Hemant and Rohini Rustogi's eyes welled with tears as they cruised toward Staten Island and the Statue of Liberty.
The trip crystallized their 20-year journey from educators in India to successful entrepreneurs in the United States.
"I get goose bumps just thinking about it," Hemant said.
In 1985, Hemant traveled from New Delhi to Los Angeles to enroll in a graduate program at Chapman University. Five years later, after earning a doctoral degree at Southern Illinois University, Rohini joined him in the United States. They came to Tampa so Hemant could teach marketing and business at the University of Tampa.
Now Hemant is a tenured professor and owns his own consulting firm. Rohini operates the Brandon Montessori and Riverview Montessori schools.
Over lunch at Chili's, we talked about their passion for education and the American dream they have pursued.
Pull up a chair and join us.
ERNEST: What was it like when you first came to the United States?
HEMANT: I had my tuition and board paid for one semester, and I had two suitcases and $50 in my pocket. And I was in Los Angeles, to boot. And Rohini, you joined him here in 1990?
ROHINI: Yes. I was very excited. It was hard leaving home, hard leaving my family. It took me a long time to adjust, but I wanted to be the very best I can. I knew there were a lot more opportunities here than in India. How did you end up starting a Montessori school?
ROHINI: He encouraged me to do something with my life rather than just stay at home and raise children. That's how I got into doing my Montessori training. In India, I was actually a teacher. When I came here, I wanted to have a career where I could kill two birds with one stone. I had a young child, we didn't have much money and I wanted to do some kind of work where I could take my daughter to work with me. So I ended up working for several Montessori schools, but I always had a dream that I wanted to open up my own Montessori school. How difficult was it getting the school opened.
ROHINI: We took our little business plan to a couple of banks and people laughed at us because we didn't have very much money. There was one bank in the Brandon area called the Platinum Bank, and the CEO, Jerry Kyle, bought into our vision. You had a couple of banks laugh at you? How did you keep going?
HEMANT: You never say die. How do you quit?
ROHINI: We're very persistent.
HEMANT: The one thing we teach our students is the importance of passion. It's not about money. Have we been handsomely rewarded for our efforts? Absolutely, and God has been very kind to us. That being said, at no point in this process did we say, 'Let's build a school to make a lot of money.' It's about living out your dreams. It sounds like passion is very important to you.
HEMANT: That's it. Money follows passion. Everything follows passion. If you don't have a passion for what you do in your life, you need to discover it.
ROHINI: I'm a Type A (personality). Work is worship.
HEMANT: It's not just work. I'm the worst golfer, but I have a passion for the game. I love the game.
What amazes you most about your journey? It sounds like you really appreciate the opportunities you've had.
ROHINI: Yes. I think I'm very proud to be an American and very blessed.
HEMANT: America is an amazing country. Most people don't realize the opportunity that is there before them because they have never seen the lack of opportunity. We've seen the poverty. Now I just pinch myself and go, 'Wow.' There are not a lot of countries that you can go to and start from scratch and in 20 years make a good life for yourself.
I think people who were fortunate to be born here don't always realize the opportunities they have.
HEMANT: It's not about being American or Indian. It's a human tendency, but I'm just sick and tired of the naysayers. People always tell you why something cannot be done. The best way to get us to do something is tell us we can't do it.
DESSERT: A postscript from Ernest
Hemant and Rohini are big believers in the Montessori philosophy, which incorporates a hands-on, holistic approach that employs all five senses. The founders of Google, Hemant noted, credit their Montessori education.
The Rustogis, of Valrico, also are engaged in charitable efforts. A number of deserving kids are on scholarship at her schools, Rohini, said, and she estimates she has raised more than $30,000 for various causes such as the American Cancer Society and Everyday Blessings. Hemant operates a nonprofit group that teaches business skills to at-risk kids, including girls from Stepping Stone Farm.
Ernest Hooper also writes a column for the Tampa Bay section. Reach him at email@example.com or 226-3406.