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Immigrants from India began coming to the United States in large numbers in the 1960s. They had to start from the ground up. And for a lot, that turned out to be the motel business. Today, Indians own roughly half of the motels in the United States, and 70 percent of those motel proprietors can trace their heritage to one state in India - Gujarat. Reporter Alexandra Starr looked into the history of Gujaratis in the hospitality sector.
ALEXANDRA STARR, BYLINE: In midtown Manhattan, you can find the high-rise luxury hotel 48Lex.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Good afternoon, ma'am, how may I help you?
STARR: Between 6 and 7, complimentary wine is offered in the lounge.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Here you are. Enjoy. You're welcome.
STARR: This is one of 52 hotels owned by Hersha Hospitality Trust. Jay H. Shah is the CEO of the company.
JAY H. SHAH: My father named the company after my mother. Hersha is my mom's name.
STARR: Like a lot of second-generation Gujaratis in the hospitality business, Shah built the company up from modest origins. One of his family's first properties was the Red Rose Motel in rural Pennsylvania. It had just 23 rooms. Shah and his family lived behind the lobby.
SHAH: There were a lot of chores to do. There was a lot of grass to cut. We'd skim the pool in the morning.
STARR: Shah's father was an electrical engineer, but he'd always wanted to be an entrepreneur. That was common in the Gujarati community, according to Pawan Dhingra. He's the chair of the sociology apartment at Tufts University.
PAWAN DHINGRA: They have a long tradition of working for themselves rather than working for someone else.
STARR: The fact that so many Gujaratis became motel proprietors is something of a historical accident. It started with Kanjibhai Desai, an undocumented Gujarati immigrant who bought a motel in San Francisco in the early 1940s. As Dhingra explains, his example inspired Indians who came afterwards.
DHINGRA: Some of the pioneers stayed at his hotel where they got the idea of pooling their resources to run one themselves.
STARR: Gujaratis really began buying motels after 1965. That's the year the U.S. government began allowing in more people from developing nations. Now there are nearly four million people of Indian descent living here.
JAN DEROOS: They really did change franchising.
STARR: That's Jan deRoos who teaches at Cornell's School of Hotel Administration. He says Gujaratis played a huge role in the expansion of Best Westerns and Days Inns across the country. That's because they were willing to relocate to out-of-the-way places like Canton, Miss., or Plainville, Ohio.
DEROOS: Every small community in America today has a hotel or two as a result of this community taking some business risk in establishing a hotel.
STARR: Being the only Indian immigrants in these isolated communities could be tough. Binita Patel's parents owned hotels in North Carolina in the 1980s.
BINITA PATEL: It was hard. I mean, I remember someone pulling their window down and yelling, go back to your own country, as we were walking home.
STARR: Gujarati families, though, stuck it out. And they did innovative things to make their motels profitable. They started the now-common practice of placing a washer and dryer in the room behind the lobby. That way the person working at the front desk at night would have the sheets and towels ready for the next day. They also economized by doing a lot of the upkeep themselves. Patel and her brother were in charge of vacuuming her parents' Holiday Inn on the weekends.
PATEL: We would vacuum as a team because neither one of us was strong enough to push the entire vacuum on our own.
STARR: As she got older, she graduated to running some of her family's properties. And now, as an adult, Patel wants to take the business to the next level. She takes inspiration from her friend and fellow second-generation Gujarati, Jay H. Shah. Hersha Hospitality Trust, which began with that modest motel in Pennsylvania, is now a $2.5 billion company. For NPR News, I'm Alexandra Starr in New York.
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