Job Fulfillment to Life Fulfillment
From opening a coffee-and-wine bar to taking a sabbatical for self discovery, Indian-Americans— emboldened by new ways of working that emerged during the pandemic—are redefining work, realigning values, and pursuing their lifelong dreams.
The past few months have been nothing short of rejuvenating for 31-year-old Samyak Saxena. He meditated, exercised, spent time with his family, caught up on Netflix, and by all accounts, chilled. He resumed his hobbies—cooking and baking. Most importantly, he felt centered, because of a return to living aligned with his core values: authenticity, creativity, growth, and dependability. Now, after a hiatus of a few months, the New Jersey resident is ready to reenter the workforce with new vigor and enthusiasm.
It was the Covid-19-induced brave new world of work that helped Saxena take the break he so badly needed. The massive number of fatalities and the havoc on health that the pandemic has caused has been a global tragedy. And yet, perhaps one of its most enduring legacies may well be “The Great Reshuffle” it caused in our work lives.
For one, with the sudden pause in work routines at the beginning of the pandemic, many realized how tightly they had been chained to the relentless demands of their work. “I was burned out,” Saxena had announced—unapologetically—on his LinkedIn profile. “I decided to take a break from the workforce to focus on my family and my mental health.”
Saxena is far from alone in feeling burned out. He is joined by more than half of the workers surveyed by Talkspace, a leading online behavioral health care company. In its “Employee Stress Check Report 2022,” that came out in May, 51 percent of workers reported a continued feeling of burnout this year, the third year of the pandemic. Even with the reported levels of resignations touching an all-time high in recent months, 34 percent of workers are still considering quitting, according to the survey of nearly 1,400 full-time employees.
That’s because for many, like Saxena, the last couple of years since Covid-19 have prompted a reexamination of one’s values, redefinition of the role that career plays in life, a resurgence of hobbies, and a focus on family and wellbeing in the pursuit of happiness.
[Right] Samyak Saxena with his father, Sunil Saxena, at Rocky Mountain National Park. Samyak Saxena is one of thousands of workers who quit their job as part of the post-pandemic “Great Resignation” in search of improved work-life balance.
At first referred to as the “Great Resignation,” the “Great Reshuffle” of American workers has caused a massive shift in the labor market. From highly demanding, location-bound traditional jobs, workers are moving to higher-paying jobs with greater flexibility and alignment with one’s purpose. Many have also started their own businesses from scratch.
“In the spring and summer of 2020, the initial reaction to the pandemic was to send people back home. There was a retrenchment of the labor market,” says Santanu Chatterjee, Associate Dean for Diversity, International and Master’s Programs at the University of Georgia’s Terry College of Business. “We went into a quick recession. It was not a good time for anyone whether you were healthy or sick.” Across the globe, labor markets witnessed the greatest job losses in retail and hospitality.
[Left] According to Santanu Chatterjee, Associate Dean for Diversity, International and Master’s Programs at the University of Georgia’s Terry College of Business, the federal stimulus program, in response to Covid-19, gave workers “a much-needed breather to recalibrate their position in the bigger scheme of things.”
But in the U.S., a new dynamic suddenly emerged. A federal stimulus program provided security to workers irrespective of the industry that they were working in. This, according to Chatterjee, gave them the financial flexibility to step back from the labor market. “It gave them a much-needed breather to recalibrate their position in the bigger scheme of things,” he says.
Seeking balance, a breath of fresh air
It was exactly the kind of breather that Kathakali Sircar needed to jump ship from her “toxic” management consulting role at a globally-known business consulting company. “I don’t think the pay for the hours that I was putting in was sustainable,” she said. “There was no end. Your reward for doing good work was more work. When your people are giving you feedback that they are completely burned out, we don’t need a webinar on wellbeing. We need to pull back on hours,” Sircar said.
For the Los Angeles-based Sircar, the prospect of better pay and greater work-life balance was a no-brainer. She spent four months interviewing with roughly 20 companies before she found the right fit. She wanted to land her dream role in leadership development at a tech company while maintaining a positive work-life balance. The start-up-like environment at Roku provided her just that.
[Top] While juggling a full-time job, Amar Medatia launched a coffee-and-wine bar in Atlanta to fulfill a long-time dream.
Similarly, Ohio-based Tiasha Letostak took time out from work this year after being overwhelmed in the healthcare space. She quit her research role at a large hospital early this summer to travel and spend quality time with her family.
Financially, she and her husband had already been saving up since November 2019, anticipating layoffs at her husband’s company in early 2020. With her husband’s job loss in mind, Letostak trudged through to support her family financially during the pandemic. Once her husband found a new remote position at a software company in February 2022, she decided to take the plunge and submitted her resignation. The couple had already shifted their 10-year-old daughter, Maya, from private to public school in the fall of 2020—a change they had considered even before Covid-19—and now they leveraged their savings as well so Letostak could take the much-needed respite.
But by no means has quitting work translated into an empty calendar, Letostak says. When she had planned the time off, she had scheduled about half-a-dozen trips ranging from Seattle to Paris, including specific visits with family. She encourages anyone intending to take a break to have a plan to stay busy. “Whether you plan to go back to work or not, you don’t want to waste time,” she says. That’s why she has continued to network professionally since quitting in mid-May. By mid-August, she’ll be prepared to interview more actively. “I am definitely refreshed and ready to go back to work,” she says.
From job fulfillment to life fulfillment
The pandemic prompted a reevaluation of career choices and values leading some young professionals to shift industry or employer, or simply take a break. “The silver lining of the pandemic is that it has given workers more power to redefine work on their own terms,” says Chatterjee. “This is a net positive for the U.S. economy.”
A massive change in work dynamics in corporate America, and the resulting flexibility of working from home, allowed Brookhaven resident Amar Medatia to pursue his long-time dream of starting a new business, Coffee Bar Atlanta, a hybrid coffee-and-wine bar concept that opened its doors in June this year. A government contractor for Wunderman Thompson, a global marketing communications agency, Medatia credits the flexibility that remote working offered for giving him more control over his schedule to pursue the business that he and his wife had dreamed of years before they moved from Washington D.C. to Atlanta in 2017. Now, he could be more selective about the work meetings he attended, no longer had to commute to an office, and was able to work non-traditional hours as needed.
Speaking about starting his coffee-and-wine bar simultaneously with a full-time job, Medatia says, “There were numerous aspects to getting it off the ground: business licensing, loan documents, health department requirements, paperwork, etc. I was able to handle all of it over the last few months because I was able to work from home, manage work-life balance, and schedule tasks appropriately.” He said he was able to apply the skills from his full-time job to negotiate contracts with vendors for his new business.
Medatia is one of the roughly 500,000 self-employed workers who have emerged since the pandemic, as reported by The Wall Street Journal in November. However, Medatia and many of his desi peers acknowledged they kept their regular employment while working on their “side hustle.” In fact, he didn’t let work at his day job slip either—Medatia recently got promoted.
Similarly, Purvi Talati, an Alpharetta mother of two teenagers and a full-time consulting program manager in the federal government space said she was committed to maintaining high performance at work while also opening up her new business, Daisy’s Skin Care. What started as a hobby of gifting baskets of soaps, serums, and hair oils to friends soon blossomed in 2020 into an e-commerce business that now ships natural beauty products to all 50 states. The lockdowns paved the way for her family to work together to realize Talati’s lifelong dream of launching her own skincare line. Pre-pandemic it was rare to find her teenage daughters at home on the weekends, she says. “During the pandemic, Daisy’s was a common bond, something we could all do together as a family.”
[Left] Purvi Talati (center) launched a new family business of beauty products during the pandemic. Her two daughters, Jasmine (left) and Simran (right), helped promote the business online, turning this passion project into a successful e-commerce beauty business.
Drawing upon her husband’s green thumb from his family’s agricultural roots in Uttar Pradesh, Talati uses ingredients grown at home for the products she now handcrafts. Her daughters, aged 18 and 14, have helped with branding (they come up with the product names), research into competitive pricing, and promoting the business on Instagram and Facebook, as Talati admits she is typically a private person. For her, marketing has been the most challenging and the least favorite aspect of her business.
Talati had initially envisioned promoting her business at wine-and-cheese events hosted at her home or at local farmers’ markets so people could try samples. Once those options were not available during the pandemic, she was forced to turn to social media—and her business is all the better for it. Online sales have allowed her to reach customers well outside the perimeter of Greater Atlanta. With a flourishing side gig, the 43-year-old entrepreneur is confident of taking an early, active retirement to pursue her passion. “I just want to do something I enjoy,” she says.
There are others who are taking a temporary sabbatical from their main career to try their hand at something new. Gibil Felix has put his radiology tech job on pause to open a Qwench Juice Bar in Tampa, Florida. With a keen eye for a business opportunity, he noticed a heightened interest in wellness and healthy living during the pandemic, which inspired him to pursue the health juice franchise as a second stream of income. Now, Felix is taking several months off to establish the new business as finding reliable employees has been his biggest challenge. Once his store operations stabilize, he foresees a return to his healthcare gig.
“I work in the ER, so I’m never bored,” Felix says, but because he’s always wanted to manage his own business, balancing the two—ownership of the juice shop while continuing with patient care—would be the dream, he said.
No break for H1B workers
Some immigrants, however, were not able to take advantage of the “Great Reshuffle.” For those who were on H1-B visas, for instance, there was little flexibility to take a break for their mental health or to take care of dependents compared to their counterparts, according to Madhurima Paturi, founding partner and immigration attorney at Paturi Law in Orlando, Florida. This group was not eligible for the unemployment stimulus checks.
Gibil Felix put his radiology tech job on pause to open a franchise juice bar in Tampa, Florida.
And then there were others with work permits who had better luck. A minority on some special visas (for example, L-1A or O-1) were able to take advantage of faster green card processing cycles given that the number of Indians trying to file green cards through this category decreased during the pandemic.
That was the case for Sangam Salimath, a Roswell, Georgia-based fintech professional who switched jobs in June 2021. Salimath had been keeping his eyes open for new opportunities since January 2021 because he’d felt he’d just grown “too comfortable” where he was. With a green card in hand sooner than he had expected, he felt motivated to look for other positions that could propel his career forward. “Because of the lockdowns, processing went super-fast. We just got lucky that way,” Salimath says. The former Fiserv senior product manager had heard that tech companies were offering attractive signing bonuses and other competitive benefits. He landed a job with better compensation just as he and his wife were planning to grow their family.
Overcoming a conservative culture that prioritizes a safety net
Time and again, today’s young entrepreneurs mentioned how the pandemic paved the way to focus on their ancillary business. Yet, few desis have taken a complete leap to abandon the safety of their nine-to-five jobs altogether.
“It requires a cultural shift in how success is defined,” said Atlanta-based licensed psychologist, Fabby Philip. “It’s not just about getting a salary, getting a job.” The fear of failure is ingrained into us from an early age, according to Philip, who specializes in child therapy.
[Right] Covid-19’s unexpected effects: a faster than normal processing of his green card allowed Sangam Salimath to switch jobs to propel his career further.
Saxena agrees that the conservative approach of many Indian-Americans keeps them from taking the necessary departure from well-established—and sometimes toxic—work environments. “There are societal pressures when you move to this country. You build a community with other desi folks where your success is defined by your kids’ success—their career, family status, etc. As South Asians we tend to push ourselves beyond our limit, wanting to be perfect all the time, and that spills into our work life. But understand that it’s not the end of the world to be jobless for a couple of months. There are far more important things, especially when you start growing your family,” he says.
[Left] According to Fabby Philip, a licensed psychologist based in Atlanta, a cultural emphasis on safety and security holds back many South Asians from taking the necessary departure from well-established—and sometimes toxic—work environments. She is seen here with her daughter, Skye.
Saxena’s sabbatical was not without sacrifices. Saxena spent months discussing the move with his family. His wife was supportive of his decision. She took the role of sole earner to support their family in the interim. They examined their finances and had a candid conversation about where they could cut expenses during the break: holding off on big-ticket purchases, opting for economical or generic instead of luxury brands, and dipping into their savings. Even with these decisions made, Saxena admitted that “life happens,” and he was still hit with a costly car repair and a move to a new apartment. As a backup, he also considered investing in friends’ small businesses and pursuing freelance work as alternative forms of income during the break.
“It sucks that it took a global pandemic to get here,” says Saxena about his radical decision to call it a “time out” when he needed it the most.
Amritha Alladi Joseph, a former reporter for Gannett newspapers, The Hindu, The Gainesville Sun, Gainesville Magazine, and CNN-IBN, is now a consulting manager at EY and lives in Sandy Springs, Georgia with her husband and two children.
A Reversal of the “Great Reshuffle”?
How to compete in the job market as balance once again favors employers over employees.
After a couple years of calling the shots and taking advantage of Covid-19-induced opportunities in the work environment, workers may once again face stiff competition. With the war in Ukraine, supply chain constraints, the Fed’s recent interest rate hikes, and the prospect of a recession, job seekers or shifters may not be in as cushy a position to be picky.
As of June 2022, MarketWatch reported that the very tech companies that had ramped up hiring during the pandemic—think Coinbase, Tesla, Carvana, and and Redfin—are now planning for job cuts, while tech giants such as Meta, Intel, Microsoft, Uber, and Lyft have signaled that hiring would ramp down or freeze.
So how can you stay competitive in such a fast-changing job market?
According to Fabian J. De Rozario, Vice Chair of the National Board of Directors for the National Association of Asian American Professionals, diversity, inclusion, and equity are entering into the conversation around hiring. South Asians can take advantage of that. However, he says many of us don’t see the value in or are not good at what De Rozario calls “engagement” or soft skills. Companies, however, are increasingly looking beyond just technical capabilities.
Focus on the following five skills to demonstrate a cultural “fit,” which can make or break a person’s ability to land the job or progress in their career.
1. Communication: Communication is the key to how a person is perceived. When asked questions during an interview, answer the question completely and succinctly. “When they are not clear with answers to questions asked, the interviewer will find all sorts of reasons in other areas to suggest they are not qualified,” De Rozario said.
2. Relationship and interpersonal skills: The ability to collaborate and to be a team player is where some Asian-Americans struggle. Build advocates and sponsors within senior leadership, so when others are having conversations about your performance or new assignment opportunities, you have someone who can vouch for your work.
3. Leadership: This need not be restricted to positional power, but can also include taking initiative, self-management, and demonstrating reliability. “Employers will forsake some technical qualifications for demonstration of leadership,” De Rozario said. In our Asian-American society, we can be hierarchical. This can easily manifest itself as well-intended respect for managers, for those older than ourselves, but can result in us being branded as the “quiet” Asian. Always have a point of view, and speak up.
4. Adaptability/agility to deal with change: Being too risk averse can also be detrimental to a person’s brand for workplace equity or for being considered for important assignments and promotions.
5. Being “in touch” both professionally and socially: Know what’s happening in the professional landscape. Stay abreast of company and industry developments and be able to speak to it. Socially, “immigrants may struggle with being able to read the cultural nuances of people in the room, building meaningful relationships with others unlike themselves, or participating in ‘small talk,’” De Rozario said. “It’s such an important part of an immigrant showcasing their capabilities.”
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