20 June 2018

“What if this roof falls on your head?”

Circa 1985.
Mr. Dubey’s house.
I was sitting across him in his living area explaining to him some worries I was having. Mr. Dubey was a gentleman who I trusted instinctively – be it career oriented questions or personal questions. The big choice I was facing that time was which college to pick and what engineering to focus on. I think I was pretty sure I would do computer science. Not that I had any idea what computer science was (unlike today’s kids who, I find make far more educated choices), but since the topper from my school the previous year had gone to do computer science, I figured that is what I was supposed to do too.

The question was whether to go the college that I was likely to get – but very far from home (it would take a 36 hour train ride to get there with one train switching involved) or go to nearer colleges. I wanted to go to the further away college (somebody told me they were ranked higher) but I had a lot of worrisome questions. Remember, I was 18.

“What if this happens…?” “What if that happens…?” my questions were endless that evening for Mr. Dubey.

After listening to me patiently, finally Mr. Dubey pointed to the roof of his house and asked “What if this roof falls on your head?”.

And then proceeded to succinctly explain to me that what I did not know, I did not know. I needed to quit conjuring up possibilities and then worrying about them. His advise was to go with my gut and then work hard to make it the right decision. Nobody was going to run a control experiment to prove me wrong.

Well, I did land up in that college. I did not exactly work very hard but realizing that there is no control experiment, I have always claimed that to be the right decision 🙂

Seriously though, looking back, that was one of the best words of wisdom I had ever received. Candidly, I appreciated the words far more later in my life on multiple occasions than possibly on that day 33 years back.

That was the incident that I kept going back to in my mind as I drove up the steep hill in Hayward in California last week and pulled up in front of Ananya’s house. It was a quick trip in California for work. But there is always time for Mr. Dubey. There has to be. This time, I also got to see Dubey-kakima, Blake and Simi and the youngest addition to Dubey-Kelsoe family – Hanae!!!

18 June 2018

Do these things happen only to me?

The other Sunday, I was at Milton’s – Sharmila’s and my watering hole. I was by myself since Sharmila was traveling somewhere. Milton’s is less of a place for Sharmila and I to meet our friends or have romantic dinner – it is more of a weekend check on all the staff and their families who we have grown up with in the last 11 years. Many of the staff have changed over the years but we have remained steadfastly the regulars who show up on late Sunday evenings – often the only guests at the bar – and have a drink or two but mostly chat with the staff there.

Ashley was the regular Sunday person behind the bar. After settling down in my usual chair, I asked
“Ashley, how has the day been?”
“Pretty good. We had a relatively light day. By the way, my brother waited on you this morning.”

At that point, I had no idea what she was talking about. Who is her brother? And I did not go out for a lunch meeting. In fact, I was out with my bike.

“Your brother waited on me? He works at a restaurant too?”
“Umm… are you sure he knows me? I was actually out with a biker friend of mine this morning. Where did he see me?”

Finally, we put the picture together.

That morning, Avi and I had taken our bikes out for a lazy ride. In fact, we were riding around Lake Lanier. At some point of time, we stopped at Pelican Pete for some food. It is a fantastic place on the water with great views. I remembered having parked the bikes about a hundred yards away and then both of us sat by the water and had some greasy food.

“Wait, is his name Ryan? I remember chatting up this young gentleman who came and served us.” (no surprises there. I chat up anybody who waits on our table 🙂 )

“So, how did he figure out that I know you? ”

That is where it got even more interesting…

After coming back home, I had posted a picture of Pelican Pete on my blog (and Facebook). Ashley, who is a Facebook friend of mine (yep! no surprises there either; I make everybody my Facebook friend), saw the picture and had called up her brother – who happens to work at Pelican Pete – to ask if he had seen two Indian guys in their motorbikes that morning.

Ryan let her know that not only did he see us (I guess he had noticed the helmets we were carrying) but he was indeed the one who helped us at our table. And chatted with us for some time too!!

That night I wrote to Avi about the coincidence and he perhaps correctly pointed out that these things happen only to me…

What is the chance that completely unbeknownst to me, I would have been chatting with a brother and a sister separately during lunch and dinner in two completely separate restaurants in separate cities – one on a motorbikebike trail and the other at my watering hole?

Something good did come out of my much derided practice of making friends with everybody in Facebook, posting too many pictures on Facebook and talking to too many strangers 🙂

10 June 2018

The bank manager who left his country to be a hotel doorman

The family was still sleeping when I woke up in the hotel room early morning. As is my wont, I got dressed up and headed downstairs immediately to hunt for some coffee. Which was readily available in the lobby. Other than that coffee and myself, nobody else was there. Well, except Joseph. The gentlemen who had helped us last evening with our luggage and car. He was standing at the door.

“You were working late last evening. And you are back already early in the morning?”
“Yes, sir!”
“Did you get to see your kids last night when you went home? Or were they already sleeping?”
“They are in UK, sir!!”

“In UK? What are they doing there?”
“Why studying in UK? We have so many good schools here. Why not here?”

The next half an hour was a lesson for me about how blessed so many of us are and therefore prone to making assumptions that can be completely false. Let’s try to stitch the story back…

Meet my friend – Joseph – the doorman at the downtown Marriott in Durham. He is a doorman today. But he was a bank manager! Yes, a bank manager in his home country Zimbabwe! By the way, anybody from Zimbabwe and India is guaranteed to have one common connection – cricket!! In fact, we both remembered a historic match India and Zimbabwe had played about 35 years back where the single-handed exploits of one Kapil Dev had completely turned the match upside down.

But Zimbabwe fell in bad times with very high corruption, political issues and some level of violence. The economy started deteriorating quickly. Joseph, who was married and had two kids was determined to escape the country to give his children a shot at personal prosperity thru education.

Coming to US was not an option. However, he had better luck with UK. (Zimbabwe was a colony of UK who called it Rhodesia). He managed to send his wife and kids to UK so that they can get a good education. He eventually came to the US and started working here. The savings he has and the money his wife makes in UK support their kids’ education.

Both of the kids are getting ready to graduate – one is in medicine and the other is an engineer.

“How often do you get to see your kids?”
“Oh! It is not easy, sir. It costs a lot of money. We do no have that kind of money. Maybe once every two to three years?”
“And how often do you get to see your family in Zimbabwe?”
“I have not gone back even once sir. We need the money for my kids’ education”

I was a little overwhelmed by his answers as it started sinking in my mind how his sense of responsibility as a father as kept him physically away from his own kids most of his life.

“So, what next? Now that they are going to graduate, what is the next step?”
“Well, once they start to earn money, maybe my wife and my kids can come to the US. Maybe they can do higher studies here or work here.”

“How about you and your wife?”
He thought for a few seconds and said “I think I want to go back to Zimbabwe”

“You want to go back to Zimbabwe? Why? It has still got a lot of problems, right?”
“My family has a lot of land there, sir”
“So, sell it off and continue living here close to your kids”.

Joseph looked at the floor for a few seconds as he weaved his thoughts thru in his mind.

Finally he lifted his eyes, looked at me and slowly said … “Home is home, sir. And my kids will start their own lives who knows where.” …

10 June 2018

Oh! how quickly they grow up!!

Six years back, just like this, the four of us were sitting exactly at the same spot on a June evening having dinner. Sharmila, Nikita and I had come to drop Natasha at Duke University for a summer program.

Today, almost to the day… same spot… dinner again… now it is Nikita’s turn.

One flew the nest a few years back…
The other one is getting ready for a trial run…

17 May 2018

The remarkable journey of a young, unemployed Columbian

“I used sell perfumes in the streets”, said he to my utter disbelief.
“Yeah! I could keep $7 for every $20 bottle I sold. I had to figure out how to make money”.
“So, you were selling perfumes on streets?”, I had to ask him to re-clarify.
“Yes. Not just streets. I would walk up to the banks and try to sell perfumes to the tellers. My first sale was actually in a truck stop”.

I almost lost my grip on the bourbon glass.

“You were selling perfumes in a truck stop?”
“Yes, that was where my first successful sale was!”

This story I got to hear!

“So, let me get this straight. You have a degree in Finance. And yet, you were selling perfumes? How does one become a CEO from there? Back up and start from where you were born.”

Over a glass of bourbon, sitting at a local bar, I got to know the remarkable life history of Carlo Martinez – the founder and CEO of Steppingblocks.com. Apparently, he knew me from a prior work experience and a couple of days back, had asked to have a social meeting with me and a common friend. First, I am glad I showed up. Second, I am glad that the common friend did not show up (although he owes us a drink now) – else I would not have known the full history of Carlo.

Born in Columbia to poor parents, he eventually found his way to USA thanks to his hard working dad who got a break in Coca Cola in Bogota and eventually did well enough to be moved to the US of A. There is a similarity in his story and mine – where my dad who used to till land revolted against his family and moved away from his village to get a break in a steel plant.

His father insisted that he pursue Engineering. (again, that sounded like Indian parents to me – it was either that or “become a Doctor” ). Carlo joined Georgia South. But did not like Engineering much at all. More out of a whim than any well thought out plan, he took a class in Finance. And fell in love with “NPV – Net Present Value”. Somehow NPV made a lot of sense to him and he decided Finance is what he was going to do.

Finished his degree in Finance. Right around the time the economy started crashing in 2007/2008. The job market was very tough. Especially for young college kids. For three long years, Carlo did not get a job. But he had to make money. His self assessment was that he liked to interact with people and probably would be good at selling.

Became a bartender. Well, those jobs were available and it got him to interact with a lot of people.

From there, in an effort to make more money – he started selling perfumes!!

“So, how did it feel to sell perfumes in a truck stop?”

“The biggest thing I had to learn was to get over the fear of rejection. It was not easy being brushed away by people in the street and being looked at funny. People could be mean too! But once I was able to get over that, it was much easier. Selling became a passion. Rich man, poor man, beautiful young lady, old sick lady – it did not matter to me. I saw it as a chance to establish a connection with a human being and see if we could do something for each other. I had a perfume to sell that might have value to them. They had money that I was trying to earn.”

“But”, he continued, “I also learnt that people can be good. Really good. I had to do door to door selling. Most people would shut the door on my face rudely. But then there were those who would go out of their way to be nice to me. Some would even call me in to have a coffee. Many would buy but many would not. But they empathized with my struggle and willingness to earn money the hard way. In an extreme case, I was once invited to have dinner with the family. I think they took pity on me – seeing as it is that I needed food – but that notwithstanding, I cannot get over their magnanimity towards me.”

Being a people person, he befriended a lot of the tellers in the bank that he used to try selling perfumes to. And that is how he got his first break. He was offered to be a teller – given his people skills – in one of the banks here in Atlanta. Actually the largest bank here.

Once in a corporate world, he figured out how to grow his career very quickly.

“What got you from being a teller to be a VP in a large bank?”

“Well, looking back, I think I was willing to work hard and because I had gotten over my fear of rejection – I would take lot more risks than others. I would seek the projects that nobody wanted, I would approach senior people in the company without any fear and like I said, I was willing to work very very hard. You will be surprised, sitting in a air conditioned room, when you think about those hot days on the street trying to sell perfumes, how quickly you can get motivated to keep working!!! “

From there Carlo eventually jumped to a company that both of us worked in. Apparently he had seen me there. But I cannot recollect that. And then he started his own analytics company and has been growing very fast.

With his level of passion and energy I have no doubt he and his company will be incredibly successful.

In one sign of weakness though, in his otherwise fine judgment skills, apparently, he has formed a good opinion of me. He has followed me and my work even after I left our old company and that is what made him seek a social meeting with me. Just for this once, we will overlook that weakness of his.

Without that, I would not have had a chance to meet this remarkable young gentleman!!

28 April 2018

Sold!! (Reprinted from a few years back)

… for a phone (that too landline) and a car. Those were the demands she had back in Oct 1992 before she would agree to marry me. (To put this in perspective, in those days in the small town we came from, both a phone and a car were novelties and not owned by most). Not one to give in to negotiations too early, I had simple frowned at her. She conceded immediately that it did not have to be very soon – just some time in our married life. I had un-frowned.

Two days later, I told her that we might have to get married earlier – in fact before even she could finish college – and get the passports ready because my company was transferring me to US.

First day, I land in US, my company had a landline and a rental car ready for us.

Easiest sale ever!!