Correction appended: This story stated the website CulturalConnect began with a magazine geared toward South Asian, Middle Eastern and Latino readers. The magazine originally focused on South Asians.
Amid a thunderous cheer, a slight, graying figure made his way slowly to the podium. He looked out at the anticipating crowd and introduced himself. The man was Rajmohan Gandhi.
Gandhi, the grandson of celebrated Indian leader Mohandas Gandhi, spoke in the Michigan Union Ballroom Friday night as part of SAAN 2007, a conference sponsored by the South Asian Awareness Network, a University student group.
Gandhi asked the crowd of about 200 to bring “a conscience back to life in the United States.”
This conscience should stem from his grandfather’s teachings of forgiveness and peace, he said.
He told a story about his grandfather from Aug. 15, 1947, the day India gained its independence from Great Britain.
After Mohandas Gandhi led a prayer gathering that attracted over 500,000 participants, the statesman retreated to his room and wrote a letter to one of his oldest friends in Britain, thanking her for her friendship through trying times and asked that she send love to all of Gandhi’s friends in Britain.
Like his grandfather, South Asian-Americans should try to reach out during times of unrest, Rajmohan Gandhi said.
With animosity toward Muslims in the United States, and toward Americans in Islamic nations, this advice is particularly relevant today, he said.
“People are being condemned for their birth, their blood, their DNA,” he said about both sides of the conflict.
South Asian nations should build upon their relationship with the United States without sacrificing their own cultural and political goals, Gandhi said.
“I want South Asia to be one of the regions in the world that is truly independent,” he said.
To achieve this, the South Asian nations must not only support their own economies, but also halt their “deafening silence” on world issues, Gandhi said. This would “be true to a man like Gandhi,” he said.
The conference featured workshops designed to help attendees maintain South Asian identity throughout their lives.
One of the workshop leaders, Raymond Rouf, and one of the keynote speakers, Sumaya Kazi, are South Asian-Americans who have succeeded as entrepreneurs.
Rouf and Kazi are two of the founders of The CulturalConnect, a website that publishes four weekly e-magazines. They began in 2005 with one magazine geared toward South Asians in general and have expanded their readership with e-magazines for the South Asian, Middle Eastern and Latino communities. They also plan to launch an African magazine in the near future. Kazi said The CulturalConnect has 48,000 readers in 100 countries.
Kazi was recently named one of America’s “Best Entrepreneurs Under 25” in BusinessWeek Magazine.
In an interview, Kazi explained the progression of her cultural identity.
Before college, she said, her parents forced her to attend cultural functions on the weekends.
“Then you go to college, and you choose whether you want to be a part of the South Asian Club or you want to attend SAAN,” Kazi said. “Then you graduate and that kind of identity almost goes away.”
Kazi said that the SAAN conference provides a rare opportunity.
Beyond the workshops and the chance to learn about South Asian identity, the conference allows participants to establish social relationships within their cultural communities.
She said today’s young South Asian-Americans should be bold with their career choices and not confine themselves to jobs stereotypically expected of South Asian-Americans – like doctor, lawyer or engineer.
“Young people have great ideas and don’t do shit with them,” she said. “You shouldn’t let age hinder you.”
She said it is important to share ideas and work together.
“Networking is key,” she said. “Network like hell.”
Kazi spoke about famous and successful South Asian entrepreneurs, whom she described as “young professional ballers” and “nonprofit ballers.” Among her examples was Manny Malhotra, the only South Asian in the National Hockey League.
Keyur Parikh, a senior at Xavier University and president of the South Asian Society there, flew from Cincinnati with members of his group to attend the conference.
He said he enjoyed Kazi’s speech because it brought a professional perspective that went beyond the social and cultural focus of the conference.
Parikh said Xavier’s South Asian community is small and the conference allows them to discuss issues as part of a global community.
“It provides a way to learn more about yourself and South Asian culture,” he said.
Raymond Rouf, The CulturalConnect’s co-founder, held a workshop at the SAAN conference called “Thinking Inside the Box.”
In his workshop, Rouf spoke about the importance of creativity for South Asian-Americans. He said creativity is as important as literacy but is often overlooked.
“Our educational system is the biggest opponent to creativity,” he said. “It focuses on math and science, not dance and arts. The educational system is founded on industrialism.”
He said it is important to try to think of something original. Even though South Asian-Americans are often told to study engineering or medicine, the choice should be their own, Rouf said.
“Don’t be scared to do something that hasn’t been done before,” he said.
Rouf started a new online company last week called Corporate Cricket League. He hopes to create a league in which corporate employees compete against employees from their rival companies in the San Francisco Bay Area. Rivals this season include Google and Yahoo as well as Hewlett Packard and Apple.
These examples of creativity by South Asian Americans represent a union between South Asian and American culture, Rouf said.
That synthesis was evident in the formal dance that ended the conference.
On Saturday night at the Burton Manor in Livonia, SAAN members attended a formal dance, celebrating South Asian culture together. Loud South Asian music played through the speakers while men in suits mingled with women wearing vibrant jewel-speckled saris.
At least 200 people attended the ball, which included traditional food, dancing and a speech by keynote speaker, Rajiv Chandrasekaran, author of National Book Award finalist “Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone.” He spoke about the perilous state of the Iraq War and how it might have been averted by better communication between Americans and Iraqis. That’s one lesson, he said, that is applicable beyond Baghdad.
“As you go into the world, take risks, try new things, but always remember to listen,” he said.
– David Mekelberg and Drew Philp contributed to this report.