Resilience and Optimism: Lessons From a First-Gen Immigrant Executive

first gen immigrant executive

I am a woman of South-Asian/Indian origin, but did you know that I’m a proud immigrant, too?

In 1983, I got a scholarship from India to attend Rice University. That scholarship opened the door to a world of new possibilities. In India, after graduating from college with an advanced degree, I would have made a good marriage, raised a family and grown old without ever having tapped into the executive/leader/activist part of me—and what a loss that would have been.

For millions of other immigrants like me, America is not just the land of opportunity for a better life but also the land of personal possibilities, offering the chance to invent the “YOU” that you dreamed about. For me, it was to be a successful corporate executive, business leader, feminist and social justice activist. I was a student when I came here, but I was also a teacher. Whether it was through language, food, music, dance or my ideas on inclusion and gender equity, I educated my university, my community, my workplace and my family. But they enriched and expanded my life, too, and in a million ways made me a better human being. What if this had never been possible?

This month, Working Mother published the 25 Best Companies for Multicultural Women for 2017. Multicultural women represent 16% of employees hired into manager positions and 10% hired as senior manager, each increased one percentage point over last year. And 17% of the top fifth of earners were multicultural women which remained. However, in our “Status of Men As Allies for Multicultural Women” report, only 39% say their company encourages dialogue about gender and 35% say the same about race. Clearly, there is much hard work in corporate America that needs to be accomplished.

In our country, we are questioning why and how we should allow immigrants in, whether it’s migrant workers from Mexico or refugees from Syria or H1-B visa holders from India and China. Let us imagine an America where there would be no future immigration. What would we lose? Japan allows no immigration and it’s taken an economic toll on their country. By 2060, their population could shrink from 127 million to 87 million, with 40 percent aged 65 or older. This means a declining GDP, difficulty paying their debts and fewer workers to support each retiree. Is this what we want for ourselves?

America is most certainly made better by the immigrants who came to it with their talent, passion and work ethic. What we discount or don’t count is the outcome of the interactions between new immigrants and the existing citizens of our country. Whether at work or in our communities, having immigrants in the mix builds a greater openness to new and different ideas, a willingness to hear another’s perspectives and an ability to compromise and find consensus. This makes us all better, and the diversity of thoughts combined with our humanity makes us a great nation.

Recently, my husband’s 78-year-old Irish-American aunt passed away. At her funeral at a Lutheran church, the priest was an Indian immigrant, Rev. Dr. E. Johnson Rethinasamy. His eloquent eulogy about Aunt Joan included stories about how, when he first came to the U.S. seven years ago, she befriended him and introduced him to her friends in the community with the goal of helping him build his congregation. She was the first non-Indian to whom he became close and the person from whom he learned American-English. He shared how he used to let her calls go to voicemail so he could play, rewind and replay the messages to understand them. Aunt Joan spoke way too fast!

What’s obvious was the kindness and generosity of spirit that Aunt Joan showed this priest. He has gone on to minister to the needs of his large congregation and have an impact on his community. Aunt Joan’s daughter, Susan, told us the interaction with a person from a completely different culture, race and ethnicity, also enriched Aunt Joan. She found purpose and meaning to her life, and in the end, when brain cancer invaded her body, she found spiritual comfort and solace from her church and its Indian immigrant priest.

That’s why it pains me to think that these opportunities will become more limited if we further restrict immigrants from entering our incredible country. We stand to lose out on the innovation created by a diversity of ideas, perspectives, and experiences, the added richness that comes from diverse cultures and the global connectedness it builds. I know I would have lived a very different and far more limited life if I had not been able to come to the United States. I hope that we will see immigrants as beacons of hope and opportunity for the future of our country—beacons that enhance us all.

About the Author

Subha V. Barry is the Senior Vice President and Managing Director of Working Mother Media. She joined the company in January, 2015 as Vice President and General Manager of Working Mother Media. Subha oversees Working Mother magazine, workingmother.com, Diversity Best Practices, the leading corporate membership organization supporting diversity and inclusion and the National Association for Female Executives (NAFE). Previously, Subha was Senior Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer at Freddie Mac. During more than 20 years at Merrill Lynch, Subha was Managing Director and Global Head of Diversity and Inclusion.