Srirupa Dasgupta: Giving the Gift of Work, Food, and a Little Perspective

SrirupaDasguptaSrirupa Dasgupta admits she rarely listens to other people. Well, to be fair, she listens to what other people say and then makes her own decisions. The Bengali Indian is a doer, that much is clear. But her story is not what you expect. The force behind this tenacious woman who has sported many career hats is a desire to live her values and invest in her beliefs. For Dasgupta, working with and developing people is her life’s goal, and she is prepared to sacrifice more than most of us to make this a reality.

Born in Calcutta, India, Dasgupta first came to the United States to study at Smith College, with only an aunt to her name far away in California. She double-majored in computer science and studio art, two seemingly unrelated fields. “Being Indian, I was told I need to do something practical and majoring arts was not going to cut it so I did computer science, which was up and coming. But really it made sense, I was drawn to the problem solving and elegant algorithms.”

Fresh out of college she became a programmer analyst for a decision-support software provider for the healthcare industry. After four years and looking for something more interesting, she moved from application and systems development to a management role. For the next 15 years, Dasgupta held various management positions in the software industry, rotating from managing R&D teams and call centers, to developing strategic partnerships and consulting services for different blue-chip companies in Massachusetts and California.

In the lead up to the tech bubble burst, Dasgupta started thinking about changing careers. “I had worked the entire lifecycle of the software product, done the whole rotation. I wanted to do something new and fresh.” With much foresight, she launched into a 1-year Integral Coach® training and certification program while still working at Lucent Technologies. “In all of my management positions, what I loved best was working with people, setting a vision and creating opportunities for them to excel and advance in their career … coaching seemed like a good fit.”

In a-not-unwelcome turn-of-events, Dasgupta was laid off from her job in 2002. Well prepared when she got the news, she put all her energies into finishing the coaching certification program. “The training was really aligned with my interests. The methodology takes an integrated approach to the multi-dimensional individual, we looked at the whole person, cognitive, and physical, and the cultural, social and environmental context in which they find themselves. All of these are critical components of coaching, the end goal of which is not to solve the problem, but rather develop the person.”

She started her own coaching practice shortly thereafter. “Even though I had a lot of experience in business, being a small business owner was really different … the first year was a lot of learning-by-doing. I found it difficult to promote myself, attending events and generating leads was challenging.” But not one to shy away from a challenge and noticing she was not alone in her discomfort for business networking, she started a blog to coach herself and others, which led to a book on the subject entitled Effortless Networking.

In fact these evolving career transitions have become a theme and pattern in Dasgupta’s life. As she explains: “Most of us set a goal and move towards it. It’s a linear task. But training as a coach introduced me to another option … it’s called improvisation. You have a map, you know how you will get there, but on route life throws you curveballs. I try to keep my goal in focus but adapt along the way. Coaching has taught me to look at the opportunities that arise and use them to propel me towards my objective rather than seeing them as a distraction.”

After the birth of her second child in 2006, she decided to put her practice on hold as the family relocated to Ohio and finally Pennsylvania for work. For about two years, Dasgupta didn’t actively seek out clients. When she began to think about working again, she found herself at a crossroads. “Should I restart my business? Do something different? Take a salaried position?” she wondered. While thinking about all the possible options, a digital communications and marketing position opened up at nearby Franklin & Marshall College. Although she has been working there for six years and it’s interesting work, Dasgupta admits, her passion lies in working with people.

And so comes the next transition or, more precisely, expression of who she is. Attending an event where Muhammad Yunus, founder of Grameen Bank, was speaking, Dasgupta was intrigued by the idea that one can create a for-profit business with the intention of solving a social problem. As an entrepreneur, her interest was piqued and she started to look around for inspiration while doing her day job at F&M.

upohar2Dasgupta learned about the refugee population in Lancaster City and felt a connection. Her own family had been refugees from Bangladesh and she had grown up with stories about how difficult it was to start over in India. At the height of the economic crisis, it was tough for refugees to find work. For the women, it was close to impossible. Thinking about how she could create jobs for these Bhutanese, Iraqi and other female refugees, Dasgupta hit upon the idea of  starting a catering business. “These women may not be able to speak English but they can cook!” she realized.

She found a commercial kitchen that rented space on an hourly basis and worked with about four women, who – for practical, mostly language, reasons – cooked what they knew. The enterprising Dasgupta launched the ethnic catering business as a proof-of-concept to see whether she could use a for-profit business model to hire women who otherwise could not find a job, whether the women could do the work, and whether she could pay a living wage.

“All of this was hypothetical. On paper, everything looked great but usually the problems you anticipate are not the ones that show up,” she recalls. “During the first year, I learned all kinds of things and hurdles emerged where I never expected them.”

Apart from the language barrier, a key issue was that the refugees are on welfare. When they get a job, their benefits are cut. But as the catering upohar3business is erratic … one day they may get a gig, the next day not. So the irregularity of income wreaked havoc with the calculation of women’s welfare benefits. “Sometimes they had cash, sometimes they didn’t. It was almost easier not to work!” Dasgupta stopped hiring new employees and tried to stabilize the hours of those she already worked with but the problem persisted.

And so, making a decision that no one in their right mind facing a similar challenge would make, this past March, after three years of solely catering, she opened a restaurant. Entirely self-funded and managed all while still working a full-time job in F&M, this remarkable woman is determined to make a go of it. Upohar (which translates to gift in Bengali) opened its doors for lunch and takeout only and offers catering services. Dasgupta’s right-hand man, Stephen, does the deliveries, inventory, and shopping and her staff of five cook and run the show. Dasgupta breaks even but pays for the advertising and marketing campaigns out of her own pocket. She has yet to give herself a paycheck. She is hoping each month she will generate enough revenue to pay her staff and the rent for the following month. So far, so good!

Why all the risk and stress? “I was called to do it. It was the only way I could generate steady employment for these women. Upohar was conceived as a gift for employees, who get the opportunity to work, a gift to the community to try all these new different foods, and a gift to myself. Through working with these women who are starting over, working hard to rebuild their lives from scratch, I have been given the gift of perspective. My problems don’t seem that big anymore.”

And so Dasgupta takes it one day at a time. She now hires not just refugees but also disadvantaged women from shelters. She is hopeful that Upohar will become a place where people come not only come to enjoy the food but also to appreciate all that they have by meeting those who make the food and who have overcome great challenges.

If you are ever in Lancaster City, Pennsylvania, explore the world through food and visit Upohar.

Believe in Srirupa Dasgupta’s work and want to support her efforts? You can make a donation at http://www.upoharethniccuisines.com/contact-us/support-us/

Srirupa Dasgupta’s Tips for Success:

  • Ask for help. No one does anything alone. Acknowledge your strengths and find help in areas that are not part of your skillset.
  • Pay attention to your gut reactions and your behavior (what you actually do, versus what you think you do or want to do) – to different situations, events, and people – and use this information in your decision-making process.
  • Know your limits so you can set and maintain your boundaries. This can help you focus on what matters most and avoid over-extending yourself.

Discussion

Have you ever considered putting your career where your heart is by creating a social enterprise?

Jane DiGiacomo: From Hamptons’ Lawyer to Small-Town Hospice Director

Jane DiGiacomo’s life story could easily be a film. The credits roll as she crosses the western prairies in her 31-foot Airstream camper, new husband and young child in tow, seeking out the important things in life and leaving law and a lot of baggage behind. But DiGiacomo is not an actress. She’s the real deal: a confident, happy woman who fearlessly gave up what most people spent their whole lives working towards, financial success and prestige, to experience the smaller pleasures in life: “I’m not special, we all are remarkable, we just have to see it in ourselves.”

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Jane, Miles and the mega-cool Airstream

Always attracted to understanding life’s fundamental problems, DiGiacomo studied philosophy at Barnard and was aiming for a PhD. But she fell into law when her father thought this a ridiculous plan. “He said he would only pay for me to go to ‘professional’ school so I guess this planted the seed that I probably should find a career where I could support myself.”

Paying her own way in the end, she attended the University of Minnesota, transferring in her third year to Columbia Law. From there, DiGiacomo worked as a litigation associate for three years in Manhattan. But city life was not really her thing, so she moved to East Hampton, Long Island, where she joined a regional law firm. “I did more independent, directly rewarding work and started building my own client base.”

After two years, DiGiacomo had risen up the ranks and was on serious partnership track. And then came what she calls “The Big Pause”.

In the midst of a divorce, DiGiacomo found herself at a crossroads. She started meditating regularly with zen sangha – studying with Peter Matthiessen – something that became a very important part of her life.

Her zen practice led her to take a leave of absence to sort out her feelings. The move shocked her partner champions at the firm: “I made no promises, I told them I was going away to do a meditation retreat for at least three months, maybe more, and that maybe I wouldn’t come back … It was kind of a big deal,” she adds with a chuckle.

She easily rented her small East Hampton house over the summer and headed north to join the monks and nuns at Gampo Abbey, a Buddhist Monastery in Nova Scotia for four months. “I got a really good picture of what that life would be like should I go in that direction. But it didn’t matter what I did. My neurosis followed me. I was still going to have to deal with my need to be valued and achieve external confirmation. I knew I had to go back to life and face it, I couldn’t run away anymore.”

Picking up where she left off, DiGiacomo rejoined the firm “continuing in high-powered mode.” And then, when she was 33, she got pregnant from a short-term relationship just around the same time she made partner at the firm. In addition to work, she dove into school and community activities to build up her life in East Hampton.

But keeping busy at work and in the community was not enough. “Even though I was doing well financially, the fact that it was just a means to an end was becoming really evident to me … I considered starting my own firm but this wasn’t something I was ready to take on as single mom. So I started working out of our smaller office where I had the chance to focus on local clients and test the idea of going out on my own. It was going well, and then I met Miles.”

Her life turned upside down as she travelled out West to see her new steady. She fell in love, not only with him, but also the expansiveness of the western landscape. “I knew it was going to be difficult to stay where I was.” Soon after Jane met the love of her life, her mother developed terminal cancer, a life event that opened DiGiacomo’s eyes to the truth – life is too short, don’t compromise.  “When she died I knew I was done.”

She took some time off to extract herself from her life: “Mom’s death readjusted my perspective. Having Miles in my life freed me to consider other options as he’s a computer programmer and able to work anywhere.” The plan was set. At 39-years old, she quit her job, they sold their respective homes and bought an oh-so-cool Airstream to traverse the country looking for a home. “We pretty much took off. We literally did not know where we were going.” The idea was to spend time in a few towns where they thought they might like to live.

Ultimately, Nelson, British Colombia fit the bill perfectly.

“It was no small thing because we had to immigrate. I couldn’t work for the first four years and instead stayed home with Kell and our two new children, Ziji and Elka.” Once their immigration status was resolved, DiGiacomo looked into becoming a small town law practitioner but was overwhelmed by the commitment involved: several exams, followed by a badly paid 6-month apprenticeship, commuting every day, and leaving kids in day care. “Then I realized I didn’t have to do that. Being successful financially was not what I needed. It was liberating that I didn’t care anymore.”

Once she had accepted this fact, the next steps were easy. She decided to earn a living doing something she really enjoyed and cared about deeply. And so she started looking more closely at community services and not-for-profit work. She is currently the Executive Director of the Nelson and District Hospice Society, a community organization provides volunteer hospice services.  In that capacity, she also works closely with Kalein Hospice Society, which has an expansive mission including encouraging dialog about how we create care for the dying and how this influences how we live our own lives. DiGiacomo is drawn to the work because it centers around questions with which she has struggled her whole life “Why are we here? What are we doing with our lives day-to-day?”

For DiGiacomo part of the answer has been coming face-to-face with one’s own death. She does not mean this in a morbid way but rather living the reality of knowing how precious our lives are. Her advice? Don’t get lost in the dream of achieving something. Get out there and do it. That’s what will make it all worthwhile.

Jane DiGiacomo’s Tips for Success:

  • If you are a working mom feeling torn about where you are spending your time, but also feeling like you are not cut out to be a stay-at-home mom, just do it (if you can). Spend some time with your kids. It will change who you are. It may encourage you to make different decisions about your career and future.
  • Once you no longer prioritize money, power and prestige, it’s a relief. You realize what’s important and it’s not that stuff. It’s really not about THE STUFF.

Discussion

Are your possessions, salary and prestige holding you back from finding true happiness?

Anne Manuel: from human rights defender to high school teacher, making a difference in people’s lives

Anne Manuel
Anne and her daughter

Anne Manuel has always valued human interaction and placed great importance on helping others realize their potential. This is what initially propelled her into human rights work and today makes her a high school teacher who – according to her students[i] –  “is patient and caring…presents her lessons in an interesting and informative way…and is tolerant and open-minded of others’ opinions”.

Albeit rewarding, the path from Deputy Director of the Americas’ Division at Human Rights Watch (HRW) to public high school teacher was not an easy one.

After graduating from Wesleyan University with a degree in 1980, Manuel married and moved to New York City where she worked temp jobs and interned at Inter Press Service, an international news agency.  Moving to Washington, DC to work for Inter Press, she spent 3 years covering international and human rights issues, a beat that became more than just a news story: “I figured out pretty quickly that I wanted to be an advocate and not an observer of human rights.”

So she left journalism and jumped into the field, joining HRW as a specialist on Latin America. She focused on research and writing and gradually moved up the ranks, becoming an Associate Director and finally Deputy Director of the Americas’ Division. Manuel travelled to countries where basic rights were routinely violated to uncover harrowing stories that she and her colleagues brought to the halls of power … Congress, the executive branch, the UN … and placed on the pages of The New York Times and The Washington Post in an effort to stop the abuses and bring their perpetrators to justice. “While we often stared evil in the face, we were endlessly inspired by the determination of victims and their relatives. I got to work with human rights advocates in the field and my colleagues at HRW who were among the most committed, passionate, intelligent and creative professionals I’ve ever met.  HRW was a great home for me spiritually.”

And yet, despite being professionally and personally fulfilled, Manuel began to experience a nagging anxiety. “At 35, I started having a crisis about travel. I was geographically torn in two directions. When I was at home, I never wanted to leave. When I was in the field I felt like I needed to stay longer. I was profoundly attached to my work but also my family, and had a sense I was perpetually incapable of fulfilling my commitments, particularly to those in the field, many of whom risked their lives every day defending human rights.”

And yet still highly committed to HRW, Manuel truly wanted to be in the field more to do a better job: “The tension was immense. It was like walking a tightrope.” Eventually the pressure of staying away from family was too great and she stepped back.  She worked out an arrangement with her “very supportive boss” so that she no longer had to travel.  The immediate relief of finding balance was replaced by the realization that, with no travel or field work, she didn’t feel she was doing the job justice. “I started to become the person who watches the clock, and while I was no longer in crisis and still felt passionate about my work, I must admit there is nothing quite like the fire you get from interviewing victims and survivors of human rights violations in the field.”

And so, after almost 14 years working in human rights, Manuel decided to make a radical change.She had always been attracted to working in public schools, finding the diversity of the student body appealing, akin to a “mini-world cauldron”. A well-meaning friend tried to turn her off the idea of teaching by recommending some books exposing the underbelly of the public school system, but instead Manuel found herself even more intrigued. And after learning about Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, which has a diverse student body from Central America, Africa, and Asia amongst others, Manuel knew she had found her next calling.

Undeterred by the fact that it would take 15 years of teaching salary to compensate for what she was earning at HRW, Manuel launched herself into a Masters in teaching at Johns Hopkins, continuing to work part-time at HRW. Her husband and daughters were supportive and her employer incredibly flexible in terms of letting her work part time and later as a consultant. “I am so grateful to them for being fantastic colleagues and helping me with my transition.”

Manuel started teaching US history to freshmen, inspired by her favorite high school teacher who exposed her to apartheid and other injustices through a course in world history.  At first she was not confident that she had made the right decision: “Little things would take an inordinate amount of energy. Being around teenagers can be trying but it can also be invigorating. So many of them are eager to learn, vibrant, always on the cusp of new discovery!”

And drawing on her old career to build her new one, Manuel established an International Human Rights course at the school.  The course attracts a lot of students who are the children of immigrants, and several of her former colleagues, and even current students’ parents, participate as guest speakers (i.e., one father was a Burmese activist, another the sister of a “disappeared” from Argentina). As her students point out, Manuel builds understanding through activities and bringing history to life.

Sometimes she misses her former colleagues, the limelight, congressional meetings, and constant interaction with high profile media: “My dirty little secret is the ego boost I got from working at HRW.” As a teacher, Manuel feels almost completely anonymous and this has required some adjustment. “At HRW, I was working on issues that affected a lot of people but only in a small way, while teaching has the potential to have a big effect, even if it is on a few young individuals. I’ve been lucky as both careers offer the chance to make a difference.” And at 55 years, it seems she has just begun to make her mark, at least she hopes she has. “I will teach until I can’t go anymore. I just get so much juice out of my job.”

Anne Manuel’s lessons for a smooth transition
  • If you need an advanced degree, consider pursuing it part-time so you can continue to work.
  • Don’t let early doubts stand in your way. Its natural to second guess yourself when you’re leaving something stable. Listen to the voice that put you on the path towards change in the first place.
  • I had a lot of lucky breaks, I won’t deny it. I am glad I had the strong urge to become a teacher once I knew I needed to change careers. Some people search for ages and can’t find that strong desire. If it’s there, heed it!

Discussion

Have you ever left a career you loved because of other commitments?

[i] Rate My Teachers. [Internet] http://www.ratemyteachers.com/anne-manuel/512746-t. Accessed 3/24/2014

 

 

 

Lisa McLish: Trading Contract Law for a Life of Social Work

mcLishWhen Lisa McLish was enrolling in law school at Catholic University more than two decades ago, she vividly remembers pausing briefly to consider the joint law/social work degree on offer. Something about the idea of social work spoke to her, but the extra year — of school and debt — turned her off, and she quickly dismissed the thought. After all, she knew wanted to be a public interest lawyer, and for that, she mainly needed a law degree.

“Looking back, I could have easily gotten a joint degree, but I didn’t take the extra time.”

After law school, McLish realized the type of public interest law she had dreamed of doing was harder to practice than she thought. “No one tells you before law school that those jobs are actually very hard to get.”

So initially McLish took a clerkship and then moved over to the Justice Department where she spent nearly 15 years doing government contract work. McLish was happy, in a way, at Justice. “I was a trial lawyer, and I liked that part. It was actually kind of exciting.”  There were also supplementary perks.  “Being a lawyer gives you an automatic cache; it’s nice but also hard to give up. Everyone kind of understands what you do even if they don’t really understand.” (more…)