Muthulingam recently spoke with TC to discuss his career success with CSI and his passion for giving back to the community.
1. Tell us a bit about yourself. How did the idea of CSI start?
Soon after my brother and I came to Canada in the 1980s, we found work at a business that was in the telecom industry. After some time with that company, we decided to go into business on our own. I was definitely reluctant when we first started out. We faced several barriers as new entrepreneurs. In addition to the challenges of starting a new business, we were new immigrants and responsible for supporting our families back in Sri Lanka. In those early years there was a lot of pressure for us to succeed.
We eventually met a business partner in the United States who would go on to become a friend and mentor who believed in our vision. With his encouragement, we took a combined capital of $7,000 and really got the ball rolling with CSI.
2. Why do you think CSI became so successful?
I don’t think there is a straightforward answer here. I would say having a strong support system was critical. During our first year of operation we had no money. We would pay the bills and employees’ wages but had nothing to take home. We relied on the support of our families in those early days.
I am a dreamer at heart. When CSI was still a small operation, I would pass by beautiful buildings and imagine what it would be like to run our company in these places. I believe my commitment to always striving for greatness and challenging myself to better understand things led to some great innovations in the work that we do.
I would also say that we were prepared to take risks. We really weighed the pros and cons before every business decision we made. However, there is always a degree of luck involved. I’ve seen many highly capable people with seemingly sound business plans fail to make it for one reason or another. Fortunately, luck was on our side.
3. What would you say has been the biggest challenge in being an entrepreneur?
The biggest challenge is dealing with all the moving parts of a business. Ensuring alignment between departments is key to running a well-oiled machine. It sounds simple but it can be a challenge when there are competing priorities at play.
At the end of the day, whether you have a product or service, the goal is to keep the customer happy. Without the customer you don’t have a business. It’s a challenge for many entrepreneurs to innovate and create great products that exceed customer expectations.
4. You are widely known in the Toronto Tamil community for your volunteer work. What was the impetus for getting involved?
This question stirs some mixed emotions for me. I must admit that for a good 20 years or so I was not involved in the Tamil community. The end of the Sri Lankan civil war in 2009 marked the tipping point for me.
In a conversation with Sugumar Ganesan – a key figure in the Toronto Tamil community – around this time, he said something that really resonated with me. He said, “Look at our children. Through no fault of their own they will forever carry the baggage of being labelled as ‘Boat People’ or Tamil Tigers. They will be left out of opportunities unless we change the image of Tamils in the community.”
After this talk, I was convinced that I needed to do more to change the public perception of Tamils and create a better future for the next generation. As a father of three, saying no was simply not an option.
Soon after, I began attending community events and fundraisers and got to meet a number of Tamil youth and professionals who were doing some great things – from fund managers at large equity firms to programmers at IBM. Seeing so many successful people in our community was really motivating.
Through my work, I’ve also come into contact with a lot of other cultural communities. From observing the Ismaili community in particular, it was fascinating to see how involved they were in their local neighbourhoods despite claiming only 18 million people globally. I believe we can learn a lot from communities like these to ensure positive growth in the future.
5. What new projects are you currently working on?
The Mosaic Lab is a very exciting project I have in the works. It is a knowledge incubator based in Scarborough that allows people to pitch research ideas on products and services that have the potential to become marketable. As an entrepreneur, I’ve always found it troubling to see good ideas quashed before entering the business market. In addition, I wanted to give back to the neighbourhood of Scarborough. It is a community of immigrants that is often not given the recognition I think it deserves. As a longtime resident of the area, I wanted to start a legacy project at the place which has been my home and has allowed me to build my business.
6. Advice to people interested in entrepreneurship?
Two things come to mind:
1) You must be willing to work hard. There is no such thing as overnight success.
2) If you want to start a new business, you need to start in your 20s or 30s. If things don’t work out, you will still have time to pursue other opportunities.
If you are interested in learning more about CSI, check out: www.thecsi.com