Gitesh Desai was reading an email from India’s Ministry of External Affairs but before the words could sink in, he got a call from Houston’s Consul General Dr. Anupam Ray congratulating him. Desai was one of the 28 Pravasi Bharatiya Samman awardees of 2019. The normally eloquent Desai says he was “struggling for words” during his conversation with the Consul General.
Desai was presented the prestigious award by the President of India Ram Nath Kovind at a special ceremony in Varanasi on 23rd January. He had “goose bumps while walking on the dais” to receive the award. He was also felicitated at his alma mater University of Baroda and in his hometown Jambusar in Gujarat.
A cherished recognition, Desai plans to hang the framed certificate in his living room. Desai came to the US in 1980 with an engineering degree from India, but the lack of practical experience, a US degree and fluency in English proved to be major roadblocks in getting a job.
In exasperation, he finally told an interviewer at Jack D. Gillum, an engineering company, “Henry Kissinger was an unknown person too until Nixon gave him a chance. Engineering formulas don’t change whether they are applied in India or the US. Just give me a chance.”
Desai got the job and soon proved himself. He rose quickly through the ranks in every one of the four prominent companies he’s worked for – Jack D. Gillum, Stone and Webster, KBR and presently Wood where he is Senior Principal Engineer. He’s racked up a combined experience of 35 years in engineering and construction projects and has worked on assignments that were individually worth $12 billion. His present boss describes him as “a solutions oriented, goal driven problem solver.”
This description of Desai would be proved right once again in a completely different setting. Three months after he took the helm as President of Sewa International Houston Chapter, Hurricane Harvey hit Houston. His own house was flooded with 5 feet of water for two weeks. Desai gathered his passport, laptop and with the clothes he was wearing, walked out of the house and moved into a hotel. He began coordinating rescue and relief efforts from the hotel’s lobby and was in the forefront mobilizing 1250 volunteers who rescued 687 people stranded in their homes. Sewa International collected over one million dollars in donations including a $400,000 grant from the Mayor’s Fund for relief and rehabilitation efforts, the first ever such grant to any Indian American organization in the US.
Desai lost most of his belongings, personal memories, paintings and some rare books in the flooding but the three things, he says, he didn’t lose were “his positivity, hope and health” for which he is grateful. He stayed in a hotel for one year and has only recently moved back home occupying the second floor as the first floor still “looks like a war zone.”
Growing up in a traditional family environment, Desai was greatly influenced by his grandmother. In the 1940’s, she initiated several programs for women empowerment, opened four stores and, in a revolutionary move for those times, hired widows to run them. He comes from a family of freedom fighters and social reformers where Gandhiji’s influence ran deep. Desai recalls spending hours on the charkha spinning thread. The family encouraged wearing khadi, a practice that can still be seen in the natty khadi jacket and kurta churidar he sports at any Indian event.
At 11, Desai joined a Gujarati medium Gandhian boarding school where he learned “discipline and self-reliance.” The genesis of his activism was first seen in the 1974 Navnirman Andolan in Gujarat. As a student leader, Desai led students to protest against the rampant corruption which led to the toppling of the government. In 1975, the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared emergency. Desai protested and was detained in prison for two weeks. After his release, he moved to Mumbai and then Dubai as he was on the Government’s Black list for his involvement in the protests against the Emergency.
The over 6 feet broad shouldered Desai is a familiar face in Houston. He was on the Boards of the Indo American Charity Foundation, the Toastmaster’s Club, City of Houston’s General Appeals Board and President of the Indo American Political Action Committee. He led a delegation to Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. lobbying for accountability, and transparency in the US financial aid to Pakistan to ensure it wasn’t being used to fund terrorist activities against India. In another delegation, he lobbied for a US-India Civil Nuclear Deal and successfully blocked a killer amendment against it in the US Congress.
Desai is also a certified yoga teacher. He loves reading, listening to Hindustani classical music and oil painting. But nothing beats driving down to Dallas every other weekend to spend time with his two grandchildren.