As if someone had just opened a window…

Earlier this month while going through the daily ritual of reading my mail, I found a brown campus envelope. Inside was a book titled Before We Visit the Goddess, by Chitra Bannerjee Divakaruni. As I held the book in my hands, I felt the sudden gush of cool air, as if someone had just opened a window. The feeling was familiar, for I have known it since my childhood.

Growing up in a small town in India without television or the Internet, I had limited opportunities for exposure to the outside world. Books and magazines, carefully selected and mail-ordered by my parents, were the only introduction to the magical world that lay outside 3-mile radius of our town. Each month, I waited eagerly for the arrival of the postman who brought these books neatly wrapped in brown envelopes. The time between these deliveries was filled in by magazines, unceremoniously slipped through the crack in the door by the newspaper delivery man.

As much as I loved magazines, the books brought me the most joy. Stories, poems, novels—I read them all and then reread them until the characters became a part of my world. I remember tearing open the envelopes, holding the books in my hands, staring at the covers and feeling lost in anticipation of what lay inside. The sensation was … exhilarating. Every time, it was like the gush of cool air as if someone had just opened a window.

Those books were my window to the world, a world that was outside of my reach, a world that was more a mystery than reality to me, but a world I very much wanted to be a part of.

Now, standing in my office and holding the proof copy of Chitra’s latest novel, I was feeling the same exhilaration. As an avid reader of fiction written by Indian-American authors, I have followed Chitra’s writings since 1995 when her first collection of short stories, Arranged Marriages, was published. I knew Chitra before she ever knew me.

Almost nine years ago, I received my first correspondence from Chitra. I had just been appointed president of the University of Houston and was taking a few weeks off before formally undertaking the new position. In preparation for the impending leisure travel, I stopped by at the neighborhood bookstore and picked up two of Chitra’s novels. What better time to indulge in some good literature.

The next morning when I turned on my computer, the name “Divakaruni” flashed in my email inbox. I stared in disbelief. I knew no other Divakaruni and Chitra had no reason to know me. So who is this email from? I eagerly opened it.  

It was indeed from the one and only Chitra Divakaruni, congratulating me on my new position. She introduced herself as one of the professors in the famous Creative Writing program at the University of Houston. I remember calling my husband and telling him that it looks like the job has come with more perks than I had negotiated for.

For the past eight years, I have enjoyed Chitra’s writings with additional familiarity. Chitra’s characters either live in India or have migrated from India and have the power to take me on journeys that are familiar and unpredictable at the same time. Her characters are easy to like—they are Indians…they are women…and they are strong!  

Before We Visit the Goddess is a multigenerational story of women in an Indian family. Sabitri, the grandmother, lives in India keenly aware of the many miles that separate her from her family in America. Bela, the mother, migrates to America under dubious circumstances and experiences the hardships most Indians coming to America to study or work are unfamiliar with. Tara, the daughter, is born and brought up in America and faces all the confusion that can surround the first generation of Indian-Americans. All three experience the complex emotions of “falling in love” and “falling out of love” with equal intensity and pain. All three lean on someone – someone outside the family – during tough times, but in the end each one discovers her own unique identity, an identity that is hers and hers alone.

What a powerful piece of literature from a wonderfully humble author! And she is part of our family, a member of the University of Houston faculty! Our Creative Writing Program is one of the best in the nation, and we know why.

Chitra has won multiple awards for her work and each one is a tribute to her extraordinary talent. But for me, she is a friend and an author whose books continue to open a window to the world, except now the world I see is the world that I have left behind, a world that remains as real as my own identity. And that sense of exhilaration remains as strong as ever.

Behind the Scene: The Republican Primary Debate

On Thursday, the Republican presidential candidates’ debate will air from the beautiful campus of the University of Houston. And yes, we are excited. The campus is already buzzing with excitement and activity. As I walked around the campus Monday, visiting the debate hall, the media center and the operations room, it reminded me of Indian weddings. With trucks pulling in, boxes lined up the walls, people rushing from one room to another and temporary tents getting secured on lawns, it felt festive and chaotic at the same time.

I kept checking nervously with my staff as well as those from CNN and RNC, “Is everything under control?” And yet, I knew that like all Indian weddings, everything will pull in at the last minute making it a perfect production.

It was less than three weeks ago that we got the final go ahead from our partners—RNC, CNN and Telemundo. Yes, just three weeks ago! But kudos to our UH team who took the challenge and are now driving it to a new level. Our faculty and staff are busy coordinating the logistics and supporting the event, but most importantly, they are busy ensuring that this event and everything surrounding it turns out to be a rich learning experience for our students.

We knew that tickets will be limited, but “25” was a much lower number than I was ready to hear. Even though we gave a portion to the tickets to students/faculty/staff for random drawing, it barely made a dent in the demand. So we had to think of every possible way to get people engaged and involved.

Yesterday, our faculty participated in multiple academic panels and debated a wide variety of topics from political philosophies to the United States Justice System to civic engagement. On Thursday, there will be a forum with CNN’s Anderson Cooper and a watch party for students. Another watch party is planned by the Faculty Senate. I know that many professors have integrated the debate into their classrooms as part of their research or learning assignment.

More than 400 media outlets have set up their desks in the media center, which looks as impressive as central command offices you see in movies. More than 70 students are working as volunteers hoping to rub shoulders with journalists or get selfies with the candidates. One told me he can’t wait to put the debate volunteerism on his resume.

Dr. Temple Northrup, Chair of Valenti School of Communication, made my day on Monday as he summed up the opportunity the debate has offered to his students in an email on Monday:

First, journalism students will be live tweeting the debate, providing student insights into the event. Second, our students will be creating a live poll that will be shown to the students at the watch party. The students at the Student Center will get to text votes in throughout the evening as our students question them about what they’re seeing. Lastly, all of this will be done with a live streamed broadcast using our talented broadcast journalism students. During commercial breaks at the Student Center, they will hear from our students, who will be broadcasting live from our building.”

It is not to say that bringing the debate to campus has been without challenges or controversies. Many faculty members had to adjust their classes, many staff members had to give up their offices, many administrators had to divert their time from other pressing projects, and many students have had to search even longer for parking. I also wonder if I have personally made more enemies than friends by denying them tickets and instead letting those tickets go to random drawing for students.

In the end, however, we hope that the opportunity for our students to learn, for our community to engage and for our university to be showcased to one of the largest national audiences ever will outweigh whatever challenges and controversies we faced. All things considered, I must say that our faculty, staff and students have been awesome!

So, even if you are not politically inclined, you may want to tune in for the debate because it is coming from one of America’s most beautiful urban campuses! At UH, we place a premium on community engagement. Often, that means our own neighborhood or city. But Thursday night, the community we are engaging is the entire country, and UH is especially proud and excited to play an important role in our national political conversation.

What can aspiring leaders learn from Baseball?

Having been brought up in India, I followed cricket with all my passion. Baseball was confusing to me–too similar to remind me of cricket and yet too different to comprehend.

However, everything changed this year when our University team, the mighty Houston Cougars, started to show their red color and win some tough games on the road. I started to take an interest and follow the team. As the season progressed, this interest began to turn into an obsession. I started to juggle my calendar to get to Cougar Field for their games.

The only problem was that the game involved too much specialized terminology for me.  To solve that, I found a “Baseball Glossary” online and attached the webpage to my IPhone home screen so I could refer to it any time as I listened to the unusual words and phrases.

Then one day, things changed.

I invited a friend to join me for one of the games without knowing that he had played baseball in college. He realized quickly that my knowledge of the game was elementary at best, so he asked if I would like for him to give me some pointers. I happily consented and that is when baseball became really interesting.

By the time, the season ended, our team, the Houston Cougars, had won an outstanding 48 games along with the conference championship and the NCAA Regionals. They played their hearts out and had the best season ever.

For me, the team not only won the season, but also taught me that baseball is much more than “America’s Past Time.” It provides an important lesson in leadership!

Why?

First and foremost, baseball is a game of teamwork!  The winning team does not win because individual hitters hit home runs; it wins because hitters and runners sacrifice their own time on the field in order to let the team score. In baseball, individual effort means a lot, but team effort means everything. Successful leaders have to do the same—get people to do their best, but also make them believe that the collective outcome of their actions is better than the sum of their individual bests.

Second, baseball requires multidimensionality in thinking and in execution…so many things to consider…so many players …so many moving parts! There are limited resources (pitchers and hitters) and the strategy revolves around knowing which one to deploy when and where to make the most of the ever-changing circumstances. Similarly, leadership is much more than garnering resources; it is about using what you have in the most impactful manner. It is about moving the needle!

Third, baseball is not about beating the clock; it is about finishing the task. One strike at a time…one pitch at a time without ever looking at the time!  Similarly, successful leaders don’t count their success in terms of years served or papers published. Instead, they focus on goals achieved!

Finally, baseball is about cashing in on rare opportunities. I noticed that the bases don’t always get loaded. But when they do, the team has to take a chance and go all the way…there is no reward for simply loading the bases or going half way.  Every person and every organization get rare opportunities. Some are not able to see them, others are not prepared for them, and still others are just too scared to act on them. Successful leaders take chances, they act and, consequently, they win.

To my Cougar baseball team—thank you for giving us all a thrilling season and for me, personally, these insights about leadership.  We’re so eager for the next season to start. As we baseball fans like to say, “Wait till next year!”

A Gourmet Night to Remember…

I am invited to many black tie events every year. Houston loves to dress up and raise funds! But my favorite black tie event every year is the Gourmet Night organized by the Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management here at the University of Houston. Nearly 400 students make this a night to remember.

Student Manager Team

Student Manager Team

Let me take you to this year’s Gourmet Night with me.

The theme is Route 66. The invitation itself takes you back in time – very retro, very nostalgic! You are requested to dress in theme-appropriate attire or black tie. I was raised in India, and therefore have nothing in my closet that could be called “theme-appropriate,” so I opt for a red gown. One can never go wrong with red!

Upon arrival, you notice that there are no professionals running around because no event planning companies or outside vendors are involved. Every little detail has been planned, and is now being executed, by the college’s students as part of their training.

We are offered a glass of Champagne and are given a number that we can use to bid on hundreds of items displayed in the silent auction. I am drawn to the section on vacation packages and restaurants – too many to count and each one under fierce bidding. What else would you expect from a hospitality college? I stop in front of an item, called “A Collection of Wines by the Faculty.” Before I can place a bid, I hear someone calling my name and asking if he may introduce himself. I turn around and greet him and forget the bidding.

With Martina Bahr, sous chef

With Martina Bahr, sous chef

In few minutes, the sound of the dinner bell invites us to the ballroom which has been transformed into Diner 41 in celebration of the 41st year of the Gourmet Night. Women in poodle skirts and men in 1960s hair style greet us in the hallway. We stop for a quick photo, one being taken with an IPhone and one with an old-style camera. We find our table, decorated with records and candy jars. A loud band plays familiar songs and I can see people moving in their chairs to the beat of the music.

With Katie Proctor and Diego Cardenas

With Katie Proctor and Diego Cardenas

Now we are ready for the gourmet part of the night. Five courses accompanied by five wines please our eyes and taste buds. Hundreds of students offer synchronized wait service on multiple tables in an expertly choreographed fashion. They are eager to explain any wine or food item in front of us.

Here is the part that I always wait for. The student general manager takes the microphone and introduces all of her managers – the food manager, the beverage manager, the service manager, the marketing director, and on and on. Then she calls on all the volunteers and a parade of 400 students enters from one side of the ballroom and marches across to the other side.

We all sit in amazement as this night comes to an end. Students start to plan this event as a part of their curriculum almost a year earlier. They compete and audition for leadership positions. They take responsibility, form teams, delegate tasks, hold each other responsible, manage conflicts, and finally produce an evening that is unparalleled in experience and elegance.

In order to pass, students are judged by a really tough group, because the room is full of big names in the industry, from people who manage their own restaurant to those who are the owners of the largest franchises in the world!

As we walk out of the ballroom, we are handed a Coke bottle reminiscent of the good old days. We thank the students and walk to our car, proud and happy in the knowledge that all of the managers will get job offers – if they don’t have one already! Because, after all, they are the best of the best!

 

 

People who make buildings come alive

Today, I want you to meet a very special person, a person who can make any building come alive, but in order to do so, you will have to come with me to one of my favorite places on campus.

Come with me to The Fresh Food Company, a new student dining facility (No, it is not a cafeteria that you and I remember from our college days).

As you reach the entrance, you are greeted by a bold splash of red. In fact the red is so bold that it forces you to check your clothes just to make sure you are wearing red today. The vibrancy of the place makes you feel like being a student again. After I treat you to a $7.50 for you (or $5 if it is Red Friday and you are wearing red), you arrive at a bright open space. As you glance from left to right, I tell you that there are nine stations–from international to vegetarian to a tempting salad bar–are staffed by chefs preparing food for you as you wait. No garlic? No problem! They will hold it for you. Vegan? Yes, indeed! What about dessert? Wait a minute and watch that timer on the oven get to zero. You will be rewarded with a melt-in-your-mouth chocolate chip cookie with no calories (at least you won’t care while you are eating it).

Now that the last bit of your cookie is gone, you focus on your surroundings and notice that hundreds of students are sitting around, studying, chatting and working on their laptops. They are in no rush to leave. It is the gathering place! “Impressive,” you say without effort.

And then you start to complain that you have eaten too much and that you would need a siesta. I smile because I know the feeling too well.

Now I take you to meet Ms. Dorothy.  She stands behind the salad station, refilling items as fast as possible.  In between she raises her head and smiles at everyone and talks to some when she gets a chance. She does the same when she sees us.  Her soft voice is hard to hear over the noise, but it reaches our heart. She does not expect you tMs. Dorothyo acknowledge her or return her greetings.  She is there to give unconditionally.

A few weeks ago, I asked the manager if Ms. Dorothy could spare a few minutes of her time for me. I wanted to know the person behind the counter.  She was hesitant but complied and came. When I pulled a chair next to me and asked her to sit down, she was really puzzled.

Once we got going, she told me that she has been working now for 51 years. She was proud to have raised five successful children. Her eyes lit up, especially when she spoke about students. “They are so special and I would do whatever I can for them,” she told me. “One time, a student came to give me $10 that I had loaned him 8  years back when he had no money for lunch. I didn’t take it ’cause he gave me the joy when he got his degree,” she said in such a casual way that I had to hold my heart. How can an institution not succeed when there are people like Ms. Dorothy making its success their daily business!

That day, we sat and chatted for 20 minutes and during that time, many people passed by, saying “Hi, Ms. Dorothy!” It was only as an after-thought that they would glance at me and say, “Hello to you, too.” While I was focused on learning about Ms. Dorothy, she was pulling her colleagues aside and introducing them to me and telling me how good they were.

Now back to today, I watch as Ms. Dorothy comes from behind the counter and says a polite “hello” to you. I step forward and steal a hug from her.  I can use it today.

Thank you, Ms. Dorothy!  No matter what anyone else says, I know that you and your colleagues are the reason why our dining facilities are inviting places. We build them, but you all make them come to life!

(PS: Ms. Dorothy is one of over 300 employees of Aramark at the University of Houston. The Fresh Food Company serves 4,800 meals per day, giving Ms. Dorothy a venue to reach out to so many.)