Over the centuries, The Banyan tree has taken on significance as a symbol of fertility, life and resurrection. It is a fitting symbol for ‘DesiStoriesAshaUSA’ which presents the stories of South Asians who have wandered far and wide from their ancestral homes, traversing new frontiers and setting down roots and networks in the US. Our goal is to connect and establish closer ties within the diasporas of the South Asian community and facilitate a dialogue with our readers, one story at a time. We will showcase stories of achievement and success and also resiliency and hope during the COVID pandemic.
Our story today features Prakash Puram, the moniker ‘Prakash’ metaphorically designating the bearer as a source of ‘enlightenment or wisdom’. For his family and friends, Prakash has made this world a better place, through the illumination, guidance and help he has selflessly provided all his life.
In celebration of his 60th birthday, an 85 page photo book titled ‘Words from the heart’, was lovingly created by his close family and friends. Over a hundred stories capturing the ‘essence’ of Prakash – -from his childhood, to his academic achievements in India and the US; stellar career path from ‘Unilever’ to ‘Pillsbury’ to ‘IBM’ to ‘Honeywell’ to ‘Net Perceptions’ to CEO of ‘iXmatch’; public policy and political appointments ranging from ‘President Bush’s Export Council’ to the ‘Federal Reserve Bank Advisory Council’, and the Board of the ‘University of Minnesota Medical Foundation’ – – filled the closely packed pages and are bulleted below.
*Humorous *Resilient *Lung power *Big heart *High achiever *Helpful *Smart *Brilliant memory *Long lasting friendships *Mentor *Master Networker *Flaming Extrovert *Private Pilot’s license holder *Well Spoken *Empathetic *Ambitious *Multi-lingual (6 languages including Russian, Japanese) *Personable *Knowledgeable *Hospitable: Home affectionately known as ‘Puram Motel’ *Relentless *Implacable *Perseverance and tenacity in the face of adversity * Magnanimous *Never-say-die attitude *Focused *Guiding light *24X7 *Envied Rolodex *Kamala the secret sauce to Prakash’s success- – long leash that allows Prakash to juggle a thousand balls at one time!
Prakash was born and raised in Madras, India. From his early years, he exhibited the traits enumerated above, and which were to become his hallmark.
In school, looking for nothing more than a volunteer experience to list on his resume, he offered to escort a catholic nun around his hometown of Madras, India. He got more than he bargained for. The nun was none other than ‘Mother Teresa’. Prakash, a student at a Jesuit college did not even recognize her name. “I had gone to the school principal and told him I was worried about finding a job after graduating, and he said I should expand my resume by doing community service”
For the next year, Prakash accompanied Mother Teresa on visits to government leper homes. Watching her tender ministry to India’s outcasts, left a profound impression on him. In his final year at college, he led a student run campaign to raise money for Mother Teresa’s work with lepers.
Throughout his impressive corporate career at Pillsbury, Honeywell and IBM, he made time to volunteer with poor and disabled people. “All of the stuff I do in my spare time, the community service portion of it, has been a direct result of the encounter and impression Mother Teresa made on me 40+ years ago. I have never been able to get her out of my mind. She’s like a hologram”.
With Mother Teresa prodding his conscience, Prakash volunteered at Courage center in the Twin Cities, an organization that provides service to 20,000 disabled people,. He took clients shopping, to the movies, made tie-dyed T-shirts and played basketball with them. He became a Board member and was named Chairman of the Public Policy committee, lobbying on behalf of disabled people in the Minnesota state legislature. He also sent money to leper homes in India, volunteered with Meals on Wheels, the Special Olympics and Storefront/Youth action, an agency that provided counseling programs and violence prevention for suburban youth.
A Life Partnership
Prakash and Kamala got married in June 1979, while he was a management trainee at Unilever in India. Soon after, he moved to the US to pursue an MBA at the University of Minnesota. Kamala still finishing her MBA joined him in 1980. Though initially hesitant about the move, Prakash convinced Kamala to come to Minnesota, by assuring a move back, if ‘she did not like living in the US’. 42 years later they have spawned a productive and happy marital partnership, two successful sons and daughters-in-law and 4 granddaughters.
Kamala is a successful and driven individual in her own right. In a crazy four month period in 1983, she obtained an MBA in Management Information Systems, gave birth to her oldest son, signed house papers from her hospital bed and moved into their new home with an infant, and started a job at Cenex.
She held senior level management positions at Fortune 500 companies, co-founded her own company iXmatch (next generation real life technology matching people’s skills to job requirements), and was a management consultant for four years. After being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009, she plunged into the non-profit world to create a more meaningful life. She worked at Sewa-AIFW as an Executive Director and then started her own non-profit, ‘Asha USA’ with a Bush Fellowship Grant.
Prakash has an impressive academic and professional resume. He obtained a Bachelor of Science from Loyola College in Chennai, a Business Management Diploma from Xavier Labour Relations Institute, Jamshedpur, an MBA from the University of Minnesota and a Master of Public Administration from Harvard University.
Ukraine Market Reform
After receiving his third post graduate degree from Harvard’s John F Kennedy School of Government in 1993, and on academic leave from IBM, he embarked on a three month summer project in the Ukraine, touring all the major cities using Kiev as a base. The project sought to institute economic reform in the Ukraine. His Harvard thesis, focused on joint ventures, privatization and retail wholesale distribution networks, served him well on the Ukrainian project. He worked with the Ministry of Economic Reform headed by the ex-Prime Minister, to introduce free market systems to a country that had only known state owned enterprise systems.
Prakash traveled to over a 100 countries for business and pleasure and also attended the World Economic Forum in Davos for three years as a Harvard Designate.
Besides his corporate career successes, Prakash was actively involved in Public Policy and Republican politics. He was appointed by President Bush to be a member of the President’s Export council and also the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis Advisory Council on Small Business and labor. He also supported John McCain in his Presidential bid.
He used his extensive networking contacts to do good and help others: have the US Army airlift a CT Scan machine urgently needed in Tamil Nadu, India and facilitating much needed student and work visas.
Olympic Torch Bearer
If Prakash had selected the centennial Olympic torchbearers himself, they would be as noble and accomplished as Martin Luther King Jr. or Mahatma Gandhi. Instead, after a nomination by his young sons, he was chosen by the United Way (in recognition for a lifetime of volunteerism and embracing the Olympic spirit), to be one of 34 local community heroes to carry the flame for a 2/3 mile distance through the Twin Cities, before it went on its way to the Atlanta Olympics in 1996.
He practiced for his leg of the Olympic relay by jogging with a 4 pound weight taped to a broom. “There is a lot of pressure. The torch gets heavy and you don’t want to drop the sucker. It’s overwhelming. I am not a runner or an athlete and being chosen is proof that parents can be role and community models. The important message is that community service is very important”.
In 2002 Prakash and his family were devastated to receive his diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. He was told that he had a decade before his condition would incapacitate him. Eager to fully exploit the good times that he had left, Prakash swam, gardened, and performed his duties as CEO of iXmatch as he always had, but with a little more ‘gusto’. Most notable, it was after his diagnosis that he was elected to the President’s Export Council from 2004-2008 and the Federal Reserve Bank Advisory Council from 2008-2010.
But as the years went by, his prescribed medications lost their effectiveness and his symptoms, once merely inconvenient, soon became debilitating. His “on” time shrank from 95 percent to 20 percent of his day. His family and friends watched helplessly as his vivacious personality faded with debilitating tremors and freezing. Prakash and Kamala sold their company iXmatch in 2010, and Prakash withdrew from all active life. Kamala, despite being diagnosed with breast cancer and undergoing chemotherapy, became his full time caregiver.
Fed up with his situation, and motivated by his son Sidharth’s upcoming wedding in India, at which he was determined to be a participant in the festivities and not a passive attendee, Prakash hunted for other options. Through his Parkinson’s support group, he learned about Medtronic DBS Therapy, a treatment that used a surgically implanted device to deliver carefully controlled electrical stimulation to targeted areas of his brain. Though there were side effects, and he had to have his settings optimized twice, the therapy helped Prakash reclaim the active life he thought he had lost.
Within a couple of weeks of his surgery, Prakash and Kamala (now cancer free), made several trip across the US to visit family and friends, and within three months attended Sidharth’s wedding in India. Prakash participated in all the activities: dancing, socializing, organizing and coordinating all the details associated with the wedding, including performing multiple cartwheels, surprising the audience so soon after his brain surgery.
Always eager to give back and share his bounty, Prakash became part of the Medtronic Ambassador Program and was on the University of Minnesota Medical Foundation and Neuroscience Development Advisory Committee. He became a trusted source for several Parkinson’s patients considering the surgery. Many of the Medtronic referrals were minorities and/or of American Asian heritage. He also helped with fund raising, by identifying high end benefactors and matching them with research opportunities at the University of Minnesota.
As a friend aptly said, “if a cure for Parkinson’s is to be found, it will not be because of celebrities like Michael J Fox but because Prakash got involved”.
One of Prakash’s most celebrated traits is ‘Master Networker’. What is endearing about it, is how he has used it to forge life long friendships from chance encounters.
Notable among these, is the story of a young Japanese woman (Masako Yamamoto), he met in line at ‘Sbarro’s Pizza’ and invited her to stay at his home. The next time the family visited Japan, a limousine was sent by her father, Teruhiko Yamamoto (a prominent Industrialist and chairman of Tak Companies, a subsidiary of Fujitsu) to pick them up at the airport. They were treated to a royal tour of Kobe City, Japan with access to shrines and places not open to public access.
Another delightful story is his encounter with a Finnish couple, Risto and Christina at the Forum in Rome, after a simple request of a photograph. It was the start of a friendship that included a visit to Finland and the Arctic Circle and a visit to India by Risto and his daughter Vanessa to attend Sidharth’s wedding.
And, the story of an out of town/lost fellow Indian driving in circles, who stopped and asked for directions from Prakash, the ‘gardener’ pruning roses in his Edina garden. That led to an offer of tea, a long conversation and a life long friendship with Gopal Khanna.
Prakash always dreamt of becoming a Physician. To his delight, that dream was fulfilled when both his sons obtained an MD/PhD from Harvard, after receiving undergraduate degrees from MIT.
Rishi, their youngest son completed his fellowship/research in oncology at Massachusetts General and is a Post Doc at Broad (pronounced Brode) Institute, a biomedical and genomic research center. He is married to Priya, an endocrinologist and the couple have blessed Prakash and Kamala with a three year old granddaughter.
Sidharth, their oldest son, is the ‘Chief of Head & Neck Surgery’ in the Department of Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery, at Washington University in St.Louis, and has specialized in micro vascular reconstructive surgery. His wife Akshita is an MBA from MIT Sloan, currently working as a Director of Digital Marketing at Enterprise, Inc. They have three young daughters.
They are the main reason Prakash and Kamala moved to St.Louis in 2019, a big move for a self-professed “Edina Bigot”.
‘Puram Motel’ is busy as ever in St. Louis, and always open for business. Prakash and Kamala live life fully in the present and take one day at a time. They enjoy the time spent with their sons and daughters-in-law, and adore their grand children.
And as their friend Mahesh wrote in the birthday book, Prakash continues to embody:
A Fullness of Light; Optimism so very Bright; Engaging and Caring; Friendships ever enduring; Such versatility in your personality; We all laud in unanimity; Success in many dimensions; Paths paved without apprehensions; A rich life you have been leading; A warm family so supporting!
A poem by Mahesh Kanumury
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