Legacy building one generation at a time

Posted 2020-08-17
Praveen Varshney (BCom 1987) has earned numerous awards for his success in business and dedication to community volunteerism, but his latest honour is particularly special. Praveen was awarded the 2020 Wendy McDonald Diversity Award for his enduring mentorship and support of local entrepreneurs.

“I love networking, mentoring and helping people,” says Praveen, who is a principal of Varshney Capital Corp., a merchant banking, venture capital and corporate advisory services firm.

Praveen’s parents were accomplished students and teachers in India before moving to Canada.

Praveen’s passion for supporting the success of others can be traced back to his roots. “My parents were great role models,” he says. “They instilled in us an attitude of gratitude.”

It was gratitude that inspired Hari and Madhu Varshney to give $1 million to create the UBC Sauder Hari B. Varshney Business Career Centre. Today, the centre plays a vital role in the lives of students, offering one-on-one career coaching, Co-ops, networking and recruiting events, mentorship programs and ongoing career support after graduation.

When Madhu Varshney brought her two sons to Vancouver in 1968, they moved into UBC family housing.

Pursuing opportunity in Canada

Back in 1967, Hari, Madhu and their young sons Praveen and Peeyush were living in Modinagar, India when Hari decided to pursue a Master of Business Administration (MBA) to increase his career prospects. He applied to several programs around the world, but UBC was the only school that offered him a $1,000 scholarship. He moved to Vancouver and started the program but then decided to become a Chartered Accountant. His family joined him in 1968 and a few years later their daughter Vandana was born.

In 1982, Praveen graduated from Magee High School and enrolled in the Faculty of Science at UBC, thinking he wanted to become an engineer. After having to repeat first-year Physics in summer school, he decided Commerce looked like a better option.

“I really enjoyed my first year and found that business is about people,” recalls Praveen. “There was a course called Entrepreneurship and you had to come up with a business idea and create a business plan and sales pitch. That was my first taste of entrepreneurship and I loved it.”

Three generations of the Varshney family, including eight grandchildren, take an annual trip together. The last adventure was a gorilla trek in Uganda.

All three Varshney siblings would eventually obtain Bachelor of Commerce degrees at UBC. Praveen followed his father’s example and became a Chartered Professional Accountant (CPA). In subsequent years, both were named Fellows or FCPAs, the highest honour in their profession. Meanwhile Peeyush became a lawyer and Vandana a stock broker. In 2015, Hari received an Honorary Alumni award from UBC.

Praveen and Anuja Varshney share a passion for giving back to the community.

In the early 1990s, Praveen fell in love with and married Anuja Sekhri, who was a CPA with Deloitte at the time. Leveraging her business background, she began running the Varshney Family Charitable Foundation and launched a charity golf tournament.

“The kids grew up helping out at the tournament every year,” says Anuja. “It ran for 15 years and we raised $1 million for the various beneficiaries, including Room to Read, B.C. Children’s Hospital, Canuck Place and the St. Paul’s Hospital maternity ward.”

Aneesh and Jaiya Varshney learned about corporate philanthropy from their Mom and grandfather.

Building a family enterprise

Praveen was working in the family accounting firm with his father and brother, but after investing in a few companies, the three decided that venture capitalism was far more rewarding. Together they launched Varshney Capital Corp.

One of their earliest investments was Mountain Province Diamonds. Bringing De Beers Canada in as a partner, they developed the Gahcho Kué mine in the Northwest Territories which went on to become one of the world’s largest and last new diamond mines.

Another successful company was Axion Communications, one of Vancouver’s first dial-up Internet service providers. The Varshneys also helped build Victoria-based Carmanah Technologies into the largest solar-powered LED lighting company in Canada.

“That was a life-changing project for me,” notes Praveen. It was 2000 and he and Anuja had just become parents with the arrival of their daughter, Jaiya. “I remember thinking, we’re doing something good for the planet and good for Jaiya’s future and we’re creating wealth for all the stakeholders by doing good. It was the accidental, serendipitous start to our social impact investing focus.”

Fast-forward 20 years and Varshney Capital is known throughout Canada’s investment community as financiers and angel investors in startups with potential for big social impact. Recent projects include Little Kitchen Academy, a franchise of cooking schools for kids; Mogo, one of Canada’s largest fintechs; and NEXE Innovations, an advanced materials company that has developed a plant-based, fully compostable coffee pod for use in Keurig brewing systems.

Aneesh and Jaiya Varshney are both interested in purpose-driven entrepreneurship.

The next generation of innovators

It comes as no surprise that Praveen and Anuja’s children are both business-focused and community-minded. Twenty-year-old Jaiya is entering her third year of Commerce at UBC Sauder and is passionate about ethical leadership and sustainability.

“I have lots of ideas around social entrepreneurship. I want to find ways to create monetary value while also creating social impact. The entrepreneurial route allows for a lot more flexibility, more exchange of ideas and more collaboration.”

Jaiya is spending the summer learning about Vancouver’s startup community as a Brand Strategist for Attire Media, a lifestyle media company created by a UBC Sauder alum. Her cousin Lauren is also at UBC Sauder, and her 18-year-old brother Aneesh is about to become the seventh member of the family to study business at UBC.

For Aneesh, entrepreneurship comes naturally. In grade seven, he began buying athletic clothing and shoes and reselling them online for a profit. In high school, he launched an even more successful venture: digital music marketing.

“I made a Spotify playlist and made it public and it grew to 12,700 followers,” he explains. “Through Instagram, I started meeting music artists who would ask to pay me to have their songs put on my playlist.”

More recently, Aneesh has been offering his content marketing skills to Chaos Club Digital. Part record label and part creative lab, the startup supports young local artists in launching their music careers.

By going to UBC Sauder, Praveen says his kids can take advantage of the home team a little longer.

With both kids engaged in school and pursuing their own unique paths, Praveen and Anuja have more time to think about the next stage of their lives, but Praveen has no plans to retire. He’s having too much fun mentoring business owners in Vancouver’s startup community.

“It’s not so much about making money, it’s more about creating one more successful entrepreneur who has some financial freedom and the time to pay it forward,” explains Praveen. “I just love what I do as I’m always learning, growing, meeting new people and hopefully impacting lives in a positive way.”