For the past two weeks, Prerna Gupta has been performing a balancing act. The founder and CEO of Hooked, a mobile media app, has been figuring out how to keep her company’s operations running as employees based in India struggle with the country’s outbreak of COVID-19—all the while worrying about her own New Delhi- and Mumbai-based extended family.
“People are getting sick, people are having to super-quarantine again,” says Gupta, whose husband is an Indian classical musician and also has a broad network of family and colleagues throughout India. “We’ve had many family members who have gotten COVID. That’s been happening over the year, but there’s been a sudden uptick.” According to the BBC, India has reached 200,000 COVID deaths, with many more suspected to be unreported, and 300,000 new infections every day for a week. The country’s health care system is “close to collapse,” per CNN.
While families scattered around the world have faced similar worries for more than a year now—unsure how to help without the ability to fly across the globe or find access to care from an overburdened health care system—the timing of this outbreak is particularly brutal. Just as India faces one of the world’s worst coronavirus spikes, Indian Americans are living in a country eager to reopen amid a largely successful vaccination campaign.
“On the one hand, you feel like, ‘Wow, it’s over,’ and free,” says Gupta. “Then the next day, you hear all this crazy stuff is happening in India.” For Indian American founders who employ staff in the country, there’s the added layer of worrying not just about family and friends but also about employees. “The infrastructure is really different in India, and being able to go into the office is much, much more important to have access to high-speed Internet and reliable electricity,” adds Gupta. “When a lockdown happens, we have to be understanding and adjust our expectations of when work gets done.”
That’s a challenge facing companies of all sizes. Gap Inc., led by CEO Sonia Syngal, is one of few Fortune 500–size businesses run by a South Asian chief executive (Syngal was born in India, grew up in Canada, and is a U.S. citizen). While Gap declined to provide a statement from Syngal, the company offered a statement on behalf of the business: “We have almost 1,000 Gap Inc. employees in India, and our hearts go out to them for the devastating effects of this pandemic the world over,” the company said, citing its support for India-based employees through medical insurance, sick leave, and an eventual vaccine task force.
Payal Kadakia, the founder of the fitness platform ClassPass, is another Indian American female founder juggling these feelings. The L.A.-based Kadakia has a large network of family, including grandparents and cousins, in Mumbai and its surrounding villages. “They’re just scared,” she says. “If something happened with other health problems, where would they go?”
Seema Bansal, cofounder of the florist business Venus Et Fleur, wants to raise awareness about how Americans can support India right now. “It deeply saddens me to see such a beautiful country and people struggle with the complexities of managing a pandemic with a massive population who live and work so closely together,” she says. “As Indian Americans we are doing all that we can to use our voice and resources to support, educate, donate, and raise awareness of the worsening COVID crisis in India.”
As much as these founders are eager to support family and friends through this crisis, they also feel a responsibility to sound the alarm in the U.S. “It feels like a replay of what happened when we first started hearing about China—people thinking, ‘Oh, it’s so far away, and it’s never going to get here,’” says Gupta. “I hope we learned something from that. We are all connected.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify that GAP CEO Sonia Syngal is a U.S. citizen.
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