Dr. Priya Sampathkumar has been busy fighting a global pandemic. Sampathkumar is a consultant in the division of infectious diseases at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. There, she was leading a research team working with the NBA to determine how many players and staff members have antibodies to COVID-19, which could potentially provide immunity to reinfection. The results of her research helped jumpstart the league’s reopening while also aiding the global battle against COVID-19.

What are your thoughts on the current state of the pandemic, in relation to when it first started spreading? Is there any new data that suggests, or do you see any signs of, a vaccine being produced sooner rather than later?

The pandemic shows no signs of abating. Cases continue to rise in most parts of the world. The only silver lining is that the infection fatality rate (the proportion of infected individuals who die) is now lower than in the early days of the pandemic. This is despite the fact that no real effective therapies for the disease have been developed so far. The possible explanations for the lower death rate include: 

1)      Better understanding of the disease process by health care professionals resulting in better medical care including treatments like positioning patients, giving them blood thinners to prevent clots, recognition of patients who are at high risk of deterioration

2)      Cases are more widely distributed and therefore healthcare systems in any given area are not overwhelmed with huge numbers of cases, leaving them in better shape to care for hospitalized patients. This however may be changing in some parts of the world, where cases are rising rapidly

3)      Widespread use of masks may be decreasing the load of virus that people are exposed to, making the resultant illness milder and less likely to result in death

Several vaccines are in Phase 3 trials which is the final step before a vaccine is licensed for use. One vaccine trial (Moderna) just completed enrollment and data from this trial is expected to be available by mid-November. If this vaccine is found to be safe and effective, then we should have a few million doses of the vaccine available by the end of the year. Backed by government funding, vaccine companies have been manufacturing vaccine doses even prior to approval, which means there will not be a wait between approval and distribution of vaccine. That’s the good news.

The two leading vaccine contenders however do require 2 doses of the vaccine given 4 weeks apart, so it will take at least 6 weeks for a person who gets the vaccine to develop protection from the vaccine. And it will takes months to get 60-70% of the world’s population vaccinated which is what it will take to really take to end the pandemic through herd immunity. So masking and physical distancing are here with us through at least summer of 2021. Masks are the equivalent of vaccines at the present time – we need to get everyone to use them and use them consistently.

The Mayo Clinic developed a finger stick test which allows testing to occur both quicker, and in a less invasive manner – what were the results for this method like in terms of accuracy?

The test was shown to be as effective in screening for COVID antibodies as a test done on blood drawn from a vein. The test can be easily done at home. A small drop of blood obtained by finger stick is placed on a card that can then be mailed in to a laboratory. This eliminates the need to go in to a medical facility for testing, and makes the test less expensive and more accessible. Some positive tests will still need a second confirmatory test but this eliminated the medical visit in the majority of patients.

The NBA bubble was a huge success and you and your team had a lot to do with this from research to testing. How did you get involved with bringing the NBA season back? Was it partly due to the fact that the Mayo Clinic has sponsorship ties with the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx and the NBA’s Minnesota Timberwolves?

Yes, that was part of the reason. I was also serving as a pandemic advisor to the Minnesota Timeberwolves early on, and the research collaboration arose from that. The NBA has been very forward thinking and has partnered with medical researchers around the nation to not only get the best testing and advice for their players but also advance science and bring back all sports safely.

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Like many marketers, Jackson’s career started on the agency side, where he held a variety of roles and worked with brands such as Microsoft, T-Mobile, Old Spice, Dentyne, Proctor & Gamble, Jordan Brand and NASCAR, among many others. Jackson then transitioned in-house, becoming the head of digital for Chipotle, followed by a CMO position at Boxed, where he was named to the Forbes CMO Next 2018 list, identifying the 50 CMOs redefining the role and shaping the future.

Like many marketers, Jackson’s career started on the agency side, where he held a variety of roles and worked with brands such as Microsoft, T-Mobile, Old Spice, Dentyne, Proctor & Gamble, Jordan Brand and NASCAR, among many others. Jackson then transitioned in-house, becoming the head of digital for Chipotle, followed by a CMO position at Boxed, where he was named to the Forbes CMO Next 2018 list, identifying the 50 CMOs redefining the role and shaping the future.

Listen to this podcast episode where you hear more insights from Jackson Jeyanayagam speaking with GaryVee and Shane Battier here –  “Jackson Jeyanayagam chats with #GaryVee on #MarketingForTheNow episode #4”.

You’ve been a digital brand builder and growth guy for 15+ years in your various roles (both full-time and advisor) – what do you love about this kind of work? 

I love being able to see the results of my (and my team’s) work; there’s something so fulfilling when you see all the long nights/weekends and hard work result in something better than what you started with. But perhaps more than that, I love that I get to do it with other people that I respect and admire and that experience is quite rewarding.

You started doing agency work which is typically not quite as quantitative and over time your roles seem to be increasingly more numbers-focused – how did you find this learning curve?  Did you just learn on the job or were there any other things you did outside of work to educate yourself?

I did do some research on my own and asked a lot of people smarter me for advice along the way but no question that 80% of everything I know is from doing it…and honestly, failing a lot, to truly learn. I don’t have an MBA and found myself in a GM role after many years across many types of organizations and functions and throughout that entire process I was learning at every step. My first real glimpse into understanding the numbers was my job at Taylor, where I was building and managing a practice group trying to drive incremental revenue and growth for the agency while balancing a group that was 15+. I was forced to have a better understanding of the numbers and that’s where it really started. It wasn’t easy and I made a lot of mistakes but I am better for it.

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 progression journey or would you do things differently if you were to do it all over again?

This is a tough question. I don’t know if I have a good answer for people. It definitely is a consequence of being driven and having big ambitions; that said, the only way to think about this I would say is prioritization. Figure out what’s important to you – whatever that is – and prioritize around those things. It can’t be 20 things but it can be more than 1 or 2. For me, my career is very, very important. But nothing is more important than my family and my kids, in particular. So while I can’t be there for every moment and every event in their lives, I do prioritize the things that I know are important to them and the moments that are unique. Everything revolves around that. But to do this well, as I have learned, you have to be extremely self-aware about yourself; your working style; how much time you have to work with, etc. You can’t do everything and can’t be everywhere so being self-aware of what you can do and what you can sacrifice is critical….and the one thing you can’t sacrifice is your health so keeping that in mind and trying to maintain that as a priority is also important…so to simplify – it’s all about prioritization AND self-awareness 😊

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Dunya Habitats’ founding team is made up of siblings (Sugeevan and Sumi Shanmuganathan) and Dr. Shivajan Sivapalan who came together to support Sugeevan’s founding vision to help minimize food scarcity issues in Indigenous and refugee communities.

Working hand-in-hand with farmers, The Dunya Project and the Dunya Habitats that are manufactured aim to provide measurable and sustainable solutions to mitigate and adapt to conditions where climate change and water scarcity are affecting crop productivity and food security. I had a chance to speak to the team about their journey.

I love the mission and story behind Dunya Habitats.  Tell us about how long it took to go from idea to working prototype in the field.  What were some challenges that were faced along the way?

Dunya defines possibilities.  What can be done regardless of the challenges stacked up against you. A transformational change to help put the power of production into the hands of those that need it the most. Our parents were dreamers, especially our father.  Normally, parents keep their children grounded to protect them from ever failing… fearing the emotional burden failure can place on a child.

But our parents were the opposite.  They always made us shoot for the moon.  Sadly, having to leave the land of their birth due to civil inequalities that did not allow them to reach their dreams – drove their desire to provide us with opportunities to grow.  Our amma is no longer with us but having come from humble beginnings – coupled with our appa’s social activism – they inspired us to dream of a world where hunger and starvation are no more. 

Dunya Habitat’s tinyFARM® (PCT Patent pending) is a scalable modular commercial-grade hydroponic system with precision farming software for remote monitoring and data collection to optimize growth. tinyFARM® can grow a variety of fruits and vegetables year-round, in 4-week cycles and with minimal water, land, and no pesticides. Enabled by the future of farming technology – Ammah®, Dunya’s AI driven IoT-based precision farming sensor interface platform to remotely monitor growth, provide data collection and optimize overall crop yield.

The idea originated a few years back, during a pitch competition that Sugeevan participated in at OCAD University along with 500 other schools worldwide.  The competition put on by the Hult Prize and the Clinton Foundation looking at ways to ‘restore human dignity and rights to millions of displaced people by 2022.’  Sugeevan and his teammates made it to the regionals in Boston for North America, coming in second to a team from Harvard in their round. It just so happened that at the same time  – our appa was also working on a greenhouse project in the Jaffna peninsula in Sri Lanka – to help teach new sustainable ways to farm when dealing with droughts and pests. Combining the essence of the two – Dunya was born.  

Currently, the team has a commercial prototype that is being tested and fine-tuned with a local farmer in Kingston, Ontario. Getting to this stage, working amidst a global pandemic has not been easy.  The first year was spent on building the proof-of-concept with our basic precision farming sensor interface integration and validating with various markets.  Having self-funded, bootstrapped and being able to count on a small pre-seed investment from our advisors have greatly helped the team get to this stage.

Tell us about some wins as well that you’ve had so far that you’re proud of.

The Dunya team has been fortunate to receive recognition here at home in Canada and abroad.  Most recently, we won a pitch competition and were chosen as the ‘People’s Choice’ Award at the Ontario Environment Industry Association (ONEIA)’s Quick Pitch event.  We were 1 of 15 finalists for Cisco’s Global Problem Solver Challenge in 2019 amongst thousands who applied globally – invited and exhibited at Web Summit and Collision Tech.  

Most importantly, even though we are pre-launch – we’ve had sales tractions domestically, and LOIs for units in Europe and Africa. Equally, we have started outreach and received interests from the big players in food security initiatives such as the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), UNHCR and the World Food Programme (WFP).

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Gobinthiran was born in Vanni, Sri Lanka, in 1997. Life threw him a lot of challenges – he changed schools 9 times while moving homes 21 times during the height of the war and ended up losing everything except for one bag.

Amidst all this, he saw a computer for the 1st time in 2005 and was enamored by what it was able to do. Someone told him about the search engine “Google” in 2009, and he started learning everything he could including software design, web design & graphic design. He spent all his spare time hanging around in internet cafes.  He started doing projects locally and earning a few hundred Rupees for it. His mother and aunt pawned their jewellery and bought him his own computer in 2011. There was a catch – there was no power in his home, so the computer was left at his aunt’s house in Vavuniya. He would go there for the weekends and come home to attend school on weekdays. After some time, the power came to his village so he brought the computer and kept it at a neighbor’s house, which he would use for one hour a day.

After school, he worked in the industry for 5 years including networking within the Yarl IT Hub community which exposed him to overseas clients.  In August 2019, he got his first UX design project from the US via LinkedIn.  He finished it in 5 days with almost no sleep and was paid about $1,500.  That gave him the confidence to continue building his company, which has completed 60+ projects, worked with 40+ clients from 16+ countries!

I read your story and it’s a powerful one.  What drove you specifically to start HUEX Studio?

My first business was selling GTA Vice City cheat codes at game centers to play games. It taught me – if I make money I could do whatever I like. After that, I worked at the construction sites for 1000 LKR a day. My life goal is to travel around the world and experience different cultures and food.  In order to do this, I need money + I have a passion for designing, so I merged the two.

Tell us about your experience with the Yarl IT Hub community as it seemed to be a transformative one for you.

During my teenage years, I wasn’t clear on how I could achieve my goals and work toward my dream life. I tried different things and nothing really helped.  One day, I was invited by my school to participate in the Yarl Geek Challenge Junior 4 (2015). I built a website (WordPress-based) that was a bus timetable system to participate in the competition.  I didn’t do it to win as I ended up meeting so many mentors and it opened my eyes to a great future. I met the below-mentioned people who significantly impacted my life:

  • I met Miller Alexander Rajendran, who introduced me to User Experience (UX).
  • I met Alagan Mahalingam who gave internship opportunity at his company (01 Tech)
  • I met Jeythan Tharmakulasingam who gave us space at their office (SenzMate) to build my company.
  • I met Mohamed Zajith who is our first full-time employee.
  • I met Jarachanthan Ratnakumar who is one of our current core members at HUEX STUDIO.
  • We are selected for the YIT Accelerator program which provides dedicated mentors and guidance towards success, there I met Mr.Giritharan, who is currently helping me a lot.

I read about your experience about the limited time you had access to a computer because of power limitations in your village (making those trips back and forth to your aunt’s house or having access for 1 hour a day at your neighbors).  Tell us about what you learned both knowledge-wise and about yourself personally, during that time?

I would say, never give up, go, and work for your passion. Look for opportunities around you, there are plenty of them. Be wise to utilize it.

Where do you see the business and yourself in the next 5 years?

I want to share the success with the people who are with me now, including Mr.Jarachanthan Ratnakumar, Abiseban Pirapahran & Sagana Naguleswaran who have been extremely wonderful to work with.  Without them, I would not be able to run the business. Together we are planning to expand our team to 40+ people and launch products to the global market, I am currently pursuing my degree at the University of Moratuwa and I want to graduate with good grades. My goal is to travel to at least 10 countries.

I know you are in the services space, have you ever thought about “productizing” your services with any of the projects you’ve worked on?

Yes,  we are always brainstorming and researching a few product ideas and hope to launch our first one to the global market in the coming years.

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Jerusha was born in Sri Lanka in 1994. Because of her diagnosis of cerebral palsy, the doctors advised that she wouldn’t be able to walk or talk. However, her parents moved to Melbourne when she was 2-years-old. With intensive treatment she learnt to walk and talk. Now, aged 24 she has successfully completed honours in biomedical sciences and is a candidate for PhD studies, determined to explore treatments for spastic cerebral palsy.

Your story in terms of from where you started to where you are now is simply remarkable.  It seemed to start with your parents making that first step to move to Australia from Sri Lanka where they could access a more advanced medical system.  What impact have your parents made in your life and the choices you’ve made along the way?  

My parents have been supportive in my endeavours. Their interesting values and insights have been valuable in my own life. They have always encouraged me to be a independent thinker and strive for success particularly in academia. They have given me the space and room to grow into my own individual person. 

I know you consider yourself a positive person but what is one particularly negative experience or incident that helped shape who you are today?

I will definitely take you back to the time in Sri Lanka where I was told I would never walk or talk. That was quite a negative experience for my family and I but it really shaped who I am today. Due to these experiences, I am compassionate, genuine, humble. 

You’ve managed to overcome the odds not only health wise, but from an education point of view as a PhD in neuroscience and being named as one of the Australian Academy of Science’s STEM Women Changemakers.  How do you think your personal experience will shape your approach and interests as a medical professional?

My experiences in life has definitely given me a unique sort of empathy. Empathy guided by compassion. I hope that being a humble and caring person of a doctor will enable my prospective patients to appear more comfortable in my presence. I want to support people so that they can live their best lives. That is my deepest desire. 

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Amarnath Amarasingam is an Assistant Professor in the School of Religion, and cross-listed to the Department of Political Studies, at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada. He is also a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, an Associate Fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, and an Associate Fellow at the Global Network on Extremism and Technology. His research interests are in radicalization, terrorism, diaspora politics, post-war reconstruction, and the sociology of religion. He is the author of Pain, Pride, and Politics: Sri Lankan Tamil Activism in Canada (2015), and the co-editor of Sri Lanka: The Struggle for Peace in the Aftermath of War (2016). He has also written several peer-reviewed articles and book chapters, has presented papers at over 100 national and international conferences, and has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, Politico, The Atlantic, and Foreign Affairs.

Choosing a career in academia takes some serious commitment, especially with respect to time spent in school.  What made you choose this path?

My first year in undergrad, I had a professor who just kind of nonchalantly blurted out in class something like, “I’m quite privileged to be able to think and write all day and get paid for it”. And that stuck with me. I’ve always had a hard time with office jobs and other kinds of labor, which I had been doing since I was sixteen. So, I think him blurting that out in class came at a perfect time for me. Then, when I finished undergrad and I was thinking about what to do, another professor told me to ask myself, “what do you naturally want to do when you wake up in the morning? Find a way to make that your job.” I love research, I love writing. It’s not really something everyone enjoys, and it can of course be painful as hell at times, but it’s basically what I naturally gravitate towards. I think like a social scientist. I see the world through sociological eyes. Might as well get paid for it.

Due to the nature of the subject matter that you teach, you’ve been to some dangerous parts of the world.  Can you tell us about one of these experiences and why you were there?

Until the pandemic hit, I was basically on a plane once a month to somewhere. The most recent trip was to northeastern Syria. I was there with some colleagues to interview Canadians who had joined ISIS and who were now being held prisoner. This was partly because there’s an ongoing debate, as your readers probably know, about what to do with these people. Do we just leave them there to rot? Do we bring them back and charge them? I had been studying and interviewing ISIS fighters since 2013, as part of a long postdoc at the University of Waterloo, and these trips to Syria were important for actually talking to some of these fighters now that they were off the battlefield.

What are some misconceptions that you often hear people have about your chosen career path in academia?

I think it’s a generational thing. Now that I’m a professor, even my parents generation kind of “get it”. Oh, he’s a teacher at a university. People kind of get that. But, when I was doing my PhD, doing my postdocs, working at think tanks, they had a very hard time. Like, people are paying you to wander around the planet and write reports? What the hell for? For the second-generation, who all went through university in Canada, it’s not the academia that they ask about, but why I chose social science. I’m sometimes the only person they know who studies this stuff professionally. All of their friends watch CNN and read the newspaper, but I’m the only one they know who produces research, who publishes articles, who appears on TV shows. A friend of mine often says, “I don’t know what you do, but you’re always on the news, so it must be something.” Especially in our community, most people enter medicine, law, real estate, accounting, and so on, so telling people I do humanities and the social sciences – and I do that by choice, not because I didn’t get into medical school – still produces interesting looks.

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JYXDI made the decision to drop out of university to focus on her art career, which is a courageous one considering the tremendous value that the Tamil community places on degrees as a marker of success. The decision didn’t go well with her family, but it only made her work harder to improve her craft and business to become the success she is today.

What made you start the JYXDI brand?  And how did you come up with the name?

The reason for me to start JYXDI was because I wanted to create my own brand which involved my art and vision. JYXDI is basically my name altered a bit, When you replace X with O it becomes JYODI, which typically sounds like my name JYOTHEE. Also it made a perfect logo, X being the paintbrushes.

I feel like this is the “Golden Age of the Creator Economy” where it’s never been easier to be a creator and monetize as a creator.  Would you say that this statement is accurate – has this been your experience?

This has definitely been the case for me as my social media brand and widespread adoption of e-commerce has helped me grow my business quickly.  Instagram especially has been good for me because the artwork I post there has got me a lot of clients globally. 

As a young, female Tamil entrepreneur – do you feel like you’ve experienced things that your fellow male entrepreneurs would not?

When it comes to painters, i’ve usually only come across male artists, so being a female artist- it was challenging at first and I had a lot of doubts about whether it would all work out.  But I did what I usually do, believed in my craft and forged ahead to success. 

You have some notable brands that were clients of yours that you’ve worked with including OVO and COACH.  How did you land these clients?

OVO40 (Noah Shebib), who is Drake’s producer contacted me on Instagram (via DM) and I had the wonderful opportunity to create a pair of shoes for his niece. I also gave him a painting for the studio.  I did a collaboration with COACH in 2019, as it was Michael B. Jordan’s Naruto clothing line. I was flown out to New York to represent COACH at Comic-Con, where I also ended up creating artwork for Michael B. Jordan where he was a Naruto character.  Afterwards, we ended up making a video at the COACH headquarters to promote the artwork. 

You’re almost at 150K Instagram followers which is quite an accomplishment. How did you grow your account so quickly?

I consistently posted content (different artwork) on my account every day.  There was no magic to it.  People would regularly see my work and my process, which got them interested in ordering items from me. 

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Shaun Jayachandran is a former basketball player, teacher, administrator, coach, and now, CEO at the international non-profit Crossover Basketball and Scholars Academy India, which brings student athletes from the U.S. to a program in India aimed at encouraging students to stay in school through teaching pillars of growth through athleticism and basketball.

What made you decide to start the Crossover Basketball and Scholars Academy? 

Crossover came about from multiple experiences coming together and connecting for me in 2010. So it’s important to gather the context somewhat. My mom was born and raised in an orphanage in Chennai/Madras and earned a scholarship to attend high school and university before eventually immigrating to Canada. Her story is so beyond a movie script that I had a hard time connecting with what she overcame as I was growing up. It’s still nearly unbelievable except that more than a few nuns have gone on about my mom’s journey. 

And then when we moved to the US while I was in high school, I had the amazing opportunity to play for Coach Bill Sweek. Coach Sweek isn’t a household name right now but he won THREE NCAA championships with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at UCLA and played under the ultimate GOAT John Wooden. I’m talking full-on Pyramid of Success from the starting point – how to put on your socks and tie your shoes without getting blisters. 

I had been working in independent (private) school education for a few years when I started Crossover. It occurred to me as I was completing my Masters that there had to be an easier way to impact change that didn’t involve the fakeness of an instantaneous outcome and also didn’t ask a child to be so singularly focused on academics 24/7 (my mom has stories about stealing candles from the Church to study at night in the hostel). So I created the idea of Crossover, to help students have a long-term crossover from a predictable non-opportunity situation into ones where we could teach gender equity and critical thinking through play and share how it applies beyond the lines of the court and into their communities, classrooms, and families. 

Where do you see Crossover in the next 5 years?

There are so many timelines that this could follow. My ideal would be that we are now able to start extending the reach of Crossover similar to a TEDx type approach (shameleslly dropping my first TEDx  here), having Hoops Creating Hope groups existing in dozens to hundreds of communities led by local educators and coaches who are all connected by Crossover. This approach allows us to scale impact in magnitude beyond our 500 student two-week programs and into having programming throughout the year and the development of various levels of opportunities to play, experience growth, and create new personal networks. 

You grew up in Canada, moved to the US and then focused on doing charity work in India.  That’s quite an experience and journey.  What are the differences you’ve noticed in living in Canada and the US, as a Tamil, in cities that seemed like they didn’t have a lot of diversity (at least at the time that you lived there)?

Being born and raised in Calgary, Alberta, before it’s diversity explosion in the 2000s, is a masterclass in navigating code-switching. Especially since we lived in an area of the city (SE) that was not known for being very diverse. And you’re right, I definitely do float between being Canadian, being an American immigrant (though very few think of me that way… probably the term “ex-pat”), and then basically being a quasi-foreigner in India. 

For a long long time, it didn’t seem like I knew many Tamils. We lived in the wrong part of the city, attended Catholic schools, and I was obsessed with playing and reading books about sports. None of those fit with the stereotypes that people had of brown kids back in the day (and even some hold on to today). So it wasn’t even just being Tamil, we attended Malayalee events which I sat through while reading sports autobiographies and not understanding Malayalam, but it just was rare in day to day to be around lots of Brown people. 

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Sharmilli Thangarajah is a finance professional with a passion for fashion. While on her maternity leave 10 years ago, she decided to turn her fashion hobby into a business, after facing many obstacles. Today, she’s had one of her dresses featured on the Red Carpet at the Cannes Film Festival, and a thriving bridal business.

What brought you down the path of becoming a fashion designer, specifically on bridal/formal wear?  What did you do before that?

It was actually a coincidence that I started this business.  I always had a passion for fashion and fashion shows.  I spent a lot of time reading and watching fashion-related content on TV. However, I am a financial professional with degress in business/finance along with a CPA license. I built up my career in the corporate world and climbed the proverbial ladder to senior management.  While I was on maternity leave with my daughter, I was really bored as I was used to being busy (I’m a workaholic). Since I had a lot of free time during my mat leave, I decided to start doing some research into the fashion industry. I attended some seminars and travelled to a few countries to explore options.  In the end, I decided to create a couture collection. I did a photo shoot and participated in a few fashion shows. I received so many compliments and encouragement that I didn’t stop. It started as a hobby, but I continued to work on the business in the evenings and weekends after I went back to work. After 2 years, I started my first boutique with a few of my own collections that I made.  I continued to collaborate and participate in industry events and shows. I got invited to particiapte in Toronto designer shows and Vancouver fashion week.  This brought me a ton of publicity and recognition for my brand and the boutique.  I started with a couture collection as a hobby and it turned into a bridal and formal collection.

I first became aware of your work when your dress was featured on the Red Carpet at the Cannes Film Festival. What are some wins over the years that you are proud of?

Being an immigrant coming to Canada as teenager and adapting to the new culture opened up my eyes to many opportunities.  I see Canada as a land of opportunity.  As a woman, I am proud of overcoming challenges and starting my own business in the Canadian fashion industry, while having my brand recognized in many magazines and fashion shows (including Vancouver fashion week, Miss Universe Canada, Miss Canada and the Cannes Film festival).  I am also proud of the Toronto Sharleez Fashion gala, which I host annually, collaborating with other Canadian designers and artists to support my foundation which helps other women in need. I wouldn’t have been able to achieve all of this without my strong work ethic, love for my business and the support from others around me.

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As an expert in product management and software platform ecosystem design, Balaji is a well-respected start-up educator, advisor and mentor. He is an advocate for the role of ecosystems in industry transformation and in tackling tough problems like improving healthcare. Prior to co-founding MedStack, he launched the BlackBerry BBM service and led platform strategy at D2L, Nymi and EventMobi.

You worked at Blackberry in its infancy and up to around its peak in 2012/2013. I find it fascinating, as this was before the current startup boom happening in Canada, when Blackberry was our version of Apple, a rockstar tech company. How was that experience? What were your learnings?  

[BG] That was a lot of fun.  Certainly BlackBerry wasn’t Canada’s first big tech success (look at Nortel, Mitel, etc) but it really felt like we were carving out something new. I was enormously fortunate for that experience. I joined the company on a whim, which was a big gamble because I didn’t have a background in software or even telecom (other than self-teaching myself programming in the 1980s), but had a relentless view towards customer and user proposition, which landed me a Product Management role, back when Product itself was a new function.

Not only was BlackBerry (then called Research In Motion) a uniquely innovative company, born and bred in the strongly innovation-first culture that is the University of Waterloo campus, but it was the way in which innovation was approached and executed that was core to the company’s success:  everything we did was driven by a balance between user utility (and a rigorous definition of who our user was), buyer needs, and the pursuit of technical excellence, all of which was made by possible by the way the two co-CEOs were so different but so respectful of each other’s strengths.

I joined the company in the fledgling “Retail Business Unit”, which itself was a small, almost secret skunkworks organization within the larger company.  Many of the waters we charted were very much what it’s like running an aggressively disruptive startup, challenging not only the status quo in our expected user experience and the industry we were in, but also the cultural frame within the company itself.

So much of what I think about in terms of customer-centric positioning, organizational and functional strategy etc is based on my experiences there.

How did you come up with the idea of Medstack?  I would imagine the idea of HIPAA-as-a-service would have been hard to pitch early on.  How did you manage to get someone like Maple on board?

[BG]  My career had been focused on product and ecosystem strategy and innovation process management. I’ve mentored many product managers, several of whom have moved on to very successful careers, some as founders themselves, and have designed a ground-up curriculum in product management and taught for several years. I developed early in my career a keen fascination in platform strategy, focused on how two business entities can collaborate over technology to deliver value to their mutual customers. I’d led platform strategy at several other companies but deep down, I knew we could do something bigger with it.

When my co-founder brought me the market problem that would form the basis of MedStack, I found myself in front of a very severe and urgent societal problem that could be addressed with a platform strategy. He had been running a software development services company, building healthcare apps, and was amazed at how much money and time was spent in building privacy compliance into commercializing these offerings. We spent the first several months validating the business hypothesis, with both sides of our ecosystem, and with a view towards putting a proposition in front of customers as quickly as possible, we launched our ongoing learning process.

We learned very quickly that the intersection of powering a transformation in healthcare, focusing on infrastructure technology and targeting early stage technology companies as customers was seen as unusual and a bit outside the norm, especially in combination, but we remained determined that this was the best way to achieve the outcomes we were after.  Fortunately, even with doubts around us, we managed to partner with likeminded individuals early on, including the founders of Maple, and joined forces in our mutual journeys.

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