WHAT I LEARNED AT INDIASPORA 2016
Date: Friday , June 03, 2016
OK, what is Indiaspora? Think of Davos for Indian Americans. I haven\'t been to Davos so I am just basing my comparison on what I\'ve read about Davos. Indiaspora is held over a weekend and is attended by around 150 interesting people, all Indians and Indian Americans. There are a few people like me, who are entrepreneurs and/or investors. But there are also thought leaders from all spheres of life including artists, journalists, academics, social impact leaders, and even half a dozen politicians looking to make history in their respective states or at the national level.
The event I attended was held in Philadelphia on May 20-22 and it was the third time it has been hosted. So Indiaspora is still a young organization trying to figure out what is the way to bring people together to have a positive impact on the Indian American identity. Besides a couple of keynotes, most of the sessions are meant to be intimate settings with a lot of interaction so that one could leverage the brainpower and the network in that room.
Some of the discussions and interactions made me think about the following interesting issues:
(1) Identity: Should we classify ourselves as Indian American, South Asian American, or Asian American? In the UK, Asian American is inevitably South Asian (Indian, Pakistani, or Bangladeshi). In the U.S., Asian American is almost always interpreted to mean East Asian(Chinese, Japanese, among others).Pushing our identity as Indian American is clearly the truest to who we are but we risk getting left behind as an insignificant minority that is not worth courting. With less than one percent of the population, we would have no heft at all. Getting included in the Asian American category gets us more political weight but constantly requires an education about our place in that group.
(2) Young professionals: I had the opportunity to hear from and interact with multiple young folks who were born in the U.S. to Indian parents. It was interesting to see that wherever they grew up, their stories and experiences were very similar and familiar. Various stories of being the only South Asian (and in many cases the only non-white) in their schools as they were growing up. The next generation has a very broad range of interests and aspirations so one can expect to see them have an impact on a wide range of fields outside engineering and medicine.
(3) Politics: There is tremendous support for President Obama in the Indian American community. Barring the Trump phenomenon, the wealthy Indians/donors seem to lean Republican though the broad majority seems to lean Democratic. However, in general, Indians are moderate and not all that left leaning as one would assume. All the four political candidates that I hear don a panel were running on the Democratic ticket in their various state/local elections. Bobby Jindal is not popular amongst Indian Americans for trying to hide his roots in order to gain acceptability. I think we will see Indian American candidates in the future running true to their cultural roots and heritage.
(4) Culture and religion: Secularism is alive and well, however there is also an interest to make sure that Hindusim is properly portrayed in the U.S. Most Americans are not aware that yoga and meditation are an integral part of the Hindu religion. Buddhism is considered \"cool\" while Hinduism is tagged with the caste system. Various participants in the conference are engaged in activities that would portray the Indian American identity in a more balanced way and establish a proud cultural context.
On the final morning of the event, there were 15 minute presentations from some of the most inspiring folks from the community including:
Srikanth Bolla: A blind entrepreneur who built a Rs. 50 crore ($8 million)company that employs hundreds of handicapped (physically challenged in different ways) people called Bollant Industries. His life story is movie-worthy. When the IITs denied him an entry to write the entrance exam, he applied to and was accepted to MIT as their first international blind student. Needless to say that many of us were left teary eyed by his courage and humility.
Kiran Sridhar: When he was 16he created an app called \"Waste No Food\" to connect hotels and restaurants with excess food with charities that serve the homeless. Apparently 40 percent of all prepared food goes to waste and this kid figured out a way to use that food to feed the hungry. Over a million meals have been served to date.
Nina Davuluri: Former Miss America shared her story of growing up as the only brown kid in her are and her battle to change stereo types of what it is to be American.
Besides all of these thought provoking discussions, Indiaspora is an awesome event for networking with the movers and shakers of the American Indian community. It has the potential to be a key player in driving the Indian American agenda in the US over the next decade. Wouldn\'t it be nice to have Diwali as an American holiday just like Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana?