Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Childhood Kind of Poverty

Two articles I read lately have set my mind thinking.

The first was a tweet I picked up from Ultrabrown. It went "waiting outside hotel for cab so lady comes out of cab. Hands me her bags & asks me to take them up. Never thought I looked like a bellboy." I googled to find out who thought that about himself. Turns out it was Gurbaksh Chahal. In about 26 years of his existence, this gent has founded two ad companies, sold them to competitors (one of them Yahoo!) for a whopping $340 million! Here is his interview to the San Francisco Chronicle.

"In India, his father had graduated college with an engineering degree and worked at the police academy, while his mother had run the nursing program at a city hospital. Here, they worked double shifts, shopped at the Dollar Store and McFrugal's and clipped coupons. But they encouraged their children to go to college to become doctors or engineers ... Nirmal Chahal, the family's eldest daughter, recalled the night that Chahal told his father. "He brought the bank statement and showed my father he was making money," she said. "My dad's reaction was that he literally screamed. My mom came rushing from the kitchen, her hands still wet. My dad said, 'G is going to jail! He did something illegal!' They'd been working 20 years, double shifts, and had not had that kind of savings."
The second was about Xerox's chief Ursula Burns. When she was named CEO of Xerox, The New York Times notes, it marked two milestones: the first time an African-American woman was named CEO of a major American corporation, and the first time a woman succeeded another woman in the top job at a company of this size.

Here is a lady who started out in the eighties, joining Xerox as a summer intern, working her way up through executive positions to leadership ones. Today, as CEO, she tries to tackle what she terms 'terminal niceness'.
“When we’re in the family, you don’t have to be as nice as when you’re outside of the family,” she says. “I want us to stay civil and kind, but we have to be frank — and the reason we can be frank is because we are all in the same family.”
Ursula credits her mother as her biggest influence. “150 percent my mother. My mother was pragmatic, focused and extremely, exceedingly practical, and she was the ultimate self-determining person.” Her mother made ends meet by looking after other children. She also ironed shirts for a doctor who lived down the street and cleaned his office, bartering for things like medicine and even cleaning supplies.

Chahal has been on Oprah but still flies economy. He says "Waiters at Nikki Beach would clap for you, if you bought Champagne at 3,100 euros a bottle. I could do that, but it would put me through mental shock."

Ms. Burns was worth over $5 million back in 2008. Even so, she’d still show up in line at the grocery store in Rochester, where she’s lived for roughly 25 of her 30 years with Xerox. A housekeeper comes in just once a week, and Ms. Burns will often do the laundry herself, knowing that it sends a good message to her daughter, a high school senior. “There’s a little bit of this childhood kind of poverty — you know, pragmatism — that you never can get rid of."

This line by Ms. Burns sums up the strange paradox of many immigrants. Or the upwardly mobile Indian middle class.

We all go through our childhood seeing our parents struggle to make a better life for us. We all struggle through our adulthood trying to ensure a better life for our kids. Yet, somewhere deep in our heart, we restrain pulling out all stops. Somewhere deep in our heart, we feel they may take their privileges for granted. Somewhere deep in our heart, we still want our kids to fight their way through fire, so they can be tempered individuals and not snobs revelling in easy money.

The feeling is extant. You can always debate about the extent.