Is it already that time of the year? The whirlwind that is 2016 has flown by so fast, thrusting us forward from one season to the next. We’ve witnessed several amazing events unfold, some of us embarked on new journeys, while others said bittersweet goodbyes to children going to college—all of this and more packed into one glorious year, which now culminates into some much-needed introspection. As we recover from an unprecedented election, this time of the year is as much for spending time with friends and family as it is for taking pause to reflect on the year gone by. While we look inward and take stock of our goals, accomplishments and regrets, we look to others for inspiration, to take cues from their lives.

That is why we, at India Currents decided to bring to you stories from across the ever-upwardly-mobile Indian American community. We forayed into different arenas in search of accomplished professionals to get an insight into what motivates them, and what values guide them on their quest for greatness. What resulted is an eclectic group of highly driven individuals who shared their inspiring stories, giving us a telescopic view of what books, movies and uplifting words-to-live-by shaped them and determined the course of their journeys.

Compiling this story was nothing short of a miracle for they show us that prominence isn’t just reserved for a fraction of the population; that even us, with our everyday and common mindset and skills, can inspire and lead if we’re so inclined. It’s been a privilege to interview and indulge in colorful conversations with these people and we hope you enjoy this piece just as much as we did putting it together.

Dr. Piya Sorcar, Founder and CEO of TeachAIDSCover_1Piya Sorcar

Most of us look at the problems that the world is facing today, empathize with those affected, and move on with our lives. Others go ahead and take action. Piya Sorcar read reports that millions of dollars were being invested in HIV prevention efforts in India and yet, HIV rates were on the rise and basic knowledge levels among young people was low. As a student of education at Stanford, she was curious to see if she could do something about it. The result was TeachAIDS, which creates free, research-based, culturally-appropriate learning materials to address the challenges associated with health education. Today governments, NGOs and educational institutions in over 70 countries use this software, and it is funded by institutions like Yahoo!, UNICEF, Barclays Bank, Time Warner, Google, and national governments all over the world.

Dr. Piya Sorcar holds a PhD in Learning Sciences and Technology Design from Stanford University, and teaches at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education and at the School of Medicine. In 2011, MIT Technology Review named her to its TR35 list of the top 35 innovators in the world under 35. In 2016, she became the youngest recipient of Stanford’s Alumni Excellence in Education Award.
In an attempt to understand her motivations and draw inspiration from her, we asked Priya some questions.

What is the biggest challenge that you have experienced in your work?
All challenges serve as opportunities. The greater the challenge, the greater the opportunity. Ours was how to effectively teach about HIV education to a population where sex education had been banned in schools.

What change would you like to see?
I would like to see more concrete efforts, particularly from the United States, towards addressing global warming.

What inspires you to keep going, everyday?
Imagining the faces of the children we wish to serve.

What book/s do you have on your nightstand right now?
Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard
by Dan Heath and Chip Heath, The Man Who Lied to His Laptop by Clifford Nass and Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Pikett

What things/tasks do you not like to do?
Driving! I’m looking forward to self-driving cars.

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Dinesh Sabu, Independent Filmmakercover_2dinesh

Dinesh Sabu is an independent documentary filmmaker who recently completed his directorial debut, a feature-length documentary titled Unbroken Glass. The film is Dinesh’s journey across the United States and India to piece together the story of his mother’s schizophrenia and eventual suicide.

Dinesh learned vérité cinematography from legendary Kartemquin co-founder Gordon Quinn. His accomplishments include being a finalist for the prestigious Edes Prize for Emerging Artists in 2011, and a fellowship from Firelight Media’s Documentary Lab in 2014.

His story is filled with a yearning to tackle the problem of stigma within the Indian-American community about mental illness, a subject begging to be shared on a larger platform. Let’s dive in to better understand the man behind the camera lens.

What’s the book on your nightstand?
I’ve got two books—fiction and non-fiction. The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan and Speaking Truths with Film by Bill Nichols.

Which book has had an impact on the way you approach life?
We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families,
an account of the Rwandan genocide in 1994, lyrically written by Philip Gourevitch, a writer for the New Yorker. When I read this several years ago, it really clarified the power of nonfiction storytelling. Gourevitch’s work was at once beautifully written, morally clear, and did not sacrifice nuance or complexity for the sake of storytelling. It still has an urgency about it today, a work that sets its readers on fire. After I read it, I realized my goal was to make a documentary that aspires to achieve what Gourevitch did in this work.

What book will you recommend to your 16 year old self?
When I was 16, I was pretty cynical. I wish I had picked up a book like Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. I think I would have appreciated the sci-fi elements of it, as well as the level of  beauty and craftsmanship in the sentences.

Which movie has had a lasting impression on you?
Stevie by Steve James. It’s a documentary made by Kartemquin Films, where I made my current film. It’s a personal documentary where the filmmaker, Steve James, revisits the kid he used to be a “big brother” to in rural Illinois, the eponymous “Stevie.” At least a decade has passed and  now an adult, Stevie has been failed by the foster care system time and time again. In the film, Stevie is accused of a heinous crime, and the filmmaker follows the repercussions unfold while trying to come to grips with this man who he cares for. Like Gourevitch’s work, it’s the kind of art I aspire to make.

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Anuradha Nehru, Dancer
Anuradha Nehru

Anuradha Nehru is a Kuchipudi dancer and founder-director of Kalanidhi Dance Company, a non-profit dedicated to Indian classical dance based in Washington D.C. She has been recognized by the Governor of Maryland for her service to the arts, and has been supported by the Maryland State Arts Council.

Her lifelong commitment to this art form took a decisive turn 25 years ago, when her guru, Guru Vempati Chinnasatyam, drew her aside after a performance and told her to dedicate her life to dance. Overwhelmed by his endorsement, she spent the next six months at his dance academy at Chennai, India, and then came back to Maryland and founded Kalanidhi Dance. Kalanidhi Dance Company recently celebrated its 25th anniversary.

Share a lifelong lesson you learnt from a mentor.
There are no shortcuts in life. Hard work, sweat, and perseverance are the only ways to achieve your dreams.

What’s the most challenging aspect about dancing and performing?
To continuously find fresh ways to connect with the audience.

Has there been any book/artistic work that has had an impact on the way you approach life?
I have been deeply moved by a book I am currently reading, Balasarasawati: Her Art and Life, which describes her deep passion and her unswerving commitment to staying true to her art form.

What change would you like to see in the world around you?
Definitely greater appreciation and better financial support for the performing arts, especially Indian classical dance!

What’s your favorite quote/motto?
“Dance is the hidden language of the soul of the body.”— Martha Graham

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Failure is not an option. Believe in yourself and commit yourself fully to what you do.

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Sujit Saraf, Playwright-Director, NaatakSujit_JasonPhoto_2013
Sujit Saraf is a Bay Area novelist and playwright, having published four novels and a dozen plays, and directed many of those plays for Naatak, America’s biggest Indian theater company. His second novel, The Confession of Sultana Daku, is soon going to be a motion picture; and his latest book, Harilal and Sons, a fictionalized account of his grandfather’s travels through India and Bangladesh, is slated to be published in December.

Sujit strongly believes that it’s hard to reach that happy place of accomplishment in the very first attempt. His advice to folks just entering the world of theatre is that, “Your first 12 plays are crap,” so to keep at it, never give up, and to never lose perspective along the way—a challenge he dodges everyday.

What change would you like to see in the world around you?
The death of social media.

What song is running through your head right now?
Yeh raatein, yeh mausam, yeh hasanaa hasaanaa, a lovely song by Pankaj Mallick.

What’s your favorite quote/motto?
“Vimrishyaitat asheshen yathecchasi tathaa kuru.”
In the Gita, Krishna tells Arjun, “Having deliberated fully on this, do as you like.”

Something about you that drives people crazy.
I’m loud. Very loud.

Best advice that you’ve ever received.
“When in doubt, shout!” But I believe the opposite: “When not in doubt, you are probably wrong.”

What inspires you to keep going everyday?
The world. As soon as I feel I have run dry, something happens and I feel I must interpret it, record it, express it.

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NanditaBakhshi-13493_approved_062116Nandita Bakhshi, President and CEO, Bank of the West

Nandita Bakhshi arrived in America thirty years ago, armed with a Master of Arts in International Relations from Jadavpur University, and tons of ambition. She started her career as a branch employee, an experience that  has allowed her to understand the role that branch employees play in the bank’s success. Over the years, true to her favorite quote by Winston Churchill, “The kite, after all, rises only against the wind,” she rose to hold leadership roles.

Her advice on how to make professional choices that further one’s career are definitely words to live by. She refers to it as the Rule of the Thirds. “Always seek a position that is one third comfortable, one third a stretch and one third, pure, white-knuckle terror,” she says.

What values do you like to see in your workplace?
I encourage people to bring their authentic selves to work. I’ve found that people appreciate the rich diversity this brings to a corporate culture. You shouldn’t have to be a certain type to advance. Don’t be afraid to take thoughtful or measured risks. Every time I’ve taken on a new challenge I have grown personally and professionally.

What things do you not like to do?
I like spending time in the field with team members and customers, so I don’t like it when I can’t. For me, it’s important to be close to the perspectives that our team members and customers share.

What was your favorite subject in high school?
My favorite subjects were history and international studies. I enjoyed learning about the past and how that could influence the future global landscape.

If you were marooned on an island, which book would you rather have with you?
A book of poetry by the poet laureate, Rabindranath Tagore. His work inspires me, specifically Gitanjali.

What inspires you to keep going, everyday?
Our customers and our team members inspire me every day. I believe if you have the spirit to serve and focus on doing right by people—be they colleagues or customers—you can do no wrong.

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Priyanka Wali, Doctor and ComedianPrianka

Priyanka Wali, a versatile stand-up comedian, was named by Refinery29 as “50 Female Stand-Up Comedians You Need To Know.” She performs at corporate gigs and comedy clubs nationally and internationally. She’s been featured in The Today Show, Uproxx, and Cosmopolitan. Priyanka, often called “Pri Pri” by her friends, truly believes laughter is the best medicine, but was a board-certified practicing physician in Internal Medicine in a previous avatar.

Stand up comedy had always been Priyanka’s most morbid fear, something she decided to defeat one day during a “face your fears” kick! What also inspired her to take on the intimidating world of stand up comedy was a Russell Peters’s autobiography where he describes how he pursued comedy despite lack of support from his father, something she could easily relate to. While she draws material for her shows from the various books she reads and by asking a lot of questions, there are some words she tends to live by. One of them includes a quote from Midnight in Paris, “The artist’s job is not to succumb to despair but to find an antidote for the emptiness of existence.”

Which is the most successful gig that you’ve performed? And why?
Success in comedy is subjective but the end goal is always to make people laugh. One of the most successful gigs for me personally was when an audience member came up to me and said “I am currently undergoing chemotherapy. Tonight’s show was so funny that I forgot I had cancer for a few hours.” Honestly, that kind of stuff is the reason I do comedy—to make people feel good on a truly personal level.

What’s the book on your nightstand?
Right now at this exact moment, it is Obesity: Evaluation and Treatment Essentials by Michael Steelman (it’s a real page turner!)

What book will you recommend to your 16 year old self?
How to Spot A Dangerous Man Before You Get Involved
by M.A. Sandra L. Brown

What’s the best advice that you’ve ever received?
Take your insecurities and your weaknesses, everything that you dislike about yourself…and embrace it.

What’s the most challenging aspect about being a standup comedian?
Sometimes having to act funny on stage when you’re actually sad inside.

Any parallels you’ve successfully drawn between medicine and comedy?
Both are important and necessary in life. I mean—let’s get real. Laughter is definitely the best medicine, but taking antibiotics after your ex-boyfriend gave you chlamydia is important too.

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Beena Ammanath, VP of Data and Analytics, GE

beenaAward-winning technology innovator. Aviator. Foodie. Baseball fan. Voracious reader. Supporter of diversity in technology. Beena Ammanath’s  enthusiasm for life enables her to wear all these hats and several others with panache.

Beena is currently the VP of Data and Analytics at GE. She is on the board of directors for the non-profit organization, ChickTech. She is the winner of the 2016 Women Super Achiever Award from World Women’s Leadership Congress for supporting diversity in technology.

Beena seems to personify her motto “The only person I have to be better than is the person I was yesterday.” Her passion for life shines through in her responses.

Has there been a defining point/incident in your life that brought you to this field?
My parents wanted me to be a doctor I wanted to be a pilot or a photojournalist. But when I had to choose, I chose Computer Science because it was such a new field. I had always excelled at Math even without trying and the lure of learning something that not many were pursuing was too fascinating.

What would you like to see changed in the world around you?
I want every child to receive an education. When we do not provide an equal opportunity to half the children in the world, it means that the world is losing out on the brainpower of half the world that maybe would have found a cure or discovered the next amazing thing that  the world needs.

What values do you like to see in your workplace?
Innovation and curiosity combined with honesty and transparency leads to great teams doing great work together.

Did you have a mentor?
If yes, who, and how have they influenced you?
I have several mentors. I refer to them as my board of directors. These are a group of people, who have inspired me with their expertise, are my role models and to whom I turn to whenever I am in a personal or professional dilemma.

What things do you not like to do?
I don’t like to be idle. I have way too much energy and way too many great ideas to try out.

What is the biggest challenge that you have faced in your workplace?
Driving cultural change to accept new technologies is one of the biggest challenges that I have seen.

What was your favorite subject in high school?
History. In general, I am a people person—I like meeting people and getting to know their story, their aspirations and dreams. History gave me insight into so many people’s lives to see how their actions have shaped our lives today.

Is there anything about you that drives people around you crazy?
My enthusiasm, my continuous drive to try out new experiences, new places, new food, and meet new people. My family, friends and team members are always wondering what I will make them try next. This world is amazing in so many dimensions that it’s up to us to experience all that it has to offer. And then enrich it for the generations after us.

If you were marooned on an island, which book would you rather have with you?

“How to survive and escape from a marooned island?
On a serious note, I am a voracious reader—on any given day, I am in the middle of reading four books. If I had to choose, it would be The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch. His book is a powerful reminder on how to live a happy, full life no matter what life throws at you.

What inspires you to keep going, everyday?
My sons. They are amazing smart energetic upbeat little human beings who love me, admire me and are counting on me. No matter what happens, it is my responsibility to leave this world a better place for them. They are my inspiration, my motivation and my sunshine, who make me be the best I can be.

What, according to you, is the greatest technical innovation ever?
Artificial Intelligence is going to change our world in a way that we cannot even imagine today. I think we are just beginning to see some of its impact but it is just the tip of the iceberg.

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Sima Patel, HotelierSima_2016_Headshot-3560-Edit
Sima Patel arrived in the United States as a newly-married 17-year-old who barely spoke English, and the very next day, she  started working at the front desk of a small inn owned by her husband. She had no background in hospitality, but her husband taught her. In a textbook example of the American dream, Sima Patel rose to become the CEO of Ridgemont Hospitality, and recently became the first industry-elected Chair of the Board of Directors of Visit California. She founded SAAHELI, a global online community for South Asian women, as part of her advocacy efforts towards the Indian-American community.

When asked what change she wants to see in the world, she says that she would like to see more encouragement for women to take on leadership roles. True to her favorite quote by Mahatma Gandhi, “Be the change you want to see in this world,” Bay Area based Sima has led by example by challenging stereotypes all along.

What is the biggest challenge that you have experienced in your workplace?
Maintaining a work-life balance.

What things/tasks do you not like to do?
Terminating or disciplining employees.

What was your favorite subject in high school?
Geography; explains my love for travel!

Is there anything about you that drives people around you crazy?
I am a high-energy person who is always multi-tasking and I expect the same from my team. My expectation for them to keep up with me drives them crazy.

What inspires you to keep going, everyday?
Working in an industry that creates millions of jobs and generates billions in revenue for the state’s economy, and being able to contribute to those results even in a small part is very fulfilling!

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Ramya Harishankar, Dancer
dancer

Ramya Harishankar is a Bharatanatyam dancer and Artistic Director of Arpana dance company. Southern California based Arpana Dance Company (ADC) is set to celebrate 35 years in existence early next year under her direction. The company has traveled to India, Europe, Japan, and to many cities in the United States. The company has won grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, Fund for Folk Culture, LA County Department of Cultural Affairs and many other arts agencies. The company has presented over 15 full length productions, many raising funds for charities world wide.

Ramya believes that she has been changed through constant interactions with academics, gurus and others passionate about dance. These meaningful interactions have helped crystallize and redefine her connection to her art from the time she was a little girl.

What drew you to dancing?
Though I started dance lessons when I was six, learning abhinaya from Guru Kalanidhi Narayanan was the catalyst.

What inspires you to keep going everyday?
Knowing that what I do makes a difference in someone’s life and hopefully this instills in them a love for dance/art/life.

What is the most challenging aspect about dancing and performing?
As a US-based dancer and teacher, the challenge is to balance the ‘traditional” and the “contemporary” and I am always aspiring to keep my art relevant.

Has there been any book/performance/artistic work which has had an impact on the way you approach life?
Good Earth by Eckhart Tolle

What do you believe in when it comes to keeping classical dance alive?

My guru Swamimalai Rajarathnam had a way of creating moving pictures in choreography which has stayed with me. Dance has to be precise, but, it should also have grace and elegance.

I hold on to my roots and expand on that base. Living away from India, mythological stories tend to be culturally specific and can be enjoyed only by those who are familiar with those themes. But, apart from that, there are so many songs like padhams for instance, which stand for a woman’s freedom to express her myriad emotions. These are truly universal themes —anyone can appreciate and enjoy them. I perform pieces expressing a  whole continuum of thought.

As you look at the upcoming 35th anniversary of Arpana, what are your thoughts?
There has been tremendous growth in the company. It is very heartening to see a handful of my students dedicate themselves to classical dance full-time. I am definitely more at peace with what I am doing.

What book or experience will you recommend to your 16 year old self?
Live the life you love!

How would your best friend/sibling describe you?
Passionate, talented, focused and task oriented.

What song is running through your head right now? 
Anything from the Beatles to a Kshetrayya padham.

What’s your favorite quote/motto? 
“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”—Reinhold Niebuhr

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received? 
The above quote.

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Writer. Activist. Music enthusiast. Shilpa  Sachdev knew she would be a writer the day she was grabbed out of the womb. However, other career paths had her wandering, until recently. Rain or shine, you’re sure to find her plugged in, constantly bobbing her head to tunes by Johnny Cash, Pink Floyd and more.

Shruthi Rao loves books, desserts, trees, and long walks. She enjoys stories in all forms, especially if they contain insights into what motivates fellow humans. www.shruthi-rao.com.

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