They didn’t imagine they would change community housing for four decades. They just wanted a job based on their engineering education. They didn’t imagine they would be one of the architects behind the system to capture rainwater in Chennai. They didn’t imagine they would create an engagement structure that would change the way problems are solved in universities, government agencies and communities in India and North America and that the model is deployable globally. They didn’t imagine they would educate over 10,000 Indians from the lower classes in Engineering and Medicine. They didn’t imagine they would create technologies and companies that would substantially alter the trajectory of the computer industry. They didn’t imagine they would bring the most preeminent technology company back to India that now employs hundreds of thousands of Indians. They didn’t imagine they would lead the effort in outsourcing to India. They didn’t imagine they would write songs in North America that would be played over and over again in Karnataka. They didn’t imagine they would initiate and lead the global entrepreneurial system. They didn’t imagine they would lead the effort to help other immigrants assimilate and become active and thoughtful citizens. They didn’t imagine that they would honor their daughters and create a system where successful corporations can meet and commit to significant engagements for sustainability. They didn’t imagine they would offer their pharmaceutical expertise to a well-regarded corporation as a way to earn a living and in retirement commit to an extensive engagement to educate the children of one of the nomadic groups in India.
They didn’t imagine anything but how to make it to Canada and America with $8 in their pocket. Their families sacrificed to get the plane ticket and expected them to return once they completed their advanced education. One collected apples on the long flight segments with plans to eat them until they could find vegetarian food. US Customs had other plans for those apples. They didn’t have proper clothes for the cold northern climes of North Dakota and Michigan. The university-associated people greeted them with warm coats and bacon for breakfast. A letter home took weeks. A phone call was so expensive that it could only mean bad news. Once in school, they excelled, and yet one was accused of somehow knowing the answers to a test because no one could get all the questions right so early in the term. One man went to Canada although he wasn’t sure at the time if he knew where he was going. One went to Germany and then to Canada and finally where he wanted to be – in the US. They were the first phase after the American Immigration Act was signed but there were recessions in the US and Canada so there were not many jobs. They knew they were resourceful because they earlier got a job in a car wash, and as a blueprint technician, and as a bus boy and a night guard.
So how did these people become some of the most successful leaders not only in industry but also in philanthropy? They imagined and created the human and financial infrastructures so they could open the doors of venture funding and entrepreneurship that were closed to their accents and unfamiliar names.
And they did stay and they have forever been loyal to Mother India while funding compassionate outcomes for a diverse range of people in North America and India. They didn’t know then that they would create a school to teach other Indian immigrants, and established citizens, about the great diversity of cultural practices, music and history of India. The model could well be taught in India today to reduce the problems from living in such a diverse collective of religions, tribes, education levels and customs. They opened the way for the present generation of Indian immigrants to thrive and prosper. Could the present generation have come with $8 or $800 and made their own way? There are several items to note about this first wave and perhaps it is what distinguishes Indian immigrants from many native-born Americans and Canadians. One distinction is the commitment to become educated, which not only means self-motivation, but a family standard to be the most educated person possible. If this remains the standard of the Indian immigrant family they will continue to be the flag bearers for high achieving entrepreneurs, corporate leaders, medical and pharmaceutical experts and generous community leaders for many generations to come.
What is important is that we listen to the stories told by the people themselves who made the journey from India, that didn’t host any real opportunities at the time, to North America where the only thing certain was that they had a graduate school program that had said, “yes, come.” There are hundreds and perhaps thousands more of these $8 immigrants and only 17 could be told in the book, “The $8 Man”. These are first-person stories and the storytellers continue to live their lives beyond imagination from their immigration.
Perhaps less imagination is needed now to come to a new place. The world is flat and the opportunities are very different. Let’s trust that the first phase of immigrants continue to set examples of how to live in complex times when racism and bigotry are allowed front row seats in our communications. The $8 men have written the stories not only of their lives, but also because of their vision and skills they continue to create a world-wide table where we all can be welcomed.
A marketing professional, Brenda H. Christensen is the editor of stories told by seventeen immigrants to North America in the 1960’s and 1970’s. To read more about the storytellers, please visit the project’s website here. These stories are compiled in the book “The $8 Man,” released in May 2017 and available in paperback and e-book versions through Amazon by clicking here.