Alumni Spotlight: Vardaan Vasisht- A Passion for Start-Ups and Innovation
By Stephanie Stewart (Colorado 1988)
Vardaan joined AIESEC in 1996 in his hometown of Chandigarh, India where he did his undergrad in business management. AIESEC was the only organization at the time in the city that offered an opportunity to meet people from other parts of the world and the possibility of an international experience through its traineeship program. According to Vardaan, “During that time, it wasn’t very common to travel out of your country. Certainly, coming from a middle-class family, we did not have the resources to send me abroad.”
Vardaan’s goal was to get exposure to business transactions through raising traineeships for others to come work in his city and experience local culture. This allowed him to see that he, too, could travel somewhere in the world after he graduated. “You were given a stipend to take people out and have fun and also have the chance to learn about the world.” Vardaan explained, “This was pre-Google, pre-internet, so there were few ways to learn about the world. It was a fascinating experience when you made friends from a different country, understanding their culture and learning about how they grew-up and lived, which was very different for me.”
After an AIESEC internship in Zurich fell through, Vardaan decided to do his Master of Business Management in Delhi, followed by positions with Accenture and Airtel, a private telecom company. He stayed in touch with AIESEC and as luck would have it, he got matched to a start-up in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The start-up, Beyond Interactive, was operating out of a dorm room by a handful of University of Michigan undergraduates who were figuring out what to do in the internet space at that time. While he had a clear career path in India, having the opportunity to work in the emerging internet space, and in the US, was a “no brainer.” Within two weeks, he had quit his stable job, packed his two suitcases and moved to the US. He was going to a country where neither he nor his family knew anyone.
Vardaan remembers landing in Detroit on a Friday in 1998. He happened to arrive the weekend of a company party so he met his new colleagues for the first time, hanging at the pool having beers. It was very different from other internships at large organization such as IBM or Ford. “Our company was a very small start-up and the internet industry itself, was in an early development period so I got a lot flexibility to try out new ideas, make mistakes and innovate.” The practice that Vardaan started became a leading concept in the digital advertising industry and a very profitable business center for the company.
As his AIESEC internship came to a close, the company’s plans to expand to India were halted by the 2000 dot-com bust. Beyond Interactive did a successful exit by selling to Grey Advertising, a traditional advertising agency, and Vardaan moved to New York in 2002.
One of Vardaan’s close friends, former AIESEC Michigan President Jonathan Opdyke, was also one of Beyond Interactive’s employees and went on to work for other companies. Jonathan also happened to find himself in New York in 2004. Vardaan and Jonathan had always dreamed of starting a business together, so they began developing a concept for their new company, HookLogic. They worked full time at their regular jobs, and in the late hours and on weekends, they developed their business model and product. Having jobs that paid good salaries allowed them to avoid taking external funding to assemble their team (one of the first team members was fellow AIESECer Rickesh Kishnani), launch their business and land their first client Expedia, the largest online travel agency at the time. Since Vardaan was still on a work visa he had to wait for his company to grow in both size and revenue in order to transfer his work visa to HookLogic. For the first six years they self-funded the company and grew to about 75 people and $50 million in revenue. In 2010, they expanded their business from travel into mainstream retail and took their first round of financing from Bain Capital Ventures. Over the next six years they grew the company to 250 people across five offices with $250 million in gross revenue.
Post venture rounds, Vardaan was running innovation, research & development, and partnership for HookLogic. One of the company’s partners, Criteo, acquired HookLogic in the summer of 2016 for $250 million. “It was a phenomenal exit, not just for the founders, but also our investors and many folks who joined us early on in the organization.” Vardaan explains, “I did not feel I was giving up my baby. I had mentally already adjusted to the fact that HookLogic was a well- run organization with many talented leaders. I played a critical role getting it there, but now I could step away from it.” He notes that, “As an entrepreneur, and now doing early-stage investing, I believe you need to be intricately involved in shaping the company but at a certain stage, you have to be willing to let it go. There are people far more talented than you. The key to success is finding and convincing them to come on board and take charge.”
After selling HookLogic, Vardaan spent much of 2017 traveling with his wife Anya, a fellow AIESECer from the Ukraine. During his travels, he met many start-ups and investment funds around the world to learn how entrepreneurship is shaping-up in different countries. He explains, “I love startups. I am always energized when I spend time with entrepreneurs.” Vardaan moved to LA in 2018 where there is a huge up-and-coming entrepreneurial ecosystem and started Varenyam, an early-stage investment fund. Varenyam doesn’t just write checks but has a hand in helping the companies they invest in succeed. “A big part of my time now is spent finding investment opportunities, mentoring other entrepreneurs and doing things that I am really excited about.”
Vardaan now spends roughly a third of his time looking for new startup investment opportunities, a third on traveling and a third focusing on personal life – health and family.
He hopes to continue traveling and living in new places. “The world is a small place now. Everything is connected with things like Uber and phones that roam globally. It is easy to live in different places and be fully functional.” He explains, “I am the kind of person who constantly likes to learn and grow. Traveling gives me the option to be constantly exposed to new things. Be it the culture of a new country or local food of a city, or unique architecture or just a new way of living.”
Vardaan explains that AIESEC has been critical in all aspects of his life. He grew up in a small city in India, during pre-internet days when the outside world was hard to envisage. “For me it was great to have the opportunity to walk into a company, knock on the door and explain why they should hire someone from other parts of the world. You were selling a unique concept and not just a tangible product. You heard lots of no’s but you were willing to overcome rejection because you knew that you were doing something meaningful, something you believed in.”
He explains that AIESEC taught him to bring “real value” to the table in all transactions and also noted that, “having an understanding of other cultures is extremely critical in collaborative team environments. Living a non-traditional life and saying I will go outside the norms, definitely came from my experiences in AIESEC.” He said he learned from AIESEC that life can be lived differently than you may have expected. “It is OK not to have a 9 to 5 job and it’s OK to not see your career purely on how much money you get at the end of the month, because what’s important is to have fun and be passionate about something.”