Success builds confidence and success. The US has gone through tough periods in time such as the Civil War, World War I and II, the Great Depression, and other economic downturns. We have come through all those difficult times and not only survived, but thrived. This provides confidence that we can handle tough situations.
Is the American Dream still alive? If you speak to many of the immigrants we spoke to, who came to this country with nothing but grit, resilience, and a dream, they will tell you that it certainly is still alive. As a part of our series about immigrant success stories, I had the pleasure of interviewing Surinder Kumar.
Surinder Kumar is currently Co-Founder and Chief Innovation Officer at TruEats Modern Baking Company. Surinder has more than forty years of experience in senior management positions in Fortune 100 companies. He has been a global R&D and innovation leader at some of the finest consumer product and pharmaceutical companies in the world, including Quaker Oats, Mead Johnson, PepsiCo, Frito-Lay, Warner Lambert, and Wm. Wrigley Jr. Company.
His third book, “Everything You Need is Within You,” is now available. He and his family reside in Flower Mound, Texas.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I grew up in a small village in India about 250 miles north of Delhi. The name of the village was Pandori Takhat Mal. We abbreviated it to Pandori. Pandori had a population of about 500 people. When I was growing up, it had no electricity, no running water, no paved roads and no sanitary toilet facilities. Most people in this village were farmers with small parcels of land and very low income. Only a handful of people could read or write.
The sanitation in Pandori was very poor. Our source of drinking water was an open well that got highly contaminated during monsoon seasons causing a multitude of sicknesses including cholera and intestinal diseases. There were no medical facilities nor were there any doctors. The closest city was about 15 miles away. The dirt roads and lack of transportation made it impossible to get sick people to the city for help. The residents counted on ancient Indian medicines that had been passed on from generations to generations. Poor sanitation and lack of good nutrition and medical facilities led to low life expectancy. The childhood mortality rate was almost 50% and the average life expectancy was in the mid 30’s.
A rundown mud building acted as an elementary school where my father was a teacher. He had completed his eighth-grade education and he was one of the few who could read or write. As a result, he was one of the most respected people in the village. He advised people on all sorts of areas including sanitary practices such as washing hands, boiling water for drinking, nutrition and exercise for good health.
My father, Kanshi Ram, acted as the headmaster, the postmaster, an advisor and a part of the village elders’ council. This informal council met in the village center every evening to talk about what was happening in the village and if anybody needed help. My father would use this occasion to convince people that education was the only way for all of us to create a better future for the future generations. This focus on education has been the key to our family’s success.
Was there a particular trigger point that made you emigrate to the US? Can you tell us the story?
The importance of education was instilled and drilled in our minds by my father. As a result, I got my undergraduate education in India from one of the prestigious institutes there called the National Dairy Research Institute, focused on advancing national nutrition and nutritional education.
After graduating from the National Dairy Research Institute in 1965, I started working at Hindustan Lever, a division of Unilever. While there, I had an opportunity to meet the Chief Scientific Officer of Hindustan Lever, Ashok Ganguly. Dr. Ganguly and I got into a discussion about India and nutrition. During this discussion Dr. Ganguly advised me to get additional education from an advanced country. “You seem like a bright young man,” he said. “Go get a PhD from an advanced country and I will hire you as a scientist.”
This was the key trigger point for me to start applying to various universities in the US for my advanced education in nutrition. I applied to many universities for admission and for research assistantship. Fortunately, I was accepted in a number of universities including The Ohio State University where I completed my PhD in Food Science and Nutrition in 1971.
Can you tell us the story of how you came to the USA? What was that experience like?
My story of coming to the United States can best be described as challenging, exhilarating, interesting, sometimes nerve wracking, and at times hilarious.
It was 1966. India had been independent from the British rule only for about 19 years. Few, if any, systems were in place. I was granted admission to The Ohio State University to complete my MS and PhD programs. In order to leave India, I had to get a passport, pass a written and spoken English test called TOFEL, get permission from the Reserve Bank of India, and get a visa from the US Embassy before I could buy an airline ticket.
Getting my passport required a complete police investigation into my past and my character. The police looked into their records, talked with family, friends, and people of my village. India had limited record keeping capabilities. Everything had to be handwritten by the policeman assigned to my case. It took several months to complete the investigation and for filing the report.
Next, I was to take and pass the English test. The test was given by an organization in Princeton, NJ. It had two parts: one part was given by an organization in India which accepted Indian currency as the fee. The second part was given by an American agency for which a fee of four and a half dollars had to be paid in US dollars. By law, no Indian was allowed at the time to have US currency in India. I had to find somebody in the US who would send that money to Princeton. I spent days trying to find somebody in India who had a relative in the US who would be willing to pay four and a half dollars to the agency in Princeton before I would get the test results.
I can’t recall how many doors I knocked on in Delhi before I found a family whose son had just gone to the US. As I knocked at this door, a man answered. I asked him if his son would be willing to help me.
“I will pay you Indian rupees here if your son would do me a favor and send the money to Princeton in US dollars,” I almost begged.
“Are you working in India?”, he asked.
“What is your monthly salary?”
“Four hundred and fifty rupees, sir”, I responded.
“OK, you give me one month of your salary and I will have my son send four and a half dollars to Princeton”, he said.
I quickly calculated in my mind that the official rate of currency would translate four and a half dollars to about 20 rupees. What should have cost roughly 20 rupees, ended up costing me a month’s salary. I pulled out my wallet and paid him 450 rupees hoping that he would honor the deal. Two weeks later, I got the confirmation that Princeton had received the money and I had passed the English test. I resigned from my job to focus on completing the rest of the steps for my trip to the US.
Now, I had to get permission from the Reserve Bank of India. India had limited foreign currency and anybody leaving the country was only allowed up to 50 dollars. Getting permission to convert Indian rupees into dollars required a review and recommendation by a bank staffer, a signature by the branch manager and finally a director’s approval. I filled out a long application and submitted it to one of the staffers. A couple of months went by and I did not hear anything. I went to the Reserve Bank at least four times and nobody could tell me the status of my application. In the meantime, the classes were starting at The Ohio State University and the chairman of the department gave me a deadline. “I can’t hold your seat past the 15th of September,” he wrote in a letter. At this time, there were no computers which meant no emails to communicate through, and phone service in India was non-existent. Mail from the US to India took several weeks. The letter got to me around the 18th of September. My hopes of getting to the US were almost deflated. I wrote a letter to the Chairman explaining the situation and pleading for more time.
Desperate to get the permission from the Reserve Bank of India, I went to my oldest brother who knew the systems in India. He talked with many of his contacts and found a long lost ‘uncle’ of ours who was working in the Reserve Bank. The following week, I was in the bank with my ‘uncle’ and my brother. There was a long stretch of offices. As we walked by each office, I could see mounds of files on every desk, but nobody was working. My uncle would rifle through the files and move on to the next office. Eventually he found my application buried in one of the mounds of files, signed it and walked to the director’s office to ask for his signature. The director looked up at me. “You are lucky you have an uncle to help you. Don’t forget his favor when you get to the US.” He signed, smiled at me and handed over the now complete application. September had already passed and I had no idea if I still had the admission and assistantship at The Ohio State University.
The final step was to get the visa from the US Embassy. As I talked with some of the people who knew the workings of the US Embassy, they were not very encouraging. “Very few people who apply for a visa to the US ever get it,” said most of them. I was living about 40 miles away from the US Embassy. People seeking visas would line up early in the morning outside the Embassy. I decided to stay in a hotel close to the Embassy so that I could get there early the next morning. As I walked into the dining hall of the hotel, I spotted another young man. I walked up to him and asked if he was also going to the Embassy for a visa the next day.
“Yes”, he said excitedly and told me that he was also going to The Ohio State University. “Why don’t we get a taxi together tomorrow morning? There is a long line at the Embassy and it is a first come, first serve basis. I will knock at your door and we can leave early.”
The next morning, I waited for the knock until about 8:00 AM. When he didn’t show up, I went to the hotel clerk who told me that my ‘friend’ had left an hour earlier. I hurried to the Embassy and got in the long line of people waiting their turn for the interview. It was almost 11:00 AM and the Embassy was going to close its entry to expecting applicants by noon. Just at that time, I saw my ‘friend’ walking out of the Embassy having completed his interview. He was crying as he told me that he did not get his visa. “Oh My God”, I said as I reflected on my own situation; I had resigned from my job already. If I did not get the visa, it would be disastrous.
“What happened?”, I asked.
“I don’t know, I answered all the questions correctly, I think”, he volunteered.
“What kind of questions did they ask?”, I inquired.
I reflected on his answers and decided that I would take a risk and answer one question differently.
As my turn came for the interview, the interviewer asked me:
“You are applying for the student visa. What happens if you fall in love with a young lady in the US? Will you plan to stay?”
This was one of the questions that my ‘friend’ had answered as ‘Yes’.
“No, madam. I am focused on getting my education and returning to India. I have strong ties with my family and the Chief Scientist of Hindustan Lever has already promised me a job back in India. I am determined to get back to India after completing my PhD,” I responded.
The interviewer looked at me as if to check my conviction.
“You can pick up your visa at the window as you leave.”
I recall the feeling of relief and jubilation as I jumped out of my chair and walked over to the window.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped make the move more manageable? Can you share a story?
I am grateful to many people who have helped me or guided me through this process.
I am particularly thankful to Dr. Ira Gould, the then chair of the Department of Dairy Technology. By the time I arrived in the United States, it was already October 22nd. The fall session had begun and classes were already in full swing. Dr. Gould could not hold my assistantship, but allowed me to attend the classes. He promised me that as soon as the money became available, he would put me on assistantship.
“In the meantime”, he said, “if you need anything just ask.”“Do you have any money to live on?”, he asked.
“Yes, sir. I have some money and I will be OK.”
“How much money do you have? “
“I have 22.00 dollars, sir”, I replied.
“That will not last you through the quarter.”
He reached into his desk drawer, pulled out a checkbook and wrote me a check for 100 dollars.
“This should help for the time being. You can pay me back from your assistantship paycheck next quarter.”
My assistantship started in January 1967 and I paid back the loan, still feeling indebted to Dr. Gould for his generosity.
So how are things going today?
Life is good and I feel blessed. I was fortunate to complete my PhD at The Ohio State University and my MBA at the University of Chicago. This education has helped me get rewarding jobs in my field of choice. I have had a terrific, enjoyable and rewarding professional career. I have worked in many Fortune 500 Consumer Product Companies including Quaker Oats, Frito Lay, Pepsi Cola Beverages, PepsiCo Restaurants, Warner Lambert, Bristol Myers Squibb and Wm. Wrigley Jr Company.
I am blessed with a great family. I have a loving and caring wife, a son who is bright, hard-working and a successful business executive, a caring daughter in-law, three terrific grandchildren, and many good friends across the globe. I have had the opportunity to travel extensively because I had global R&D responsibilities in several companies. Overall, I could not ask for a better life.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
One of the major principles of my father was, “Wherever you go, leave the place better than you found it.” In my adult life, I have tried my best to live up to that principle.
- During my professional career, I have guided, mentored, and coached many young people to create a better future for themselves and for their families.
- I have guided and provided financial support for education for several of my family members from India.
- I have built a foundation in the name of my father, which has been funded with over a quarter of a million dollars to provide tuition support for financially challenged students and families who are going through financial hardships.
- I have contributed to several charitable organizations and have worked with many not-for-profit organizations to help raise funds and to develop growth strategies.
- I have taught for free at many universities including Northwestern University, DePaul, and the University of North Texas.
- Two books I authored are targeted for personal growth and to help develop business leadership.
- I have given many motivational and inspiring speeches and workshops to help develop young people.
- Every company I worked for in the research and development leadership capacity has successfully grown their businesses and provided earning and career opportunities for their employees
You have first hand experience with the US immigration system. If you had the power, which three things would you suggest to improve the system?
Regardless of all the difficulties, I was happy with the process that I had to go through to come to the United States and the process for becoming a US citizen.
I came to the US in 1966 on a student visa. After completing my PhD and starting a job at the university in 1972, I applied for an immigrant visa called the Green Card. The US Department of Immigration and Naturalization completed my background check and I had to obtain recommendations from three prominent US citizens. Following a thorough review, I was granted an immigrant status. Subsequently, I started working at the Quaker Oats Company in 1973 and applied for US citizenship in 1978. The US Department of Immigration and Naturalization completed another background check before I was granted an appointment to take a test showing my ability to speak and write in English, as well as answer questions about the US Constitution and history. Upon completion of these pre-requisites, a number of applicants were invited to become official US citizens. We all recited the Pledge of Allegiance and were given a Certificate of Citizenship. The day is just as memorable for me as the day I received my PhD degree.
From my perspective, earning the US citizenship is an honor and an opportunity. It provides an opportunity to test our ability in a free society where everybody has an equal opportunity to succeed.
Of course, every system has an opportunity for improvement. From my perspective the major area for improvement of the US immigration system is consistency. We need to have a clear and consistent process for immigration and earning citizenship into the US irrespective of which party is in power.
If I had the power, I would:
- Gain alignment of both parties on a set of principles and desired outcomes and processes for immigration and earning US citizenship.
- Provide immigration opportunities for people who offer talents that we need in the US to strengthen our national talent portfolio and for people who are persecuted in other countries for their religious beliefs.
- Help other countries become self-sufficient through education and providing essential resources during their development stages.
Can you share “5 keys to achieving the American dream” that others can learn from you? Please share a story or example for each.
The United States of America is a great country. There are a number of lessons we’ve learned from its own past. People from Europe and other nations came to the US to avoid religious persecution or to create a better future for themselves and their children. I am, at times, awed by how hard those people worked to build homes, raise crops and cattle, travelled from the east coast all the way to the west when there were no roads and no means of transportation. In a period of 200 years, people who migrated from other countries with nothing built one of the strongest nations.
The keys to achieving the American dream have not changed. Those still are:
- Taking risks as entrepreneurs
- A burning desire and drive to achieve
- An empowering belief system that “We can achieve what we set out to and we will overcome all hurdles and difficulties”
- Making choices and staying focused
- Hard work and resilience
- Constantly learning and improving
We know that the US needs improvement. But are there 3 things that make you optimistic about the US’s future?
As I stated, the US is a great country. One of the few, if not the only country, where everybody has a chance to succeed. I am optimistic about the future of the United States because:
- The US Constitution is a great guide and provides individual freedom and opportunities for debate. Debate provides a platform for better solutions.
- It has an entrepreneurial culture that attracts the best brains of the world. Human beings have a strong desire to have the freedom to achieve. People from other countries want to come to the US to gain that freedom. With those shackles off, the new immigrants provide fuel for continued growth for the US.
- Success builds confidence and success. The US has gone through tough periods in time such as the Civil War, World War I and II, the Great Depression, and other economic downturns. We have come through all those difficult times and not only survived, but thrived. This provides confidence that we can handle tough situations.
We are very blessed that 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, especially if we tag them. 🙂
One man who I believe has made a tremendous difference in this world is Bill Gates. He personifies the values I admire; values that my father wanted to instill in all of us. I would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with him. My purpose would be to learn how I could personally make more of a difference and how I could enroll others to become a part of that movement.
What is the best way our readers can further follow your work online?
Please follow my blogs on LinkedIn and Facebook. I am also planning to have podcasts in the future.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!