Sanjay Varma graduated from U-M in 1989 (AB Economics) and has been turning ideas to gold ever since. While many people work hard to have one amazing business idea, Varma has had a string of enviable enterprises. He helped launch the largest office supply company in Hungary, helped launch Alibaba by providing invaluable international trade expertise, invested and developed green cooling technology to help combat climate change with JMATEK, and he developed the application Kalido that connects like-minded individuals for business or friendship purposes.
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For obvious reasons, Varma was profiled in the Spring 2017 issue of LSA Magazine. “Computer Icons” looks at Varma’s career path and the motivations behind many of his decisions.
By Rachel Reed
In 1999, Sanjay Varma (A.B. 1989) had already built a career most would envy. With a degree in economics, he had worked as an economist at an investment bank in Hong Kong, helped launch what is now the largest office supply company in Hungary, and was crisscrossing the globe for his father’s business looking to expand its operations in Eastern Europe and Latin America.
So it was mostly curiosity (and a little prescience) that convinced Varma to cough up the money to attend a three-day conference on what he saw as a burgeoning technology: the internet. Varma attended a number of different talks, hoping to learn about the internet’s potential for business and international trade. As luck would have it, one of the presentations was by Jack Ma, a Chinese businessman who laid out his vision for a new web upstart. Intrigued, Varma stayed to ask some questions and the two men began talking. A few meetings later, thanks to Varma’s expertise in international trade and ideas on how to harness the internet’s potential, he was asked to join the team of Ma’s venture, Alibaba.
In the beginning, Ma’s goal for Alibaba was to serve as an online portal to connect manufacturers with buyers around the world.
“The way business used to work is that retailers would have to go to middleman trading companies who would then connect them to manufacturers,” explains Varma. “The question we had was: What if we could have a small entity know exactly where one specific product comes from and actually facilitate trade between the two end points?”