"I want to leave a mark"
By Kavita Chhibber
As a child Narender Reddy devoured books by Erle Stanley Gardner, while his older brother would brings frogs home for dissection to head for a medical career, Narender would see the frogs being butchered and was even more convinced he wanted to be the Indian Perry Mason.
“The reality however was totally different when I finally became a lawyer and realized that cases in the Indian courts were won not by brilliance but by how well you knew the judge and how you greased the palms of the prosecutor,’ says Narender Reddy with a laugh.
Working for the state government Narender saw even more corruption and decided he had had enough. He left India in 1982 and went to the University of Evansille in Indiana to do his MBA. “I had a pretty good idea about how life was for a student in the US, and I would say that as soon as I reach there I will ask where do I go to wash dishes?’ Indeed his first job was to wash dishes in the school cafeteria the first year. ‘ I was promoted to manning the cash register a year later and thought I had made it1” The education system too was a radical change. “I was in the quarter system. The professor came in, for my first class talked for an hour and said well today we covered chapters 1 to 5. I looked at the book. Chapter 1 to 5 comprised of 150 pages. When did he finish that? It took me a while to realize that unlike in India where everything was by the book and you progressed page by page, here if you didn’t pay attention to the lecture, you were doomed.”
While these were minor adjustments, what felled Narender was the snow. “Coming from the warm district of Nalgonda in Andhra Pradesh, I had seen snow only in Hindi films, and we had a snow blizzard during my very first winter. I was cold and homesick and wanted to go back.” In 1983 Narender went to visit a friend in Atlanta during Christmas vacation. ‘I walked out of the airport and thought, wow, this is like Hyderabad. The temperate climate, the green trees all reminded me of the home I had left behind and I decided I would move to Atlanta as soon as I graduated.”
Narender moved to Atlanta in 1985 and began working for a small retail company, and for five years he worked two jobs and didn’t socialize much so he could establish himself. The Indian community was small then around 3 to 5000 Indians. He later decided to dabble in real estate. “I had always wanted to do something on my own and around 1989-90, I began reading that Atlanta will be ripe for opportunities in real-estate.” Narender had saved enough to last a year even if he didn’t make a sale. His broker told him it took any where from 30 days to 6 months to write the first contract. “I said oh good, I will still have 6 months’ surplus left, but when you start it doesn’t work that way. By the 15th day I was beginning to get stressed out and depressed and wondering if I would ever make a sale, that may be I was wasting my time. But on the 30th day I signed my first contract and never looked back.’
Narender said he attributes his success to doing the exact opposite of what he was taught during training. ‘I was told to make incessant cold calls, and to get the buyers to write a contract as soon as I was done showing them the property. I did neither. I would tell the buyers the pros and cons of the house and leave it to them to decide. I think the fact that I wasn’t pushy and gave them space worked in my favor.’ Narender jokingly says he focused on clients from other ethnic backgrounds.” All of them had an accent like me; I felt very comfortable and so did they.” After dabbling in residential real estate successfully, Narender focused on his goal of getting into commercial real estate. “I knew I would do well there because of my knowledge of law and my MBA.’ Today he has become one of the most successful brokers in commercial real estate in Atlanta, and is not taking too many new clients. ‘Commercial real estate is very time consuming. One deal can take as much as 3 months to close. You have to be very careful about who you take on as clients.” While commercial real estate brokers still comprise of very professional and experienced brokers, Narender says he is seeing a disappointing trend when it comes to residential brokers. “Just any body and every body can get into residential real estate these days. I see a lot of high school graduates working as full time brokers with no prior experience or proper training, which will be detrimental to the business in the long run.”
It was around 1990 that Narender started getting into politics. “In India I was pretty disillusioned because of the corruption but as a student in Indiana I would hear Ronald Reagan speak, I felt inspired and thought once I become financially stable I will get involved.” Narender says it was the ideology of the Republican Party that attracted him. “The ideology of the party is so close to what Indians believe in-family values, education and to have faith. We know that education is the stepping stone for every Indian who came here and succeeded, we are big on family values and keeping the faith. Also the party was very supportive of entrepreneurship.”
The going however was rough. While his fellow Indians embraced the democratic set up, Narender stood out like a sore thumb not just amongst the Indians but for a few years among the Republicans as well. “The Indians thought I was crazy, the Republicans would presume I had lost my way when I walked into one of the Republican fund raising dinners I had signed up for. When I would tell them I was here for the fundraiser they would look at me pretty shell shocked. This went on for 5 years!”
(Narender with George Bush, Sr. and late Senator Paul Coverdell)
Reddy feels that the last five years have brought many positive changes in the Republican Party. ‘If you look at the Republican Party in the early nineties you can see they were too much to the right and Democrats were in the middle of the ground. Today the new Republicans embrace the middle ground and I feel the Democrats have tilted too much to the left. Another thing that is very gratifying is the fact that you see tremendous ethnic diversity in the Republican Party and it is due to George W Bush who insisted on it right from his first campaign.”
Narender Reddy is the founder/chairman of the Georgia Indian American Republican Council (GIARC). It came about because “we had Indian American Democratic party in every state but until 3-4 years ago there was no Indian American Republican party,’ says Narender and adds, “I feel that while the older generation blindly joined the Democrats, the younger generation is doing a lot of work at the grass roots level, getting first hand experience about the party and the candidates and will hopefully be more informed before they choose who to endorse.” Narender was State Vice-Chairman for the Georgia Bush-Cheney-04 campaign committee and a Presidential Elector for the Republican Presidential candidate in the State of Georgia. He was elected as delegate to the Republican National Convention, and has made many trips to the White House, the most recent one when Prime Minister Manohar Singh was hosted there by the President. Singh was very pleasantly surprised at Narender’s love for India when Narender talked to him about the ongoing problem of excessive fluoride in Nolgonda waters leading to birth defects. ‘The Prime Minister was surprised that I have been in this country for 23 years and still worry about my city back home.”
The current President’s popularity has plummeted in the aftermath of the Iraq war and the slow response post Katrina. He is also considered by many to be just the mouthpiece for Dick Cheney and others who supposedly form the caucus that runs his agenda.
What does Narender Reddy think of George W Bush? Does he ever wonder about the President’s seeming lack of gray matter?
Reddy says he has met George W Bush one on one 4 times and he was also part of a presentation where the media was not invited. “People who think it is others who are running the show are greatly mistaken. People close to him may offer their opinion, but the agenda, whether it's social, political or economical is his own. I have also noticed that he is a totally different person when the press is not present. I was at this meeting where the press was not allowed. The President spoke for 63 minutes without any notes or any aides talking to him. He spoke from his heart and brought up national, international and economic issues. Ten minutes before he was to end he said I have a couple of Indian American friends here so let me talk about what is happening in the Indian sub continent, and he proceeded to talk about the Indo-Pak issues his discussions with Vajpayee, etc."
"He is not dumb. He knows everything that is going on. But it’s very obvious that most of the media is against him and I see how overtly careful he becomes pausing several times whenever he is addressing the media. I feel that even in the presidential debates he lost one, won one and the third one would have gone either way. There too he had no notes and no aides prompting him. Then he should have been annihilated.”
Narender says on a personal level he finds both George W Bush to be very down to earth, warm and compassionate. “He gets that from his mother Barbara who is very accessible and warm. George Bush Senior is from the old school, aristocratic, stiff and formal.’
So where does he see the Indian community headed politically?
“I think there is a change for the better but it is happening at a very very slow pace. Most Indians still don’t interact with the mainstream, we are still obsessed about taking pictures and we beat the Indo- Pak issue to a pulp each time we meet a political leader instead of discussing our rights, education and other things that are of immediate concern to us as a community.”
Narender says when he does fundraisers he keeps the stake high so fewer people who are truly committed to making a difference show up and have a one on one with the congressman or the political leader invited. Still he feels that Indians have succeeded in doing great fundraisers but still lag behind when it comes to getting the clout they deserve as a community.
(Reddy with former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher)
“My biggest hope is from the second and third generation Indian Americans. They will be more assimilated in the mainstream and will not have the baggage the older generation has brought with it along with its rich cultural heritage. The checks are still coming from the older generations but it’s the younger generation that is providing the sweat equity, working in campaigns, getting to know their representatives more closely by working with them.”
Narender has served as President of the India American Cultural Association, (IACA), the Telugu Association of Metro Atlanta (TAMA) and the Indian American Forum for Political Education (IAFPE) Georgia Chapter. Reddy is also a trustee of the Hindu Temple of Atlanta, Riverdale, Georgia and takes an active role in its activities. He says his dream today is to work towards reforming the Indian American community and to help it fulfill the potential it has to become one of the most influential communities in the country.
“We have a tendency to project ourselves as a model minority and we shove all our concerns and issues under the carpet. We need to stop living in denial. We also need to interact more with the mainstream, do business and outreach programs if we want to tell mainstream America who we are.”
Narender adds “My parents especially my mother taught me about honesty, integrity and the need to excel. My mother said if you don’t become successful no one will care about you. It is very true. I still remember as a young child while going to school I would go past the Governor’s House and try to peek in to see what it looked like from inside. The security guard would shoo me away not even letting me stand there for 30 seconds. Sometime back as I stood in the Governor’s mansion here in Georgia being sworn in for the Transportation board I remember the time I was shooed away from the Governor’s house in India. It was a surreal moment and became the first step towards my dream to help lead and leave a mark in the community.”
(Narender with GA Gov. Sonny Perdue)
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