A Multicultural America: A Pipe Dream?

By Jeet S. Bindra, President
Chevron Pipe Line Co.

South Asian Political Awareness Conference

University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia

I jumped at the chance to speak here at Penn because I look for every opportunity I can get to interact with young, enthusiastic, energetic people just like you. You're obviously a group that's ready to make a difference. When I look out at your shining faces I feel proud that we share the same heritage. And it fills me with hope for the future of this great nation.

I have no doubt that all of you worked extremely hard to get here, but I wonder how often you stop to reflect on the fact that you are not only attending one of this nation's -- and the world's -- great learning institutions, but you're also pursuing your studies at the very birthplace of modern democracy -- a movement that's currently sweeping the world. How appropriate that we are gathered here in Philadelphia at this great university to talk about politics.

It wasn't that long ago -- 224 years, to be exact -- that delegates from the 13 colonies also gathered here to sign a document whose proclamations still reach out to us like a shining beacon of hope after more than two centuries. A document whose words remain transcendent:

We hold these truths to be self-evident . . . that all men are created equal. That they are endowed by their Creator . . . with certain unalienable rights. That among these . . . are life . . . liberty . . . and the pursuit of happiness.

These are such wonderful and inspiring words, words that hold great meaning for me, personally, and for millions of others around the world. And though there's some controversy today about exactly what Mr. Jefferson meant when he wrote, "all men are created equal," I choose to believe that he meant all mankind. And that certainly includes South Asian Americans, just like all of us, men and women alike.

Sharing the same heritage and the same background as we do, I understand firsthand the unique struggle that many of you are going through. It's like walking a tightrope. A tightrope that requires a delicate balance between the traditions that your parents and grandparents have passed on to you and an all-consuming desire to "fit in" and make your mark in this place we call "The United States of America."

Well, I've got bad news, and good news, for you.

The bad news: The tightrope isn't going away. The good news : You get used to the balancing act and even good at it. I can testify to that. Besides, it's a balancing act that gives you a unique perspective on two very different cultures. And that's an asset, not a liability.

My own personal balancing act began in the holy city of Varanasi in north central India where I was born just after the India-Pakistan partition -- something that my father assures me I was not responsible for. When I was growing up my family was very poor by Western standards. But I never felt deprived in any way, I guess, because everyone around us was poor also. What's the old saying? "Ignorance is bliss"?

My father worked for the government all his life, and when he retired he was making less than $100 a month. Somehow, on that paltry sum, he was able to clothe and feed a family of five children. I attended public schools and did well enough to receive a government scholarship to attend college. I graduated from the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur in 1969 with a bachelor's degree in Chemical Engineering.

Even though I was proud of that accomplishment, it soon became obvious that an undergraduate degree wouldn't get me where I wanted to go -- a dose of reality that many of you have had to swallow, I'm sure.

So, what was I to do? Should I just stay home and get a job? Or should I go to graduate school in India? Or should I step out on that tightrope, leave my homeland and come to the United States to further my education?

Although the decision I eventually came to is obvious, it wasn't an easy decision. I didn't realize it at the time, but I was about to begin my own balancing act between the old and the new worlds.

Thankfully, I was able to get a scholarship at the University of Washington, which was a good thing, because I had to take out a loan just to get there.

I landed in the United States with only my suitcase and the lordly sum of $8 that the Indian government bestowed upon me for "expenses." Imagine leaving your lifelong home, traveling halfway around the world with just the clothes on your back and a few coins jingling around in your pocket. I must have been "nuts." Insanity helps focus the mind, however, and I was able to get my master's in Chemical Engineering in a little more than a year.

After I got my degree, I returned to India to care for my aging parents, help out my younger brother and sister, and look for a job. And I didn't go grudgingly. I returned to my native land full of enthusiasm and high expectations. I was going to make a difference.

Sadly, that dream didn't last long.

India's smothering bureaucracy, the lack of career opportunities and the corruption that permeated all levels of business became absolutely intolerable to me. So, I came back for good in 1977. And I've never regretted for one minute my decision to make the United States my permanent home. There was just one problem with my returning: I didn't have a job. Thankfully, that problem was remedied in fairly short order. Chevron offered me an engineering position that same year.

During my early career I worked very hard, and the company rewarded me for that hard work with several quick promotions. Then, all of a sudden, the promotions stopped. It didn't take a genius to see it. I had bumped my head on that glass ceiling that everyone talks so much about. I had gone, it seemed, as far as I was going to go. I had foolishly thought that all I had to worry about was the tightrope. Now I had a glass ceiling to deal with as well.

I vividly remember one of the executives at the time taking me aside and giving me some "friendly" advice. He said, "Jeet, listen, you look different, you dress different; you speak with an accent; you'll be lucky to make it into middle management before you retire."

I remember thinking, "Don't judge me by the color of my skin, or my accent, or the kind of food I eat, or whether my name is Bindra or Wong or Gonzalez, for that matter."

But what I said was, "Please judge me on my performance and what I bring to the table." Suddenly, I felt the tightrope beginning to wobble. Should I make adjustments to maintain my balance, or should I just abandon my high-wire act? Should I accept the status quo, or should I fight to change it?

To make a long story short, I decided to fight.

I made up my mind to take this person's unsolicited "advice" as a challenge rather than an insult. I enrolled in an accent improvement class and got my MBA at night school. I made a point of seeking out and learning valuable tips from successful executives at Chevron. I also redoubled my efforts to demonstrate to the company's top management that I could be just as good a manager as the fellow who had given me that unsolicited advice -- maybe even better.

In the final analysis, it took a combination of personal sacrifice, hard work, and a gradual change in the culture of the corporation, for me to be promoted into upper management.

When I look back, I'm amazed at how much I've accomplished in my life. Some might say it's time to jump off the tightrope, kick back and enjoy some of the fruits of my labors. But I choose not to do that. I choose instead to speak out, to engage myself and others like me, in a just cause 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."

The United States is a great country, perhaps the greatest country in the world when it comes to granting its citizens the personal liberties and the opportunities to achieve what their individual skills and energies will allow. That's why I became an American citizen nearly 20 years ago.

Yes, it's a great country, but it's not a perfect country. We've got a way to go before we can say that.

We've got a way to go when an African American is brutally murdered in Jasper, Texas, just for the "fun" of it.

We've got a way to go when a white man kills a Japanese American grocery store owner in the suburbs of Chicago just because he looks "foreign."

We've got a way to go when "dot busters" can roam the streets harassing Indian American women with Bindi on their foreheads, and Sikhs are publicly ridiculed and denied their right to wear a turban.

And, we've got a way to go when the number of violent acts against South Asians in this country increased nearly 2000 percent between 1997 and 1998.

Like you, I get frustrated and angry when these things happen. I've often asked myself, what can I do to try to stop these sorts of injustices? What can I do, as an Indian American, to make this country a better place to live, where everyone is judged by what they can offer America, rather than what their ethnicity is?

The answer is "not much, by myself." But, if I can convince other South Asian Americans to join with me to build a movement to right some of these wrongs, together we can make a difference.

So, last September, I got together with a group of successful Indian American executives in Washington, D.C., to talk about ways we might promote positive changes in this society, and by so doing, increase racial harmony; equal rights and opportunities; recognition of diversity; respect for each other; and tolerance of ethnic, religious and other differences.

To make sure that we didn't restrict the brainstorming to the graying-temple set, I made a point of inviting a group of young Indian American professionals, so we could incorporate their unique points of view. You should have seen the energy in that room. It was incredible! And, it didn't take us long to get to the heart of the problem: Simply put, the South Asian American community in the United States of America lacks unity.

Oddly enough, we have the numbers. Did you know, for instance, that there are almost 1.5 million Indian Americans in the United States? And, if you add in all the Americans who hail from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Maldives and Sri Lanka, pretty soon you're talking real numbers. And yet, as a group we lack a cohesive message, because we lack unity. And because we lack unity, we lack political power.

We're like the invisible man. Nobody knows who we are. Just imagine the political impact we could have if we could all band together? One has only to look at the recent success of other groups in American society, such as Cuban Americans, to see how effective you can be when you speak with one voice.

As a result of our meeting last September, and a follow-up meeting two weeks ago in New York, today I am announcing the formation of a new nonprofit organization called "The Indian American Leadership Center."

The Center's primary mission is to help build a better America for the new generation of Indian Americans and the generations that will follow. The center will take on issues of concern to all South Asian Americans, not just Indian Americans.

In order to fulfill its primary mission, we've given the center's operation three main objectives:

  • The first objective, and the one where we'll be putting the lion's share of our efforts to begin with, will be called, "Building the Leaders of Tomorrow." To achieve this objective:
    • We will establish a strong leadership, development and training program for our young people in this country.
    • We will create a nationwide network of mentors in the business community. The main component of that effort will be to connect business executives with students from across the nation by email, by Internet and by telephone.
    • We will also schedule networking opportunities by inviting students to meet and talk with a wide variety of business leaders in informal settings around the country.
    • We will establish a speakers bureau of prominent business leaders.
    • And lastly, we will seek to publish newspaper and magazine articles that will help us tell our personal success stories.
  • Our second objective is "Reaffirming our American Commitment." To meet this objective:
    • We will increase the number of eligible voters from our community by convincing resident aliens to apply for U.S. citizenship.
    • We will increase voter participation by holding voter registration drives.
    • We will encourage people in our community to actively participate in the democratic process at the local, state and national levels, and work to improve grassroots participation in American civic life.
  • Our third and final objective is "Creating a Unified Voice in Policy Making." To achieve this objective:
    • We will advocate on behalf of our community, with the public at large and with the political establishment on those issues that affect our lives.
    • We will publicize the voting records of elected officials so that our community can make informed decisions about candidates running for office.
    • We will leverage our participation in the media at conferences and other venues to advance our agenda.

As you can see, it's an ambitious agenda. We'll need to involve and energize the entire South Asian community to accomplish what we've set out to do. To make sure we maintain our focus and not lose sight of what we're ultimately trying to achieve, we've created vision and mission statements to guide our efforts.

Our Vision is to promote a diverse, multicultural America strengthened by great leaders and citizens from a vibrant and supportive Indian American community.

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

And to help our new organization achieve these goals, I'm very pleased to announce that my company, Chevron Corporation, has pledged $25,000 to support our efforts.

The choice for all of us is simple. We can continue to pursue our own personal goals and ignore the political realities in this country. Or we can get involved by speaking out, fighting for our rights as U.S. citizens and helping to build an America that we can all be proud of.

I have chosen to do the latter because I want to see an America where everyone is respected and valued for their differences, as well as their similarities. Where we can walk the streets without fear of someone attacking us simply because we might "look different." Where glass ceilings are a thing of the past. And where the mass media, especially television, accurately reflects the true ethnic and gender mix of American society.

I realize that these goals may sound like pipe dreams to some of you, but things will never change if you -- and I -- don't speak out and fight for justice. So, I urge you to remain vigilant and make every effort to become a part of the American mainstream.

Speak out when you believe someone's rights have been violated, no matter what their ethnic background.

Encourage your parents, grandparents and other relatives to participate in the upcoming census. We don't want South Asian Americans to be undercounted ever again.

Exercise your franchise right and participate in electing political leaders who share some of the values we share as a community. Get involved in social activities and engage yourself and others in the political process.

By doing these things, you will not only enrich your career and help create a future America that we all dream of, you will also find the "happiness" that Thomas Jefferson wrote about so eloquently over 200 years ago.

Just remember, "happiness" doesn't come without sacrifice and a lot of hard work. As Benjamin Franklin, perhaps the quintessential American and the founder of this great institution, once told a local citizen: "My friend, the Declaration of Independence only guarantees the American people the right to pursue happiness. You have to catch it yourself."

Some day, in the not-too-distant future, I hope to be reading or listening to a news story about some incredibly successful Americans -- Americans like Bill Gates, Jack Welch, or Christine Whitman -- except, this time, their names will be Kapoor, Krishnamurthy or Aziz.

Thank you very much.

Updated: January 2000