In January 2017, Ravi Gukathasan donated $2 million to the Tamil Studies program at the University of Toronto. While Gukathasan made a name for himself as CEO of Scarborough based Digital Specialty Chemicals (DSC), the donation affirmed his name in the Toronto Tamil community and sparked a curious mix of acclaim, admiration and intrigue.
Ten years ago, Gukathasan was invited by his cousin to attend a meeting at the University of Toronto on the development of a Tamil Studies program. Having forged a strong connection from his time there as a student there and with a particular interest in Tamil language education, Gukathasan donated $10,000 to the program on the spot.
Like many Tamils living in Canada, Gukathasan spent most of his childhood in Jaffna in northern Sri Lanka. He credits this experience with shaping much of his perspective on life. He spoke of one specific memory as having influenced his current commitment to charity and community support.
One day, after being picked up from school by his mother, Gukathasan noticed a train leaving Jaffna jammed with passengers. When he asked his mother why so many people were in the back of the train in noticeable discomfort, he was surprised to hear that they were Indian Tamils who would be transported by ship back to India.
“At the time, I didn’t understand our differences with Indian Tamils. I didn’t understand why they were being treated this way when we were also Tamils. How come we don’t give a damn? I realized that people can lose touch with humanity.”
Having built a successful career spanning over 27 years, Gukathasan is quick to point out that while he has always been inspired by his experience in Sri Lanka, he spent much of his life focused on his career and “making money”.
In 2013, DSC had a good year earning $7 million in profit. As Gukathasan was addressing 60 of his employees on the company’s success, an unexpected feeling of guilt came over him and he began to cry.
“I spent millions on the plant and in equipment so the business could make money. But what was I doing for the people of the company? If I’d spent even $300,000 on human development, we would have been a better company.”
Following his speech to DSC employees, Gukathasan worked towards developing a dual bottom line framework for his company. In addition to financial success, the company’s fortune would also be measured by positive social impact. More recently, Gukathasan sought to challenge DSC’s success even further by aiming towards a triple bottom line, placing additional value on environmental sustainability.
As someone who’s always on the edge of satisfaction, Gukathasan made a philanthropic goal to create a $50 million endowment fund for the University of Toronto’s Scarborough campus, and to develop a building specifically designated for Tamil Studies.
“Wouldn’t it be great if the world’s oldest language saved the world’s dying languages? That’s what I hope will ultimately happen. Progress won’t happen overnight, but imagine if every Tamil person in Toronto donated $100 to the program? It could make a big difference.”
Gukathasan cites the experiences of the West Indian diasporas as having fueled his passion for the program’s focus on language.
“Look at the West Indian community here in Canada. Many do not know the language of their ancestors. This would be a sad thing if it ever happened to Tamil. I want Tamil people to know where they come from and know their language.”
When asked what his advice was to others in the Tamil community looking for ways to contribute, Gukathasan says that he often asks people why they want to do it.
“Many people in our community want to do it to show off and it’s such a sad thing. What good is it when your actions only serve you and your family? When I donated $2 million, I knew it would provoke people. But my hope is that it encourages those far wealthier than me to make even larger donations. If you really want to help people, follow your heart and drop your ego.”
Always on the edge of being satisfied, always thinking of ways to do better, Gukathasan has made himself stand out in his industry and within the Toronto Tamil community for constantly pushing the envelope.
From his professional success and philanthropic donations to the way he carries himself in demeanour and dress, nothing about Gukathasan seems conventional. Perhaps this is the key to understanding his success.
Photos courtesy of Journey Into Memories: