Leadership Lessons From Poverty in India
Imagine waking on a thin sleeping mat each morning to the scratching of a rat near your head, or wishing daily that you could have just one glass of milk to yourself, or being kicked out of grade school because your family couldn’t afford the modest tuition. That was life growing up for Ramesh Shah in Bombay. But Ramesh’s story has a happy ending. Today he lives in Saint Charles, Illinois, and is the Chief Quality Officer at FONA International, Inc. He has held several Director and VP positions throughout his accomplished career. And he attributes his success to the life lessons that his father taught him.
In his memoir, Tomorrow Will Be a Better Day, Ramesh illustrates life growing up poor in India and the struggles he had upon immigrating to America that lead him to be the leader he is today.
We had an opportunity to sit down with Ramesh and learn more about how his immeasurably difficult start in life influenced his work ethic, his drive, and his leadership.
You had a very impoverished childhood in India. How was it coming to America in 1967?
At the age of 20 I came to America from a very poor family back in India. We were so poor that for 19 years of my life we had the daily problem of feeding the family. My father had to borrow money to get milk or wheat, to send us to school, for everything. I remember vividly his deciding which debts to pay down each week to get what we needed. There was never enough, yet my father was generous with those who had even less than we did.
I had eight brothers and sisters; there were 11 of us living in 350-square-foot apartment with no running water, sharing a toilet with 25 other people on that floor. Our daily visitors were the rats, roaches, and lizards that lived in the building. At night, the floor of our apartment became the bedroom, where we slept on thin mats. During the day, we rolled up the mats and that same room was the kitchen, the living room, and every other room in the house.
I was the sickest kid in the block. I suffered from chronic ear infections that ultimately created a hole in my eardrum and weakened my heart valves. I was finally able to receive treatment for these conditions in America. Today I am 72, and I will be 73 in December. I have no doubt that if I was still in India I would be dead.
When I arrived in America, I landed at JFK. I was immediately amazed at how clean it was. There was no dust, no dirt. On my street in India, there were constant piles of garbage and rodents. Only six days before my flight, I had had an emergency appendectomy in a free hospital in India, and had been sleeping in the hospital hallway. My wound had been clamped shut and had not fully healed, but I had to arrive in time to start my university program in America. I was exhausted and malnourished. I weighed 90 pounds, and I remember trying to haul my large suitcase the wrong way up an escalator (I had never seen one before!) until a kind stranger helped me.
My family had borrowed a large amount of money for my passage to America, so that added debt was a constant thought in my head. I spoke moderate English, but I knew that I had to succeed in order to pay back the debts and help my family. I had so much to learn and many cultural shocks to endure, but I was helped through all of it by the kindness and generosity of the Americans I met.
You lost your father when you were young, but the lessons he taught you shaped your life. What were some of the most important lessons you learned from him?
No matter what our circumstances, my father always had a positive attitude, and would regularly say to me, “Tomorrow will be a better day,” which became the title of my memoir and is a statement that I strongly believe.
I learned from my father the importance of hard work, and that’s what I did all my life. At the age of 12 my father left his family to find a job in a Mumbai factory rolling tobacco to support his family back in the village. He did what he had to do.
My father taught us all discipline. Discipline builds confidence and the ability to perform well in difficult circumstances. Once you have discipline, it reduces the likelihood of catastrophe; it keeps you in check.
He also taught me about ambition. You must have a goal in your life, and don’t ever move your eye away from the goal. He firmly believed that education was the key to a better life for all of us, even though he never finished high school.
Another important lesson is the power of honesty. I do not water down feedback to make it more palatable. Telling the truth is the only way you will have honest people working for you. If the person working for you is not the right person, you have to make space for others.
During the first 19 years of my life, I felt God was testing me. And my tenacity has become part of my reputation at work. All of my bosses have said, “You never give up unless you get the goal.” This is how I have accomplished what I have in America. Not because I am smart, but because my father’s teachings were so good. The leadership skills I learned form my dad have made my life absolutely beautiful.