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Board Member Spotlights

Heetesh Patel

My parents Dahyabhai and Kailas Patel were immigrants to the USA in the mid 1970s with very little understanding of the culture or language of this country. My father was a farmer from a small town in Gujarat, India. At an early age his grandfather instilled the importance of education and how education could open up great opportunities. He did not have regular electricity in his home and up until the age of 16 didn’t own a pair of shoes. Despite the financial disadvantages, my father focused on his education and graduated at the top of his high school class.  He then went on to college and graduated number 2 with a degree in Engineering. The American Dream was still an unknown, but was something that would be worth the sacrifice. My parents married in 1975 in England and shortly thereafter immigrated to USA looking for a better life.  My father followed his grandfather’s advice to continue his education and graduated with his Master’s Degree in Engineering and at the same time operated a 15 room motel in Los Angeles. In 1981, our family purchased a motel in middle Tennessee. I lived at the motel until I was 18 years old. This experience gave me the opportunity to learn firsthand from my parents how to operate a business while allowing both my sister and I to grow in an environment in which we were taught how to work for our own American Dream.  

One of the most difficult tasks that immigrant parents face is the ability to continue their native culture and in our case, religion, in a place that seems foreign. My parents tried their best to instill both Indian culture and religious Hindu practices so that we both are able to appreciate our ancestors and upbringing. Even though I was born in the USA, my first language was Gujarati, the native tongue from the state of Gujarat in India. My accent was still very prominent until my early teenage years.   I grew up with friends whose parents and grandparents had never knew anyone from outside the local area. To them, meeting a person whose parents immigrated from India was entirely a new experience. I spent most of my social life trying to assimilate and understand the American culture.

At the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, I began my personal journey to better understand my Indian heritage and Hindu religion. Growing up, I didn’t interact with a lot of Indian-Americans, but going to college in Knoxville allowed me the opportunity to meet other second generation Indian-Americans that shared a similar story to my own. In fact, I attended UT when the campus Indian American Association was formed and I went on to serve as its President. During my undergraduate years, I gained enormous appreciation and curiosity about my culture because I began to read and research more about my heritage.

After finishing my undergraduate degree in Hotel and Restaurant Administration, I moved back to middle Tennessee and worked with my parents in the family business-hotels! The hospitality industry has allowed my family to assimilate to the American Culture along with living at the same place as our business! To this day, I relate best to this industry as I have been fortunate to see it change so much over the years.

I decided to go back to school after a few years of working in the hospitality industry to get my MBA. I moved to Atlanta, GA and obtained my MBA from Emory University. I married my wife, Dimpal, while at Emory University.  After completing my MBA, we moved to Knoxville. I have been very fortunate to venture into several types of industries since I have moved back to Knoxville such as hotels, restaurants, healthcare, start-up ventures and the film industry.

My time is now divided amongst my work, along with volunteering my time to the local Hindu Community Center, serving as the Regional Director to the Asian American Hotel Owners Association, and serving on a local and national nonprofit board. Most importantly I spend as much time as possible with my daughter, Anjali, and our family.  To say that I have been very fortunate to be a product of the “American Dream” is an understatement.  My parents worked and sacrificed while giving my sister and I a loving home so that one day we would continue on to create our own paths. They were able to create an atmosphere in which we were able to grow up as Americans while still honoring our Indian background.

Traveling to India has helped me to stay grounded to my family roots and remain steadfast to my principles. Our family believes that one should honor one’s journey. While in India, we try to improve the lives of those around my father’s hometown.  Whether it is funding a small grocery shop or providing book bags for the children, our goal is to help them make the most of their lives.

I have been a member of the Board of Visitors for a few years and I have greatly enjoyed the opportunity to meet many wonderful people. I look forward to contributing my time and efforts to the Religious Studies department and am excited to see it grow.

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