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From Left to Right (Standing): Sanjay Makkar, Naval Bajaj, Satish Thakkar, Arun Srivastava, Ajit Khanna, Ravi Seethapathy, Rakesh Goenka, Ajit Someshwar

From Left to Right (Sitting): DP Jan, Kris Krishnan, Asha Luthra, Ramesh Chotai, Sat P Chopra, Pradeep Sood, Raj Kothari

Indo-Canada Chamber of Commerce (ICCC) is an organisation that has come to symbolise the aspirations of the Indo-Canadians and has been a witness to history to the rise of the community in the Canadian mainstream, helping it to contribute to the fabric of the Canadian society by creating avenues and opportunities.

The organisation’s character has changed gradually, transforming from a community platform which brought together and bonded Indo-Canadians from different regions of India, speaking different languages, to one that boosted the entrepreneurial proclivities amongst the community, nudging, urging the community to look for independent avenues to utilise their talent, acumen, and qualifications.

A group of individuals met in early 1977 to discuss the launch of an organisation that would represent the Indo-Canadians. On March 12, 1977, the Indo-Canada Chamber of Commerce was formed, with Kishore Doshi becoming the first President. A small step for the Indo-Canadian community had been taken. It would prove – over the years – to be a giant leap.

The initial years were fraught with problems that seem almost insurmountable, and there were talks of winding down the organisation, but the persistence and the dogged determination of the business and professional community ensured that the organisation not only survived, it began to grow and flourish.

And lo and behold, in March 2017, it celebrated its fortieth anniversary, and last week on April 19, the organisation celebrated that milestone with a heartwarming and emotional get together that witnessed an unprecedented participation of 14 past Presidents, the incumbent President, several former members of the Advisory board, board of directors, sponsors and stakeholders.

The program was unprecedented because never before in the Chamber’s history had so many Presidents come together and shared their experiences of leading the organisation to its glory. Fittingly, the program was held at the ICCC still new office in Toronto.

Arun Srivastava, the incumbent President, kicked off the evening emphasizing “it’s a loosey-goosey evening to share memories; I wanted to put up a sign outside the hall saying leave your ego out before entering.” All the past Presidents gathered together to cut a 40th anniversary cake, and then everyone was given an opportunity to share their views on recalling their contributions to making of the Chamber.

The first decade

Ramesh Chotai (1982), a preeminent member of the Indo-Canadian community and the President of Bromed Pharmaceuticals, spoke first and informed the audience how an accident of circumstance had made him the President of the Chamber for a brief period. Bakul Joshi, the then incumbent President, was suddenly transferred to California, and Chotai had to take charge of the Chamber. He said when he left the Presidency, the Chamber’s bank account had $87 and some change, of which $50 he had personally contributed. Chotai has, of course, served the Chamber in the capacity of an Advisory Board member on a couple of occasions, and has continued to stay connected with the Chamber for the last four decades. 

The second decade

Sat Chopra (1987-89) took charge of the Chamber at the end of its first decade, at a time when there were serious talks of winding up the Chamber because of a lack of involvement from the community. However, Chopra recalled, he along with others such as Rasik Morzaria, his predecessor, decided to go on a membership drive and enrol young members. This averted the crisis and the Chamber successfully entered its second decade – a decade that would prove to be momentous.

Ajit Someshwar (1991-93), the flamboyant entrepreneur of today, was a young assistant manager at the CIBC when he took over as the President of the Chamber, becoming a life member by paying $135 ($200 life membership minus $65 annual membership). But it was under his leadership that the Chamber got the first experience of corporatization. He got RBC Royal Bank as the Chamber’s first corporate sponsor for $5,000. The RBC Royal Bank remained a sponsor for over the next two decades, leaving the Chamber for a brief hiatus and returning recently. During the entire period, Imtiaz Seyid, a member of the Chamber since 1993, has been active with the Chamber’s membership portfolio and now is the head of its audit committee. Someshwar also started the annual awards and gala night by honouring Indo-Canadians in different domains for their contributions to the Canadian society. He constituted an Advisory board for this purpose to ensure that the selection of the award winners would be objective. This year the Chamber will be celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Annual Awards and Gala Night, and during this period the ICCC awards have become a symbol of recognition for the Indo-Canadian community.

The third decade

Raj Kothari (1996-98), took over the Chamber’s mantle after Hari Panday, and was part of the group of young leaders who straddled the 1990s of the Chamber and took it to the next level invigorating the organisation with fresh ideas, infusion of new members, laying the foundations of governance by updating the bylaws, getting corporate sponsorship, and for the first time involving the Canadian federal and provincial leadership into the Chamber’s programming.

Kothari emphasized that his background in finance helped ensure that the organisational finances were streamlined. Kothari’s Presidential tenure coincided with the 50th anniversary of the Indian independence in 1997. Under his stewardship, the Chamber, for the first time, got recognition by the Indian government, when it was asked to organise a program for Inder Kumar Gujral, the Prime Minister of India. Kothari also accompanied the then Governor General of Canada to a trip to India and Pakistan.

Ravi Seethapathy (1998-2000) recalled that he had joined as a volunteer member of the board and then got elevated to the position of the President gradually. He recalled how he had along with his board members spent hours to focus on organisational work. The Chamber had grown steadily and after Hari Panday had got a Yonge Street address for the Chamber, the time had come to move into a bigger office at Yonge and Sheppard.  Seethapathy and his team had to skillfully navigate negative fallout of the Pokhran II nuclear testing, and steer the Chamber into a neutral territory to remain relevant to the Canadian establishment.

Rakesh Goenka (2000-2001) succeeded Seethapathy, and continued to work to make the Chamber grow and consolidate. He recalled of the personal dedication that he and his team put in to maintain the Chamber’s hard won growth trajectory that included utilising personal resources to ensure that the Chamber continued to grow. An experience that he had which was common to many of his predecessors was of licking stamps and posting envelopes to members during the annual gala. Goenka also introduced digitization of financial records of the Chamber.

PBD India

Kris Krishnan (2001-2003) was the Chamber’s President when the Chamber celebrated its 25th anniversary at the Granite Club, an elitist club. He was the President when the Chamber led the first delegation to the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas organised in 2003 for the first time by the Government of India. There was some debate whether the Chamber should participate in the convention of the Indian diaspora, but Krishnan insisted and went to New Delhi. It’s become an unbroken tradition for the Chamber since then.

Pradeep Sood (2003-2005) remembered that it was since his tenure that the Chamber began to consciously refer to itself as a business organisation and move away from the community organisation character. He spoke of the increasing recognition that the Chamber had begun to get from the Canadian establishment. He recalled that he was the first President to get a Caucasian person to be a member of the Advisory Board.

Ajit Khanna (2005-2007) With the Chamber nearing completion of three decades, Ajit Khanna was a self-proclaimed reluctant President who became the harbinger of change, a role that he has continued to perform long after he ceased to be the President. Over the last few years, Ajit has been the chair of the Governance committee, putting in place a structure that has ensured good governance in the Chamber’s operations. It was during Ajit’s tenure that the Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, participated in an ICCC program.

The fourth decade

Asha Luthra (2008-2010) was the first woman President of the Chamber, and is known for her tough and no-nonsense approach to managing the Chamber’s affairs. She introduced new sponsors, getting on board all the major banks. She also energised the board with young faces. Along with the then Consul General of India Preeti Saran worked towards getting the PBDCanada2011 off the ground. It was one of the most significant programs organised by the ICCC since its inception. Significant policy pronouncements were made at the convention.

Satish Thakkar (2011-2012) had played a crucial role in the fund raising of the PBDCanada2011 and when he took charge of the Chamber as its President for just a year, he transformed it with an outreach that encompassed all the councils and contributing to the Canada-India file by organising interactions between the chief negotiator of CEPA Don Stephenson and the Chamber’s stakeholders in different parts of Canada. He also transformed the annual delegation to an India Trade Mission, visiting multiple cities, which included a delegation from the city of Markham. It has become a Chamber’s annual tradition. Satish also accepted the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman Award on behalf of the Chamber. The Chamber is the only overseas Indian organisation to have been honoured with this award, which is annually bestowed upon individuals of Indian origin by the Government of India.

Naval Bajaj (2012-2014) Naval Bajaj recounted his achievements including the acquisition of the ICCC’s new building in 2013. He also pointed out that it was during his term that the Chamber became a partner to the Vibrant Gujarat business convention, and the delegation that he led was one of the largest delegations to the convention and included several Canadian federal ministers. Bajaj also rubbed shoulders with the Canadian and Indian prime ministers during a visit to India in 2012.

Dharma Jain (2014-2015) Dharma Jain led the Chamber on an austerity drive by launching a series of cost-saving drives to streamline the Chamber’s costs. Among the measures he undertook was to rationalise manpower at the Chamber and bringing in new sponsors. He claimed to have reversed the resource crunch by ensuring that the Chamber got the support of new sponsors.

Sanjay Makkar (2015 – 2016) Sanjay’s tenure was marked with the most rigorous efforts by a President to usher accountability into the Chamber’s operations. He was instrumental in appointing the audit and governance committees, and with the help of his VP, Finance, Arun Srivastava, he was able to bring about a modicum of accountability in the finances of the Chamber.

Dawn of new era

Arun Srivastava (2016 - ) Arun has continued to build upon the austerity drive of the Chamber and also planned to organise a path breaking Canada-India Business Symposium in June to coincide with the Annual Awards and Gala night.  

 Imtiaz Pankaj Harjit Jagdish Yatindra Surjit

Among the other participants who spoke included Ambassador Kant Bhargava, who was an honorary advisor to the Chamber for 15 years; Imtiaz Seyid, Harjit Kalsi and Pankaj Mehra, Jagdish Bajaj and Yatindra Shah all former members of the board of directors, and Surjit Babra, a former Advisory Board member.

All the Presidents - they had the cake and ate it, too

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