Vineet Mehra, 39, of Oshawa, Ont., became executive vice-president and chief marketing officer for Ancestry.com in January, 2017. Based in San Francisco, he is responsible for the genealogy company’s worldwide brand and marketing.
It’s a classic Indian immigrant story. My dad was a doctor, but wanted to give us a better life, so we came to Canada. They left everything. He had to redo all his medical schooling starting from scratch. I was just under two years old.
Being Indian, if you’re not an engineer or doctor, you’re basically nothing in life. Because my dad was a doctor, I thought I wanted to be a doctor. In high school, in Oshawa, I started taking business classes in Grade 10 in entrepreneurship and marketing. Mr. Zuly changed my life. I didn’t even know his first name. He saw my love and aptitude, took $50 out of his pocket and said, “Vineet, go start a business.” My mom added a bit; that weekend, a candy convention was at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, so she drove me down.
I fell in love with this wooden stand with fancy gourmet lollipops. I convinced the guy to not just sell me the lollipops, but give me the stand. I didn’t know it was merchandising, I just thought it looked nice. I brought it to school and set up my cash box. I sold out in one day, making massive margins.
I kept investing in the business. By the end of the year, it was a profit centre for the school. I thought, ‘This is it. This is what I want to do.’ While my parents were excited, they still thought, ‘My son’s going to be a doctor.’
I remember choosing courses for Grade 13. I dropped physics for a business course so couldn’t apply to science programs. [My parents] were pretty disappointed. It was a “What are you doing with your life?” moment.
A teacher told me about Proctor & Gamble, so I did research. I saw Wilfrid Laurier [University] was one of the top hiring schools, so everything was planned backward. I got my first, then second internship [there] and went on.
My first job was an account manager; my territory included Honest Ed’s. Ed Mirvish used to have birthday parties. I took over with door-crasher deals – we had a killer record year. To me, that meant everything. I got to go to India, lived in Singapore three years, met my wife there.
Consumers want to trust an institution, be associated with brands that do good. I was the global president of baby care at Johnson & Johnson and always thought of a move to Silicon Valley, but only for a brand that’s platform. Ancestry was that brand. We have 100 million family trees – the world’s largest consumer genomics company, the No. 1 product on Amazon from Black Friday to Cyber Monday.
What’s happening culturally in all this craziness is that people are looking for connection. Our advertising is almost all customers; we tell their stories. We took the Miracle on Ice hockey team that beat the Russians, tested their DNA and found they were from everywhere. That’s platform.
The divisiveness and lack of inclusion [in the United States] shocks me; that’s the little bit of Canadian that comes with you. The truth is, I miss the equality, the spirit of inclusion – it’s not that it’s not here, but there’s haves and have-nots. In Canada, it’s so different; you never have to think about if you live on this or that side of the street because the school is different.
Advice I always give is to “bloom where you’re planted.” Sometimes you make deliberate decisions and sometimes your career takes you certain places, but wherever you are, just bloom. Having a global career, we’ve lived in 11 or 12 houses in the past 10 years. When you do that, you lose roots. We love it [in California].
I’ve lived all over the world, travelled to over 60 or 70 countries. We’re big-time foodies and travel extensively, plan vacations around restaurants we want to eat at. We’re a family of three, two incomes, that works for us. The notion of how tight-knit we are, with a five-year old son, adding a fourth doesn’t work.
I really miss Canadian maple syrup. I won’t buy Vermont or New York stuff. Nothing beats dark Canadian maple syrup.