I don’t know how you become one or how you go to your parents with your SAT scores and tell them you plan to be a bubbleologist. But jobs that aren’t the natural offshoot of subjects we learned in high school—Chemistry, History, Literature—are fascinating because they say something not just about the different ideas one can pursue in this world, but about the people who choose these paths.
Need for Speed
Meet Devasena Morrissette from New Hampshire. By day, she embodies Silicon Valley—a woman with an advanced degree in Computer Science who designs networks for Plexxi, a startup company. But, she does find time for a hobby at a local track near her home—she is a recreational race car driver! She grew up in Chennai, always fascinated by “precise engineering” and “things that move fast on wheels” so it was only natural that she gravitated to racing cars for fun.
She talks fondly of her speedy and lightweight 2000 lb. Lotus Exige S, awestruck at the beauty of its engineering. She acquired it, or as she puts it, “pounced on it” in 2007, when it became street-legal with the introduction of essentials such as working headlights and a rear view mirror. When the car arrived from Great Britain, her supportive husband, himself a car aficionado, accompanied her to New York to collect it since it had a manual transmission and was not an easy car to drive. His job was to drive behind her to protect her from being rear-ended as she got comfortable with the new car. “I can’t tell you how many times I stalled on the way home from New York,” she laughs.
Her other car, a Porsche 911, is the one she drives to work, even in the snow, rationalizing that if they do it in Germany, she can do it here, too. A woman driving a race car around town does not go unnoticed. She remembered talking to a gas station attendant a few years ago as she refueled her Lotus. As she absentmindedly pulled up to the wrong side of her gas tank, and then repositioned to fill up, the owner strolled over to ask, “Did you borrow this car?” Her voice tumbles in a torrent of words over the phone as she tells me that she has a feisty side, which morphs into sarcasm when irritated. “No, I stole it,” she snapped back at him. The man considered his response and finally retracted with, “that must be sweet around corners.” She swallowed this comment in silence, and added that attitudes like these are not uncommon.
As I spoke to her, I wished I had a bit of Home Improvement’s Tim Taylor in me to truly appreciate Morrissette’s passion for cars. As she talked about her love of detailing a car, I realized that for her, five hours waxing and shining a car are hours well spent, just so she can admire the liquid sheen of the car when she is done. She doesn’t just drive a car; she feels one with it!
I asked what her family thought about her racing cars. The answer was quick. “They don’t know.” What? “Are you sure you want this article printed?” I joked. Well, they do know she loves cars, she said, but she doesn’t see the point in worrying them.
She chuckled when I asked about Indian women in the Lotus and 911 clubs to which she belongs. “Wom-a-n,” she corrected. “I am the only Indian woman in these clubs.” Inevitably, this brings more comments that can make one bristle. She remembers standing by her car, packing up trophies she had won at an event. A woman and her three sons walked by, the boys in all likelihood interested in the car and the trophies. As they spoke, the woman offered a comment: “Daddy gave you a really good gift, yes?”
Yes, she has these moments, but they are not going to diminish Devasena’s experience in the least. “Life is beautiful,” she says.
It’s a Grape Life
Closer to home, I had the opportunity to talk to Deepak Gulrajani, vintner and owner of Nicholson Ranch in Sonoma. With degrees from IIT Bombay and NYU, he had traipsed in the footsteps of many before him, to a job, first in the software industry, and then the financial district. He was introduced to weekly wine tasting in 1988 when he had a French boss interested in wines and weekends to spare. What started as a weekend hobby soon led to him procuring grapes from Sonoma and making wine in his garage for personal consumption. In the mid 90s, he decided to plant grapes on some family property, which had hitherto been a cattle ranch. He started with Pinot Noir grapes from Burgundy, hoping to make a niche in Sonoma, since most of the Pinot Noirs at the time belonged to Napa, Sebastopol and Russian River wineries.
After initially selling grapes, he turned to winemaking and with some help from local winemakers, produced 500 cases of wine. This initial success spurred him to hire a winemaker and in 2003, Gulrajani opened his winery to the world, hosting visitors and the occasional formal event. He also took classes in Chemistry, Microbiology and the science of wine making at Napa College (where else would one go for a lesson in wine making?). He was still in the financial district, but with the economy changing and his winemaker leaving, he decided to be a full time vintner. Nicholson Ranch soon started selling its own Merlots, Chardonnays, Pinot Noirs and Syrahs.
It is clear that Gulrajani puts a lot of love and labor into his venture. He prides himself on “organic winemaking” using vineyard yeast and gravity, rather than pumps. Wineries have to be adapted for “gravity flow wine-making,” which typically involves multiple descending levels to allow wines to go from the initial grape crushing to bottling. It is more time-consuming and labor-intensive, but the process allows for minimal oxidation and delicate handling of the wine. Nicholson Ranch added underground caves to age the barrels, and minimizes the use of chemicals, which, Gulrajani says, “clarify the wines, but add unwanted flavors too.”
Gulrajani remembers that the first year was challenging, but his winery produced some good vintages, leading to awards, including some double golds (where every panelist awards the highest ranking to a particular wine). Asked to compare the pressure of being a winery owner to what he experienced in the financial district, he says that the pressure now comes in forms that he cannot control. Weather adds a great dimension of worry, but as forecasting has improved, wineries have learned to mitigate the damage by managing leaf cover to keep plants warm.
“Is there anything you miss about your previous career?” I asked. Gulrajani is quick to say that he enjoyed the fast-changing corporate world, but he accomplished what he had set out to do. He sees that the tools that made him a success in that world like organizational skills, logistics, and planning help him as a business owner now. His social world is different as well, and his friends have grown from the “intellectual and technical group,” to include the “sensorially adapted.” He loves the fact that while software has a shelf life of a few months to a few years, a good wine is actually enhanced by its cellar life, as he calls it. The giant game of numbers was satisfying in his youth, but he appreciates what his estate can do for him, particularly loving the fact that he gets to work with his product from start to finish.
I wondered if his friends and family had reacted with surprise to his career change, and he shrugs it off as “maybe a little but not really,” since they had seen the progression of his former hobby. Now, he strongly encourages his kids to follow their passions, and not become an engineer or doctor because “that is what Indians do.” For him, the most satisfying experience now is getting a thank-you note from someone who opened up a bottle of his wine to let him know how much it was enjoyed.
Transportation is her game
It’s a man’s world in some places, and no one knows it better than Jatinder Kaur or Jyoti, as her friends call her. Growing up in the city of Khanna in Punjab, Kaur was encouraged by her father to pursue nursing as a career, but she knew it was not for her. She convinced him to let her study Electronics and Communication Engineering at a Polytechnic college instead.
Once she arrived in the United States, she tried her hand at many things— security guard, cashier, bookkeeper and car mechanic. When her life posed new challenges as she faced single parenthood and possible homelessness, she looked for a secure position as a county employee. She took up a job as a facility worker at the VTA, hoping it would open the door to better things. When she was laid off however, she went back to school to study computer science, and was subsequently offered a job at a credit card company. She laughs and says that she was simply not cut out to sit at a desk for 10-12 hours; so she opted out and continued to study, waiting for the right opportunity.
And then that door opened! The VTA recalled her, and she underwent training to become an electro-mechanic. The job involved, “everything to do with the trains—repairs, troubleshooting, and major overhauls.” She credits coworkers with helping her train for this position, but breaking through the bureaucracy was not easy. In spite of passing the required test, she was not offered the position, and she appealed to executive management before being hired. She did not stop with just getting hired. She joined the workers’ union, and was elected Shop Steward. Feeling empowered, she ran for a position on the Executive Board, and currently serves as Union Treasurer.
Kaur mentioned the transportation challenge for the WWE event last spring as being a project where she used her technical and leadership skills. Upset that middle management tried to outsource for the event, she met with the Deputy Director, armed with statistics to show how the VTA could help. If her team could provide 80 trains within three weeks for the event, then the management might reconsider the outsourcing plan, she was told. With three weeks to go, Jatinder managed to pull together 88 trains and pressed them into service. With successes like this, she looked for better challenges and applied for a Power Supervisor job that had a high turnover rate, fully convinced that she could do the job, and confident in her reputation and credibility to lead a team. In her current position as Power Superviser, she has been hard at work, learning the ropes and doing the job for the better part of last year.
It is a high-stress job, she admits, putting out fires for what seems like 24 hours a day. However, it is still not a desk job and she appreciates being on-site with her staff. Kaur hopes to change the hiring mentality to make it more diverse, by including more women on the team. With leadership training, she has learned the art of hiring, firing, and crashing the glass ceiling. She is proud that she has negotiated a salary that she deems commensurate with her experience and capabilities, something that, she points out, many women are hesitant to do.
It is clear that Kaur is a rebel and she chuckles and says that she has always been one, though her uncles and mother did not necessarily support her maverick ways. But she knows that her work ethic has paid off. “I’m a fighter,” she says. “I never give up.”
Moving up the coast to Seattle, I spoke to Shama and Seema, a vibrant pair who have created a new career for themselves. Shama Joshi and Seema Pai met over a decade ago as students, and had a dream that someday they’d create “some kind of food establishment.” They lost touch for a few years as Joshi established a career as an engineer at Microsoft, and Pai moved to the East coast to teach at Boston University’s business school. While in Boston, she wistfully looked at the vibrant food truck culture, and thought about her own roots in Bombay with delectable “frankies,” but could not summon the courage to start a restaurant on her own. When she heard that Joshi had quit her job at Microsoft and was starting a food truck service, she flew back to celebrate the launch of the business. Soon after, the friends fulfilled their long-time dream by becoming partners at the ‘Roll Ok Please’ food truck.
Joshi describes their typical day as “crazy and labor intensive.” The day begins with an early visit to the commissary kitchen where they get food ready for the day, alongside other truck operators, and then drive to their location to meet hungry customers at 11 a.m. Pai estimates that on a good day, they serve about 120 people in 90 minutes. Of course, bring in a celebrity like A.R. Rahman, and get invited to serve food at his concert, and one has to scramble to prepare food for 800 people! It stands out in their minds as an event to remember!
What does one’s family do when their daughter quits a 15-year career at Microsoft to operate a food truck? Joshi smilingly says that though her parents were always supportive, they probably let out a sigh at first, thinking about the uncertianty ahead. However, her mother flew out to lend a hand, staying up late with Joshi, “making chai and helping with recipes.” Her father worried about financial security, but she shrugs it off and says that one just learns to be more frugal and prioritize. Pai describes herself as a “middle-class Tam Brahm” and concedes her parents probably cringed at “one more challenge” that she had thrown their way. Once her mother saw the truck in operation, her perspective changed, and she realized that what she saw as dire risks and sacrifices from a continent away also had an exciting component up close.
The entrepreneurs admit that finances are a challenge, especially since they gave up successful and stable careers. Like many other entrepreneurs, they’ve only recently started getting a stipend, says Joshi, reluctant to use the word “salary.” She reminds me that this is a physically challenging job as well and laughs as she remembers early attempts to master driving the food truck, and loading propane tanks. Pai talks about the stress of serving a long line of people on time and keeping them happy, though she adds that, as a former academic, she thinks of this as a “performance.” It is a far cry from the known paths of publication and tenure and handling the uncertainty has been an adventure in itself.
Needless to say, both women love to cook and it is in their bones to whip up a meal with little more than their imagination. The problem with food service, they found is that people return for the same dish, so they’ve had to come up with regular, dependable recipes. Surprisingly, both women say that even after a day on the job, they still enjoy preparing food for friends and family.
Joshi and Pai bring a happy spirit to the job. I asked about their planning and how they controlled food waste. I could almost see Pai twinkling as she said to Joshi, “Let’s pretend it’s scientific, shall we?” and raucous laughter followed. They spoke of the lessons learned in the last two years—anticipating sales based on location and weather, choosing a location when there are 180 trucks in Seattle competing for viable spots, and growing their niche as the only kati-roll food truck—and it’s clear that they have already earned a lifetime of experience in their new career. I wrapped up the conversations with promises to visit and eat, drink, and to go for hair-raising rides.
Most of us only satisfy parental and familial expectations when we choose careers and hobbies. Rarely do we move out of this comfort zone to try something unconventional and risky. I thought about all the individuals I had the privilege to interview. Some wanted to talk more about the details of their work than about themselves. And maybe that is what makes a passion—the seamless transition from self to work and back again. Others show conviction and a stubborn stick-with-it-ness through the vagaries of their chosen careers.
The common thread was that their instincts serve them well, they don’t take ‘no’ for an answer, and they definitely don’t wallow in “poor me!” In fact, there is a lot we can learn from these desis about following your heart!
Gayatri Subramaniam is a pre-licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Silicon Valley. She moonlights as a writer when the whim strikes her.