Bringing Efficiency to Clients With High-Quality Data
Issue   |   Fri, 11/07/2014 - 01:10
Karti Subramanian
Subramanian left a comfortable career in finance to help social impact groups develop more effective and organized data.

Although Karti Subramanian ’07 initially started out with investment banking after graduating from Amherst, it became clear that that wasn’t all that he wanted to do for the rest of his life. His interests in international development and nonprofit organizations eventually led him and his two colleagues to found Vera Solutions, a company that aims to improve the quality of information and data in order to increase the efficiency of social impact groups. And now, as a young social entrepreneur, Subramanian attends John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

Childhood: Travel and Change
Subramanian and his family had lived in two continents before finally settling down in the United States, making North America the third continent that Subramanian called home. Although it was difficult for Subramanian and his sister to leave their friends every few years, the experience of seeing so many different places and cultures would set the stage for Subramanian’s future career. Vera Solutions, the technology consulting and development firm he co-founded, operates in nearly 40 countries and helps non-government organizations, social enterprises, research institutions and government agencies collect and analyze data.

“I think it’s fair to say that those experiences were formative for me,” Subramanian said. “That my interest in international development now comes from explicitly or implicitly having been interested in the question of ‘Why does this place look like this, but this other place look like this?’ as we moved between places.”

An Intellectually Curious Student
Before coming to Amherst, Subramanian barely knew what he wanted to do after graduation, let alone as a future career.

Nonetheless, Subramanian found himself following his older sister, Tia Subramanian ’05, to Amherst College. “My older sister thought that [going to Amherst] would be a good decision,” Subramanian said. And, as a wise younger brother, Subramanian said, “I usually do what she tells me to.”

Once at the college, Subramanian truly enjoyed his four-year experience. “I found some amazing friends who shaped me in so many ways, and who continue to be some of the most important people in my life,” Subramanian said.

In fact, at the time of this interview, two of his college friends were on their way to Boston to stay with him and his girlfriend, who also attended Amherst College.

Among many extracurriculars at the college, Subramanian regards his involvement in two specific activities as most memorable in his collegiate experience: being a member of the tennis team and being a co-owner of MAStorage.

“Karti was one of the fittest and quickest guys on the team,” said Assistant Tennis Coach Matt Leitl. “He was extremely energetic, intellectually curious and very bright. He took his fitness and dynamic stretches very seriously.”

Leitl recalled one of Subramanian’s memorable victories over a notable Middlebury player, when he had his opponent “muttering the unforgettable under his breath”; as well as Subramanian’s infamous tight gold and red dragon suit that he would wear to cheer on his teammates during his freshman and sophomore years.

Aside from his athletic career, Subramanian and four of his friends acquired MAStorage, a student-owned and operated storage service, in 2005. A relatively small company, MAStorage had been run by just a single person before.

“We were fortunate enough to do something that I’ve since done a second time: run a company with good friends, whose work you really enjoy and that allows you to meet all kinds of people that you wouldn’t otherwise,” Subramanian said.

The Typical Amherst Path: An Investment Banker
“I was a happy-go-lucky kid growing up, more oblivious to the world than I’d like to admit,” Subramanian said. “It only occurred to me towards the end of college that I cared about a lot of things — that I was really ignorant about a lot of things, that there were so many things I’d love to have the chance to study and learn about.”

After graduating from Amherst, Subramanian followed the career of many Amherst graduates: he entered the investment banking world. This decision was influenced by a few of his friends, whom he saw applying for jobs at Goldman Sachs and Lehman Brothers. Subramanian said he thought to himself, “Huh, should I be doing that, too?” Without even knowing what a cover letter was, Subramanian borrowed a suit from a friend, quickly studied up on investment banking and went off to the interview.

For two years after graduation, Subramanian worked as an investment banking analyst for Lehman Brothers and Barclays Capital. “It was in so many ways an amazing experience from which I learned a ton,” Subramanian said. “And being at ground zero of the financial crisis in September 2008 was pretty surreal.”

As Subramanian dived into this profession, he soon discovered that this career was not for him. His next career move would bring him to yet another continent, this time volunteering for an HIV-prevention organization in South Africa: Grassroot Soccer.

And it was here that Subramanian would meet his soon-to-be co-founders, Taylor Downs ’08 and Zak Kaufman (Dartmouth ’08), of Vera Solutions.

A New Career Path: Vera Solutions
The organization Grassroot Soccer uses the game of soccer to help educate communities in preventing the spread of HIV. Like many other non-government organizations, Grassroot Soccer was compiling its data on the program’s results and impacts through paper registers and poorly recorded Excel spreadsheets.

“What was initially some software that we developed for our own organization’s use — to take attendance at sessions in township schools, to keep track of how many kids had been tested and referred to subsequent services, etc.,” Subramanian said, “turned into a technology consulting service.” Namely, Vera Solutions.

“Building Vera together was amazing,” said Taylor Downs, one of Vera’s co-founders. “Zak [Kaufman] and I had been talking about doing something like this for a few months, and Karti was the one who actually sat us down and announced that we were going to start a business. Next thing I knew, we were signing an operating agreement.”

Vera Solutions has provided technology-consulting services to more than 100 social services organizations. By using low-cost technology, Vera Solutions helps companies access their data and analyze it so that clients can understand whether their services are effectively impacting and improving people’s lives.

“At its core, the idea for Vera Solutions is that we think NGOs and social enterprises should track their beneficiaries with the same vigor that they track donors,” Subramanian said.

But starting the company was not an easy task. “[Technologists and potential clients would] ask about some new tool or framework or technology that we’d never heard of and in 90 seconds of research, we’d have to figure out exactly how it related to our work, how we might use it, why it might succeed or fail and so on,” Downs said. “Karti was amazing at this, [and] a hundred times over the last four years, we’ve had a really good laugh about the ridiculousness of us running a company.”

Vera Solutions has given Subramanian an opportunity to not only work on issues he is interested in and passionate about, but also to surround himself with a variety of new and old friends and organizations.

“We get to work with some of the most dynamic, creative and passionate organizations working on some really big, entrenched social issues all over the world,” Subramanian said.

One of those individuals that Subramanian had the opportunity to reconnect with was his first-year year roommate, Eric Glustrom ’07. Glustrom’s organization, Educate!, became one of Vera Solutions’ first clients.

“As a result [of working with Vera and Subramanian] we had the chance to spend beautiful times together in Uganda,” Glustrom said. “I remember traveling to Sipi Falls together in eastern Uganda with a group of fellow Amherst friends, getting a soccer ball stuck in a tree, having a great guacamole eating contest and gleefully singing Pete and Jay’s version of Beyonce’s ‘Halo.’”

Glustrom said what truly distinguishes Subramanian from other entrepreneurs is his ability to connect with people. “He naturally understands people and brings out the best in them,” Glustrom said. “Whether he knows it or not, the quality of conversation and authenticity of relationship are higher when Karti is around.”

“30 Under 30”
Despite Subramanian’s uncertainty as to how his life would unfold after college, he has made a name for himself and his company.

Subramanian, along with his co-founders, Downs and Kaufman, were all awarded Forbes’ “30 Under 30: Social Entrepreneurs” in spring 2013. Forbes’ “30 Under 30” list highlights the “brightest stars” from 15 different fields, all of whom are under 30 years of age.

Last year, Subramanian shared his experience and knowledge at Amherst College’s first annual TEDx event.
“Our theme for the event was ‘Disruptive Innovation,’” said Megan Lyster, the director of innovation programs at the college’s Center for Community Engagement. “Karti was chosen because his work with Vera Solutions is reshaping the ways in which social enterprises collect and utilize data.”

During his TEDx talk, Subramanian spoke about the importance of improving data collection and analysis so that organizations can better understand their social impact, with a particular focus on the human-centered nature of data systems. He emphasized that data can only be as good as the questions it is used to answer: “Asking better questions is the real innovation,” he said.