Fighting for Impact on Inequality, Climate Change, and Development
Slice of MIT
“I like to share three lessons whenever I speak in public,” says Geeta Sankappanavar ’98, a serial and successful entrepreneur who was born in Salvador, Brazil, attended high school in New Palz, New York, and now lives in Calgary, in the Canadian province of Alberta. “The first is the value of hard work. The second is the value of relationships. And the third is that life looks a lot different in the rearview mirror than it does when you are living it.”
Founder and CEO of Akira Impact, a Calgary firm that sources and manages investments in the clean energy and infrastructure sectors, Sankappanavar almost didn’t get a chance to look in her own rearview mirror. At the beginning of her senior year at MIT she was diagnosed with Ewing sarcoma, a rare form of cancer that originates in bone or soft tissue. “They didn’t know if I would live or not,” she recalls.
Daughter of immigrants from Karnataka State in India—both her parents are mathematicians—Sankappanavar pivoted when she returned to campus after a year off for treatments. She changed her major from neuroscience to economics. “My parents both grew up in poverty,” she explains. “I always knew I wanted to make a difference. But I also knew that it takes years and years to make a difference in research. And now I didn’t know if I’d live to be 30.”
Graduating in 1998, Sankappanavar spent two years in consulting in New York, and then started, built, and sold a series of companies in finance, technology, and business services. She traveled constantly, to places including London, Frankfurt, Munich, and Bombay. “I was often the only woman and the only person of color in these environments,” she observes. “But the MIT pedigree made it impossible for them to push me aside. Because people assume that you belong there.”
Ten years ago, vacationing in Cuba, she met her husband, Trevor. The couple soon married, and Sankappanavar joined him in Calgary, where he was living at the time. In that oil and gas town, in an economy dominated by men, she cofounded Grafton Asset Management, managing energy assets that grew to $1 billion over four years. She was honored as one of Canada’s 100 Most Powerful Women, and served as the first female and minority chair of the board of governors for the University of Calgary.
While Grafton Asset Management had initially focused on oil and gas, in 2016, Sankappanavar became even more deeply interested in sustainability. A year later, she left Grafton Asset Management to found Akira Impact, an investment firm that is focused on supporting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals—investing in companies that tackle inequalities and climate change and foster sustainable development. There she’s launched three separate companies: Green Impact Partners, a company that extracts natural gas from animal waste; North Base Finance, which funds clean energy transitions; and Blue Water, which is involved in pumped hydro storage. “When you think about making an impact, you have to think about the health of the planet,” she explains. “How can you not care about that? I do care. And I’m in a position to do something about it.”
There is, sadly, a troubling sight appearing in Sankappanavar’s rearview mirror. Last December she was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. “I truly don’t know what the future holds for me,” she admits. “I’m taking a little time now to evaluate. But I’ve had 10 unforgettable years with an incredible man. I’ve had a career that has taken me places I’d never dreamed I’d reach. And now I’ve created a company that makes methane out of cow poop. I never thought I’d have any of this time.”