What Would Mahatama Gandhi Say?

By Jeet Bindra

The image a successful person projects is unmistakable.

The clothes we wear, the cars we drive, the places we live. All these things communicate success, especially as it’s defined in the United States of America. But I would like to question that premise somewhat by looking at “success” in a more holistic way.

Many of us Indian-Americans have attained a very comfortable standard of living it’s true. But, how successful are we as parents, or spouses, or caregivers, or mentors to the young? If Mahatama Gandhi were here this evening would he think that we had achieved the pinnacle of success? Or would he perhaps suggest that we still had a way to go before we could rightfully call ourselves “successful.”

He might suggest that we’re not doing enough to contribute to the “success” of our Motherland, for instance. Or that we’re not doing enough to help the downtrodden in India break the cycle of poverty. Or that we’re not doing enough for future generations here in our new adopted home, the good old U.S. of A.

Are we doing enough he might ask to ensure fair and equal treatment for all Americans?

Of course, I don’t have the wisdom of Mahatama Gandhi but I’m sure if he were here today he would certainly say that I have a way to go in some of these areas before I could consider myself a complete “success.”

I don’t know whether it’s the specter of old age, or Gandhi himself, but recently I’ve begun to think more about issues beyond my own professional success.

Like many of you, I would guess, I was too busy climbing the corporate ladder and fighting my way through the glass ceiling to attain a good position with a reputable company to spend much time thinking about what my social responsibilities might be.

At the same time I can’t be too hard on myself because it’s extremely important for all of us Americans of Indian origin to be successful professionally for it increases our “visibility” and provides us with an stronger platform from which we can influence and contribute to social causes that have special meaning for us.

Let’s talk for a moment about the standard, economic measurement of success. How have we done in that area?

Well, as usual there’s good news and bad news.

We should be very proud, for instance, that a very large number of companies in Silicon Valley were started by one or more Indian-American professionals. There are many Indian-Americans in this country who are successful entrepreneurs today. Yet until the explosion of Information Technology during the 1990s, Indian-Americans were not even acknowledged as a significant minority group in this country.

We obviously owe a debt of gratitude to all the hard working Indian-Americans in Silicon Valley and other places who, through their efforts, have helped put us “on the map.”

That’s some of the good news.

On the bad news side, when you look outside the dot-com world at traditional corporate America you will find only a handful of Indian-Americans occupying senior executive positions.

Why are there not more names such as Indra Nooyi of PepsiCo?

The straight and simple answer is prejudice. And it’s a prejudice that’s based on unfair, preconceived notions of Indian-Americans, notions that all of us have experienced and so must do our utmost to counteract.

When positions of significant leadership responsibility open up top executives don’t usually consider their Indian-American professionals as viable candidates. Why? Because of the preconceived notions I just mentioned.

Notions such as:

Indian-Americans can only excel as “techies.”

Indian-Americans do best in laboratory settings, or as individual contributors on complex technical issues.

Indian-Americans can’t possibly lead a group of white men and women.

Indian-Americans are lazy, unassertive, dishonest, we lack communication skills and, perhaps worst of all, we’re always late.

We need to demonstrate to this society clearly and decisively that we are none of these things. We must always conduct ourselves in the highest professional and ethical manner.

Unfortunately, many present-day corporate executives stereotype Indians and other South Asians as coming from corrupt societies. All it takes is a few “bad apples” to confirm their worst opinions. Until we gain a higher visibility, and achieve a stronger and more widespread reputation for excellence, we must work harder than our white male and female counterparts. Yes, that’s unfair but that’s the way it is. It’s a sacrifice we have to make today so that future generations of Indian-Americans will not have to combat the stereotypes I just mentioned.

Now, let’s talk about that broader definition of “success” that I spoke of at the beginning. The one that goes beyond material success to those things that take on greater significance and meaning as we look back on our lives.

Let’s talk first about our obligations to India. The need to give back to our Motherland in recognition of the material success we’ve achieved in this country.

I’m a firm believer in the value and the “rightness” of transferring technology between the United States and India but I also believe that we need to move beyond that worthy goal and place more emphasis on “transferring” something else of value to India as well – that is our time, our efforts, and our money in support of worthy social projects in our Motherland.

There are projects designed to improve some of the conditions I’ve described and they are projects in which we can all participate. But these sorts of charitable efforts, however laudable, will not by themselves put India on the road to prosperity.

That will take a significant infusion of foreign capital and collaboration.

Of course, that won’t happen until the government removes its regulatory roadblocks and improves its policies toward business operations in general.

Until these things happen few investors will be willing to risk large investments in India in spite of the pool of talented workers that our Motherland has to offer.

For the government to make these sorts of changes may seem like a monumental task but if we don’t start working toward that goal India’s future prosperity will be forever held captive in a frustrating tangle of government red tape.

Each of us can do our part to keep that from happening by working with India’s leaders to entice foreign investors, by reducing the impediments to business and by emphasizing the merits of entrepreneurship and free enterprise.

It goes without saying that I’m proud to be an American and especially proud to be an American of Indian descent. And even though I support all reasonable efforts to help our Motherland I must never forget that my true allegiance lies with my adopted homeland the United States of America.

That is a sentiment that I share with countless other new immigrants who have landed on these shores. Irish-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Filipino-Americans, and all kinds of other hyphenated Americans, naturally retain a fondness for the land of their birth. But for many that fondness becomes tempered with time by an emotional bond that becomes just as strong.

The bond we share as citizens of the United States of America.

They have found, as I have, that no matter what name appears before the hyphen the common name that appears after it is the one that binds us all together – Americans. And as Americans of Indian descent we have certain obligations to this country just as every other American has.

We need to ask ourselves:

Am I doing enough to make this country a better place to live?

Am I doing enough to hasten the day when this nation will judge all of its citizens “not,” as Martin Luther King said, “by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

Unfortunately, I find that many Indian-Americans have moved up from “Jackson Heights” to “Beverly Hills” but their hearts and minds are still in Chandni Chowk. 

We need to convince these people that where they really live is Main Street U.S.A.

We need to convince these people that the legacy we leave for future generations of Indian-Americans is every bit as important as their concerns for the Matra Bhumi. After all, our community in this country is not insignificant anymore.

The last census shows that Indian-Americans constituted the largest growth segment among Asian-Americans in the United States over the last decade. Today there are about 1.7 million Indian-Americans in this country nearly equal to the entire population of the state of Nebraska.

In recognition of our growing numbers, some of us decided to create a new non-profit organization a few years ago called the Indian American Leadership Center.

After a while, we decided it would be a good idea to include all Americans of South Asian descent, including those from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Maldives and Sri Lanka. We did this because we felt that South Asians as a whole share many of the same challenges in this country.

While some of us may make great distinctions between the different ethnic groups that come from South Asia, most Americans do not and that includes our children.

For these reasons, we decided to rename our organization the South Asian American Leaders of Tomorrow or SAALT.

Strength lies in numbers and if you pull together those Americans who hail from the countries I just mentioned, plus those who come from India, you’re talking real numbers.

The vision of our organization is to promote a diverse, multicultural America strengthened by great leaders and citizens from a vibrant and supportive South Asian-American community.

Our mission is to foster civic engagement and leadership by members of our community in all sectors of American society.

Our objectives include building the leaders of tomorrow, reaffirming our American commitment by participating in the political process, and creating a unified voice in policy making.

Our main goal is to help future generations of South Asian-Americans to assimilate themselves more successfully by sharing with them the lessons that we have learned, by providing them with leadership training, and by mentoring our youth, and acknowledging and reinforcing their dreams.

In a recent survey we conducted we found that seven-out-of-ten Indian-American youth say they have no mentor. Six-out-of-ten felt that they lacked the personal networks and contacts that they needed to reach their full potential.

If you expand that to include all South Asian-American youth, the message is clear. There’s a critical need to create a nationwide network of mentors in the business community to help these young people.

We need to connect successful business executives with South Asian-American students from across the nation by email, by Internet, and by telephone, and by inviting students to meet and talk with successful leaders in informal settings across the nation.

Through our work at SAALT we also seek to encourage all South Asian-Americans to actively participate in the democratic process – at the local, state, and national levels – and work to improve grass-roots participation in American civic life.

We need to unite ourselves in a common cause to engage in the political process and the social fabric of this great nation.

If we want to be respected as people who are just as American as anybody else, and we want our voices to be heard, this has to change.

Of course, as we seek to increase our role in the civic life of this nation we must not turn a blind eye to the hate crimes that diminish the American Dream for everyone.

Just remember, as we fight for our own rights in reality we are fighting for everyone’s rights. It’s a pity that we can’t rally the entire South-Asian community against hate crimes simply because the victim happens to be a Pakistani or Bangladeshi.

We need to shed the prejudices we have against one another that we grew up with and build bridges across the entire South Asian community, and the entire minority population of this country as well.

Can you imagine the impact we could have if we could speak with a unified voice in policy-making, on issues such as hate crimes and immigration?

We need to make our voices heard at the polling booths.

We must also stop contributing to the campaigns of politicians in return for a photograph that we can hang in our dens.

There’s a real need to understand the voting records of our elected officials and publicize them so that the South Asian community can make informed decisions about candidates running for office.

We must learn to support those causes that we cherish and those that support our values.

Perhaps by nature, and most certainly by tradition, we have grown up to only consider contributing financially to our temples, gurudwaras, churches, and mosques. 

We need to develop a sense of philanthropy that goes beyond our religious establishments. We need to use our wealth to funnel some of our charitable contributions to organizations that support our ideals.

We also need to volunteer our services and challenge our young people to demonstrate their commitment to this society.

Many of us have already achieved success here as business entrepreneurs, now we must achieve a similar level of success as social entrepreneurs.

With this objective in mind each year on the anniversary of Mahatama Gandhi’s birth SAALT sponsors a national day of service. Not only to help the disadvantaged but also to demonstrate to the American public at large that our community is willing to do its part and give back to those in need in our adopted country.

Thousands of people throughout the country share Gandhi’s humanitarian message every year in October by volunteering their time and energy in soup kitchens and homeless shelters, by cleaning up playgrounds and parks, and by performing other activities to enrich their neighborhoods.

I challenge each of you to not only participate in these activities but also inspire your family members and colleagues to do the same.

Think of it as a down payment on the debt we owe this great land of opportunity, a land that has enabled us to achieve the level of success that we all enjoy today. By doing so you will be focusing on all the elements that I believe make up a complete human being, a truly successful person.

We can make a difference in each of these areas by standing up for our rights, our values, and our beliefs.

We can achieve a future for our children and grandchildren that recognizes all Americans for their innate abilities and contributions regardless of the color of their skin.

I hope some day soon this nation will look like a beautiful landscape of differently colored flowers, each one complimenting the other, creating a Monet-like image that is everlasting.

It all comes down to a choice, really.

We can continue to focus purely on material success, or we can expand our definition of success and fulfill the dreams shared by great visionaries like Mahatama Gandhi and the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.

Just ask yourself, which of your accomplishments would your grandchildren and great-grandchildren be most proud of? Would they be most proud of the fact that you helped start the Information Technology revolution, or that you helped make this country a better place to live.

The choice is yours.

Jeet S. Bindra is president, Global Refining, for ChevronTexaco. In this role, he responsible for leading the corporation’s worldwide refining operations. Global Refining is comprised of 19 refineries worldwide of which 7 are wholly owned and 12 joint venture refineries with a total equity capacity of over 2 million barrels per day. Jeet is a member of GS Caltex Board of Directors.
A native of India, Bindra received a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur in 1969 and a master’s degree in chemical engineering from the University of Washington at Seattle in 1970. He earned a master’s degree in business administration with honors from St. Mary’s College in Moraga, Calif., in 1979.
Bindra joined Chevron Research Co. in 1977 as a research engineer and, in 1980, moved to the corporation’s engineering department, eventually becoming chief engineer and superintendent of operations at the El Segundo, Calif., refinery.
In 1990, he joined Chevron Research and Technology Co., based in Richmond, Calif., as a unit manager, and in 1992, after a company reorganization, was named group manager, projects and engineering technology, responsible for all large capital projects affecting Chevron’s U.S. refineries and chemical businesses. In 1994, he was named manager, strategic planning, for the corporation.
In 1995, Bindra successfully led an effort to negotiate the financing, design and construction of a pipeline from the Tengiz Field in Western Kazakhstan to the Black Sea.
In 1997, Bindra was named president of Chevron Pipe Line Co., a position he maintained upon the formation of ChevronTexaco Corp. in October 2001. In this capacity, he was responsible for the transportation of oil and gas, petroleum products and chemicals in the United States. He was also responsible for ChevronTexaco’s worldwide pipeline projects.
Bindra was named managing director and CEO of Caltex Australia Ltd., effective May 2002. A publicly traded company in which ChevronTexaco holds a 50 percent interest, Caltex Australia is Australia’s leading oil refining and marketing company, involved in the refining, distribution and marketing of fuels and lubricants in all states and territories.
In July 2003, Bindra assumed the responsibility of co-leading Chevron Products Co. and was appointed to his current position effective Jan. 1, 2004.
Bindra was honored as a “Distinguished Alumnus” by the University of Washington’s department of chemical engineering in 1997 and by the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur in 2000. He is a member of the American Petroleum Institute’s downstream committee. He has served as the chairman of the board of the South Asian American Leaders of Tomorrow (SAALT), vice chairman of the Association of Oil Pipe Lines and currently Chairman of Business Leadership Council of SAALT. He is a member of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, the American Management Association and the University of Washington’s College of Engineering Visiting Committee.
Mr. Bindra was born in September 1947.

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