As a member of the first Junior Team Canada delegation in 1991, Mahesh Uttamchandani has been actively involved with Global Vision for nearly 30 years. He has pursued an impressionable career in international trade and business, working with the World Bank across the globe.
We had the pleasure of catching up with Mahesh and of learning about his incredible journey.
As a JTC Ambassador from Global Vision’s very first delegation in 1991, it is quite impressive that you’ve kept in touch with the organization all of these years. Can you elaborate on the 1991 Mission and on your involvement with GV?
The 1991 Mission was, to my understanding, completely unique. Terry was an MP at the time and he had garnered support for GV from Prime Minister Mulroney and others in the federal government at the time. It also took place in the lead up to Canada 125. So, the purpose was both to foster some degree of unity across Canada (by proportionally pulling in GV participants from all provinces and territories) and to foster international trade by teaching delegates (all of whom were high school students) about international trade.
How would you describe your experience with GV then, and how has it impacted your life to this day? Is there a particular piece of knowledge that you learned that you’ve brought forward with you?
Looking back, I can see how, in many ways, GV set my life on a different trajectory. At that stage in my high school career, I was pretty sure I wanted to be a lawyer. It’s hard to imagine today but, at the time, Canada – despite being so diverse - was a fairly parochial place. Most Canadians did not speak a language other than English or French and most did not actively travel outside of North America. GV exposed me both to formal learning in economics and to the sort of informal learning that comes with travel. It really did imbue in me a passion for globalization (at a time when we didn’t even use that word) and for understanding Canada’s role in an increasingly ‘flat’ world. It also took place at the same time that the war in Yugoslavia was just developing and the Euro was starting to be rolled out. These were developments that were highly significant, globally, but that most Canadians were not particularly well informed of. While I did end up studying and practicing law in Toronto, the hunger for a more global role that GV planted in me, led me to a more international career.
On a very personal level, growing up in a very working class part of Scarborough (a Toronto suburb), I had never imagined going to a university like Queen’s (which, at the time, was a fairly wasp-y place). As part of our GV training, we spent a week at Queen’s and I fell in love with the university and ended up going there for my undergrad. I also made friendships through GV that are still very important to me today.
You mentioned that you are currently working with the World Bank across the globe. What does your role consist of?
I’ve had several roles at the World Bank but, currently, I manage a team of 50 staff, spread across 11 global locations from Washington to Sydney, that provide expertise to national governments on financial infrastructure and access to finance. This includes areas such as: digital financial services, mobile money, payment systems, consumer financial protection, credit information, bankruptcy and asset-based lending. My team is currently active in about 100 countries – spread across all regions of the world.
What is the most culturally interesting country or city that you’ve been to, and why?
This is a tricky one. I’ve had the good fortune of travelling to over 95 countries and have visited many interesting cities – and more importantly, worked with so many interesting people – in my time at the World Bank. Before my current position (which is more management focused), I was a senior technical expert and often worked with bankers, lawyers and judges in the countries that I travelled to. The legal and banking communities in different countries are so interesting and are such a reflection of the culture of their respective countries. This has been one of the most interesting things for me to experience.
If I had to choose, however, I would probably say Johannesburg. South Africa is such an amazing country (both naturally and culturally) and has such an interesting and challenging history. The people of South Africa that I have met and worked with over the years are some of the hardest working, smartest people I have known and, crucially, have the best sense of humor in the world!
What inspired you to pursue a global career?
A big part of it was sparked by GV as I said above. Canada definitely punches above its weight in the sphere of international organizations and it played a big role in shaping some of the legal reform work being done in Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall. In the early 2000’s, Canada was helping support an initiative at the EBRD in London (the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development) that promoted commercial law reform in emerging markets in Eastern Europe. As a Canadian lawyer, I jumped at the chance to be part of this and was asked to move to London to work at the EBRD for 2 years to pursue this work. My law firm was kind enough to give me a leave of absence and my wife was able to get a transfer to London with the global accounting firm she worked for.
After doing that for two years it was like my entire world and frame of reference had changed. I was exposed to the world of international development in a way that I could not have dreamed of. Although we were scheduled to come back to Canada after the two years, I was recruited to the World Bank and the rest, as they say, is history.
How would you advise someone aspiring to build an international profession and a global network? Are there any particular skills that should be developed, or opportunities that should be looked out for?
You know, I am often asked this question by young Canadians who are early on in their careers. I feel like my answer to this question is often something people don’t want to hear, but honestly it’s the best advice I can give:
I think we sometimes misunderstand ourselves in Canada or, at least, the perceptions people have of us. Although we are such a diverse country and so many of us have strong connections to different parts of the world due, in part, to our own heritage, we are still seen as a country where – much like the US is seen – people don’t venture too much beyond their borders. Today, when I get resumes from young people, often by the age of 25 they have lived, studied and maybe even worked in 2 or 3 countries. Canadians, by contrast, tend to stay close to home (maybe because we have such a great country!). So, I tell people, look at your resume and imagine that the person reading it is skeptical of Canadians and their knowledge of the rest of the world. What is on your resume that will dispel that skepticism? If you did your undergrad in Canada, did you also stay there for grad school? If so, why? What says ‘passion for global work’ on your resume? Have you only ever worked in Canada? Are you fluent in any languages?
One of the greatest achievements of the last 25 years, in my opinion, is the lifting of hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and into the global middle class. A consequence of this, however, is that young Canadians looking for an international career need to compete in a way that they probably didn’t have to a generation ago. Kids in China, India and elsewhere are not only getting a great education at home, they are then leaving home to study and work in universities and companies that have truly global brands and provide them with platforms for which to have a more global career. Young Canadians need to think about competing in that kind of world.
Finally, do you have any specific goals or plans that you intend to accomplish in the future? In other words, what’s next for you?
It sounds scary to say but, as I’m turning 45 this year, I’m into the back half of my career. I’m really excited about the technological changes that are happening in the world of finance, particularly around mobile money and the use of mobile technology to bring financial services to people who have never had this kind of access (the poor, those living in rural areas). I’m really excited about continuing to learn – particularly from younger people – about these new technological innovations and helping to bring them to the poorest and least served parts of the world.
Personally, I’ve discovered that I have a real passion for managing people. Going forward, I see my contribution to international development relating more to effectively managing teams – and helping my teams deliver effective results.