Rahul Merchant moved to the United States in 1979, carrying whatever belongings he could squeeze into two suitcases. His flight from India had landed at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport and, not long after, he managed to lose one of his suitcases.
Merchant sat curbside in a blue wool suit, the only suit he owned, with the late-August sun bearing down. A taxi driver picked up Merchant, and took him to his destination without asking for a fare.
“The driver said to me, ‘When you make money, you can pay somebody else,’” Merchant said. “That was the fundamental principle I learned in this country, and I’ve been touched by that moment ever since. That was a great experience for me, and I feel that in the corridors of TIAA-CREF.”
Merchant, who earned his MBA from the Fox School of Business, applies the same principles to his new position with TIAA-CREF. As Chief Information Officer and Executive Vice President, Merchant is tasked with overseeing the existing information technology and implementing new IT initiatives for the nearly 100-year-old financial services firm.
In his role with TIAA-CREF, Merchant leads teams responsible for core infrastructure, enterprise architecture, data and information security systems, and application delivery for core enterprise functions. These are tasks, Merchant said, didn’t exist when he broke into his industry nearly three decades ago.
“Traders and sales folks had conducted business on the trading floor by telephone back in those days,” Merchant said. “Today, 90 percent of business is closed over the wires and without even hitting the trading tickets. It’s all electronic. What does that mean? The systems are more technologically driven and efficient, but the other side of the IT coin is that business is done openly and transparently.
“Our task is to ensure that we are setting up a financial environment in which our clients can conduct this efficient business in a safe and secure setting, where their personal information is protected.”
Merchant’s career began in the technology field. After earning undergraduate and graduate degrees at Memphis State University (now known as the University of Memphis), he moved to Philadelphia to be near relatives. His employer at the time “encouraged employees to further their educations in the evening,” spurring Merchant to consider Fox’s MBA program. He complete coursework at Temple University’s Ambler Campus, graduating in 1989 with his MBA in Finance.
He’s been working in the financial markets arena ever since. He’s acted as Operating Partner at Exigen Capital; Executive Vice President, Chief Information and Operations Officer at Fannie Mae; and Senior Vice President, Chief Information Officer and Chief Technology Officer of Merrill Lynch. He’s also served on the boards of public and private companies such as Sun Microsystems, Level 3 Communication, and Fair Isaac Corp.
In 2012, then-New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg asked Merchant to join his cabinet as the city’s first Chief Information and Innovation Officer. Merchant reported to Bloomberg directly, working closely with the mayor on New York’s IT initiatives. Merchant identified this position as a defining moment in his career.
“We treated all 8.2 million people who lived, worked and were educated in our city as customers,” Merchant said. “Michael’s vision was to transform New York City into a data-driven city with one of the most-advanced digitally enabled infrastructures, and to give everyone in New York a top-class digital experience. We enabled WiFi in Harlem, Times Square, and Central Park without spending taxpayer money. We did all of it through corporate partnerships. It was in this position that I matured as an executive.”
The New York-based executive said he travels to Philadelphia periodically, and hopes to become more involved at his alma mater. He’s been a guest at a previous meeting of the IT Advisory Board, a function of the Fox School’s Institute for Business and Information Technology.
“Whenever I’m in the city,” Merchant said, “I’m committed to spending time at Temple and making a difference where I can.”