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VOL. 126 | NO. 217 | Monday, November 7, 2011

Cultural Connection

Indians find community, commercial success in Memphis

By Aisling Maki

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It’s impossible to deny Western society’s fascination with India.

People gather for a morning prayer inside the India Cultural Center and Temple in Eads, where the elaborate decorations took 10 Indian artists five years to complete. Priests from the temple frequently perform another ritual designed to remove the obstacles to business when a new Indian business opens. Memphis has become home to thousands of Indians, many of whom are making a cultural and commercial impact on the city.

(Photo: Lance Murphey)

The interest in Indian culture is evident in the popularity of films such as “Bend it Like Beckham” and “Slumdog Millionaire,” and in literary works such as Arundhati Roy’s Booker Prize-winning “The God of Small Things” and Jhumpa Lahiri’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Interpreter of Maladies.”

Its sacred mystique has lured many a Westerner, such as The Beatles and writer Elizabeth Gilbert, to Indian shores in search of spiritual and creative inspiration. And the Indian influence in the U.S. can be seen in packed yoga studios and Bollywood-style exercise classes, as well as in American women’s fashion adaptation of bindi (forehead decoration), mendhi (henna body art) and colorful Indian-style garments.

Popular television programming features many individuals of Indian heritage, from CNN chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta and Bravo’s “Top Chef” host Padma Lakshmi to comedic actress Mindy Kaling of “The Office” and actor Kal Penn of “How I Met Your Mother.”

The largest democracy in the world is a rich, complex tapestry of ethnic, linguistic and religious diversity. And India’s culture, whose influence locally continues to grow, will be on display Saturday, Nov. 5, at India Fest, an annual festival presented by the India Association of Memphis that last year drew more than 8,000 Mid-Southerners, Indian and non-Indian alike, to Agricenter International.

Categorized by the U.S. government as Asian-Indians in order to avoid any confusion with American-Indians, they are the nation’s fastest-growing Asian-American community and among the fastest-growing ethnic groups in the United States. The Asian-Indian population grew 65 percent over a 10-year period, from 1.7 million in 2000 to more than 2.8 million in 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

And their economic impact and influence is significant. In 2009, the median household income for Asian-Indian families in the U.S. was $90,429, while the median U.S. household income was $50,221.

Indians have the highest rate of English fluency among Asian ethnic groups in the U.S., with about 57 percent also speaking at least one other language at home, and their college attainment rates are the highest among Asian ethnic groups. An astounding 67 percent of all Indians in the U.S. hold a bachelor’s degree or higher and nearly 40 percent have a master’s, doctorate or other professional degree. This compares to just 27 percent of the overall U.S. population with a bachelor’s degree or higher.

“Indian parents really emphasize education,” said Dr. Salil Parikh, 44, a radiologist and Germantown resident, who was born and raised in the Memphis area by Indian immigrant parents – a civil engineer father and pharmacist mother – who settled in the area in the 1960s. “All of us have the same stories growing up. Our parents and our friends’ parents really expected straight A’s. Not graduating from high school was just unheard of, and everyone went to college. It’s just expected and there’s no kind of congratulations for it. But I think it’s made us very successful overall. People say, ‘Oh, you Indians are so smart.’ That’s not it at all; it’s just the cultural upbringing and the emphasis on education.”

Parikh said the area’s Indian population has grown tremendously since he was a child.

“Looking at all the people who have businesses in the Memphis area, I would definitely say the Indian community is a silent partner of the community at large that is bringing about positive changes in a pleasant way.”

– Sandeep Pednekar
Memphis businessman

The Greater Memphis area is now home to almost 7,000 individuals of Indian extraction.

“When I was younger and you saw an Indian in the grocery store, you’d always up and introduce yourself, and now there are so many Indians here that we don’t do that anymore,” said Parikh, whose Indian-born wife and mother of his two children, Sonali, also works as a physician. “We see Indians all the time.”

As with their educational attainment, the Indian economic impact is significant. The Greater Memphis Chamber said a 2007 Survey of Business Owners showed a total of 823 Indian-owned firms employed 2,335 people in the Memphis area. Those numbers include 309 health care firms employing 382 people, and 148 accommodation and food service firms employing 1,027 individuals.

“Looking at all the people who have businesses in the Memphis area, I would definitely say the Indian community is a silent partner of the community at large that is bringing about positive changes in a pleasant way,” said Memphis businessman, philanthropist and India Fest founder Sandeep Pednekar, originally from Mumbai. “They are giving jobs to many people. Sixty-five percent of the hotels are owned by Indians, so they provide jobs. And India is the biggest exporter of IT professionals in the world.”

Memphis’ Indian population is most often employed in the academic, business, engineering, sciences, technology and health care sectors, in roles considered most prestigious by Indian society, according to Dr. Rajiv Grover, dean of the Fogelman College of Business and Economics at the University of Memphis.

“You will find that we have very many professors in the sciences, computer science, chemistry, biology, as well as in engineering and business,” Grover said. “You don’t see Indians here really involved in liberal arts and the fine arts. Amongst Indians here and in India too, we value education a lot, and it’s pretty unbelievable to an outsider how much we value education. But those who know understand what lengths parents and students go to get educated. It’s also a ticket for living a productive life in a society and making an important contribution in terms of multiplied effect.”

Information technology is a major sector employing Indians, and, Grover said, as an example, that IBM has more employees in India alone than it has in all other countries combined.

“That type of brainwork comes quite naturally to Indians,” he said. “Even here in this community, you’ll find in FedEx, AutoZone and International Paper and other places, there are quite a few Indians serving in the IT areas.”

Sridhar Sunkara, one of the co-founders of Launch Memphis – a nonprofit technology incubator to help launch innovative, local technology startups – is native of India.

Gaurav Agarwal, left, of Smith & Nephew discusses emerging business opportunities in India during a Memphis Bioworks discussion titled “Doing Business with the Life Sciences in India.”

(Photo: Lance Murphey)

Medicine is another popular career choice for Indians in both Memphis and the U.S. at large, and that group includes a number of doctors and researchers at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, which treats pediatric cancer patients from around the world.

The biosciences also employ and have attracted many Indian professionals to the area. An example is Genome Explorations, which provides genotyping, gene expression and microRNA profiling services for biotech, pharmaceutical and academic clients worldwide. The Memphis-based company was founded by Dr. Divyen H. Patel, a native of India and former researcher at St. Jude.

Memphis Bioworks Business Association, in partnership with the Greater Memphis Chamber and India Fest, recently hosted Patel, along with Guarav Agarwal of Smith & Nephew and several other local experts, for a panel discussion called “Doing Business with the Life Sciences in India,” which was moderated by Grover.

“India is the fourth-largest pharmaceutical market, so it’s a huge global trade partner with the U.S.,” said Regina Whitley, executive director of Memphis Bioworks Business Association. “What’s fascinating about India’s own domestic market is its growing, thriving middle class. So suddenly, there are lower costs in health care and greater affordability and access for the Indian consumer. That’s creating a huge demand for life sciences, and a big opportunity for our industry in Memphis to serve that burgeoning market.

“And what’s enabling that for Memphis, which I think is a fascinating part of FedEx’s role here and the city’s focus on being an aerotropolis, is it’s making our companies here more competitive in doing business in that kind of environment.”

In addition to FedEx, International Paper Co. and The ServiceMaster Co. also currently have a presence in India. According to the chamber, Tennessee in 2010 was the 21st largest exporting state to India, and Tennessee exports to India – including chemicals and pharmaceuticals – have increased 128 percent over the last five years.

“We’re anticipating that trend to continue in that direction,” said Ernest Strickland, director of economic development at the Greater Memphis Chamber. “Anytime we can continue to develop the knowledge base through Indian professionals that come here as students and decide to stay and seek the entrepreneurial path, developing new companies based on the knowledge that they’ve gained – those things are signals that we’re onto a great opportunity with India.”

But Memphis’ blossoming relationship with the Indian community goes well beyond business. Philanthropy also plays an important role, particularly in the lives of young professionals and second-generation Indian-Americans.

“Our second generation of Indian kids who are being raised here are taking on far more of a philanthropy role,” Grover said. “They are not necessarily after financial success as much as their parents were. They’ll be pretty well taken care of; that’s not a concern. So they are focusing on what they’re enjoying while helping society.”

For Pednekar, volunteering is a way of life. He has worked with the city’s Office of Multicultural and Religious Affairs, helped co-found the Greater Memphis Immigrant Task Force, is a former president of India Association of Memphis and has dedicated his time to organizations ranging from Habitat for Humanity of Greater Memphis to Ronald McDonald House Charities to Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association.

“Whenever I volunteer, I don’t just volunteer; I have volunteering campaigns and I bring about 50 or 70 people or more if possible to volunteer for those causes,” Pednekar said.

He said the larger Memphis community has been very welcoming of him and other Indians who’ve settled in the area and in celebration of that, he founded Memphis’ India Fest as a day to offer the arts, culture and heritage of India to everyone.

“Indians do feel that they are part of the community, which is very accepting of people who are doing positive things,” Pednekar said. “I’m an Indian, but I want to bring people of all cultures, races, religions and countries together. Diversity creates innovation and phenomenal growth, and Indians are doing a whole lot to bring about that positive growth in Memphis.”

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