Don’t be choosy in the beginning: Many immigrants come here with a distinguished background and enviable employment history back home. They hesitate to start here with jobs that they think are below what they deserve. My advice is to get started as soon as possible with whatever available job and prove yourself. The American sense of fairness quickly recognizes who you are and what you are capable of, while rewarding you accordingly. That is what happened in my case and eventually I became CFO of Washington, DC. Only in America can a first-generation Asian immigrant become the chief financial officer of the nation’s capital!
I had the pleasure of interviewing Natwar Gandhi, former CFO of Washington, DC, and author of Still the Promised Land (Arch Street Press, 2019). Natwar Gandhi served Washington, DC, as tax commissioner and independent chief financial officer. This book narrates his journey from a primitive Indian town — no paved streets, electricity, telephone or running water — to Mumbai and then, through hard work, determination and good luck, to New York. After academic and corporate stints, Gandhi became the CFO of America’s capital and played a significant role in stabilizing the city’s finances, transforming it from a deficit-plagued jurisdiction into a financially healthy municipality. Still the Promised Land provides an uplifting message for present-day America, where immigrants are often reviled and immigration is viewed as bad for the country.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I grew up in an extended family that included my parents, grandparents, two aunts, one uncle and us seven siblings. In addition to these basic 14 people, we had others come to live with us for long periods of time and then go away as others would replace them! It was in a primitive little place in Western India that had no running water (my mother and sisters carried drinking water from the town river), no electricity (I studied under a kerosene lamp), no paved roads and no telephone. Dogs and cows roamed dirt streets. There were no cars, only a beat-up bus that would take people long distances. There was also a train that would connect us to an outside world of big cities like Mumbai and Ahmedabad. It would arrive only once a day. But this place had a ramshackle movie theater run on a generator that would show us Bollywood movies. It also had a decrepit library with old books. Both of these places were my refuge where I would go to escape my suffocating environment. Ever since I could remember, I always wanted to get away and go live in Mumbai, India’s most Westernized city. My father sent me there when I was 17 to look for a job and make a living myself.
Was there a particular trigger point that made you emigrate to the US? Can you tell a story?
I was a failure in Mumbai and could not find a good enough job to make a living or afford housing. I had to send my newly married wife to our hometown to live with my parents. I ate at a community kitchen and slept in the place where I worked. Tired of our hometown, my wife came to Mumbai to live with me and we moved from sanitarium to sanitarium every three months not knowing where we would go next. Once when I failed to secure the next sanitarium, I was at the end of my rope. When I gave her the news that she would have to go back to our town, I broke down. At that moment, I decided that the only salvation was to leave Mumbai and dream of America. India, particularly Mumbai, was “no place for young men.” But thinking of going to America and actually doing it are two vastly different things. Going to America was a bigger struggle; my book, Still the Promised Land, narrates that story.
Can you tell us the story of how you came to the USA? What was that experience like?
Navin Jarecha, a dear college friend, had already gone to America and was working at the university where he had studied. I pleaded with him to help me go there. He quickly arranged for my university admission, but I could not afford fees as well as airfare. One needs a lot of money to go to America: it is a rich man’s game. When I told him of my predicament, Navin, a highly resourceful man, arranged a tuition scholarship for me, a paying internship in his office and, wonder of wonders, an airline ticket through an educational foundation! Those were the golden days of American higher education and this is how I came to America: nothing short of a miracle.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped make the move more manageable? Can you tell us about him or her?
Navin Jarecha is that particular person. When I published my first collection of poems about America (I am an amateur poet in my native language), I dedicated it to him as a token of my profound appreciation.
So how are things going today?
Things are going extraordinarily well! After I retired as the longest-serving chief financial officer of the nation’s capital, where I played a key role in its financial rejuvenation, I have been serving on several boards as well as consulting with the World Bank in its efforts to help financially troubled sub-national governments in emerging economies of the world. I also have rekindled my literary career; since retirement I have published three books in my native tongue and my memoirs, Still the Promised Land, in English that was just published (appropriately on Independence Day, July 4th) by Arch Street Press.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
At the personal level, I have helped numerous worthy people migrate (legally, of course!) to America. They have all become contributing citizens of their adopted country. At a larger level, my wife helped to establish and finance the women’s wing in my hometown hospital, which now provides free healthcare to poor women, no questions asked.
You have first hand experience with the US immigration system. If you had the power, which three things would you change to improve the system?
My firsthand experience with US immigration was all very pleasant. I will never forget the welcoming remarks uttered by an immigration officer at JFK Airport on October 10, 1965: “Welcome to America, sir. Enjoy it!”
However, our present immigration system is a mess. We have a crisis on our southern border and approximately 11 million illegal immigrants living in the country, with more streaming in almost daily. Extreme measures such as “open borders” and “closed door” are not viable solutions. We need a humane and enlightened policy that assures a continuous, judicious and measured immigration, as well as one that preserves our historic character as a land of immigrants.
Here are the three things that I would do immediately:
1. Set forth a path toward citizenship for illegal immigrants who have been living a shadow existence here for years. I would also instantly grant legal status to a million or more “dreamers:” children who were brought to this country when very young and who have known no other country but this.
2. Substantially enhance immigration infrastructure — processing officials, judges, border patrols and others — to ease the huge backlog of migrants and asylum seekers created by years of neglect and lack of adequate resources.
3. I would establish a “Marshall Plan” to stabilize the countries of Central America such as El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, from where we continue to get the majority of illegal immigrants on our southern border. It is only when these countries are safe and their economies prosperous that we can stem their northward march to the US.
Once these steps are taken, we can begin to rationalize our immigration policy. Contrary to the widespread anti-immigrant rant that pervades the country presently, we need more immigrants to maintain our competitive edge in the world, as well as to provide for our aging society.
Can you share “5 keys to achieving the American dream” that others can learn from you? Please share a story or example for each.
Here are five keys that helped me to achieve my American dream:
1. Quickly gain English-language proficiency: This helped me move effortlessly into the larger American society. Despite my accent, I was able to communicate freely with people no matter what I did, where I was and who I met. The quicker one gets it, the better.
2. Obtain a marketable skill: For an immigrant with skill, America is heaven. All throughout my life, I wanted to study literature; however, I learned that accounting is where the jobs are so I ditched my ambition of studying literature. Despite my dislike for accounting, I opted for it, eventually getting a Ph.D. in it. With that skill on my resume, I never had any difficulty of finding a good job. I know several people with degrees in literature who are frustrated for lack of good opportunities in their chosen field. Some have remained unemployed for long periods while I was never without a job over the past 50-plus years in the US.
3. Don’t be choosy in the beginning: Many immigrants come here with a distinguished background and enviable employment history back home. They hesitate to start here with jobs that they think are below what they deserve. My advice is to get started as soon as possible with whatever available job and prove yourself. The American sense of fairness quickly recognizes who you are and what you are capable of, while rewarding you accordingly. That is what happened in my case and eventually I became CFO of Washington, DC. Only in America can a first-generation Asian immigrant become the chief financial officer of the nation’s capital!
4. Walk the extra mile: As an immigrant, I knew that I had to do better than most to make my mark. I did not have the luxury to take it easy and just get by. I had to perform at the peak of my capacity and ability all the time. If that were to mean I had to burn more than a little midnight oil or walk the extra mile, I was ready to do it.
5. Always be grateful for the opportunity: I never forget that America gave me the chance to remake my life that would have been wasted in my home country. America’s generous people open their hearts and homes to those from all over the world and let them fulfill their dreams. That is why not only the best and brightest but also “the tired and the poor” come here. We should never forget American generosity and make sure that we become a contributing community.
We know that the US needs improvement. But are there 3 things that make you optimistic about the US’s future?
1. Americans are always adapting. America is constantly changing; China will always be Chinese, France always French and Japan always Japanese. Not America. In another 20 or 30 years, it may well be a Hispanic country. It is perhaps the most revolutionary country in the world and adaptability is America’s basic strength.
2. Americans are constantly innovating. The American attitude is to get things done. By all accounts, Washington is presently dysfunctional — nothing gets done there. Yet, a lot is happening at the local level. People are innovating new products and ways of doing things in small and big companies, research laboratories, great universities, and even in garages and backyards. It is here that new gadgets and new companies are designed and put forward.
3. Americans are open to immigration. The best and brightest as well as the tired and poor come. They bring their skills, initiatives and entrepreneurship as well as their vitality that renews the country. America needs young new immigrants to take care of its aging society. No other country has the American tradition of accepting and assimilating immigrants from all over the world. It is truly our ace in the ole.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂
I would love to sit down for breakfast, lunch or dinner with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. She has been the most effective Speaker over the last 50 years. Her legendary political skills are comparable to those of Lyndon B. Johnson, who accomplished his Great Society agenda including civil rights and voting rights, Medicare and the rest. Similarly, without Pelosi there would not have been a way out of the Great Recession, and we would not have affordable healthcare, among other things.
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This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!