Bhavdeep Singh, Managing Director of Whitehawk Associates, recently had the opportunity to cogitate on his parents’ journey as immigrants to the United States. He reflected on how they exemplified the values of leadership we sometimes only recognize in the rich, powerful, and famous, and how his parents had a profound impact on the lives of others.
The following includes selected excerpts from a recent essay by Bhavdeep Singh. The comments and quotations have been edited for content and clarity.
“Over the last so many years, I have read many books and articles about leadership and am always inspired to read about the amazing leaders that have come before us. Some were scientists, some were CEOs, some were entrepreneurs, some were doctors, and much more – and they all did some great things. As I reflect on my own journey, while I have been blessed to have worked with many great leaders, as I get older, it is becoming increasingly clear that the most amazing leaders I saw in action were my parents.
My parents, Ujagar Singh and Gobind Kaur came to the United States some 50 years back with just 40 dollars in their pocket. Between the two of them, they never made a lot of money and we were a basic middle-class family from White Plains, New York.
My family landed in America on January 4th, 1970 at a time when the country was going through some very challenging times. While the United States was in the midst of a national dialogue on race, war, drugs and so much more, we were not a very welcoming nation when it came to ethnicity and race.
My father, Ujagar Singh, who was 42 years old at the time, started looking for a job immediately after landing here with a need to provide for this family. But, things didn’t work out as planned. You see, after a very successful career in India, it took my father 5 months to get a low-level job with the local county government. This had nothing to do with skill and ability. On the contrary, my father was qualified and highly educated with a Masters's Degree. However, he did not fit the desired “clean-cut” profile for most companies. Daddy, as we fondly referred to him, did very well in any and all interviews and was actually hired on multiple occasions. However, the pre-condition of employment was that he had to remove his turban and beard.
Now, think about this - you’ve just arrived in a foreign country and have borrowed enough money to survive for 6 months. You are highly qualified and have an impressive resume - but no one wants to consider you for any type of job because of your religious beliefs and your physical appearance. How crazy is that? If that happened today, we would have a social media frenzy and live feeds on the 6 pm news. But, back then, the name for this was “business as usual.” So, at that point, the easy choice for most of us, including myself, would have been to “lose the turban” and provide a home for your family. But, no, that was not the case. My father held firm and did not give up till he finally got a job in June, 5 months into his search. It was a role that he had done 10 years earlier in India. I have often reflected on this and am humbled by his courage, confidence, and faith to stand his ground. I don't know if I would have - but that’s what makes him a hero.
My mother Gobind Kaur, was a tough one - really tough. No one messed with Gobind Kaur, she was opinionated and was the “in-your-face type.” But, she was also very loving and took a great deal of pride in her identity as a Sikh Woman before it was cool to do so. As I have shared above, the country didn’t exactly roll out the red carpet for the Singh family. School was tough for me and my siblings. Children can be mean and in the midst of a whole lot of civil strife, it was fairly common and easy to pick on the Singh kids. While I wear my turban with a great deal of pride today, back then, there were days that I felt like a freak - no friends, no fun, and wondering how I had drawn the short straw with this thing on my head. So, it wasn’t easy and on many days, it was just hard. But, my mother was a pillar of strength and assured us that things would get better and people would not only accept us, but they would actually seek us out. "Ammi Ji, you don't understand, we aren’t in India, no one is going to seek us out! They might chase us but that’s not the same thing!”
Over time, I realized that my mother was a smart and wise woman. Not only was she right, but at a time when we were drowning, she carried us and made sure we didn’t drown till we learned to navigate our new home.
So, my parents were leaders in such a big way - because leaders don’t just do - they inspire and mold others too. So, in many ways, they were leaders in their own right - however, their leadership was of a different kind and one that inspired not just their children, but also, thousands and thousands of young people around the country. My sister, Jesleen Kaur, my brother, Livleen Singh, and I were fortunate that they didn’t make a lot of money as their focus was on building a good family life with a strong emphasis on their children and grandchildren.
But they were also activists and fought for change in the community and pushed for young people to do more, to make a difference, and to make the world a better place. They worked tirelessly in running programs for the young people in our community and we are humbled by the countless number of people that still refer to them as “Ammi” and “Daddy.”
So, no, they didn’t build a tech business, they didn’t hold any political office and they certainly didn’t make a gazillion dollars - but, when it’s all said and done, the impact they had may be worth all of that and more - much much more!
My guess is that many of us have a similar story with our parents, but perhaps haven’t realized it yet.”