Breaking Barriers: Bhavdeep Singh Reflects on Searching for a Job as a Turbaned Teen in the 1980s
Bhavdeep Singh, a successful senior executive, angel investor and public speaker, is a Founding Partner at WHA Partners & Whitehawk Associates LLC, an independent business management consultancy and was most recently, Chairman and Co-Founder of HealthQuarters in New York City. Prior to HealthQuarters, Bhavdeep has been the CEO of several large organizations around the world.
However, this is not another profile piece on a senior business executive. No, this is about a young immigrant, looking to “belong” and “fit in” at a time when it wasn’t very easy to do so.
Looking back on coming of age as a new immigrant to the United States, Singh shares his experience of searching for a job as a 17-year-old Sikh young man with a turban on his head in the 1980s in White Plains, New York. Bhavdeep starts by reminding us that the 80’s represented a time when people in the states were just starting to understand diversity and things didn’t always go down well when you looked different and especially, when you wore your difference with a turban on your head.
Despite facing obstacles due to his appearance, Singh initiated a search for a job and eventually landed one at a grocery store called Shopwell. He shares the details of his interview with the store manager and how he got his nickname, “Alibaba.”
So, here is his story as told by him.
“It was the 1980s, and the summer was coming to an end for the Singh family in White Plains, New York. College was approaching, and I needed a job. My parents wanted me to attend SUNY Purchase, a nearby state college that was pretty good and quite importantly, was less expensive than other options. “Nearby” and “cheap” were important words for the Singh family back then, and made my mother (nearby) and father (cheap) very happy. However, I didn’t get into SUNY Purchase and the only schools that accepted me were a couple of private universities in the area, and to be honest, none of them were very impressive. One such option was Pace University, where I did go, but the annual tuition was $3000 a year vs $1000 at SUNY. However, as I just mentioned, I didn’t get in to the less expensive and nearby option. And financially, we were your basic middle to lower middle class New York family, so, while Ammi and Daddy never said it, I knew I had to get a job to help pay for my tuition.
So, it was time for me to get a job. Back then we didn’t have online job postings as we do now. Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn, was probably only 8 or 9 years old at the time and likely playing wiffle ball with a young Michael Dell.
I began my job search by checking the “help wanted” ads in the Reporter Dispatch, our local newspaper, and visiting nearby businesses to see if there were any job openings available. Our home in White Plains was a 30-minute walk from downtown, but I didn’t let the distance deter me. In late August, just as summer was ending, I embarked on an aggressive job search and walked downtown every day to look for work. Downtown White Plains was centered around Main Street and Mamaroneck Ave, where you could find popular stores like Sears, Macy’s, and Woolworth, fast-food chains like McDonald’s, local offices, a police station, Baskin Robins, four pizza places, and a couple of grocery stores. In the United States at that time, a city’s worth was often determined by the ratio of pizza places to grocery stores. As you may have guessed, White Plains had that part figured out.
So, I began applying to every local store and restaurant, as well as walking into random offices. However, it’s important to note that this was the 80s, and diversity wasn’t yet a household word in the United States. As a 17-year-old kid with a turban on my head, it was a lot like a pretty woman looking for a job, as both of us were often judged based on our appearance rather than our abilities. The interviewers had no interest in who I was and whether I had any skills – in my case, they were simply fixated on my turban and wondering what was underneath it (now you understand the woman analogy, right?). To make matters worse, I was also a ridiculously shy and insecure kid with a turban on my head, which didn’t help my case. Consequently, in most places where I applied, the managers or interviewers would look at me with a sense of wonder or disgust and quickly usher me out.
A few days into my job search, I stumbled upon a local grocery store called Shopwell on Main Street in White Plains. The store had a big “HELP WANTED” sign on the window, so I decided to apply for the stock boy position. After waiting for about 45 minutes, the store manager, Bernie Schmidt, gestured for me to come toward him. Bernie Schmidt was probably in his 40s at the time and was a tall, imposing figure and while it probably wasn’t true, it felt like he always had a cigarette in his hand. Bernie then conducted a brief interview that consisted of three questions: whether I spoke English, if I could get to the store, and when I could start. I answered yes to all three, and to my surprise, he immediately called the bookkeeper and told her to “Get Alibaba an application.” And just like that, I had a job!
It’s worth noting that if an employer were to call someone Alibaba today, we would have live feeds to CNN, and all sorts of noise would have been created. However, back then, people were more concerned with getting a job than what they were called. And when i say “people,” I mean me.
I went home that day and couldn’t wait to tell my parents that I had been hired and had a job. Mind you, this wasn’t my first job, as I had already had some success cutting lawns, delivering newspapers, and even working the night shift at a movie theatre (where I was fired). However, this time, it felt a bit more real. My parents were very proud, and I told my mother that the people at the store were all very nice (code for not being thrown out), and she was naturally very proud of her son.
Once I started working at the store, I quickly realized that the life of a stockboy wasn’t all that glamorous, and I wasn’t sure if I was cut out for sweeping floors, cleaning bathrooms, and unloading trucks for a grocery store. But I told myself that this was just temporary and that I would eventually get a “real job.” I mean, I was obviously not going to walk the aisles of a grocery store for the rest of my life. Yeah, a real job was around the corner, for sure!
Well, “temporary” turned out to be somewhat permanent as I ended up staying at the company for 15 plus years and eventually became President of the Company.
And as far as being treated fairly, over time, as people got to know me, I was treated quite fairly and I was also shown a great deal of respect for my religion, my physical appearance (still the guy with a turban) and my beliefs.
Fast forward, some 30-plus years have gone by, and I suspect the search for a “real job” will start soon.”