The largest gathering of any ethnic Indian group in the United States is set to take place on Labor Day week-end as some 30,000 Gujarati people attend a three-day conference at the Raritan Center in Edison.
Dhiraj Parekh, executive vice president of the event, is an electronics engineer working for the U.S. government. He is a native of Bombay, but explains that many Indians who were not born in Gujarat, the most industrialized state in India, consider themselves Gujarati nonetheless. “My parents were born there,” he says. “It’s like Italian-Americans.” The ties remain, even as time in the United States grows, to 38 years in Parekh’s case, and the native tongue gets rusty.
Busy with his work and family in Baltimore, Parekh nevertheless has long had a worldwide Gujarati conference at the top of his agenda. “It is my dream,” he says. He put together a conference in 1994 in Chicago, but it did not approach the scale of this event. In the intervening years immigration of Gujaratis has jumped, with an epicenter in central New Jersey, making Edison a natural for this event.
The World Gujarati Conference 2006 begins on Friday, September 1, at noon, at the Raritan Convention Center in Edison and continues through Sunday, September 3. The cost for the event, including a gala dinner and entertainment, is $20. Register at www.worldgujaraticonference.com or call 732-993-3072 for more information.
“In the U.S. there are around 600,000 or 700,000 Gujaratis,” says Parekh. “In 1994 there were less than half. The major increase is in New Jersey.” The state, he says, is “very nicely located.” Less expensive than New York, it is nevertheless close by. In addition, he says, new immigrants find a welcoming cluster of Indian shops, particularly in the Oak Tree section of Edison.
When he immigrated in the 1960s, says Parekh, 90 percent of all Gujaratis coming to the United States were professionals. Now, he says, its more like 50 percent. Those who are not doctors or engineers or accountants, he says, are people with money to invest. At the moment, a lot of that investment is going into hotels. Still, despite their expertise and/or cash reserves, Gujaratis have a hard time gaining entrance, he says, citing tight immigration quotas.
One of the sessions at the conference will be on immigration and visas. Many other sessions will be on business opportunities, both in the United States and in Gujarat, which, says Parekh, is seeing a good amount of reverse immigration as some IT professionals, drawn to the United States during the tech boom, head back home, where they find that their salaries bring a higher standard of living.
Moderating one of the business sessions is Mukesh Majmudar, a self-made man who was recently named an SBA Small Businessperson of the Year. Majmudar emigrated from India 25 years ago. He is now CEO of Star Hotels, a Columbia, Maryland-based chain of four hotels with revenue of $10 million a year. Trained in computer science, Majmudar had worked for the U.S. government, and before getting his start as an entrepreneur thanks to a loan guaranteed by the SBA.
In an article in bizjournals.com, Ben Wolf, vice president of the chamber of commerce in the county where Star Hotels has its headquarters, calls Majmudar “the Donald Trump of Howard County,” praising him for his persistence and for taking on successively more complex projects.
Another speaker is Parekh’s daughter Monika, a dentist, who speaks on “Women: Challenges and Opportunities.” Parekh’s wife is a pediatrician (their son is an opthamologist), so while the women in his own family don’t have any hesitation about entering professional life, he says that is not the case in all Gujarati families, and the conference aims to educate them on the opportunities open to women in this country.
In addition to sessions on business opportunities, trade, and women’s issues, there will be information on medical concerns, spirituality, financial management, and the challenges confronting senior citizens. A session on Gujarati culture will be conducted in that language, all other sessions will be conducted in English. Parekh says that, while he grew up speaking Gujarati, he is no longer completely fluent. That is the case with many of his fellow immigrants, who have been U.S. citizens for decades.
While there is serious business on the agenda at the conference, including a discussion of dates and venues for future large-scale gatherings, there is also fun. There will be kite flying, a puppet show, several dances, a comedy show, and a fashion show.
For the past 23 months Parekh has spent 20 to 30 hours a week working on the conference, but says that others have spent far more time. The project has drawn 700 volunteers, most of them from New Jersey. Parekh is the only person on the organizing committee who does not live in New Jersey. The chairman, Navin Mehta, an EMT physician in New York City, lives in northern New Jersey. One committee member, Kenny Desai, owns TAK, a construction company based in Edison, while another committee member, Sunil Nayak, owns North Brunswick-based Apex Hospitality, the corporate umbrella for a number of hotels.
Other committee members are Suresh Jani, Chirag Thakkar, Anil Patel, Mukesh Kashiwala, Sanjiv Pandya, Ashish Mehta, Anil Vasani, and Viru Patel.
All have worked hard to create an event where Gujaratis from around the world can trade advice and pass it on to others in Edison, a town named after a prominent inventor, the son of Canadian immigrants, who got his start selling newspapers and candy on trains in the Mid-West.