The story of immigrants from India to the U.S. has been told many times, but rarely as well as Raj Gupta has done in his entertaining and edifying book, Eight Dollars and a Dream: My American Journey (Lulu Publishing, 2016).
Prior to 1965, there were very tight restrictions on the number of Indians who could immigrate to the United States. As a result, during the 1950s, an average of 185 Indians were allowed to immigrate per year. Gupta, who came to study at my alma mater, Cornell University, in 1968, was part of the first wave of immigration after those restrictions were relaxed. (His wife Kamla came six months after he had settled in chilly Ithaca, New York.)
Gupta opens his memoir with a brief recounting of his youth in India, including his education, being the child of an honest civil servant whose refusal to take bribes crimped the family’s standard of living, and watching his sisters go through the process of being paraded before potential husbands. His story is typical of that era in many respects, though with a few fairly unique elements that helped shape his character.
For example, prior to going to IIT, he attended Aligahr Mulsim University, a place where 95% of the students did not share the religious traditions he was brought up with. He drew important lessons from this experience that would shape him as an immigrant and as a leader. “It’s interesting how and what you learn about all the minorities when you spend some time actually being one,” he writes. “Living in Aligahr did not influence me negatively. Rather, it made me appreciate how one feels at being isolated, a lesson that had a lasting impact on me.”
After graduating from Cornell, he had multiple job offers and took one at Scott Paper. But within a few years he settled in at chemical manufacturing firm Rohm and Haas, initially working in the finance department. He had a front row seat to see the organization and its leadership weather the first of several crises it would go through during his long tenure there, which shaped his emerging views on crisis management and leadership. After a tour of their European operations he was being groomed for a major leadership role, and ultimately he became the CEO, with the runner-up for the role becoming his deputy, a company tradition.
His career reached a dramatic climax in 2008 when the family that owned roughly one-third of the company’s stock decided to divest, setting in motion a process of Rohm and Haas being acquired by Dow Chemicals. How the transaction almost fell apart due to the global financial crisis, and how Gupta was able to close it anyway, makes for some very compelling storytelling. Woven throughout are stories and reflections about what Gupta learned from certain people and experiences.
Among the many charming aspects of the book are several long passages where colleagues, friends and family members speak in their own voices about Gupta and their experiences with him. I had not seen this technique in a memoir before, and I found it very effective.
The final sections of the book deal with Gupta’s and his wife’s approach to philanthropy, and his life in the private equity world (which continues to this day) that has proved to be more interesting than he imagined it would be, and in different ways. He honestly re-evaluates some of his decisions as a CEO with the benefit of his experience in this new field – which makes for some compelling reading. For that matter, so does his nuanced treatment of his two talented daughters and their sometimes non-traditional career and lifestyle choices.
This book is a unique, powerful and very readable contribution to the literature on the Indian immigrant experience in the United States, as well as being an excellent business memoir with very practical lessons on corporate governance and many other topics.
We at American India Foundation are grateful that we have been beneficiaries of the Guptas’ time (for example, through Raj giving an author talk that we co-hosted in October 2016) and through their grant-making. Given his reserves of ambition and energy, a second memoir covering his work and lessons learned over the next 10-15 years would be something to look forward to.