The Backbone of the World
Sandeep “Sunny” Kancherla lives in the Himalayas in a remote Buddhist village with spotty internet and limited access to water. You might think a person who has chosen to live “near the edge of the grid,” as Kancherla RBS’04 describes it, would be motivated primarily by the pursuit of solitude and natural splendor. But what really drives him is a passion for small business and strengthening communities. Since launching his Newark-based real estate company (now dubbed Capstone Elite) at the age of 23, he has devoted himself to uplifting other small business owners—whom he calls “the backbone of the world.”
Kancherla was born in the Bronx and grew up emulating his immigrant pediatrician father. He initially thought medicine would be his calling, too, but he was also intrigued by his father’s side real estate business that provided additional income and a means of cultivating community. “He forged relationships with everybody across all different cultures, races, and religions,” Kancherla says of his father. “He became the pillar of a community, and I grew up watching that: how small business was so important for his own life and what it meant for the communities he served.”
After a brief stint in pre-med coursework at Boston College, Kancherla finally allowed his passions to lead. He became a real estate agent at the age of 19 while switching to management school, and within a year he was one of the youngest real estate brokers in Massachusetts. After 9/11, he moved back to New Jersey to be closer to family and earn his MBA at Rutgers—bringing his enthusiasm for real estate along with him.
Newark is one of the biggest college towns in the United States, and Kancherla spotted opportunity. In 2002, he bought his first house in Newark. He rented that property to friends, many of whom were students, and bought a second home. He continued gradually growing his real estate holdings—often alongside full-time corporate employment—and over the course of the next 18 years he went from managing three bedrooms to more than 120 rooms marketed toward area students. His business model now includes roommate matching services, mixers, fundraisers, volunteer opportunities, and other events. His goal? To bring people together, much like his father did, and deepen transplants’ ties to Newark—and he’s especially invested in generating support for small businesses. “It becomes this ecosystem where everybody benefits.”
In addition to connecting Newark residents to area businesses, Kancherla is also the former board president of Rutgers’ Center for Urban Entrepreneurship and Economic Development’s Entrepreneurship Pioneers Initiative, the youngest founding member of the Council of Entrepreneurs at Rutgers, and the former statewide e-business director of New Jersey Small Business Development Centers (NJSBDC). During his decade-long tenure at NJSBDC, he taught classes to business owners and launched the first-ever internet marketing pitch competition for small businesses—all while juggling his company and other jobs.
“I did it out of love,” he says. “I love to help small business owners. They’re the biggest bonds in a community and they’re the biggest stakeholders in a community. Really, what makes everything tick on the ground is small business.”
Kancherla hopes that governments and communities across the country (and the world) will recognize the same value that he sees every day, especially in the wake of COVID-19. As Kancherla sees it, the pandemic has showcased the value small businesses bring to people’s everyday lives. “There needs to be more programs to help small businesses grow,” he says. “The more they work, the more they give back…and the stronger the economy becomes.”
For Kancherla’s part, he’s devoted decades of his life to Newark businesses, building the kind of support networks that he hopes will blossom across the country. Though he’s currently managing his company remotely from the Himalayas (the fulfillment of a dream he had to live there someday), he remains a mentor to small business owners of all stripes. And he credits much of the success that fuels his mentorship to his time at Rutgers.
“Rutgers–Newark has just been such a tremendous platform…for me to explore my passions in different ways,” he says. “Everything that anyone could want to do in their professional career or in academics, Rutgers has the infrastructure and the people there to do it.”