Overcoming the Immigrant Bias: My Journey and Learnings

by Mahinder Chawla, AVP of Cash Apps Delivery Services

Mahinder next to the Berlin Wall

I was born in New Delhi, India. But since my dad’s occupation was as a foreign service officer, we spent most of our time living in countries outside of India. I completed my early schooling in Aden, South Yemen and Frankfurt, Germany, and attended high school in Mauritius. My exposure to India occurred during my middle school and college years. My upbringing in these countries helped shape my personality as well as develop a deep understanding and appreciation of the various cultures. It ingrained in me that — in diversity we thrive.

As I completed college in India, I was presented with the opportunity to work in West Berlin (prior to Germany’s unification). This was the first time in my life that I saw racial bias. Back then, West Berlin was filled with chaos; the Berlin wall was coming down while talks of the unification gained strength. West Berlin had many foreigners from developing countries who used to work various labor jobs. It did not go unnoticed that these people were discriminated against and treated unequally.

I slowly came to the realization that I did not like the situation I was in and decided to uproot myself and come to the USA, the land of opportunities, and chase my dreams. I came to Texas to complete my graduate studies. Initially, I had a tough time understanding my professors. Most were from Texas and had the famous Texan drawl. At school, I was in utter shock when I witnessed students sitting with their feet up on the desk and addressing their professors by their first or last name. To me that was a sign of disrespect and very different from my upbringing. We were constantly reminded to be respectful to our teachers and professors, which meant addressing the teaching community as Sir or Ma’am. It took me a while to adjust to the new norms and differences in culture.

Upon completion of my master’s degree in the early nineties, I moved to Michigan to work in factory automation for the automotive industry. I probably was one of only a handful of non-Caucasian Controls Automation Engineers. It was a close-knit group, and I was constantly reminded that I didn’t fit in. I stood out like a sore thumb and had to work doubly hard to prove my worth. I began to doubt my decision to join an industry and career which harbored so much bias. Looking around, there were barely any Asians in high level management positions.

Mahinder’s first turnkey automation project

After accepting the existence of bias, I concluded that I had to work more than my peers to excel in my field. I encountered many barriers for career growth and my attempts to move into management roles were often met with “better luck next time”. There was a clear stereotype that people of Asian descent, especially those not brought up in the USA, are not effective leaders and communicators. This could be due to their accent or way of thinking that led others to believe that they are not suitable as leaders. I was determined to do my part and prove them wrong, and to pave the way for others who come from my background. I pushed myself out of my comfort zone, attended coaching sessions, sought opportunities to reduce my thick Indian accent, and expanded my professional network. I started a club for those like myself to hone in on the soft skills and push the limits. My motto was to not give up, understand and plug gaps, seek challenging opportunities, and under no circumstances accept defeat.

Fast forward a couple of decades, and we see many professionals of Asian descent reach new heights in their careers. For example, Google’s Sundar Pichai, Microsoft’s Satya Nadella, FRB Minneapolis President Neel Kashkari, and our own EVP and CIO Gopa Kumar. They have all demonstrated that by hard work and relentless passion, any glass ceiling can be shattered.

Although there has been significant progress over the last 20 odd years, a bias still exists in industries. We must come together as a united front to fight these injustices. The Bank’s emphasis on inclusion, diversity and unreserved opportunity forms the backbone for us as leaders, to promote and be a role model for leading these initiatives to success.

While I see opportunities here, I am deeply pained by the turn of events with COVID-19 in Southeast Asia. The COVID tsunami has engulfed India so deeply that no family has been spared. The medical establishment has been battered and is struggling with basic necessities such as oxygen cylinders, concentrators, and medicine. I personally know many who have been severely impacted and lost loved ones due to the lack of medical attention.

It is heartwarming to see countries have opened their hearts and poured in aid to supply them with the necessary equipment and medicine to fight this pandemic. The Indus ERG is also doing its part by collecting and sending donations to help with the purchase of more equipment and medicine.

The pandemic has taken a toll on the entire world, not just in India, but by coming together and helping one another we can play our little part in reducing the burden of this horrific virus.

Mahinder with wife and daughters

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