By Jason Lorenz
Leaders In Flint An Interview With Publisher Tel K. Ganesan Teaching Flint How To Fish Again
Everyone needs a little health alignment now and then. If you’ rereading this magazine, it means you have an interest in leading a healthier life. And if you talk to Kyyba Founder Tel Ganesan, he will tell you there is much more to living healthy than the usual doctor, gym and health store visits. It is all-encompassing.
This magazine, Kyyba Health & Life, is one of two publications offered by Kybba Intermedia, the other being Hope for Flint. The Kyyba Intermedia family also consists of Kyyba Films, which offers movies made in Michigan as well as a podcast series recorded in Flint. But Kyyba doesn’t stop at media, nor does it stay in Michigan. The Farmington Hills-based company has an eclectic portfolio ranging from entertainment and health to technology and workforce development, and numerous philanthropic ventures in Michigan and around the world employing roughly 700 individuals. It’s quite a wide array for a Michigan-based company founded only two decades ago. So what is the common theme, the over-arching goal Tel Ganesan is trying to achieve? As with many great human endeavors, the answer is in the fundamentals. For Tel, those fundamentals can be found in the first words of the Declaration of Independence: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. Happiness can be elusive, and hard to achieve when your environment seems to be out to foil your pursuit. Tel likens happiness to the four wheels of a car. “You have your physical health, your mental health, your spiritual health, and your financial health. If any of those ‘wheels’ is out of alignment, then it makes it difficult for you to navigate your way through life and achieve happiness.”
Tel’s own pursuit of happiness began in his native home of Chennai, India, where he studied engineering. His love of cars led him to leave India to attend college in the U.S., earning graduate degrees from Oklahoma State University in 1989 and Wayne State University in 1991. From there, so close to the Motor City, Tel began an engineering career at Fiat Chrysler America. While the automotive engineering world had treated him well, Tel felt a calling to do something more and bought his first company in 1998. Tel left Chrysler in 2005 to pursue his entrepreneurial calling. By then, he had purchased three companies in three different cities in Southeastern Michigan. Despite being somewhat related, all three had different names and made for a mouthful during introductions. So Tel sought a name to tie them (and any future ventures) together. Inspiration, Tel says, came from close to home. He wanted something short and memorable, but the names being pitched to him by marketing firms were long and cumbersome. “I wanted something like ‘Apple’ or ‘Google’ that grabbed your attention,” he says. On a whim, he says he asked his son to throw out some names that were ‘cool.’
“My son Ash came running to me.’ Dad! Dad! You should name your company Kaiba!’ I said, ‘What the heck is Kaiba?’” As it turns out, that was the name of the most powerful character in the trading card game Yu-Gi-Oh. Ash also advised his dad not to use the copyrighted name exactly, so an interesting twist in the spelling came about. As a shout-out to the Barack Obama re-election campaign of 2011, which used the slogan, “Yes we can; Yes we will,” Tel put the double Y in the powerful character’s name to make Kyyba. Tel likes to add to that story: “Yes we did.”
The lesson from that little anecdote for Tel was that inspiration can come from one’s own back yard. The ‘experts’ don’t always have all of the answers. “It allowed me to open up my mind a little more, to find inspiration from unexpected places,” he says. “Sometimes, we don’t believe our own people or those around us. We should allow ourselves to open up to those possibilities.”
That idea of finding solutions in one’s own back yard led Tel to investing in workforce development in order to help others find their niche. It’s also a driving force behind his nonprofit ventures such as Kyyba Kidz, which seeks to improve education for underprivileged and orphaned children, especially young girls who are often overlooked and underserved. From childhood to young adulthood, Kyyba Kidz provides personal professionalism guidance, internship opportunities and even entry-level positions into the workforce.
You can think of it as a natural progression. After all, education is the key to kids discovering their potential. Finding the right career for someone lets them tap into that potential. “I’m very much a believer in the ‘teach someone to fish’ philosophy,” Tel explains. “Give them the tools and workforce development in order to help others find their niche. It’s also a driving force behind his nonprofit ventures such as Kyyba Kidz, which seeks to improve education for underprivileged and orphaned children, especially young girls who are often overlooked and underserved. From childhood to young adulthood, Kyyba Kidz provides personal professionalism guidance, internship opportunities and even entry-level positions into the workforce. You can think of it as a natural progression. After all, education is the key to kids discovering their potential. Finding the right career for someone lets them tap into that potential. “I’m very much a believer in the ‘teach someone to fish’ philosophy,” Tel explains. “Give them the tools and opportunities they need to find their own happiness.”
When Tel decided to invest in a health and wellness magazine based in Flint, he found a community in dire need of that brand of thinking. Believing heavily in giving back to the communities in which Kyyba has a presence, he founded the Hope for Flint Foundation. With its podcast, digital and print publication, the foundation seeks to integrate global solutions on a local scale while keeping the community and the world informed of Flint’s progress. “I look at Michigan as my home, and so my way of giving back is to take my background in innovation, films and other media to really spotlight the stories and get Flint the necessary attention it deserves.”
Just as with his education, health information and workforce development pursuits, Tel’s goal is provide empowerment for Flint and the other communities Kyyba has placed roots. Flint’s history of reinvention over two centuries was an inspiration for Tel. Going from a lumber town to the leading carriage producer in the world (which garnered Flint’s nickname ‘Vehicle City’) to being the birthplace of General Motors showed the community had resilience. Tel wants to see Flint’s next rebound. “A hundred years later, Flint has not found its true potential. Tel asks, “How did we lose that mojo and how do we get it back? Through economic vitality, empowerment, diversity, and inclusion. This is where I believe I have the skillset to make a difference.”
Giving community members the resources they need to be successful, bringing them to the table to give them a say in Flint’s future, providing the city and its people healthy and wellness guidance for longevity, providing job opportunities…all are part of Tel’s plan to give the Vehicle City the alignment it needs. For anyone who doubts it can be done, Tel points to Detroit’s progress over the last decade. “Take a snapshot of Detroit in 2010 when there were large vacancies, buildings being sold for pennies on the dollar, the city going through bankruptcy. Now there is revitalization there. Take a snapshot of Flint today, which looks much the same as Detroit did a decade ago, and I want to see the same turnaround here.” That’s the idea behind Kyyba’s Flint 2030 Vision. He wants to give Flint a chance to continue its legacy of resilience over the next decade.
“GOING FROM A LUMBER TOWN TO THE LEADING CARRIAGE PRODUCER IN THE WORLD (WHICH GARNERED FLINT’S NICKNAME ‘VEHICLE CITY’) TO BEING THE BIRTHPLACE OF GENERAL MOTORS SHOWED THE COMMUNITY HAD RESILIENCE”
It’s no surprise that the absence of GM and the multitude of jobs it provided has left the need for something to take its place that can’t be so easily uprooted and, as he puts it, not putting all of Flint’s eggs in one basket. “We are operating like Flint is the same as different cities and it’s not. Flint has a unique set of problems that require a different prescription if you will,” explains Tel, “an intense therapy that addresses the needs of the people.” Part of that prescription is to deal with the opioid crisis by opening up treatment centers in Flint that could act as models for similar facilities around the country. “There are so many dilapidated buildings that could be turned into a positive force and create jobs. Turn those into areas of opportunity,” Tel says, adding that he wants to see a more holistic approach to treatment that focuses on aligning those four wheels of health. “Give people the right mental health treatments, not just physical. Give them healthy foods [and] job opportunities so they can be vibrant.”
Another part of that prescription is to build on Flint’s established successes. Tel points out many of Flint’s underutilized assets, such as its Cultural Center and local artist scene. “We have the 8th largest community arts school in the country, but we don’t have anywhere for artists to hang out and find opportunities.” He wants to see Flint turn into art, fashion, music and film incubator to showcase their skills. “Why does someone have to go 70 miles [to Detroit] when all they need is a place to hang out? Music is the best way to promote culture, so why don’t we start there?”
All throughout our discussion about Flint (my home town, I feel the need to note) and what he sees as a way to revive it, Tel returns to the notion of setting up these institutions and assets for the people to take ownership of…putting Flint residents to work wherever they can help, giving them the tools they need and thus aligning their community’s health. He wants to teach Flint to fish again. “I can’t be everywhere, so I need other thought leaders to help. What I can provide is a vision, a blueprint, a roadmap to success that is sustainable in the years to come.”
Aligning all of the Vehicle City’s wheels will take time and require many small steps working together. It won’t be easy or happen overnight, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. However, if this community-based holistic approach can work in Flint, it can work a model elsewhere. Flint can be the success story, the example for how concentrating on our individual and collective health and wellness can steady us for the drive down the road to success. This is a lofty goal to be sure, but it’s hard not to get excited by Tel’s optimism. For those who question whether it can be done, Tel has this prophecy: Yes we can and yes we will.