– From PNC Insights for Women
Starting a business is never easy. When you’re an immigrant, the challenges can loom even larger. The culture, practices and rules of the game are often quite different from what you’ve come to know in your home country. Below, two successful business leaders, who have also built thriving nonprofit initiatives, share some of their experiences as immigrant entrepreneurs.
Now the leader of PamTen, a global technology solutions company based in Princeton, New Jersey, Chaya Pamula had no plans of becoming an entrepreneur in the United States when she moved here from southern India 20 years ago.
“Coming to America was an adventure for us,” she says of the journey she made with her husband and 6-year-old daughter. “We came at a time when we felt we could just experiment — work here for a few years to gain some experience — but we ended up staying.”
That’s not because things were easy for the young family, however. In fact, just three months into their visit, Pamula and her husband discussed going back to India.
“The cultural and lifestyle differences posed a huge challenge for us. In India, we always had housekeeping assistance and a car. (We came to the U.S. with nothing more than two suitcases of clothes.) Here, I needed to manage everything myself, from balancing my job and home to coping with weather and public transportation challenges,” says Pamula. Adding to her burden was that her husband had been placed in a job 1,200 miles away, in Minneapolis. Plus, she wasn’t happy in her own job.
But in month four, Pamula landed a position with a global pharmaceutical company, and began seeing things in a different light. “We bought a car, settled down and opened our minds to the idea of planning our future here,” she says. “We realized that our daughter would have access to greater educational and career opportunities.”
While building her corporate career, Pamula established SOFKIN (Support Organization For Kids In Need), a nonprofit offering nurturing homes, medical care and educational support to underprivileged children in India. Recognizing that a new, successful business could generate a steady stream of funding for SOFKIN, she co-founded PamTen in 2007. Once again, the challenges of being an immigrant surfaced.
“As I worked toward building new business relationships, people wouldn’t see me as someone local; they always looked at me as an immigrant. I had to put in a lot of effort to get into the mainstream,” she explains. “I went so far as to shift my own personality, becoming more outgoing and bold. In Indian culture, we don’t talk about our achievements, and women are not expected to say things openly. I found out quickly, though, that if you don’t speak up for yourself in the United States, you won’t be taken seriously.”
Through her experiences, Pamula says, she has learned this important lesson: “As women, we often underestimate ourselves, doing too much self-analysis. When something goes wrong, we suspect it’s due to something we did. Instead, we must have the self-confidence to believe in ourselves and express our point of view. Otherwise, we won’t be heard. If you want to be a successful immigrant, you need to be adaptable to the change, yet stay rooted in your culture.”
Pamula supports women in finding their voice through Global Women’s League, an organization she founded to inspire, influence, engage and empower women to become successful leaders.