Kanwal was born in Rawalpindi (then in British India, now in Pakistan). After the partition of India, his family settled in Kanpur, India. In 1967 Rekhi graduated as an electrical engineer from the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, India and in 1969 he received a Master of Science degree fromMichigan Technological University. Kanwal has been a major donor to Michigan Tech, including a gift of $5 million for new computer science facilities. He worked as an engineer, systems analyst, and manager for many years before starting his own business venture in 1982. After graduating and moving to San Jose, at the age of thirty-six he cofounded and served as CEO of Excelan, a high tech company. Forbes Magazine writes that Excelan pioneered Ethernet networking technology, one of the basic building blocks of the Internet.
Excelan was a manufacturer of smart Ethernet cards, and was also credited for the commercial growth of the internet protocol TCP/IP. The company merged with, and was acquired by Novell in 1989 and Kanwal was given a seat on the board. Dorothy Leonard and Walter Swap speak highly of him in an article on The Knowledge Coach, January 10, 2005 in Research & Ideas section of Working Knowledge weekly newsletter, Harvard Business School.
Kanwal was awarded the 2010 Haridas and Bina Chaudhuri Award for Distinguished Service in April 2010 by California Institute of Integral Studies. He was named Entrepreneur of the Year in 1987 by the Arthur-Young/Venture magazine. He was named to the Board of Advisors to the President of Michigan Tech and in 1997 was honoured with a doctorate in Business and Engineering. Kanwal is also involved in increasing the visibility of premier educational institutions in India. He gave US $3 million to IIT Bombay to help set up a new School of Information Technology, named KReSIT (Kanwal Rekhi School of Information Technology), which opened in 1999.Kanwal Rekhi is a past Chairman and trustee of TiE, The Indus Entrepreneurs, a nonprofit support network to provide advice, contacts, and funding to Indian Americans hoping to start businesses. Forbes Magazine reports that Kanwal has helped energize TiE and as a philanthropist he has made major contributions to education, supporting universities on two continents. He is a prime benefactor of a foundation in India that identifies talented students without funds, and provides them with college tuition and living expenses. He is also Chairman of the Centre for Civil Society, a think tank in India. He is currently a board member of Pan IIT USA, Inc, the alumni organization of the Indian Institutes of Technology