‘I know who I am’: The ceo son of immigrants returns to India

Sumitro Ghosh arrived in Mumbai, India, for the first time as an adult, and he remembers being overwhelmed. The noise, the activity, the action, the never-ending sound of car horns. A city with about 20 million people then, and much more crowded now. It wasn’t like anything he’d experienced before.

“It’s an explosion of your senses in every way,” Ghosh recalls. “You’re literally stunned.”

A quieter moment a little later really made him understand where he was.

Ghosh had settled into his office as the chief executive officer of Tata Starbucks – a joint venture between Tata Consumer Products and Starbucks Corporation – which owns and operates all Starbucks outlets in India. As he was walking out of the building one day, he held a door open for a group of co-workers, a simple polite gesture, he thought.

“They couldn’t walk before the ceo. They stopped dead in their tracks,” Ghosh recalls. “Hierarchy and position in India is a very big deal. There were a lot of challenges overcoming the language and cultural differences, and communicating and learning to convey what I really meant and wanted.”

For Ghosh, his three years in India, starting in 2016, were more than a work assignment. They became a pilgrimage, a chance to experience and learn about his heritage and identity for himself. Until then, India belonged mostly to his parents, Bengalis from Calcutta who immigrated to the U.S. and settled in Detroit’s suburbs, where Ghosh was born and raised.

Ghosh’s story echoes a common theme for many Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI), especially those who have grown up in the U.S., children of immigrant parents, who might have lost touch with their homelands.

This May, during AAPI Heritage Month, Starbucks is proud to stand together with our AAPI partners and communities. Starbucks honors their stories, their identities and their experiences – whether they’re immigrants or newly arrived, or their families and lives have been deeply rooted for generations. With this year’s heritage month coming during especially difficult times, we believe even more in celebrating families, neighborhoods and traditions. Even apart, we’re better together.

‘I wanted to connect with who I am’

Ghosh’s childhood home was filled with Hindu deities, represented by metal statues and displayed on fabrics. A tanpura, a long-necked bass-like instrument from India, that his mother played and sang along to, was always in view. The smell of frying puris – small puffs of deep-fried bread – meant something delicious was coming from the kitchen. His mother, who wore a sari every day, and his father, a metallurgist by training, hosted a weekly radio show about Indian culture and local Indian events.  

But outside the home, as a child, Ghosh wanted little to do with his culture. He remembers a girl in elementary school calling him “a burnt pork chop.” Teammates on his high school baseball team nicknamed him Gandhi. He was “always the brown guy” in a predominantly white area, he says. 

“I wanted to be like my friends,” Ghosh says. “I felt different and I didn’t want to be different.”

After graduating from Michigan State University with a degree in advertising, he advanced through the food industry, at Little Caesar’s, Yum! Brands, Aramark and finally at Starbucks, which he joined as a regional vice president. In 2016, approaching 50 years old, Ghosh was offered a chance to work a three-year assignment at Tata Starbucks and return to India, a place he’d been just once before, when he was 3.

Ghosh, who lives in Chicago, is currently the senior vice president of Siren Retail, which manages all Starbucks Roastery and Reserve stores.

“I wanted to connect with who I am. I knew that I had lived a life assimilating to my surroundings and trying to not look directly into my Indian-ness,” Ghosh says. “To run a brand I love, in a country that means so much to me, where I would really fully understand what it means to be who I am, I felt this was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.

“I travelled to India because I wanted to connect with who I am. I wanted to realize what it meant to embrace my Indian heritage.”

So he moved. He lived in India with his wife, Susan, the youngest of their three children, Grace, 12 years old at the time, and Ghosh’s mother, Mita.

Unexpected connections

He learned the most from the moments of tension and culture shock. He remembers visiting Mumbai’s largest slums, expecting to feel pity for the children. Instead, he was blown away by the ingenuity, hard work and creative systems of commerce and organization. He learned the tricks for crossing busy streets. He often participated in the puja – or Hindu prayer ceremony – every time Tata Starbucks opened a new store; he had converted to Christianity in his 30s.

One of the highlights was returning to the village where his mother had grown up, Sevagram Ashram near Wardha, a little town in the state of Maharashtra. There, Gandhi had lived and created a comprehensive education plan focused on self-reliance called Nai Talim; he felt education should not be separated from work. His mother was one of the students. Her father and mother, Ghosh’s grandparents, helped as program administrators and were asked by Gandhi to help spread this education movement across India.

“You have this one perception of what India is, but once you cross the threshold into somebody’s home or business, you see the uniqueness, the warmth, the genuineness. I now have friendships and relationships for life. India is one of the most beautiful places we’ve ever been,” Ghosh says. “The love, the peace and the joy that’s characteristic of the people of India is something I take pride in.

“Now, I know who I am. I know what it means to be Indian.”

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Starbucks celebrates Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month