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the ladder

Nilam Ganenthiran, chief business officer of Instacart, shown at the company's Toronto office on Mar. 8, 2019.Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail

Nilam Ganenthiran, 35, is chief business officer of Instacart, the largest same-day grocery service in the United States and Canada. Based in San Francisco, its Canadian headquarters is in Toronto.

I never knew what I wanted to be. My parents encouraged me to do something I liked and my best whatever I did.

I was born in Kuala Lumpur, an only child. My parents immigrated to Toronto in 1990 when I was six, sacrificing so I’d have better educational and career opportunities. I grew up in Scarborough. My mom, a dentist, retired to take care of me. My dad was in sales. I learned watching him, how he loved developing relationships. That’s probably what led me to a career interacting with people.

My first job, at 16, was a cashier at Food Basics, working through school. It taught me so much; interacting with customers, I’d remember patterns, who came in different times of days or month. When government support cheques were out, people bought groceries and diapers. Thursday rushes: I’d sign up for extra hours. That’s probably where I fell in love with the grocery industry.

It sounds hokey but it’s tangible. No one’s unhappy, things are approachable and affordable. People go, “This looks neat. I haven’t tried this.” In a high-end clothing store – people don’t look the same flipping over price tags, wondering how they’d afford a dress.

I went to York University for finance and marketing, thinking I’d be an accountant, a safe choice. I took an internship with Procter & Gamble because no accounting firm would hire me. I started in sales – Tide detergent, to Zellers. Back in grocery stores! Back at school, I gave up accounting, thinking, ‘P&G’s where I’m spending my career.’ During the third year of my internship, selling diapers, my girlfriend [now wife] and I would go to stores Friday nights before movies. ‘Gotta check the diaper aisle.’ Two 20-year-olds. Everyone gave us looks.

I asked if I could work full-time and complete fourth year. It helped pay student loans, proved I could step up, do well at school, manage time and be the marketing manager. Graduating in 2006, back full-time and running pet food, I was contemplating working in the United States. I’d always told my parents and wife I wanted an MBA. My wife said, if I moved I wouldn’t go back to school. So I applied to Harvard [Business School].

I lived in Boston, my first time out of Toronto, exposed to people from around the world, industries I knew nothing about. I decided two things: To stay in the grocery sector, and that I wasn’t ready to go back to one big company [after leaving P&G]. I wanted to see many companies, and decided the best way was joining A.T. Kearney as a consultant that worked with many grocery companies. I thought I’d never leave.

Apoorva Mehta started Instacart in 2012, coding at nights, picking groceries by days. A Harvard friend introduced me, “He’s also from Canada, [University of] Waterloo].” … Apoorva e-mailed, “Come see what we’re building.” I told my wife I’d go a few days, no intention other than to help out.

I walk into this house; Instacart was 10 people. Apoorva asked a question, I’d answer, he’d decide. He’d ask my opinion, say “Let’s do that” – on fairly consequential decisions! It blew my mind. From professional services where my job was spending months coming up with recommendations …to one I decide, then do it? I called my wife, ‘Hey hon, I think we’re gonna, I think I want to, to work here.’

Whole Foods was an early investor and a large client. Apoorva and I got [asked to join] a call one morning with their CEO. We’re speculating, obviously it was important. I dial in with CNBC on my television; the ticker reads, “Amazon buys Whole Foods.” A few minutes later, they join the call. [That was] one of those things where you have to trust your instincts. Apoorva and I texted [each other] a high five emoji, ‘It’s good for Instacart.’

After, of course, you go through every stage of emotion. ‘What does this actually mean?’ It was galvanizing. We signed every major North American grocer, expanded aggressively and are growing fast.

In Toronto, we have 100 employees. Our new office (late 2019) will have at least 300. We’re in 44 Canadian cities, another 20 in April; 70,000 North American shoppers, roughly 2,000 Canadian. We can serve 62 per cent of Canadian households, 80 per cent U.S.

There’s a tendency to look back and wish you’d done things differently, a trick your mind plays to distract you from the fact you’ve got something to deal with now. It doesn’t matter what led to where you are. A manager told me, “Start where you stand.” When you’re in a trap thinking, ‘If only we had …,’ put your energy into the next step – start.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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