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?”

Varma’s experience in global trade meant that he brought intimate knowledge about how retailers had traditionally connected with the manufacturers of their goods—along with big plans to blow that old model to pieces. Varma helped to develop Alibaba as a platform on which small retailers, many of whom did not have bargaining power on their own, could aggregate purchasing power in dealing with manufacturers. It also helped to connect small-sized manufacturers with small-sized retailers, cutting out wholesalers and reducing fees and trading costs, which in turn helped smaller companies better compete with their larger rivals. Their work paid off: Alibaba is now the largest retailer in the world, even bigger than Amazon.

In 2002, Varma, after a string of successes at Alibaba and sensing that the tech scene was slowing a bit, decided to try his hand at something a little different.

Varma turned his attention to another global issue: climate change. He stumbled upon green cooling, at the time a little-known technology that cools with a much lower power consumption than traditional air conditioning. He got to work with his engineers, perfecting the technology and licensing the patents to HoneyWell in 2009. His business, JMATEK, is now one of the top green cooling companies in the world.

Kalido Scope

Varma continues to run his thriving business, but he has never stopped thinking about that chance encounter with Ma 17 years ago. Ever since that serendipitous meeting, Varma has been mulling over how to replicate it—this time, on a global scale.

“In 2013, I was sitting in an airport lounge in Dallas, witnessing people go in and out,” says Varma. “Some were reading, some were bored, some were watching TV or having a drink. And I thought, this is incredible. There have to be people here that could be of interest to me and vice versa, whether it be on a personal basis or for business reasons. It would be nice to have a way to connect with them. But how?”

Varma began to envision a world where people could match with one another for any reason, regardless of where they were located: where an artist in Kentucky could find a willing patron in Shanghai, or a burgeoning chef could find an aspiring restaurateur. To make his idea a reality, he put together a team and began to design an app that could do all these things and more. He called it Kalido.

“We spent a year building a beta, trying to crack this problem of matching people for the right reasons. We wanted to create an opportunity network,” says Varma.

And the testers loved it. Kalido is like a platonic dating app and networking platform rolled into one, minus the social pressure. Using the app, people with talent to share can connect with someone who wants to pay for their skills, a potential business partner, or even just a friend with the same obscure hobby. The genius of Kalido is that its users decide what they want from it—not the other way around. Today, after raising $5 million from angel investors, Varma is beginning to launch the app into new markets, starting on campus at U-M.

“The reason we wanted to launch at a university is because the students are future workers,” he says. “We hope that Kalido will help them find alumni and other mentors to connect with, to find their network. And we want to help students monetize their skills and their passions.”

The aim, says Varma, is to give individuals the power to do what they really want for a living.

“I see a world where millions of people use Kalido to look for new opportunities,” he says. “That would be a day where people don’t worry about their economic security, and can do things they love to do and get paid for it.”

Someday, Varma says, he might like to work on an issue that affects children, like improving public education. He’d like to see schooling that is more personalized and tailored to the diverse needs of individual students, in order to foster their unique talents.

“Sometimes I see kids and I wonder what the world will be like for them in 20 years,” he says. “It would be amazing to see a world in which people are smiling and enjoying their lives and working hard at something they enjoy doing. The more people who think this way and care about today and tomorrow, the more likely we are to get there.” 

Photo by Natalie Condon; illustration by Erin Nelson