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Indian American on list of top 40 young business achievers

April 09, 2008 14:20 IST

Receiving hate mail has never really worried Saru Jayaraman, a professor and an advocate for low-wage restaurant workers, who was recently named to Crain's annual '40 under 40' list.

"I sometimes feel threatened," Jayaraman told the business weekly. "But I can take the potshots if it helps us to advance".

One of the most profiled New York labour leaders, Jayaraman must have been surprised to be on the annual list of 40 people who are recognised by the magazine for having 'achieved tremendous success in business in New York before turning 40'.

The annual listing has appeared since 1991.

As the magazine pointed out, the Yale and Harvard-educated lawyer was being hailed for co-founding the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York to help former employees of Windows on the World get back to work after September 11, 2001.

The non-profit organisation is also dedicated to fighting labour law violations in the city's restaurant industry, and has won legal battles against prestigious restaurants. Some of them were held accountable for holding back workers' tips or blatant racial discrimination.

Jayaraman, who is in her early thirties, has been planning in recent months to organise restaurant workers' unions across America. She is among less than a dozen Indian Americans, including taxi drivers' advocate Bhairavi Desai, who are in the trade union movement.

Crain's recalled how Jayaraman's battles with powerful restaurateurs like 'Daniel Boulud' and 'Alan Stillman' have netted workers $5,80,000 in back pay.

'Helping the disadvantaged is more than a professional calling for Ms Jayaraman, whose passion was shaped by the struggles of her parents --  immigrants from India who worked hard to achieve financial success -- and those of her Mexican-American high school friends in Los Angeles,' the magazine added.

Crain's choices are not easy. Over the course of three months, it said in a statement, its reporters and editors studied 500 nominees on professional success, community service, and participation in trade groups.

The final list included people like Phil Shawe, co-founder of TransPerfect, who started the language services company in a New York University dorm room in 1992 with his business partner Elizabeth Elting, and guided it to become a global leader in the field with over $156 million in annual revenue in 2007.

Jayaraman has said though she went to Harvard and Yale, she was always conscious of her social commitments. 'I didn't find a way to channel my anger at injustice until college,' she told the magazine.

Her activism started at the University of California, Los Angeles, where she established a mentoring programme for women of colour that is now in 11 cities and which won praise from former president Bill Clinton.

ROC United co-director Fekkak Mamdouh told Crain's that Jayaraman's national initiative to organise restaurant workers has provoked much interest. "Saru is a visionary," he said. "If you put something in her hands, she will make it happen".

Jayaraman looks at her movement as an empowering tool and she plans to get the workers to start cooperative restaurants.

'Our challenge to capitalism is not simply building alternative institutions, but actually, over time, through several cooperative restaurants, developing new owners -- who would otherwise act as agents of capitalism -- who will infiltrate the New York State Restaurant Association,' she told Samar magazine, 'and ultimately co-opt it for worker's rights'.

Politicising workers and future cooperative owners through bi-weekly political education sessions is a key component of the movement, she says.

"We are also asking them to think critically on everything from the war in Iraq and Palestinians' rights, to capitalism and globalisation," she says.
Arthur J Pais in New York