The importance of being true to your roots

Updated: Aug 10, 2015, 14:11 PM IST

An interview with Harvard Business School Dean Dr Nitin Nohria by Ishaan Bhojwani, co-president of the Indo American Youth Group.

Ishaan Bhojwani: How important do you think it is to maintain your identity as a minority? Is it better to forget racial and cultural differences and assimilate, or cultivate the differences?

Nitin Nohria: I think it’s important to embrace [cultural differences]. This is one of the unique strengths of America. This is not a country that asks us to reject who we are in order to become American. There are countries that are not as diverse as America. In this country everyone has a sense that they came from a different place. Irish Americans, for example. Even though they are Americans, their sense of being Irish can be very important to them. America doesn't require you to ever forget where you came from. It’s a great thing. I don't think we should ever forget that we are Indians.

IB: What is the role of Indian parents? Should they encourage their children to assimilate into the society they are brought up in, or do you think parents should encourage children to learn about their roots?

NN: I think that each child will find their own balance of these things. I have two daughters and they both have a very different sense in navigating what this balance is, and my own view as a parent is to honour that, and to not feel like you have to push too hard in one direction or the other. I have a niece, and she is very happy to go to Hindi class. Neither of my daughters are interested in doing that, and I've never tried to force either of them. My advice to parents would be to say that we shouldn't be too anxious, and that kids will find their 'Indianness' in their own way. It's not like the children have a choice. They have to find some way of being comfortable in being Indian and American at the same time. You might think they've become too American, but it will all work out.

IB: Do you think that as more Indians rise to prominent positions in this country, the significance of being a prominent Indian is diminished?

NN: I think so. When a person who is Caucasian rises to a position of power, they are not recognized as being Caucasian. They are only recognized for having that position. When your identity is a minority, whether it is Indian or Hispanic or African-American, achieving positions of prominence feels new, and is therefore recognized with that identity. Therefore, as more and more Indians get successful I think the salience of the identity as part of their success will diminish.

IB: I was wondering if you could talk about if being Indian today affects our lives differently than it affected your life back when you were growing up.

NN: I think, in many ways, every generation breaks some barriers. I think that in some ways, being Indian today is easier, because we've had Indian governors, Indian senators, Indian Deans of schools, Indian movie stars, we've had people on television. None of these things existed when we first came among the first generation of immigrants. There were few role models, few examples of people who had penetrated every walk of society in America. The good thing now is that there is no such thing as a sector in American society where Indians aren't visible, or that Indians aren't part of. So I would say that the ability to imagine yourself as anything is easier for the next generation. In some other ways, though, it might be harder. [The first generation of immigrants] knew that there was no advantage that we had. We had to work super hard. I sometimes wonder now if people will have that same hunger. This makes it harder [for the later generations] because even though there are all these role models, you cannot accomplish things without that hunger.

Dr Nohria is the George F Baker Professor of Administration and the Dean of the Faculty of the Harvard Business School. He was born in Rajasthan, and graduated from St Columba’s School, New Delhi, going on to do earn degrees at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) and MIT’s Sloan School of Management. He previously served as co-chair of the Leadership Initiative, Senior Associate Dean of Faculty Development, and Head of the Organizational Behavior unit.

The Indo American Youth Group is a forum for community service activities and leadership in a non-denominational setting for students of Indian heritage from grades 6-12.

(Image courtesy: Harvard Business School / YouTube)

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