Tuesday, October 25, 2005
The American Dream: Another personal story
Both of my parents grew up in the town of Ajmar, in the state of Rajasthan in Northern India. My mom is from a small family. She grew up middle class, definitely not impoverished, but not affluent either. My dad’s side of the family was large. He had four brothers and four sisters. One of the things his parents wanted for all of their kids was to have a good education. Up to your bachelor degree, you can go to college in your own town. You live with your parents. A lot of families, especially sons, grow up in the house and live together in a ‘joint family’ as opposed to a nuclear family where you go out and get your own house. (Until three or four years ago, three of five brothers were living in the same house.)
Imagine living in a big ‘joint’ family. You have five brothers and parents in the same house, a six bedroom house, maybe 3000 sq feet. It’s pretty big, but if there are six families, then that means there are twelve adults, and two to three kids in each family. The family didn’t have cars. Even twenty to thirty years ago, air conditioning was unheard of for people living middle income lives. When my father was growing up, he had water four to six hours a day. Everyone in the family would be filling water tanks for water to cook, or water to bathe with. Things we take for granted, electricity, water, clean streets, clean fruits, are things you don’t take for granted when you are in India. When people we knew from India came back, they would bring pictures of how things were abroad. We would look at these pictures and think “Wow, what a beautiful city; what a nice neighborhood; how clean the streets are!” Some of it is a vision that things are probably better in other parts of the world.
Of all the brothers, my father was the one who ventured out. He went to engineering school through a combination of scholarships and his parent’s help. He got a masters of science in physics, and masters of technology in electronics engineering. After he finished his education, he took up a faculty position at the University in Delhi.
My mom was a chemistry and physics teacher in high school. We grew up in a ‘university compound’ while my dad was working in the engineering school. It was a close knit community and offered a lot of facilities and amenities. In 5th grade, my parents sent us to a ‘day boarding’ school. My parents focused on giving us a good education, education being the path to a successful life. The school was a private school and cost a fair penny. It was an interesting experience for me. I figured out about what my parents did not have and what other people had. I learned that there was more success to be had.
There are two professions most coveted in India: one is an engineer, the other is a doctor. My dad would say, “One of you should become an engineer, and the other a doctor.” That was the mantra. My parents focused on having a good education, education being the path to a successful life. In 8th or 9th grade, I decided that I wanted to be an engineer. Family members who had gone to IITs, were very successful. That was an inspiration for me. High school is when you start working hard and taking entrance exams. In terms of the school curriculum, I could handle it easily. I was dedicating most of my time preparing for my entrance exams, and was focused on getting into an IIT. Entrance exams are given to approximately 100,000 people and maybe 1500 get into IITs. The student who ranks number one in the entrance exam can go to any of the IITs. There is a hierarchy. Computer science is most preferred; electrical engineering is number two; mechanical engineering is number three; chemical engineering is number four, and number five and six is a tie between aeronautical engineering and metallurgy.
I ranked around 500 and made it into mechanical engineering. That was the first time in my life that I realized I wasn’t the smartest guy. I never had to deal with that before. In those four years, I discovered who I was, what my strengths and weaknesses were, and how human relationships worked.
The typical plan is that you get into an IIT, you go to the US, you land a good job or when you come back you get a better job. That was following the beaten path. It was the common wisdom, and at that time I figured there had to be a reason. Unfortunately, my father passed away in my sophomore year. I am the oldest son and “family responsibilities” fall on the eldest son. My mom was very supportive. She said, “Go, we can take care of ourselves.” So, in my junior year I decided I would apply to graduate school in the U.S. The question was whether I could land some kind of fellowship, scholarship or teaching assistantship. I ended up getting my masters degree from the University of Iowa in biomedical engineering. When I graduated, the US economy was in a recession and I always wanted to go to business school. All of a sudden, my backup option of getting my MBA became my first option. Thankfully, the University of Maryland gave some tuition assistance and fellowship money.
My children are being exposed to a lot of different things. Because of my experience, I learned how valuable it is to learn from all of the little things around you. The more you know, the more you can function and develop as a human being. The interaction I had with my dad when I was young was centered around homework. It was much more structured than the interaction I have with my kids. I probably heard my parents say I love you, but it wasn’t 3 times a day. My kids are way, way more fortunate in terms of traveling. They’ve been traveling internationally since they were 5 months old. They’ve traveled to India 2-3 times, to Taiwan 2-3 times. [Anand’s wife is Taiwanese.] They have been to the Bahamas. When these kids grow up, they should have a good sense of what they have in life. They should have a sense of how to handle situations. To me the importance of exposure is that it helps you question certain things.
What gives you the strength to do all that you do and what has given you the wisdom to speak from such depth?