Immigrant Turned Successful Businessman Invests In The Middle
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
We're going to meet a man now, a real estate developer from Rockford, Ill. He came to this country with $150 in his pocket. He's now one of the most influential businessmen in northern Illinois. The path he took in the U.S. helps explain his view of what it means to be an American. And we're hearing his story as part of our election year series A Nation Engaged. Here's Susan Stephens of member station WNIJ.
SUSAN STEPHENS, BYLINE: When you step into Sunil Puri's corner office on the top floor of one of his buildings on the east side of Rockford, Ill., the first thing you notice is not the wall-to-wall view of the rolling golf course. It's the pictures on the walls.
SUNIL PURI: I mean everything from Fidel up there to when the president was visiting my mom back in Bombay.
STEPHENS: Every inch of wall space is covered with framed 8-by-10s of familiar faces, mostly recent presidents smiling alongside Puri and his family.
PURI: This is us at the Y2K night when the kids were so little, and they've got their little tuxedoes on.
STEPHENS: They're the trophies of a fortune earned over three decades as a developer here and a testament to a fortune spent backing his favorite politicians and local charities. The 56-year-old with the brushed-back black hair looks the part of the successful businessman dressed in a dark conservative suit with a slightly less conservative tie, smiling and talking a mile a minute. He's come a long way since 1979 when he left Mumbai right after high school to visit family here in the Rockford area.
PURI: I just was one of those rebels who believed in the promise called America. And not with much permission from my parents, with very limited funds and resources, ended up coming to America.
STEPHENS: Puri stayed and he worked every job he could from pouring concrete to cleaning nursing home bedpans to put himself through the accounting program at Rockford University. He says he was warmly embraced here by elderly Swedes who helped him with his English, by families who included him in their holiday celebrations, by fellow students who wanted to learn more about his culture.
PURI: These were people who opened up their homes and their arms and their hearts to immigrants. And what has happened? Why are we so xenophobic all of a sudden? That's what made America great. That welcoming is what has built bridges far greater than any money, power or weapons can ever buy. It's people.
STEPHENS: Puri we won't talk about his preferences in this presidential election. A glance at the office photos shows him posing with Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. Campaign contribution records show donations to Democrats, Republicans and independents.
Sunil Puri wants America's next president to focus on bolstering the middle class by investing in what he calls the country's biggest strength. It's young people. He says being an American is about doing your part for your own community. For the wealthy, that means being compassionate.
PURI: You're not going to be taking this money to the Moon or to the Mars. You're still going to be sharing the same Earth with the same people that also deserve to have a decent lifestyle.
STEPHENS: Puri believes strongly in investing in the middle, the middle class, the middle of the country, the political middle with the hopes more people will get the same chance he got as an immigrant here 37 years ago. For NPR News, I'm Susan Stephens.
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