Rathi Raja, Executive Director at Young Indian Culture Group
Meet Rathi Raja, former Wall Street manager turned Executive Director of Young Indian Culture Group, an organization dedicated to preserving Indian culture and heritage in the Long Island and Queens community since 1994. Rathi is a pioneer in developing innovative tools to educate, entertain and enlighten the next generation of Indian-Americans. Rathi is deeply passionate about engaging with her community and really exudes a wisdom like none other. Read on to learn more about her story.
“I moved around all over India while growing up, as my father was in the Air Force. I did high school in Jaipur, undergrad in Bangalore, grad school in Calcutta, and worked in Bombay afterwards. It never really struck me at the time that it was unusual to move around so much. It was only after I got married and came to this country that I realized how different my life had been from others. Even though I never really felt like I was rooted in one place, I definitely felt that India was my base. When I look back, I’m thankful to have had the opportunities to go through so much transition. 11 schools (including boarding school) under so many circumstances made me the person who I am.
Moving to the U.S. just felt like one more move since I was so used to it. My education had also been pretty English focused, so I came in and started working right away. I didn’t actually have an “OMG, culture shock” moment.
I definitely felt the pressure though to get married in my early 20s. I was always being told that it was time to settle down and the conversation was about if I would find someone on my own or not. India has a very well oiled system of parents putting matrimonial ads out there on behalf of their children. And there’s no such thing as ‘politically correct’ in India. So many people would tell me things like ‘you better not go out in the sun, you’ll get so dark and nobody is going to marry you.’
But despite all that, I never felt like marriage was forced upon me. Thankfully I liked one of the guys I met and there it was - good God I got married! I know none of my kids are going to go through this.”
From Wall Street to Inspiring Indian Youth
“I did my undergrad in the hard sciences. I knew if I went deeper into the sciences, I’d end up being a professor, but I wanted to be in the corporate world. So I decided to do an MBA and focused on finance and information sciences. I felt like it was a field I would enjoy where I could make a meaningful impact.
I worked in information technology at Morgan Stanley for 15 years (but it felt like 35 years!). It was a very high powered environment. I also had my children in the meantime. Leaving Wall Street was partly due to burnout, and I also just felt like I was in a world where it was all money, money, money. Honestly, I couldn’t feel a long term commitment to the industry. It was really difficult to take a different path and my kids were young, but I was very lucky to have a supportive family where I could actually make the decision to leave.
Growing up in an Air Force environment gave me great access to books. I was always steeped in all kinds of books about our heritage and my father contributed a deep interest in Hindu philosophy. So when I left Wall Street, a group of my friends decided to get together and do something cultural for our South Asian community in Long Island. We decided to use a public community space and started Young Indian Culture Group (YICG) with 30 kids, a language class, Vedic heritage class, and a dance program. We leveraged a lot of great curriculum from Arsha Vidya Gurukul in Pennsylvania and really wanted to make everything understandable for children and adults. We were always focused on running a professional organization. We grew as the children and the community’s needs grew. Now we have hundreds of kids and see our role as helping people in our community engage with each other.”
“We run YICG as a collective – there are 10 of us who run the organization and many, many volunteers who dedicate their time. We’re really working on channeling the vast skills our community has, whether it’s running a book club or karaoke group. We’ve now been teaching Vedic studies for 25 years and have expanded to offer several other educational opportunities. We’re not part of a temple or other organization, so we’re really entrepreneurial and raise our own funds. It’s a collective vision that has been shaped by many.
We come from a culture where on the face of it, it can really feel overwhelming. Hinduism has so many practices, festivals, traditions and so many stories. We don’t have one holy book or one thing to guide us. Our culture has always been a ‘buffet’ approach. So it’s kind of a ‘catch 22’ - you have to know what’s in each individual item even before you try, or you can try it out in an iterative fashion.
So I used to think that we could just teach our kids our values, and that’s where it could end. But I really think we need to redevelop the idea of service. We are still in the information age where our experience with our culture has become so much of ‘how much you know, how many dances or songs you know, or how long have you been practicing a certain tradition.’ It’s such an acquisitive, accomplishment oriented mode. But I feel that the deeper issue is how can we contribute to our community.
We have so many places these days to observe our culture and celebrate, but I would like to see more service. I want our kids to step up and contribute to issues relevant to their communities. We need to constantly remind ourselves about helping the world around us. Each of us should know what it means to roll up our sleeves and work on behalf of others.
If you’re interested in starting a community initiative, just go do it! You can put together a few classes and partner with local organizations. The virtual world is also something that excites me. You can get people together online so easily.”
Life, Lessons, and Learnings
On being a woman on Wall Street...
“There were definitely more men than women. Even though my group was 30-40% women, the outside group was very, very male dominated. At the time, I didn’t really reflect much on my role as a woman in the workplace, but I was subconsciously extra vigilant and conscious of what I should be doing. I think it came from an unconscious awareness of all the issues women face. Women have to work harder to stay at the same point and I suspect it is still the same right now.”
“After leaving Wall Street, I was kind of a stay-at-home mom, but I was really doing this other stuff with YICG. I will admit that I did take help from my parents and I had some domestic help. Many of my friends juggled 60 hour work weeks while having children, and they all got good family and domestic help. Some of my friends utilized really good daycares. My advice would be to take all the help you can and push through the juggling. Juggle the first five years and it gets easier after that. And the basics of life (ie. food delivery services) have become much easier today if you can afford it. I think it’s still worth it to keep working if you can, as there’s so much value in keeping your career skills sharp. And men are doing a lot more today — partnerships are much more open and responsibilities are shared a lot more.”
“Patience is a good thing with your parents. It’s so easy to lose it when your world views are so different, but I really do believe that parents want their kids to be happy.”
To parents: “Take it easy, relax a bit - your children are extraordinarily smart. It’s a very different world out there today. You need to give your kids the time and space to be who they want to be. If you’re a parent who believes that your child must marry within your community or go through the same experiences as you did, talk through it with other parents. See the reality of the world through your own peer group. Fretting about your kids can turn into a neurotic cycle which just sucks up everyone’s energy. Focus on helping your kids find their place in the world and don’t worry about things that aren’t in your control.”
To their kids: “If you seek someone in your life, it will happen. You’ll know when the time is right to solidify the relationship. And things are different today – people live together for a while before marriage, and marriage is not the huge, big thing it used to be. Norms have changed. Patience is a good thing with your parents. It’s so easy to lose it when your world views are so different, but I really do believe that parents want their kids to be happy. Everyone has their own journey.”
On MENTAL HEALTH…
“Mental health is really important to me. I ran a 3-day meditation retreat for adults this summer which was amazing. For myself personally, I have my own daily practice of relaxation. I do my japa (I have beads, a mala and a small meditation altar), and I just sit with myself. Sometimes, it’s literally just 5-10 minutes, or it could be longer than that. Fun happens in many ways. I’m also a big fan of science fiction. The TV shows of today are extraordinarily compelling and thought provoking. I enjoy getting coffee with my friends and also find that I’m really satisfied when doing anything creative. My work with Games for Seva connects the many strands of creativity and contribution to society in a meaningful manner.”