As some of you know, the ethnic group within India that I hail from is Gujarati, as in from the state of Gujarat. In my case, my parents and grandparents never really lived in Gujarat, but that is where the ancestral home is for our ‘tribe’. Apart from having a distinct cuisine, language, and dress, Gujarati’s are also known for their business prowess and their willingness to travel far and wide in their endeavors.
Last December, the Economist featured a wonderfully in depth article on the global spread of Gujaratis, and how they have navigated varying cultures to achieve an understated yet largely successful place in societies around the world. Even I learned a lot from it! And some of it certainly hits close to home:
For many Gujaratis the point of acquiring knowledge is to attain practical goals, particularly business goals. The Gujarati word vediyo, meaning a person who studies the Vedas, the ancient Sanskrit texts that constitute the oldest scriptures of Hinduism, has come to mean a “learned fool”. Ethnic-Indian Americans have applied their practical knowledge to Silicon Valley; they are responsible for about a quarter of all startups there, and a quarter of those are thought to be Gujarati.
Despite having been born and brought up in the US, proudly first as an American and second as an Indian – I still feel stirrings of pride when I see successful Gujaratis. Mahatma Gandhi was a Gujarati, as was Muhammad Ali Jinnah (the founder of Pakistan). The current prime minister of India, Narendra Modi, is a Gujarati (though any mention of Modi should also call out his dubious role in mob violence against Muslims). The Ambani’s who lead the giant Reliance corporation and who are the richest people in India are Gujarati. India’s great industrialist family Tata are Gujarati Parsi’s. All of these people grew up speaking the same language my family speaks and eating the same kind of food my family eats.
However, Gujarati people number only ~46 million in India (~3.5% of total population). Another ~15million live abroad, with around 300,000 living in the United States.
A recent article at NPR talks about the dominance of Gujarati’s in the US hotel industry. The statistics are eye popping:
Indian immigrants and their children make up about 1 percent of the U.S. population, but they own roughly half of the motels in the country. And about 70 percent of those motel proprietors can trace their heritage to just one state in India: Gujarat.
I’ve of course witnessed this phenomenon myself. When my mom and I drove out to California at the start of grad school, we stopped at a Days Inn in the middle of nowhere New Mexico, off I-40. The woman behind the counter was Indian, and Mom took a guess: “Tame Gujarati cho?” Minutes later, we were sitting in their living room at the motel sipping chai and eating Indian snacks.
Going bigger than just Gujaratis, it’s a pretty interesting time for Indians in America. After decades of quietly pursuing the American dream, now people are stepping more and more into the limelight. The CEO of PepsiCo (Indra Nooyi), CEO of Microsoft (Satya Nadella), CEO of Google (Sundar PIchai), CEO of Adobe (Shantanu Narayen), CEO of Mastercard (Ajay Banga), CEO of Nokia (Rajeev Suri), to name a few. Mindy Kaling, Aziz Ansari in comedy. Vijay Iyer for jazz. Sri Srinivasan (Federal Appeals court judge and possible Supreme Court nominee). Vivek Murthy as Surgeon General.
Not bad for a group of people that only make up 1% of the US population!