Gujaratis are famous for their business acumen. Stereotypes make me cringe, but this one I see proven through my family experiences. Even with my professional education, I have always had some business on the side. As I trace my roots, I see entrepreneurs throughout my lineage. My maternal grandfather moved his family from post-colonial India to rural Pakistan. Through a combination of land ownership, the running of a small mill, and a wholesale grocer, he could support a family of nine. On the other side, my father’s family moved from India to East Africa to trade in agricultural goods. The stories of hustle were a natural part of my upbringing. The observations I made from watching my extended, and immediate family prepared me for the ups and downs of business. With a can-do spirit, the obstacles along the path became teachable moments.
1. Reading, Writing & Arithmetic
My uncle Wazir is a successful and well-loved real estate broker in Toronto. He did not, however, start his career in real estate. He was born in Pakistan and was offered a scholarship for a master’s program abroad through excellence in his studies. After finishing his engineering studies in Honolulu, opportunity took him to the shipyards of Baltimore. From there, he eventually sought a better quality of life in Canada. His analytical mind, undoubtedly honed by his education, led him to seek better returns on his time through real estate. With a singular focus, to make more time in his life for his family, he was able to engineer his life. From his strategic thinking and natural warmth, he grew his real estate business from word-of-mouth referrals. His example, to me, speaks of the combination of education and humanity in success.
Similarly, while both of my parents were physicians, they both had a desire for business. When my parents arrived in Atlanta, neither was licensed to practice medicine in the US. My parents plunged their savings into a 24-hour gas station/ convenience store in a rough downtown neighborhood to make an income. This venture required grit, humility, and lots of hands-on management. From there, their golden egg, my mother was able to return to her studies and get licensure to practice in America. Eventually, she created her own medical practice in Atlanta’s underserved Latino community. Though she does not speak Spanish, she partnered with a well-connected church organizer. This partnership helped her to step into the market with language and relationships. My parent’s story carries the lesson of education and collaboration. In each instance, my mother’s business success relied on finding support from a partner.
2. Follow Your Heart
In the late 90s, my two favorite uncles lived around the corner from us in Atlanta. Initially, they worked at the family gas station. However, they did not want to participate in the sale of alcohol and cigarettes. For them, these products were part of a lifestyle inconsistent with Islamic principles. So, these two brothers searched for other ventures that would allow them to work with autonomy and righteousness. They investigated a windows and glass installation company; for a while, they helped homeowners delay the process of foreclosure. Finally, they settled on the business of hair distribution. When they first started, online shopping was not the norm. Shopify was non-existent; my uncles were early adopters. In the post-pandemic world, they have excelled because their platform was ready for a wholesale shift in perspective. In their struggle to follow certain principles, I find proof that anyone can find the right business if they keep at it.
My cousin Mariam’s story, is probably my favorite, though. We are related via my father’s side of the family, and since she grew up in the UAE, we did not spend a lot of time together as kids. However, while I was at the University of Maryland Law School in downtown Baltimore, I got to know her better. She worked at a snazzy lighting store in Annapolis not too far away. Her eye for design and art were ever-present, and I am sure the lighting folks were happy to have her. But her heart was in crafts. She has a talent for making handmade soaps that are both beautiful and cruelty-free. Initially, she started selling her creations on Etsy. I remember buying her soaps early on. Ten years later, Chester River Soaperie operates in a worldwide niche for custom retail and wholesale soaps and lotions. Through her success, I see the importance of remaining faithful to your inner calling. Mariam is a creator, and now she stands in the world of her creation.
3. Read the Fine Print
Running a business is not a cakewalk. Some of the lessons I learned are cautionary tales. Litigation can deplete cash reserves and sap emotional energy. Drew, one of my uncles, was eager to make money fast through the gas station business. He jumped into a lease-purchase agreement when he thought he saw a good deal. Drew believed he had a valid option to purchase the station without much external investigation. After a few months of running the store, the property was sold from under him. Drew was wronged, but he let his anger fuel his following choices. He embarked on protracted litigation over the right to purchase. In stubbornly chasing his indignation, Drew got a raw deal. He pursued a lemon and lost both money and energy. In Drew’s story, I see the importance of hiring help to do diligence and identifying when to cut your losses.
Even though Gujaratis share a fantastic track record, it is not just their birth in the community that entitles them to success. I saw that the goal was never money for the sake of money. The key motivations are a determination to do the right work and the perseverance to make a particular lifestyle. The larger goal was for a balance in purpose and family life. With these values at the forefront, the family keeps a humble and narrow focus on the more significant why. Beyond the veneer of success, there are the pox marks of sacrifices. I have been keeping an inner log of the lessons in my work towards financial independence. Most importantly, I recognize that it is a process. Good partners, good motivations, and sound legal counsel are critical to making it through.