What do you say to one who began life with little, yet flourished to become someone very special? Happy birthday to one tough mom, Usha Sanghrajka. You may never have even heard of her because she shuns the spotlight. Much to her displeasure I’m sure, I would like to share a bit of insight into the backbone of our family and of this company.
My mom is the definition of a self-made woman. When she decides what the next step is, nothing stops her – even in the face of seemingly impossible odds. When we moved from Kenya to New York, my mother barely spoke or read English. She never had the option to go to college growing up because her family couldn’t afford it. She took odd jobs to help make ends meet while my father started the US office for Big Five. In addition to working, helping my father, caring for me and doing all the cooking and household jobs, she still found time to go to the home of a family friend to practice reading every day to teach herself to read and write in English.
Usha also taught herself accounting and how to use a GDS. She even went so far as to learn about database programing. I suspect the last part was showing off. Seriously, my mother is self-made in every respect, and today is the CFO of Big Five!
My mother is as spiritual as she is practical. When her mother fell ill, she rushed to Pune, India to be with her. She landed in Mumbai and was on the road to Pune when she received word that her mother had passed away. I asked her if she was ok. Her answer was simple, pure – she was at peace as was her mother. She had been talking to her mother during the entire journey home.
She is also an example of a force multiplier. To me, a true hero is someone who makes those around them better. Usha exemplifies that. No matter what was going on around her, she always made time for me. During grade school in New York, my parents couldn’t afford schools in the city, so I spend the week living with my great uncle in Huntington and the weekends in the city with my parents. I took the Long Island Railroad by myself when I was eight and nine. My mother was at the station to meet me with a smile every time. Even when six guys attempted to mug me in Penn Station, she told me to shake it off and move on.
When we could finally afford our own house in Huntington, my mother, who had not driven since we lived in Nairobi years earlier, had to relearn how to drive. Of course, she learned quickly and drove anything with wheels. At this point, she was working in the office with my father building the foundation of the Big Five you know today. After working day and night, often leaving for work before I got up and coming home after I had gone to bed, she still made sure my homework was done. She found time to help me when I was struggling and pushed me to succeed. That included hitting tennis balls with me when I needed practice serving for the school team. Usha had never touched a tennis ball before that.
She never once complained about any of it.
My mother has that special ability to cheer people on. Most of you know that I tend to be a bit accident prone. At last count, the number of scars top 100 and the stitches, torn muscles and broken bones likely approach that number. At each injury, she was there. When I was 14, she got a call from a stranger telling her that my hand was badly cut while I climbed a fence to play tennis. She met me at the hospital and she never even whimpered as I squeezed her hand so tightly while the nurse drowned the open wound in disinfectant. That same year as I walked home from school in New York, I had a knife put to my throat by someone who didn’t like the color of my skin. After finally telling my parents what had happened, my mother told me that I had to be better than that and I had to ignore the ignorance of others because they didn’t know who I was or what I had inside.
I was the first person in my immediate family to go to university, and I chose to go across country to Arizona. My mother encouraged me to go find my own identity, even if that was on the other side of the country. I did. Then, my mother received a second phone call from a stranger… this time from the University of Arizona medical center. Her son had collapsed on the street from dehydration and a possible heart issue and was taken to the ER. Of course, she worried but, by all accounts, she didn’t panic. She waited to see what was happening before coming out to see me. She never once let on that she was worried, nor did she insist I come home. She continued to encourage me to forge ahead. She never had a doubt that I was headed on my own path.
My mother is not just a great cheerleader, she has also followed her own path. She fell in love with yoga several years ago, so she decided to open the Yoga Center of Stuart to support yoga in her community.
I know I have been a handful at times, but my mother always had an uncanny sense about when it was time to push me along or knock me back down to size. She knew when to pick me up and when to let me fall.
Some of you may remember when I became emotional on stage a few years ago when Big Five won the Virtuoso Sustainable Tourism Leadership Award for the second time. You see, earlier that year, while on holiday in India, my mother was taken to hospital for an emergency procedure on her heart. I was on the other side of the world and finally began to understand how she must had felt so many times. And I wasn’t there to help her. Author Simon Sinek talks about higher purpose and what drives us internally. Well, she is one of my higher purposes. That award was for her; we were up on that stage because of her.
You will likely never meet my mother as she is a truly humble person who has no need of spotlights. If you are lucky enough to encounter her, please hug her for me!
Happy birthday, Mom, and thank you.