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An Indo-Canadian mogul's new challenge: ‘What am I going to do with this wealth?’

Vasu Chanchlani stands beside the indoor pool in his Mississauga home on Feb. 12, 2013. Chanchlani is an entrepreneur and philanthropist who made his fortune buying and selling companies in the high-tech sector . In 2007, his maid was murdered during a botched robbery in his Mississauga, Ont. home. Since that time, he has given away millions.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

A tiny Filipino woman timidly enters the opulent foyer of entrepreneur Vasu Chanchlani's Mississauga mansion to hang up the coats of her boss's guests. With the same deer-like silence of her approach, she retreats to the kitchen.

She's the fifth (or is it sixth? her boss can't remember) maid who's worked at the Chanchlani residence since 2007.

"She has not been told – ever – that a murder took place here," Mr. Chanchlani says later, in one of his home's many living rooms. "But I am pretty sure she knows. I never told her. We don't talk about that stuff."

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Six years ago, Mr. Chanchlani's home was the site of an investigation that came to be known as the "Maid in the Mansion" case. It had all the ingredients of the kind of crime that compels TV crews to camp outside a house for days. It was a robbery gone bad: Two men (one of whom was a painter Mr. Chanchlani had employed) broke into the house to steal cash and jewellery. When they were leaving, they bumped into Jocelyn Dulnuan, the 27-year-old Filipino maid, and killed her so there would be no witnesses. The men were convicted of first-degree murder in 2010 and are serving life sentences. Shots of the massive Chanchlani home were splashed all over the media and Mr. Chanchlani's name got mixed into reports on the lurid details of the case.

In 2007, he was the subject of conversation in the Punjabi community, since so many knew his house was where the crime had been committed, said Yudhvir Jaswal, a journalist with a South Asian community newspaper and a friend of Mr. Chanchlani's.

And though Mr. Chanchlani was a well-respected businessman in the high-tech sector, his Google search results were now marred by stories about a high-profile murder.

But in the six years since then, the Internet has created a new profile for him. All it took was giving away $16-million to Ontario universities.

Less than a decade ago, a generous donation, in Mr. Chanchlani's view, was $5,000. Relatively speaking, it was small change for a man who claims part-ownership of 20 companies and whose claim to fame was co-founding the high-tech firm Sigma Systems, selling it for $82-million (U.S.) in 2002 and then buying it back a year later for a dollar (plus liabilities).

Instead of getting a moderate tax writeoff, as he did in the past, the scale of Mr. Chanchlani's charitable work today means his name is attached to programs at McMaster University, the University of Toronto and the University of Waterloo, where he's so far donated between $1-million and $2-million toward $16-million worth of endowments. There are two awards in his name for global leadership among members of the Indian diaspora and global health research. Like Bill Gates, he aspires to give away 50 per cent of his wealth, he says. Right now he figures his philanthropy draws on 30 per cent of his and his wife Jaya's net income.

Ms. Chanchlani is blissfully ignorant about how the family's finances are managed.

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"I just work and I come home, okay? I don't know where my money goes or what happens," she said.

She recalls a fundraiser the couple attended where guests were asked to give $500 to sponsor a child's education for a year in India. At one point, the event host announced someone had donated the funds for a whole school: $37,500.

"And I didn't know that this was my husband who did that," she said. "The person announced before even I knew. And I had no problem with that."

Aditya Jha, Mr. Chanchlani's closest friend, said Mr. Chanchlani first contacted him several years ago when he saw Mr. Jha featured in the front page of a newspaper for his philanthropic work (Mr. Jha also made millions as a serial entrepreneur). His theory: Mr. Chanchlani was compelled to give in part to garner the same attention.

"He knows he's much bigger than I am. So why not him?" he said. "People give [because of] either a very strong belief and passion or ego."

Instead of "Vasu Chanchlani: millionaire employer of a murdered maid," or "Vasu Chanchlani: high-tech entrepreneur," he is now labelled "Vasu Chanchlani: philanthropist."

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But before he started writing those million-dollar cheques, his first public pledge was tied to the murdered maid. During the trial, in 2010, Mr. Chanchlani told media he planned to help bring his maid's young daughter to Canada.

"It was my dream to fulfill Jocelyn's dream, so I said I will bring her daughter and give her education support and everything," he said.

But police advised him not to send any money to the Philippines or to have contact with Ms. Dulnuan's family at all, he said. Her mother arrived in Canada for the tail-end of the trial and he said he wanted to give her $10,000. Police suggested $5,000 instead and Mr. Chanchlani presented it to her in cash, he said. On the advice of police, he hasn't spoken to her or Ms. Dulnuan's daughter.

From there, his philanthropic efforts became more public and motivated less by personal connections.

It's the shrewd businessman in him, Mr. Jha says. He approaches philanthropy like an investor: he puts his money where it has the best odds of growing.

"Donation based upon either emotion or some association with the cause? I don't do that," Mr. Chanchlani said. He's intentionally avoided the philanthropic route most South Asians take: giving primarily to temples, religious organizations or community initiatives. By his assessment, university research is the way to go as it has the potential to achieve great things long after the last dollar has been spent.

When Sonia Anand, a medicine and epidemiology professor at McMaster University, shared her dream of doing more research on the link between health and ethnicity, she didn't expect Mr. Chanchlani would commit $1-million to the creation of the Chanchlani Research Centre. Mr. Chanchlani had no connection to her, to her research, to McMaster, even to Hamilton – making him something of an unusual donor.

"Of every 50 people you talk to, only one or two will be interested," she said.

Turning to more "Canadian" causes – such as establishing a memorial and scholarship fund for the families of fallen soldiers – hasn't hurt his status among the GTA's Punjabi circles, said Mr. Jaswal, who said Mr. Chanchlani is a fixture at nearly every banquet and fundraiser he attends.

"In our community, even if there are 50 per cent of people who say good things about you behind your back, I think it's a good number. But with Vasu, what I realized his numbers are up there in 70 to 80 per cent."

It's now, after more than a quarter century of financial success, that Mr. Chanchlani has turned his sights to giving away much of his fortune. Mr. Chanchlani said it came down to a simple calculation: in the last few years, his three adult children have established their own successful medical careers and his wife has long made enough money herself as a doctor.

"I felt, 'What am I going to do with this wealth?'" he said.

During a tour of his expansive home, Mr. Chanchlani revealed he never spends time in his 30-foot-long indoor pool. In fact, he said he and his wife tread the same path in a small corner of the house every day: They enter through the side of the house, go to the kitchen and then up the side stairs to the master suite, largely avoiding the multiple rooms framed by Corinthian columns and outfitted with gilded custom furniture (including the tall red velvet throne chairs with a C&C monogram carved into their wooden backs).

It was the tokens of excess wealth that the men who broke into Mr. Chanchlani's house in 2007 were after: a diamond-encrusted Rolex watch and cash they knew he stored in his bedroom. (He no longer keeps expensive items in his room and has installed cameras and door locks throughout the home.)

Now, Mr. Chanchlani is starting to let go of those things, too. Recently, an antiques dealer offered him a deal on Gucci watches, his wife says. The catch was he had to buy all 10.

"I looked at them for 30 seconds. It's a waste of money," Ms. Chanchlani said.

Mr. Jha said he and Mr. Chanchlani meet nearly every single day to talk as both friends and business partners, often at Tim Hortons.

"Rarely he orders. He just takes a bit from my green tea," Mr. Jha said. "He'll just get an extra cup."

He often flies coach, negotiates for the best travel deals and drove the same mid-level sedan for several years even when his children and friends were driving more luxurious cars, Mr. Jha said. But the drive to make more money has never been hushed.

"He never had any number is in mind. You want to do better, you want to do better," Ms. Chanchlani said of her husband.

He even takes it to the extent of buying lottery tickets – but only when the jackpot goes north of $30-million. It's a curious habit his wife says she's questioned him about.

"Everybody on radio says, 'What do you do [with the winnings]?'" she said. "I said, 'What will we do?' He says, 'Well, we can give it to charity.'"

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About the Author

Dakshana Bascaramurty is a national news reporter who writes about race and ethnicity. She won a 2013 National Newspaper Award in beat reporting for her coverage of changing demographics in the 905 region. Previously, she was a feature writer for Globe Life. More

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