Oral History Project
Interviewer: Phil Hespen
NAREN: Naren Bhojwani
Date Interviewed: 10/27/2015
PHIL: This is Phil Hespen interviewing Naren Bhojwani, so we will start, just state your full name
NAREN: Naren Bhojwani
PHIL: A little bit about your early life, where are you from originally?
NAREN: Okay, so I grew up in Ghana, West Africa, my family actually originated from India, my mom and dad grew up in India, moved to Ghana, my dad moved there for work, for business, both my brother and I were born there, so yeah it was kind of a cool Indian culture, but raised in an African country.
PHIL: When were you born?
NAREN: February 7th 1993.
PHIL: How old is your brother?
NAREN: My brother is two years older than me, so he is 24 right now.
PHIL: What was early life growing up in Ghana?
NAREN: It was really cool, I loved every experience within it. It was less developed in the early nineties. We lived in a house in the city, Accra, is the capital, so it was really cool. My dad had his own import and export business, so we did live a comfortable life, he was an entrepreneur, helped him out every summer I was given the opportunity to, so that’s how I picked everything up. Very fortunate enough to go to a private British school from first grade all the way up to thirteenth grade, they have an extra grade, British curriculum. So about my early childhood, a lot of family trips my grandpa and grandma from my dad side stayed with us, till I was about six years old, so since I started first grade, so my brother would have been eight years old. Then they moved back to India, but it was really fun we were really close. Typical day mom would drop us of at school, we’d come back, have dinner when dad got back from the office, watch TV, asking each other about our days, but yeah it was cool. Kind of different, compared to what I have experienced the last few years in the states, but do you want me to go over some of the like housing?
PHIL: Yeah sure what was the city comparable to like in the U.S.?
NAREN: Tough to kind of pinpoint, definitely not a huge city, one that comes to mind might be Iowa City, not too crazy, as far as a good downtown. Three of four major neighborhoods. Like our one shopping district which was Osu, like campus town. Residential areas spread out. Development was kind of backwards, so houses were a lot of colonial and stuff, just like a lot of people have seen. A lot of huts, mud houses, just down the street from me, so it was kind of crazy that way. Roads slowly and steadily get developed quite a bit, and there are some roads that are still gravel and muddy, and stuff like that. I mean right now my area where I currently live is called Mango Tree Avenue, so it’s a nice two story house, a lot of developing happening within the last five years, I mean you go a couple miles down the road and it’s a dirt patch, so your kind of have end of the earth’s differences, but we were really fortunate like I said. Want to compare it to Iowa City, but definitely less developed, I was fortunate enough to go back it was December of 2014, previously I stayed in the states for a year and a half, with internships and stuff like that. Kind of blew me away there was a lot more foreign international investment coming in, so a couple banks, really nice hotels coming in from Sweden, and stuff like that, and that’s really kind of taken a toll since about 2012-2013. Just a crazy story now that I am talking about the development was, we didn’t get our first mall till 2008, so kind of entertainment was hotels, going swimming in the public pools, no major public gyms, or big events there so 2008 was really cool. Fortunately, again my family was able to travel, so when I got to go to India, South Africa so I got to experience that kind of thing, but when it did come, a lot of the local population, was really blown away seeing the Nike it was a South African kind of mall, so it was really cool seeing game shops, Samsung, was pretty cool. A little bit about how we grew up, mom and dad did take care of us, we did have a house help, a chef, so kind of like a nanny full time, it was the standard norm, so yeah she has been there, I am twenty-two years old now so she has been with our family for twenty-one years, so she lives with us cooks for us.
PHIL: So family pretty much?
NAREN: Absolutely, but she is Ghanaian, so she is local, picked up all the recipes from my grandma and my mom, so she probably cooks better than any person.
PHIL: Are there a lot of kids you grew up with that had that similar situation?
PHIL: How many schools, were there a lot of private school kids in Accra?
NAREN: We were surrounded by a large Indian population, Lebanese, um Chinese, there was a good international population, interacted with a lot of Ghanaian kids, some of my best friends obviously are Ghanaian. A lot of public schools, there are just poor facilities, the teachers weren’t well paid so there were a lot of strikes, and things like that. My parents didn’t want to take any chances with that. We were fortunate enough to afford that education. A lot of our close friends and close families, parents like family friends, they were able to have two drivers four cars, and we did too for a long time. Me and my brother picked up driving at the age of fourteen, it was kind of the standard norm. A lot of people had kind of a nanny, a chef, someone to clean the house as well. It was affordable, and the norm. It wasn’t just the international people that had it, the local Ghanaian citizens had house helps and chefs as well.
PHIL: Were there a lot of outliers, you said that was the norm, and then a couple miles down the road and it would be dirt, how was that growing up in that area compared to “suburbia”?
NAREN: Knock on wood we never really had any serious crime, there were a lot of issues we heard about. When I say crime its not anything you hear about here, shootings or stabbings, anything like that it was kind of literally people stealing money just to get by. There was a lot of corruption; police officers, general nurses, stuff like that, extra tipping. If my family went to a restaurant, they would rely heavily on tips, there were not really salaries, so like the lower income class that is where you get a lot of the crime. You don’t hear anything about like people getting shot or stabbed, and stuff like that. We were really safe we had a nice house, a couple of times we did get robbed, fortunately we were not at home, it just made us aware of the situation. To be honest we were really safe, when I was like seventeen or eighteen you could go out, I would stay out till two or three in the morning, and have no issues, as far as people asking you for money, bar scene stuff like that there could be people attending to your cars, and they would ask sometimes for like spare change, if you gave it to them great, if you didn’t it wasn’t like they were going to follow you around. Kind of a crazier experience some of my friend’s dads were involved in the government, they had houses better than you would have seen in the U.S., probably around the 3-4-million-dollar range. I had friends who not necessarily lived in the greatest standards, they wouldn’t have air conditioning, just fans, but I have seen all of that. Another thing that pops into my head about housing, fortunately we obviously had water and electricity. Ghana in general is powered with the hydroelectric power plant, and they would sort of need to divide power sometimes, making us go days at a time without electricity. Off the top of my head, when I was ten years old there was a time where the entire city, country was not doing that good we would get like syphoned electricity so they would tell you that like our neighborhood would lose electricity from 12am-12pm, or we would lose water from certain times in the day stuff like that, like I said I was really fortunate; ate at nice restaurants, went to a good school, but also I don’t want to say… I have seen the tough times, but yeah, good experience, made me tougher. Thinking about food ha-ha sorry I don’t mean to jump around, but there is a good just vast difference in the local cuisine, it’s a lot of like plantains, like bananas, a lot of starchy like, almost rice dishes with gravies, a lot of like palm nut, soups, meat like chicken and lamb and all that good stuff. I walk outside my house I walk like a couple feet to the left and I get a nice dish of plantains and beans being sold on the road for like four dollars’ tops, and we could go to the “nicer” parts of Ghana and have fifty-dollar meal, so it was cool experiencing that as well.
PHIL: What kind of like, was it in the suburbs, were you in the city?
NAREN: I lived in the city, but it was kind of the residential area so north ridge was where I stayed. Where the major bars and hotels, was in Osu we called it airport residential, so all this I am talking about like downtown, to my house to the airport… ten-minute drive, almost like Des Moines.
PHIL: Yeah I was going to say it sounds similar to Des Moines.
NAREN: Yeah. If Drake neighborhood is where I live, Ingersoll is where I would do all my shopping as far as that, the airport is like exactly where it would be. It was good, being close, family friends lived down the street, living in another residential neighborhood so we were able to drive and see each other stuff like that.
PHIL: So you went to one school for your entire schooling, what was it like being in that schooling system?
NAREN: It was crazy, and a good experience, I loved it, even though it was like a foreign school in its title, and international within the British system, it was local professors, so it was Ghanaian professors who have done the same system, through nursery all the way up to eighth grade it was very polished, uh as far as like you speak English right off the bat, we picked up math really quickly, they really focused on math and computers, so excel and work and all that even when we were that young, really kind of slacked on the English, I remember when I was taking the SATs I could see a struggle, being in the British standard, pronunciations, a little bit of spelling here and there, off the top of my head I still spell color and favorite with a u, status I say status, it was really good I enjoyed it. Class sizes were pretty standard twenty to thirty kids, so in one grade there is probably like sixty or eighty kids, they did it like grade one a, b, c, d, so within one a there would be like twenty kids, and the entire first grade was like eighty kids. You just kind of progressed, from the first grade to the sixth grade is what we called the junior school, so just in one location even though it was just down the street for grades seven to thirteen the whole campus was together.
PHIL: Your brother went to the same school?
NAREN: He did, yep, so he’s two years older than me so I would like see him in the cafeteria, you know I’d see him, would all have P.E. together.
PHIL: Is he currently in the U.S.?
NAREN: He lives in the U.S. he is two years older than me like I said, he went to Rochester institute of technology in upstate New York, he currently works for an IT company in Houston Texas.
PHIL: Do you want to talk a little bit about your parents?
NAREN: My dad has always been the man of the house. My mom was very well educated, she had her masters in accounting, it was an arranged marriage between my mom and my dad, so she moved to Ghana with him, and he continued his import and export business, he never stopped her from working, she tried to, but the standard of pay it was just not really worth it, if I go back home with my Drake degree, being in America for four years, all my experiences, I could go work for a bank and make 700-800 dollars a month, it doesn’t really matter it is just the standard of pay, so it was not really worth it for her, she wanted to also be a home-maker, so we loved having her. Dad worked really long days sometimes.
PHIL: Where did he work?
NAREN: He had his own company, it was called Bright Brothers limited imports and exports, general merchandise; footwear, glassware, towels, for the general Ghanaian population, he also had a storefront, basic retail, he imported from the U.S., and China, places like that. My mom helped with accounting, and office management stuff. They were both very involved in my life, you know like Indian parents, I don’t want to say sheltered, but they were really involved in everything and very supportive, with school, classes, any experiences, we did a lot of sports; karate, soccer, tennis. Obviously just like any parent here, you know driving us, supporting us, taping videos. Whereas, a lot of the local parents, like Ghanaian parents you didn’t see that, so that’s a big difference.
PHIL: Do you think that has something to do with the more Americanization of inner city Ghana? Sounds like there is some Westernized culture?
NAREN: It definitely is, compared to 1993 and my early childhood it was not like that at all, I went back home last December, and even as far as clothing wise, cause you brought this up, in the 1990s it was a lot of traditional, a lot of what they called kay-te-cloth (not right), shirt and trousers, now everyone is wearing; pull-ups, Nike, gap jeans, and everything, so it has really kind of taken off since 2008 since that mall, and a lot of foreign investment coming in, so it’s been a huge change for me personally.
PHIL: That’s crazy, I just thought about it when you were talking about it, it sounds very Americanized, even the schooling and everything. Is it that different from what you have experienced here?
NAREN: A little bit, just because it was the British standard, so a lot of like I said the math, science and computing.
PHIL: Why do you think that was the emphasis?
NAREN: I don’t know; it was just always when they were grooming us the subjects that everyone picked. Everyone from a young age was kind of groomed, and this is a lot of the international students, and their parents the kids I grew up with; Indian parents, Chinese, Japanese, a few European kids as well, Lebanese, sort of grooming us to be IT guys, lawyers, so not too much emphasis on the writing, or getting into music, so not much emphasis on the extra-curricular, it was really kind of solid; you are going to be a doctor, IT professional, so I definitely think that is why the emphasis was there.
PHIL: What was your ultimate goal, like when you were a kid?
NAREN: I have always really just wanted to work with my dad, it has always been a passion of mine, and for me to run my own business. I loved him being able to, and I think my dad was a very firm but fair boss, he was not afraid to tell somebody off or tell them they are doing something wrong. Going into his office since I was three or four all the way until I was eighteen, and even when I go back, he gives everyone their respect, he is just like the perfect salesmen. He never approached a conversation like I can sell you one thousand towels, he wanted to know about you, and that is something that I got from him with relationships. One thing he said was “you leave with your reputation”, you know he didn’t care if he made a million dollars over night or lost a million dollars over night, he wants people to say “Isha Bhojwani is a great guy, great dad, and a great businessman”, loved his like office thing, that is why I am pursuing business. I was an entrepreneurial management major at Drake, and I started my own company junior year, and it is still going strong, so that’s pretty cool. I currently work for a consulting firm downtown, so hopefully that stays strong too.
PHIL: Did he ever push that towards you, or that is just how you picked it up?
NAREN: No he never pushed it not at all, honestly both mom and dad wanted me to be a doctor, I tried, biology, I tried chemistry, it was never that I was like too bad, it was never an A, and never a D, it was always just kind of Bs and Cs, it was just something I wasn’t passionate about, initially with the teachers grooming us with science and math, they were saying what do you want to do out of the three big things; Doctor, Lawyer, IT professional, and I was always like I don’t want to be any of those I want to be like dad. It took them a step-back, but once they heard my reasoning, they were really supportive. Again my dad wanted me in the office for the summers, and I can’t tell you how much I have sold, I have sold the weirdest things. Anything from; glassware, shot glasses, generators, my dad at one time the sole supplier of black label alcohol, so I sold alcohol too, it was really fun. The thing that sold me on it too was my dad, even when he would be cussing out clients, people who are going to put in like one hundred and fifty, two hundred thousand dollar orders, and he would just be like, “hey don’t BS with me, hey don’t f with me, I am giving you a great deal”, and then they would come in and be high fiving, but that’s also just the culture, not that you could do that here in the states, but it almost like, with sales you buy into the person, and that was the thing with my dad, that is what I loved to see how he built relationships. It was pretty awesome.
PHIL: We can get into the idea of like Westernization, so when did you first come to America? And was that always kind of like the ultimate goal, you hear the “American Dream” a lot?
NAREN: Yeah I guess, initially it was never the case, growing up in a British school system, with the standard to go to England, or to Canada because there our results would translate a lot better, America really kind of became known in 2006 call it the World Cup, Barack Obama election coming up in 2008, a lot of foreign merchandise coming in as far as like; clothing, people coming in, the first like “iconic” thing I can remember was like, the KFC, and it was an Indian gentlemen who bought the franchise. That was really like taking a turn. Our school being from an international school, it was our counselors job to make sure we went to the right places, and they started in 2006-2007 really pushing kids to the U.S. It was kind of a domino effect, we knew older Indian kids, oh they went to Kings College in England, or oh he went to Waterloo College in Canada, then you start hearing this big transition of going to the U.S. Going to New York, the big cities. My counselor did a good job, and the school really backed it. Really started building relationships, from a ton of colleges and universities, and community colleges as well, and that really sparked our interests as well, in 2006 was the first time I visited the U.S. It was to visit my mom’s two brothers, they are both originally from, Jamaica, and they moved to the U.S. in the 90’s, because they own a suit company. Never really even heard about them but when we visited he texted my mom saying he would love to see us, and I can’t even tell you my first memory was we flew in to D.C. and then drove to Virginia, I am like 10 or 11, and my first big memory was Target. My favorite color is red, I have never seen a store that big, even though I was fortunate enough to visit India, you get through the doors and it’s like a one-stop shop, it blew me away. And then it blew me further away when he took me to a Wal-Mart, or an outlet mall. Once we got to see all this stuff in 2006 it really kind of set the stone on like this is somewhere we want to be. Came back in 2007 for his wedding, so not that much later, it really started in 2006, but growing up it was never on the radar.
PHIL: Was your brother going to school in America a big influence on that?
NAREN: Absolutely my brother always been the smarter one and the more hard-working one, he has always been kind of by the books, he is an IT guy, followed through on everything. He did the sciences he did the math’s, and he went to Rochester institute of technology for IT. The one thing I remember with my brother, which was kind of different, is we didn’t want to be like everybody else, and this is again kind of like our family. A lot of kids like hear New York, Florida, Chicago, Washington D.C., the big cities, mostly on the east coast of my entire school, I am the furthest west, people rarely go to the Mid-west unless it’s for the Chicago schools. We applied smarter, we talked a lot to the counselor, really understood the scholarship, and application process. You had kids that would apply to Yale, Harvard, and they knew they weren’t going to get in, it was a matter of like reputation. My brother picked smart, he picked places where he got the most scholarships. I knew I wanted to do business, I knew my family couldn’t afford 65,000 dollars a year. I knew it had a great business program, and everything was so personal and that is what was the difference.