A Publication of WTVP

Learning the Landscape, and Mastering It

by Linda Smith Brown | Photos by Ron Johnson |
Dr. Meenakshy Aiyer and Seshadri Guha
Dr. Meenakshy Aiyer and Seshadri Guha

India natives Seshadri Guha and Meenakshy Aiyer have made it work in Peoria — in business, in medicine, in their own lives

Seshadri Guha and Dr. Meenakshy Aiyer have made significant contributions to Peoria’s business and health care landscapes, all while contending with an unfamiliar culture and community.

“We had to get guidance in so many different things,” said Guha. “You ask questions and people tell you this is how it works, this is what you do,” whether for a daughter going to prom or for a worthy social service organization extending an invitation.

Enjoying a night out
Enjoying a night out

“When you don’t grow up in a place, you don’t know how things work.”

None of that stopped Guha from founding two tech companies in Illinois, or Aiyer from becoming the regional dean for the University of Illinois College of Medicine Peoria (UICOMP). And none of that dissuaded the couple from helping to create a community event that has raised millions for Easterseals.

That they accomplished all of that while learning the ins and outs of American culture, which can confound even those born and raised here, is what makes them members of Peoria Magazine’s Legends Class of 2023.

Faraway roots

Aiyer, 58, grew up in Thiruvananthapuram, a city in southern India. Her father was a professor of engineering, her mother a homemaker. She has one sister, who resides in California.

As a young girl, Aiyer’s first career choice was “to be a stewardess. I just thought that was a cool job. People were always so well put together and I could travel the world.”

Guha, 59, grew up in Chennai, India, as an only child. His father was a professor of electrical engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology, his mother a homemaker. He grew up on the college campus where his father taught.

Unlike his wife, Guha did not have youthful ideas about his future profession. Eventually, his father strongly suggested that Guha apply to the Indian Institute of Technology, where he grew up, and where he then earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering.

In the mid-‘80s, the government of India announced an initiative to train 40 people for careers in computer software.

“One day my dad says, ‘Hey, I think you should apply for that software training.’

“Why? I’m an engineer,” Guha responded. “I don’t know anything about computers.”

His father replied, “This will be good because this is the future.”

Guha became one of those 40.

After a few years of training, he began applying to programs in India and the U.S. That’s when a college professor in Ames, Iowa called.

“My dad picks up the phone and the both of them decide it is a good idea for Guha to go there.”

Less than three months later, he was headed to Iowa State University, where he received his master’s degree in engineering science and mechanics.

Next stop? Peoria, and a contract job at Caterpillar.

Respecting Tradition

After high school, Aiyer went to Madurai Kamaraj University, receiving her medical degree in 1989. She then moved to the United States to do her internal medicine residency at the University of Louisville. Before completing her residency in Kentucky, she met Guha.

“We grew up in very traditional families. Tradition in India was arranged marriage,” said Aiyer. “So, our families introduced us. We had the option of saying we agreed to marriage or not.

“We met. We said we like each other. So, the parents talked. The wedding was arranged and we got married,” said Aiyer.

Today, the couple share a son, Prashant, now 30, who lives in Austin, Texas, and a daughter, Kripa, 26, residing in Peoria. Both are engineers.

‘Life Happens’

Aiyer transferred her residency to Peoria and completed it at the University of Illinois College of Medicine here.

Along the way, Guha caught “the entrepreneurial bug,” said Aiyer, and along with two partners started a new business that came to be CGN Global, where he remains the chairman and managing partner.

She had planned after her residency to move her young family to Kentucky, where she had been invited to do a gastroenterology fellowship.

‘The work that I do brings together two of what I consider the noblest professions, being a physician and taking care of people, and being a teacher’ — Dr. Meenakshy Aiyer

“Life happens, so we had some decisions to make,” said Aiyer. “I had a 3-year-old and a newborn and him (Guha) deciding to start a company. I remember walking into my then-chair’s office saying, ‘I know I have a fellowship, but I think I should probably see if I can stay in Peoria and … find a job.’”

Parents Seshadri Guha and Meenakshy Aiyer with their children, son Prashant, left, and daughter Kripa

In response she was told of an opportunity at UICOMP as clerkship director for internal medicine. “And that’s how my career started,” said Aiyer. It was the best of both worlds for her: teaching as well as caring for patients.

“The work that I do brings together two of what I consider the noblest professions, being a physician and taking care of people, and being a teacher,” said Aiyer. “They make a difference, not only at the individual level, but they also make a difference in the families that surround that individual and through that, the community, over time having a significant impact.”

Geeking Out, for Good

Although Guha comes from a technology background — he describes himself as a “geek” — his eyes light up when he talks about business.

“Ultimately, businesses are what keep the world going,” he said. “I’m a little passionate about businesses doing well so they can take care of people.”

With that motivation, Guha started another company. TADA Cognitive Solutions is headquartered in Peoria, employing approximately 100 people while positioning itself for significant growth from a central Illinois base. TADA helps businesses navigate the complexity of their mammoth supply chains to improve performance, on behalf of their customers and their own bottom lines.

The company already is receiving accolades for its Next Gen technology.

“TADA is going to be successful and result in a great deal of employment here in Peoria,” said Jonathan Michael, the chairman and CEO of RLI Corp. and chairman of the TADA Board. “Guha’s product … will have application across many, many segments.”

‘Choose Peoria’

Guha and Aiyer have embraced central Illinois.

As though quoting from a marketing brochure, Guha encourages people to “choose Peoria.

“There is some very natural innovative spirit in this region,” he said. “We need to have the confidence in it. In the ability of Peoria to be a leader.”

‘TADA is going to … result in a great deal of employment here in Peoria’ — Jonathan Michael

Aiyer contends that part of what makes Peoria great is the College of Medicine, and part of what makes the College of Medicine great is Peoria.

Physicians who come to Peoria do so because of the city’s large health care systems — OSF HealthCare and Carle Health — and the opportunity to train the next generation of physicians as well as do research, all within a 10-minute walk.

“It’s a great recruitment tool,” she said.

They admit that they’ve had a learning curve.

“A funny example, I think,” said Guha, “was when my daughter had a prom date. And honestly, coming from India, we don’t date in India. So, of course, I’m very concerned. I called up a good friend of ours for information. We had to get guidance in so many different things.”

Another area of cultural difference was volunteerism and philanthropy, which was new to the couple. “It’s changed now,” said Guha, but once upon a time back in India, “you didn’t spend a lot of your time and effort focusing on a not-for-profit. We had great mentors like Steve Thompson at Easterseals, who told us how it works.”

In other parts of the world, philanthropy exists, said Thompson, “but not nearly the way it does here in the United States. I think that’s in part because in many countries, the government plays a much more outsized role in meeting social needs.

“Guha learned quickly, and since he did, he and Meenakshy have led the adoption of that American brand of philanthropy through the Indian community,” said Thompson.

Early on in her volunteer efforts, Aiyer was tasked with raising $500 for Easterseals. “The concept for me to have to go in and say to someone, ‘Can you give money for an organization?’ even though it’s a good cause … was not something I thought I could do well.”

Over dinner with Indian friends, the fundraising dilemma was discussed. The suggestion was made to serve Indian food, said Aiyer. “It made perfect sense. ‘OK, I’m feeding you, and in return you are paying me.’ Let’s do that.”

From there, Peoria’s Passage to India event was born.

The first event attracted about 80 people and raised $8,000 for Easterseals.

“People said, ‘Hey, authentic Indian food is good,’” said Aiyer. “The next year, the event doubled, and it doubled again the following year. Now it’s an event the community looks forward to. We still cook. The community comes together, both Indian friends and colleagues at work asking to come and join the kitchen or … help decorate.”

In the past 17 years, Passage To India has raised $4.5 million for the treatment of disabled children at Easterseals.

Linda Smith Brown

Linda Smith Brown

is a 37-year veteran of the newspaper industry, retiring as publisher of Times Newspapers in the Peoria area