Anything worth winning is won with passion

Last week, I was waiting for the elevator when I heard someone running toward me, literally screaming, “Oh My Gosh! I can’t believe it is you! Can I please take a selfie with you?”

“Of course, you can. Where is your phone?” I said. She fumbled for it in the backpack, too excited to concentrate. Finally, the student found the phone and took a selfie, still chanting, “Oh My Gosh, Oh My Gosh!”
She was vivacious, happy, full of life and full of spirit. We started talking and within few minutes I realized that Tina was no ordinary person.

During high school, Tina became the sole survivor of a fatal car accident that claimed her mother and sister. She delayed her entrance to college by one year. During her sophomore year, Tina was diagnosed with cancer with not-so-good odds of survival. She took a year off from college, fought the battle successfully and returned. During that time, she managed to complete one online course.

In her senior year, Tina’s father lost the functionality of his legs in a random shooting. Once again, she had to stay home to care for her father and provide support to two younger brothers. But Tina enrolled in several online courses and completed them with good grades. “I love being on campus, but you don’t get everything you want,” she said in an accepting voice, without a note of complaint.

“You will be proud of me, President Khator, but I am graduating within six years. I did not want to let you down.” She had the smile of a winner as she said it.

I hugged Tina and held her a little longer than usual. I did not want her to see tears filling up my eyes.

What kept Tina going against all odds? Life pushed her back again and again and yet she came out victorious every single time. “I am so proud of you,” I said admiringly. “I am so glad you chose to continue your studies.”

“I had no choice,” she replied. “I never thought that way.” Tina waved good-bye and ran in the other direction. She was gone, but her words kept buzzing in my ears throughout the day … and the next and the next.

I never thought that way! That way…

What way?

Did Thomas Edison feel the same way when he failed 999 times before inventing what led to the modern light bulb!
Did Henry Ford feel the same way when he declared five bankruptcies before becoming hugely successful?
Did R.H. Macy feel the same way when he closed down seven stores before finding success in New York?
Did Walt Disney feel the same way when told by his newspaper editor that he lacked imagination?
Did Dr. Seuss feel the same way when rejected by publishers, not once, not twice but 27 times?

What is “that way of thinking” that seemed to give them no other choice? Did passion make them blind to reality and deaf to the voices of reason?

Tina, like these famous people, had passion for her goal, and that passion pushed her forward. In theory, she may have had choices, but she could not see them and that made her succeed despite many setbacks. When people face setbacks, they react in one of two ways: They think from their brain and analyze everything minutely to decide whether it is wise to quit. And then there are those who respond from their heart and look for a different way or a different time or a different setting to reach their goal.

Winners fall in the second category because their eyes are on the goal, not on many ways to reach the goal. They keep trying different tools, because their goals are not negotiable.

I salute Tina for making me see her way, that way… the way of winners!

[To protect her identity, this student’s name and circumstances have been altered.]

To lead, focus on core mission!

Today is the first day of classes. Thousands of students are here with dream in their eyes and hope in their hearts. Walking around campus reminded me of the debate I had with a friend from Florida last year. The issue was, of course, higher education and this friend did not work in the academia.

My friend asked me to imagine a restaurant that offers beautiful decor, glasses of cold sparkling water, and live music, but does not serve food!  He asked me to further imagine a movie theater that offers free popcorn, stadium-style seating, and a video game lounge, but does not show movies!  Then he asked me to imagine a plane that has extra legroom, free meals, and allows us to board early, but never takes off!

My immediate words were, “It is ridiculous! What kind of a restaurant does not serve food?”  My reaction was obvious, because every organization has a core mission which must be fulfilled first, ahead of anything else.  “You see”, he said before I could say anything more, “that is why we have a problem with universities. They do everything but help students succeed!”

“Excuse me!  We are graduating 8,000 students every year from the University of Houston alone.” I protested.

“And letting more than that many go without graduating?” He provoked me further.

“Well, I admit that some do not graduate, but are you putting all the blame on us? Your analogies are irrational.”

Before I could say any more, he yielded and said, “Okay, I am sorry.  I was too harsh.  Let’s assume that our imaginary restaurant serves great meals also, but half the people get up and leave before finishing their meal.  The movie theater shows movies, but only half the people stay to see the end.  And our plane gets to fly, but takes the passengers only halfway where they want to go.  Is everything okay now?”

By now, I knew that I had lost the argument.  I could extend his logic and imagine a university that offered its students everything they desired (yes, including parking!), but allowed half of them to leave without a degree. Of course, I could raise my defensive shield and give many reasons, and they would all be true. Yes, the government is not funding us to the same level as before. Yes, students are not coming to us as well prepared as before. Yes, federal and state regulations have added to the cost of our operations. And yes, students are more easily distracted today than a few years back.

But, will that make everything right? Would the restaurant that lost half of its guests still be in business a week later?  How about the movie theater that lost half of its viewers or the airline that flew its passengers to only half the distance?

Our core mission is to teach students and to prepare them to build a better future for themselves and for our communities.  If they cannot get the needed education, we are failing in our core mission, and thus jeopardizing our own existence and viability as a university, irrespective of whose fault it is.

So, here is my plea to you, my team members.

As you begin the new academic year, please focus and refocus on our core mission — the success of our students!  They just don’t happen to be here. They are here because we consciously recruited them, invited them in, and admitted them to our university.  And now that they are here, we have the obligation to help them succeed. And we need to do that while keeping our expectations high and rigor tough.

I know that there are many things that are outside of our control to fix, but I also know that there are at least as many that we can fix. One of the most important success factors cited by alumni is their feeling that someone on campus cared. No matter where your desk is and no matter what your work is, your interaction with students is guaranteed. Please remember that you can make a difference in their lives.

Today is the day to rededicate ourselves to core mission. 

Fifty Shades of Red

Is red really red, or is it a collection of shades that look like red?

Come and walk the grounds of the University of Houston on any given Friday and chances are that you will be overwhelmed by a sea of red. Nearly 70 percent of the students, staff and faculty will be wearing that distinctive school color. The sight is so compelling that I have had many visitors comment, “Wow…your campus is all red.”

A Friday at UH

A Red Friday at UH

But if you look closely, what people describe as “red” turns out to be more like 50 shades of red, anywhere from almost-orange to maroon-look-alike to pinkish red. Yes, there is an official “Cougar Red” red, but many people still wear all shades of red because they don’t want to repeat the same outfit. I mean, just how many truly red outfits can you really have? (Disclaimer: two-thirds of my own closet is now red.)

Yet, to a visitor, it looks as if everyone is just wearing “red.”

I often wonder how and when shades can lose their individual differences and become a single chromatic phenomenon? Last month, I was wearing a maroon-pink suit to a meeting. The first comment I heard as I walked in the door was, “There is the lady in red!” I was surprised. First of all, it was not Friday. Second, the suit was not red by any stretch of the imagination. And finally, I was not even in Houston. Yet, because I wear red so often, my suit was immediately perceived as “red” before it looked maroon or pink to these people.

To me, the different shades of a color are natural and, in their way, important. They expand our limits and add value in reminding us that we have a common ground. The varying shades also remind us that commonality is not automatic; it has to be built and nurtured.
Every organization is shaped by two opposite forces: those that unify its members and those that divide them. A successful, high-functioning organization strives to strike the right balance because neither is good in its extreme. Too much uniformity may lead to complacency. Too much divisiveness may lead to conflict.

My organization–the University of Houston–continues to flourish with the healthy interplay of forces that simultaneously unite and divide us. We all are the same in many ways – our mission, core values, commitment, logo, color, team and the list can go on and on. But we are also very different– the disciplines that we teach in, or the departments that we work in, or the ideologies that we believe in, or the approaches that we take to fulfill that common mission. And, of course, we are also divided by gender, color, race, socio-economic status, neighborhoods and many more such factors.

The secret of our success is remaining divided and yet united. Our strength comes from recognizing our differences but still relating to one another so naturally that we appear as one. The significance lies in the strength of our unity, and not in the elimination of the differences.
An orange-red looks red if it is surrounded by other reds, but it will be perceived as orange if standing alone. A strong organization is not the one that ignores its divisions but one that builds a compelling sense of unity that transcends its differences.

So, I am proud of our own red and even prouder of the 50 shades that also contribute to our greater sense of “red.” I salute those who unify our cause and mission, and I applaud those who challenge us to be different.

(But, hold on, Cougars. Let me be very clear. I still love it when you wear your Cougar Red on Fridays!)

Making ordinary travel extraordinary

Everyone travels with a purpose in mind—business, relaxation, getting-away-from-it-all, education, sightseeing, culinary curiosity…well, the list goes on. Why do I travel? Maybe all the above, but there’s always needs to be a little more for me and it is that “little more” that makes things extraordinary.

This month, my husband and I took one week to experience the Dalmatian Coast in Croatia. I had read about its blue waters, dramatic cliffs, charming towns, and everything else that has made Croatia an international tourist destination.

But, we added two “little” conditions to our journey.

One was that we would backpack–-no suitcase, no hassle. My European experience never feels complete unless I put a pack on my back and wander around looking for a place to eat or sleep. A sense of liberation and youthfulness starts to wash over me the minute I roll my shirts and layer them in my backpack.

The second condition was that we will find a unique bar on every island to enjoy our traditional evening drink. (No, I am not promoting drinking …natural juices are also served in all Croatian bars.)

Our journey started in Dubrovnik. After soaking in the history, walking on the old city wall, experimenting with Croatian dishes, we headed for the

A cliff hanger

A cliff hanger

region’s most talked-about beach. We’re used to the beaches of Siesta Key, Florida, with white sand covering an area the size of four football fields. What we encountered was the size of a basketball court— and full of pebbles and stones. After the initial shock, we came to realize that the simple, elemental landscape created by the combination of rocks and sea was just as remarkable as any Florida beach. it was gorgeous!

Searching for our special place to have a drink, we found the Buza Bar, a small place that seemed to be hanging off a cliff. While it was relatively expensive, we knew that we were paying for that extraordinary view, not the drinks.

The next day, we took a ferry to Korcula island. As we expected, the ferry was filled with students from all around the world, mostly backpacking. We may have seemed out of place, but never felt so. We talked with young travelers and learned the island’s best bar sits atop one of the fort towers. “But you have to climb through a small hole in the ceiling using a temporary ladder,” they advised us. Getting to Massimo proved to be quite an adventure, but once on top of the tower, we loved sipping our mojitos as the beat of loud music surrounded us and an invigorating wind blew through our hair.

The next stay was in Hvar, Croatia’s most popular island. We rented a scooter, and we decided to disappear into the mountains. It was hot and humid as we left, but the skies darkened. Soon, there was thunder, lightning and cold, with absolutely no shelter in sight. By the time we found a village (if you can call five houses a village), we were soaking wet. It was fun, nonetheless.

The recommended bar for this area was Carpe Diem, located not on the shore but a nearby private island. The operating hours, we were informed, ran from midnight to 6 a.m. Really? Six in the morning? What a concept!

After Hvar and Stari Grad, we boarded a catamaran to get to Split, with its dazzling Diocletian’s Palace, built in the 3rd century. The huge palace (once the retirement home for the emperor) has now been converted into a vibrant urban space with shops, restaurant and rental apartments. We stayed there with our room window opening to the largest square within the palace. That night, I kept my window open and, despite the sounds coming from below, I slept better than usual. I realized why. My childhood was filled with urban noises – rickshaw-pullers arguing, vendors selling vegetables, trains whistling by, and street dogs barking at passing cars. You can change as much as you want, but you can never take the childhood out of your system. How comforting!

Our bar of choice in Split was situated on the steps of palatial ruins. Luxor sets up cushions and wooden boards and serves you drinks as you watch curious visitors raise their eyes to look at the bell tower, the cathedral or the treasury.

We took the local bus back to Dubrovnik so we could admire the coast from the landside. We could have rented a car, but that would spoil the backpacking mood. The trip took us through Bosnia, with its tight border security. Bosnia has a slim, 24-kilometer wedge of coastline that bisects Croatia. It was interesting to see the incredible density of hotels and restaurants squeezed along that Bosnian coastline. I suppose when you have such limited space, you use every inch of it.

Ice chamber

Ice chamber

On our last day in Dubrovnik, we were looking for another unique experience when we noticed a sign for Ice Bar. Yes, it sounded kind of touristy, but we were tourists after all, weren’t we? Upon entering, we were given parkas and led to an ice chamber where everything—table, chair, bar stool, glasses and decorations–was carved from ice. Frosty blue light danced and soft music played. We sipped our drinks and chatted with the bartender, just like in any other bar. After 30 bone-chilling minutes—that’s all we could take—we left. Brrrr!

After exploring every type of pebble beach, experimenting with all kinds of Adriatic and Mediterranean dishes and visiting with happy Croatians, we said good-bye. As an educator, I believe my strongest memory from this very memorable journey was how excited the young people became every time we told them that we taught at the University of Houston. In their eyes, a university professor was revered and college education was an important goal to pursue in their lives. Hearing that was as thrilling as any of the adventures we experienced during this wonderful trip.

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!


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!”

Venice with an architectural twist

What do I know about architecture? Practically nothing. What do I know about students? A lot … because they are my passion. Here I am in Venice, Italy, witnessing the extraordinary transformation of five students from the College of Architecture.

Eight months ago, Patricia Oliver, Dean of the College of Architecture, cornered me at a University event to tell me that her students were planning to enter a competition of the highest international prestige – Venice Biennale, the granddaddy of them all!
“It will be the first time in college’s 50-year history that we are dreaming this big,'” she said. I like big dreams so I encouraged her, wished her good luck and told her that if you are successful, I will join you.

Two months ago, I got a message from the dean informing me that they had indeed made it to the Venice Biennale. I congratulated her and told her that I would try my best to be with the team.

Recently, Dean Oliver revealed that the exhibition is so prestigious that the renowned developer Gerald D. Hines, whose name our College of Architecture bears, had decided to attend. Now, I had no choice but to reshuffle my schedule and attend.

I arrived in Venice on June 5, my fifth visit to this dreamy city. During my previous visits, I had seen every tourist site worth seeing – from San Marco Plaza to the Rialto Bridge – many times over. I had taken photos of every church and villa from every angle and had paid ridiculous amounts to take short rides in those storybook gondolas. So, this time my attention in Venice was completely focused on my students and Mr. Hines.

First of all, Mr. Hines didn’t just attend the opening, but he was on hand for every event. I felt 6 inches taller just walking next to him because everyone, including the curator of the exhibition, stopped by to pay him tribute. I did not know these people, but the constant clicking of cameras that surrounded them was more than enough to confirm their importance in the world of architecture.

The exhibition included a Who’s Who of architecture. Twenty three venues were part of the Biennale and displayed the works of the masters. I could not believe that our students were here. Not only were they here, they were given one of the most prominent places on the Grand Canal next to Rialto Bridge to display their ambitious project. Thousands of people visited their exhibit every day…they stayed, asked questions and admired the work of our dedicated architecture students!

Our students’ project was truly masterful – taking Houston’s Buffalo Bayou and developing it so that every negative (pollution, abandoned land, and toxic brown fields) is converted into a positive (a school for the blind, farm land for inmates, a green manufacturing facility). In their proposed plan, Buffalo Bayou becomes not only an example of sustainable development, but also a place where people want to gather to eat and watch boats and ships glide by.

It goes without saying that this experience will transform forever the five students who are here. I was told that some had never travelled abroad before this trip, and that a few of them had barely been outside of Houston. And here they are, rubbing shoulders with the best in the world and getting undivided attention from Mr. Hines himself!

I am leaving from Venice with immense gratitude for the faculty who made this possible for our students. I also commend Dean Oliver for thinking big and aiming high.

As for myself, I have learned more about the discipline of architecture in these three days than I ever thought possible. My travels will no longer be the same. I will always be thinking about how spaces affect our behavior and how buildings have the power to transform us all in one way or another. It took one more visit to this lovely city – and the inspired efforts of our students – to teach me that.


Power of Maya Angelou’s pen…

You may not control all the events that happen to you,
But you can decide not to be reduced by them”

The mighty pen that wrote these words fell silent this week. We, the world, lost Maya Angelou, one of the greatest American writers of our times…of all times.

I had an opportunity to meet Maya Angelou very briefly. It was not the meeting itself but her words that made her such an inspiration to me, providing the guidance someone might receive from a trusted mentor. After all, a mentor helps you listen to your own voice, understand your inner strength then act to leverage the two.

Her one sentence (You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them) has done all of this for me. It has helped me have patience to deal with difficult people, to manage impossible situations and to put my failures in perspective.

As a woman and an Indian-American, it would have been easy for me to blame “the unfair world” around me as I faced challenges in the path of leadership, but Maya Angelou never let me have that luxury. Every time I tried to blame the world and wallow in despair, her words would dance in front of my eyes, as if saying, “Get up and try harder! You are better than this.”

As a tribute to Maya Angelou, I hope that you will read some of her words, for they may inspire you the way they have inspired me.

My favorites from Maya Angelou:

“I have learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

“Try to be a rainbow in someone’s cloud.”

“Nothing can dim the light which shines from within.”

“We may encounter many defeats, but we must not be defeated.”

“My great hope is that I laugh as much as I cry; to get my work done and try to love somebody and have the courage to accept the love in return.”

Indeed, Madam Angelou, you have cried, you have laughed, you have loved, but most importantly, you have given us ourselves!

Narendra Modi, India’s new leader, through my eyes…

On Friday, India woke up to a new dawn. Everyone was expecting the candidate for Prime Minister, Mr. Narendra Modi, to win, but only a few had expected this outcome – a landslide!

Since then, I have been asked at least twenty times, “Who is Modi, and what is he like?”

I had an opportunity to meet Mr. Modi in January of last year at Vibrant Gujarat, an annual day of celebration for his state, the State of Gujarat. I saw him in action again in January of this year when I was in India to receive Pravasi Bhartiya Samman, a presidential honor.

I don’t claim mastery over India’s politics (who could?) nor am I a serious political observer in any way. What I like and enjoy is watching people and their reaction to political turning points. Here is what I observed during these two encounters with the gentleman who has become the Prime Minister-elect of India.

I was invited to speak at Vibrant Gujarat and arrived 30 minutes before the start of the event in the VIP room. I was one of the first persons there, so I got to watch as the room started to fill with India’s top industrialists – Ratan Tata, Mukesh Ambani, Anil Ambani, Anand Mahindra – and top executives from many multinational companies based in UK, Germany, USA, Japan and China.

Fifteen minutes later, Mr. Modi arrived without an entourage and without the drama that I am used to seeing surrounding elected officials in India. He followed the same routine of shaking hands, but then I was taken by surprise when he congratulated me on my work at the University of Houston. (He was briefed well, I thought!). My surprise doubled when he complimented me on my presentation a day before in Gandhinagar (Obviously, he was aware of my presence in his state). And then he said that his state needs help and partners to expand access and establish excellence in higher education. (He was engaged with issues, I thought further).

A few minutes later, I walked along with other speakers to the stage. It was the most elaborate stage I have ever seen – three rows of dignitaries in stacked seating making it clear to everyone that Gujarat was a business-friendly state. For next three hours, many got up to speak about Gujarat, and almost everyone spent 90 percent of their time in complimenting Modi’s leadership in transforming the state of Gujarat. On that morning, he appeared larger than life.

Thousands of people sat mesmerized for hours basking in the glory of their leader. Finally, Mr. Modi himself stood up to speak to a thunderous applause that refused to quiet down despite several attempts. People loved him. He was their leader; he was one of them!

Mr. Modi electrified the crowd with every sentence. He was not negative and he was not presumptuous. Within seconds, it became clear that he loved his people. It was a magical bond between the people and the leader, witnessed by millions across India on their television sets.

I turned to my husband and said, “This is not a wave; this is a tsunami.”

My second encounter with Mr. Modi was in New Delhi at a convention for non-resident Indians, organized by the Government of India. Other than president and prime minister, many chief ministers were also participating as speakers and panelists. If energy in the room were to be the measuring stick, it was obvious that Mr. Modi was the winner.

For his session, the hall was filled above capacity. Different audience, but the same spell-binding effect. It was as though Indians living abroad were also mesmerized by the Modi charisma. He spoke in Hindi and people listened, even though half of them could not understand that language. The English translation of his speech was distributed to everyone, and it appeared as if those who could not understand Hindi were happy to just be listening to his voice. For those of us who knew Hindi, he reached out to our hearts.

This time, my husband turned to me and said, “He has captured India’s imagination.”

Today, India has high hopes, and it has given a clear mandate. With an absolute majority, an Indian prime minister is far more powerful than an American president. Only time will tell whether Mr. Modi can do for India what he did for Gujarat. But, as a political scientist, I was thoroughly intrigued witnessing the emotional bond between this leader and his people.


An Ode to My Mother…

[The article below was written in Hindi and published in Sarita.  This English translation has been published in India Abroad and Houston Chronicle. On Mother’s Day, I am sharing it with my blog readers] 

More than six years have gone by, but it all seems like a big dream. I was on my way for an interview with the board of regents of the University of Houston, one of America’s largest research universities. I was excited but nervous. I knew this was no ordinary position, and would be no ordinary interview. I was fully aware that no American university had ever selected an Indian as chancellor, nor had a woman ever been appointed to such a position in Texas. I knew that the odds were against me.

To divert my mind, I glanced outside the airplane window and saw white clouds. Suddenly a rainbow shot up from their midst. My heart swelled with wonder and delight. I had seen many a rainbow in life on lifting my gaze toward the sky, but never before had I seen one on lowering my eyes. I groped for the camera in my purse and when I glanced up, not just one, but two rainbows had manifested themselves resplendent in the glory of all their vivid colors. They seemed to be racing alongside my airplane.

How could I have ever come this far? How did life bring me to this place where I could dare to dream of becoming a chancellor? Whose shoulders have supported me and whose hands have guided me on this journey? I found myself traveling back to my childhood …

My journey began in the small town of Farrukhabad, about 250 miles from New Delhi. I spent the first 18 years of my life blissfully jumping rope and playing dolls. Never once had the thought of going to America crossed my mind. Walking down memory lane, I found myself surrounded by voices from the past, and loudest of them all was my mother’s.

“OK, children, I have a question for you. There once was a fruit-seller selling oranges. The first customer buys a dozen oranges, the second buys two dozen and the third only four oranges. If the fruit-seller is now left with exactly half as many oranges as he had started out with, how many oranges do you think he had in the first place?”

“Mom, we are already done with our homework. We are too tired to think anymore,” I mildly protested. My sister and brother nodded their heads in agreement.

“Come on, there is nothing to think about here. You should be able to answer this question in your sleep. Let’s give it a try,” my mother answered. One of us would figure out the answer and the next 30 minutes would pass in answering questions as if it were a game.

This was our nightly ritual as we would lie down in our open courtyard under a star-studded dark blue sky, ready to fall asleep.

Whether we were in the car or in the courtyard, whether lying down in the shade sheltered from the afternoon heat, or huddled under a blanket on a cold winter’s night, mother’s questions would constantly hover around us. My mother is not a teacher, nor does she hold a high school diploma, but her thirst for knowledge and her impatient passion for inquiry led her to read four different newspapers every day.

Thank you, Mom, for giving me the gift of inquisitiveness.

Today, people ask me, “What is the secret behind your success?” I know that my mother’s expectations are my secret. Being the firstborn, I was the darling of the house and the center of my family’s attention. Someone had to assume the responsibility for making sure that I was not spoiled. Needless to say, this task fell solely on Mom’s shoulders, because Dad was too busy practicing law. Mom’s philosophy was that excelling in academics was meaningless if one ignored the other facets of life. Hence, in addition to schoolwork, I was sent to learn classical Indian dance, Indian drums, sewing, embroidery, painting and cooking, among other things. I am sure if it were possible to pursue any sport in my little town, she would have sent me to participate in that as well. I published my first poem when I was 15 years old, and even though it challenged traditional social norms, she swelled with pride reading it.

I never mastered anything but learned to appreciate everything. Today, when people ask me the secret of my seemingly balanced lifestyle, I just smile and thank my mom for it.

From the day I arrived in America, I found comfort in exploring new ideas and new fields. Even though my mother denies it, I am convinced that she is the one who gave me the confidence to step outside my comfort zone. Thank you, Mom, for giving me the courage to explore and try, try and fail, and fail and try again.

I remember an episode when I was in the sixth grade, where all the girls had to take mandatory home economics class. Preparing a dish at school was the final requirement to pass the class. My lottery pick paired me with the dish Sujii Kaa Halwa, a dessert made with cream of wheat. The problem was that I had no clue how to light the stove, let alone make a dessert. Mother’s school began, and for four days everyone ate Halwa for breakfast, because that is all that was cooked. On the day of the exam, mother measured out all the ingredients, packed them neatly in small packages, and labeled them clearly. “Is it necessary to do all this?” I asked. “There is no grading in this exam. All I have to do is pass.”

“Not only is it necessary,” she said, “it is required that you always aim for above average.”

“What is wrong in being average?”

“Average results come from average efforts. If you dare to immerse your heart and soul in your work, the results are bound to be above average. And all I expect from you is to put your heart and soul in whatever you do.”

How can anyone who from childhood was expected to immerse herself completely in the task at hand ever be satisfied with passable results?

My mother never expected any less from me because I was a woman. I may have had to cross extra hurdles or jump extra loops, but in my mother’s eyes, I was not being defined by my challenges but by the way I faced them. In those days, when the social norm dictated that sons be given preferential treatment, my memories are of mom stuffing extra chocolates in my coat pockets as I went off to school and patting me on my back as I returned.

I thrived on my mother’s pride. It was a given that on returning from school I would find mother standing behind the partly ajar main gate. I would know that she was there as I crossed the alley and walked up the stairs. She was rarely seen in public without my father, as per his wish. It is only natural for someone who is accustomed to seeing her mother’s eyes cover the path of her walks to see rainbows even during the most anxious times.

Thank you, mom, for giving me the gift of knowing that I am never without friends.

I was only 18 when my life took a major turn. One night, I went to bed as a carefree teenager only to wake in the morning to the realization that I was to marry, in 10 days, a man studying in America. I was shattered because I thought it meant the end of my educational journey. On seeing me bawling, my mother said, “That you are going to get married someday is inevitable … today is as good as tomorrow. Your father knows what he is doing. He has made this decision after much consideration.”

“Everyone is concerned only with his own opinions and considerations. No one cares about what I think. I want to complete my master’s program and then get my doctorate. Whatever happened to father’s big talk of ‘the milk boiling over and the ghee being wasted’? How can he think of marrying me at this stage in my studies?”

“I know you want to continue your education, and I am sure your new family will let you do so.”

“How do you know that? Can you point me to a single woman in our extended family who was allowed to go to college after marriage? Who can guarantee me my education?”

“I give you the guarantee. My mother’s heart is giving you this guarantee. Deep down here,” she said putting her hand on her heart. “I know they will let you continue your education. He will keep you happy.” I was smart enough to know that these were simply words to cajole me. Who would let me study in America when I could not even speak English? I only believed my mom’s words after securing admission at an American university. Mom wrote me regularly, and in each letter she never failed to remind me, “It is only because of Sureshji (my husband) that you are able to go to college … to reach such heights.”

“We are starting our descent…” the flight attendant’s voice echoed in the plane and jolted me back from the past into the present. When I peeked out of the window I saw that the rainbows had been left behind and beneath us was America’s fourth-largest city, Houston. My mind was as light as the morning dew and my head free of all preoccupations and worries. Exactly eight hours later, the dual appointment of chancellor and president was in my hands. The very first person I called was my mother back in India. In my impatience I woke her up in the middle of the night.

“Mummy, I got great news for you. I have become the president of the University of Houston.”

“Very good. Can I speak with Sureshji?” She always adds ‘ji’ as a sign of respect for her son-in-law.

“Mom, didn’t you hear what I just said? Aren’t you going to say something?”

“I heard everything, my dear. Now, give the phone to Sureshji.” Dejected, I shoved the phone in my husband’s hand.

“Sureshji, heartfelt congratulations to you on Renu’s becoming the president. It is the results of your efforts and you deserve full credit for this day.”

This is my mother, ever encouraging others and always sharing credit with an open heart.

Mom, please forgive me for not listening to you today, but I want the world to know that you are the one who deserves all the credit for my success.


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!