of child sex trafficking in the United States, to speaking up when voices are systemically silenced, Dharmapalan’s dedication to uplifting those around her speaks truth to her dedication to her community. Dharmapalan is Glamour’s College Woman of the Year 2017,  Teen Vogue’s 21 Under 21, and an OZY Genius Award winner 2018. She recently completed her MA of Human Rights Law at SOAS University of London, and her BA in Sociology at University of California Berkeley. Dharmapalan is currently producing her first feature length film on the Tamil Eelam diaspora that focuses on memory, trauma, & motherland.

I had the pleasure of recently connecting with her to learn about her fascinating journey.

How did you become a filmmaker? Or would you consider yourself more of a storyteller in various mediums?

I would consider myself to be an activist at heart, a sociologist by training, and a filmmaker by medium. The stories that I tell are meant to capture the unwritten and untold narratives of communities that are forgotten by the mainstream media.

I know the creative arts can often be looked down on, particularly in the Tamil community. What do you think needs to happen for this to change?

In my family, I was blessed to have experienced the arts since childhood. I was taught to appreciate world art, including Tamil art, dating back thousands of years.

My father, who is a Kandy born electrical engineer, also played and studied music. He introduced me to his favorite artists: Steely Dan, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Harry Belafonte and Santana. Artists like Little Feet, Doobie Brothers, Kris Kristofferson as well. He opened my mind to music from a different time. My dad bought me my first rap album as well, Fugees: The Score. Because of my unique upbringing, and the encouragement by my family to pursue music, I was drawn to the creative arts. I began singing at a very young age… mostly gospel music. I played classical and contemporary piano from the age of 6-on. My parents sent me to an art’s high school. It wasn’t till I was 16 years old that I became interested in digital media and filmmaking. Now, filmmaking is my passion. Something about layering music, sonic energy, storytelling and visual imagery that seems… unequalable.

My two sisters are also artists. One is an amazing composer and filmmaker, she is 18 years old. The other, is 16 years old, and is a painter, dancer, and fashion designer.

I think that Tamil kids should be encouraged to pursue the arts. Just as science and engineering is a part of our cultural underpinnings, artistic expression is as well.

What prompted you to make “International Boulevard”?

International Boulevard, a documentary, is my first film. I made this film in 2013 to highlight the epidemic of child sex trafficking happening in North America, particularly in Oakland, California where I was born and raised. This film was preceded by the many conversations I had as a 16 year old with fellow classmates. We would talk about the young people that I knew who were forced into human trafficking. Back when I made the film, this issue was shoved under the rug. No one wanted to have this conversation. I am grateful to see conversations regarding trafficking taking place today. From high profile cases, to kids who are kidnapped from their parents at the US Mexico border, all are important and must be addressed.

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With over 400 weddings under his belt across the world, Amar believes in the power of visual storytelling and has started passion projects in temple architecture, social documentaries and Discover Tamil Nadu.

Amar Ramesh is a photographer based in Chennai, and the founder of Studio A Weddings, a creative wedding photography firm with a talented team of 25 passionate people. 

“Photography is my window to happiness, and most importantly, the tool to impact positive change in this world,” he says, and we see the same in his pictures that exude positivity.

Listen to Amar’s TEDxBITSathy talk – “Life Through The Lens”.

What was your path to being the founder at Studio A?

I started on a different note, and am continuing on a different note now, but I am grateful to the path I’ve come through. From being an engineering student to doing my masters in the US, working a corporate job there, and coming back to India to start up my Photography career, every phase of my life has been an enriching experience. I still remember the first day I quit my job and embraced the world of photography full time. The next thing I know, we are now a team of 25, Studio A, one of the top wedding photography firms in the country. When you truly want something and work hard towards it, the universe conspires. Looking forward to more from here. 

How is it running a business with family?

This indeed is a family business. By family I mean my team, and like any joint family, we’ve had our ups and downs. Our strength lies in the way we stuck together through the tough and pleasant times equally. That team spirit is something you cannot create over the night. We took our time. We found the synergy, and we are now on our way to create history. I am confident we can, and we will. 

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Rick Selvarajah is keeping busy with training for his professional MMA fights, but is also passing on his knowledge to other fighters through his academy Revival MMA and Fitness.

Describe your path to becoming a MMA fighter.

I initially started as a way to just lose weight. I wanted to try martial arts and I was instantly captivated by the art of training my body and mind. I fell in love with the sport and started to compete just to test myself. It was something that came very naturally to me, but coupled with a lot of hard work and dedication I was able to progress to becoming a professional athlete. The rest is history.

Do you see yourself continuing down this path for the next 5-10 years?  How would you describe your career so far?

I plan on competing for the next 5-7 years depending on how my body feels. My career so far has been amazing. I’ve fought at the highest level in the UK and I’m proud of my achievements. But I am someone who always wants to push further and so I still have a lot more of my dreams to chase.

What are your plans after your current pursuit of being a MMA fighter?

After I retire from fighting, I plan to continue expanding my academy – Revival MMA and Fitness. I am already a coach, as well as an athlete, but once I have finished fighting I will make the transition to fully focussing all of my time on growing and developing my academy. 

Tell us more about Revival MMA and what prompted you to start that business.

Revival MMA is a new martial arts and fitness centre that was started to pass on the knowledge and skill I have gained throughout my life. At Revival we welcome students from all walks of life and work on them becoming the best version of themselves that they can be. At Revival we believe in ‘Rising Above Excellence’, not only in skill and fitness but also in discipline and confidence, which are attributes our younger students benefit from the most. I opened the business because I started to realise that I wanted to teach martial arts in my own unique way and leave a legacy behind later down the line. 

What is one thing that you were surprised to learn about in the course of starting and running your business?

I was surprised and truly humbled and shocked when I realised how many people wanted to support my business. I was getting messages from so many people that I haven’t connected with in a long time, with so many of my old friends and family joining up and loving their classes. I am, and will always be eternally grateful for all the love and support I have received. It’s also such a pleasure to see so many new faces, eager to learn and take everything in. It reminds me of the passion I had when I first started. 

Can you recollect a failure, or apparent failure, which set you up for later success?  

A massive failure at the time which later on proved to be a huge success for me, was losing my first ever MMA Tournament. I was about 8 months into training and I decided to compete. I fought against a more experienced opponent and lost on points. How I felt after that loss cemented to me how much I wanted to get better and become a fighter. 

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Raj Pragasam has decades of experience working in a number of countries across the world. His roles include advising startups and being heavily involved with a number of charitable initiatives globally, particularly a few in Sri Lanka.

You are originally from the UK but you were at Compass Group North America for over 16 years.  You mentioned that every young person should work intentionally, particularly in the United States.  Why is that?   How did you make that transition?  

I was born in Sri Lanka, then moved to the UK during my teenage years for school and eventually landed a job at Compass Group PLC. After working in the UK for 21 years, I had the opportunity to transfer to the North American division as a Senior Executive while being based there. My thought process behind taking this leap of faith was the strong economic performance of the US as well as ample educational and employment opportunities for myself and children. Based on my own experience I would strongly recommend young professionals to seriously consider international sabbaticals or transfers to broaden their horizons. Not only for professional aptitude but to expand your knowledge culturally, socially and politically.

You mentioned that it was difficult for you at times balancing family life with work – what advice would you give younger folks about  this?  Is this just a rite of passage in your career journey or would you do things differently if you were to do it all over again?

First, you have to get your family on board in terms of what to expect so that they can be better prepared for the transition and the way of life (important considering we were moving continents). Secondly, you had to be willing to adapt to the new culture and its values. My mantra for work-life balance was that my family came first, but this didn’t mean I neglected my professional responsibilities. You just have to be better at prioritizing and scheduling your time. There is a temptation as a young person to priortize work over other aspects of your life. But there is a real risk of having regrets including relationship failtures, health issues, etc. Life at the end of the day, is a journey of seasons, so you just have to take things in stride as they happen and enjoy the ride.

You talked about the need to have more diversity in the C-suite and board level – what do you think needs to be done for this to happen?

Instead of diversity, I prefer to call it inclusion. I believe that business organizations could have glass ceilings on senior office appointments by way of history and practice. One way of breaking the barrier is to stand out and work out which is what I did. Fit in but stand out. Once you get in, you can help others up. If you become part of the leadership team, you have an opporutnity to influence their long-term thinking because you’re now at the table.

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Pakatheesan Yogarajah helped turn around a downsizing business close to shutting down, with just 5 employees in 2014, to having 40 employees 2 years later, along with being widely recognized as one of the industry’s best companies in Canada.

Tell us about your journey before buying and running Greenwind Electrical Services.

From the time I was a little boy; maybe just 8-years-old, I knew I wanted to be in the electronics or robotics field. I’ve always been fascinated by how things work. I used to take apart everything to see the insides and to figure out what made them tick. Didn’t matter if it was a TV set, a radio, or even a battery box – if it ran on electricity, I was fascinated. I’m surprised my parents didn’t take the TV with them when they left the house, to be honest. I was almost guaranteed to take it apart. But my Mom was so supportive. She never stopped me from what I was doing even though she knew I’d be taking the TV or radio or something else apart. She enjoyed watching me and encouraged me to be curious and to pursue my passion.

So, in 1992, when I immigrated to Canada, I naturally took a job at a television and VCR assembly company. In 1993, I moved on to a job as a paint technician at a cabinetry company. Two years later, I moved to the maintenance department as an electrician. I think that was around 1995. This was a job I grew to love very quickly. I got the opportunity to build robots to improve productivity by making people’s jobs faster and more efficient. This was a real niche for me. I found that I was very good at building robots and machines in general and I was elated to apply my passion into practice.

But I wanted to do more still. So, in 2001, I earned my license as an Industrial Electrician. Within a few years, I also became certified as a Robotic Technician and as a Programmable Logic Controller or a PLC, as it’s simply known in the trade. Finally, in 2005, I obtained my Construction Maintenance license. I just kept learning and learning.

What came next for you? 

Well, I always knew that I was called to be self-employed, so in 2007 I started my own company, “PP Automation”, specializing in electrical and mechanical services. I ran this while still continuing to work at the cabinetry company. There were some long days indeed. By 2009, I had earned a Master Electrician’s degree from the Ontario Trade College. I was in search of a new challenge even though I was working one full-time job and three part-time. In 2009, one of my part-time jobs was with Greenwind Electrical. In the back of my mind, I knew I wanted more and that I had to find a way to turn my part-time job – which was my passion – into my career.

In 2014, Greenwind was in the midst of downsizing. I was appointed as the Managing Director and I had all of 5 employees. But I was totally confident that I could turn the business around, so I left my job at the cabinetry firm and turned my energies towards Greenwind on a full-time basis. By 2015, I had grown Greenwind to 15 employees and by 2016, 40! Not only had I seen the potential of the business, I had realized it. This is when I decided to offer to buy the company outright. They accepted and Greenwind Electrical Services became mine. Today, Greenwind is respected industry-wide and is widely recognized as one of the very best companies of our type, right across Canada.

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Amritha uses her voice to openly talk about issues which are common among children of immigrants. She started learning Carnatic music from her mother at the age of four. During her teens, she taught herself Hindustani and Bollywood vocals before discovering her love for Soul, Jazz and The Blues in her 20s.

You can watch Amritha’s “This Is My Story” video by clicking here.

Do you consider yourself strictly a musician?  Or would you consider yourself more of a storyteller in various mediums which happens to include music?

I think the latter is very much how I identify. I just see myself as someone who is very passionate about certain things, and uses her voice (whether in song or not) to convey her message and somehow contribute to creating a higher consciousness and vibe. 

I know the creative arts isn’t as embraced as it could be in the Tamil community.  Did you experience this or see this with others?

I definitely did experience this – I think it’s interesting, a lot of young Tamil diaspora kids are taught music and/or dance growing up and we’re taught that this is something to embrace. As long as it’s a hobby. The moment we start to lean into this creative side as a form of income or as our career, it is absolutely looked down upon. I experienced this personally, and I see it all the time – not only within the Tamil community but also more broadly as South Asians. 

What role has your family played in your journey?

Music wouldn’t be such a big part of my life and being if it weren’t for my Amma and Appa! Amma taught me Carnatic music at home when I was 4 years old, Appa always walked around the house singing classic Tamil film songs. Music was a part and parcel of us as a family growing up – from classical to Illaiyaraja, to Yesudas to SPB, it was everywhere and in every facet of my upbringing. Along with this love for music, came my Parents’ love for their homeland, and I inherited that same love through music. 

You describe yourself on your website as a “Hippie with an MBA?”  Why even pursue an MBA if you knew you were passionate about music?

I don’t see myself as a single-dimensional person – I have always been passionate about the social impact sector and sustainable development in India. I pursued an MBA to enable me to make a greater impact in this field – and throughout my life, music has always been something I came home to and that rejuvenated me, inspired me and made me feel connected to a higher power. I don’t see these two sides of me as mutually exclusive – to pursue one at the expense of another would be inauthentic to who I am.  

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