• Links to Oral History Sessions: Airi, Shashi (June 16, 2020)


            Shashi Airi of Hamilton, New Jersey, shares in his interview his story of self-cultivation and dedication.  Airi was born in New Delhi, India in 1962 to Punjabi parents and grew up traveling often due to his father’s job with the Indian government.  Reflecting on his childhood, he acknowledges that his frequent moves gave him a sense of adventure and helped him become a more adaptive adult.  As a child, Airi enjoyed being active with friends as well as his brother, and enjoyed the minimalistic culture that existed in India at the time.  Looking back to his childhood, Airi fondly recalls the cultural harmony that existed in his area and allowed children of all backgrounds to play, eat at each other’s houses, and return home safely at the end of the day.

            Considering his education, Airi recalls the pressure to become a doctor, engineer, or lawyer, and realizing none of these choices were the right fit for him.  In college, he attended classes while honing his skills in creative writing in the Urdu language, which he appreciated for its poetic beauty and recalled as his father’s primary language.  Unsure of his career plans after earning his Master’s in Business Administration, Airi found himself in marketing and the Life Insurance Corporation of India, where he would discover a talent for speaking and soon make his name.

            Three months after joining the Life Insurance Corporation of India, Airi had sold nothing.  In the next six months, he became the top producer in the branch, and by year’s end became the top producer in the office.  In the fourth year with the company, he became the top producer in India, becoming a kind of celebrity and even appearing on television to speak about his achievements.  Asked for the secret to his success, Airi explains that anyone who doesn’t quit and does something time and time again can become an expert at it, and that he gained a level of expertise in talking to potential customers and making sales. Not only did Airi find success as a door-to-door salesman, he also thought outside the box and networked in airport lounges, opening up the opportunity for over a thousand sales to pilots and flight attendants alone.

            Having experience in travel from his childhood, Airi considered the role of destiny in his leaving India for work elsewhere.  First, he traveled to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia with the Life Insurance Corporation of India, with the intention of coming back to India.  Airi reflects that while living in Saudi Arabia was difficult for the average non-Muslim, he had a leg-up through the company’s connection with the Saudi Arabian royal family.  After a year and a half, Airi spent ten months in tumultuous Kenya assisting a friend with his company, before returning to India. 

            In India, Airi found himself returning to a country in the midst of a cultural shift, explaining that a rift between Muslims and Hindus had formed by the mid 1980s.  Using his platform as a lecturer, he began to speak on cultural harmony and peace, stopping only after narrowly missing a bullet when he was shot at during a lecture.  Realizing the danger of his surroundings, he decided to leave India, immigrating to Canada.  In Canada, Airi furthered his career in insurance, working for the Transamerica Corporation.  Later, he would choose to move to the United States, where he would shift gears to work with a friend in hospitality.

            After moving to New Jersey, where his wife, Sowmini was from, Airi moved his focus to the non-profit sphere, where he became the President of the board for Enable, an organization that focuses on helping individuals with disabilities.  He continued this work by creating Smarana International, a similar non-profit, which would help individuals in countries where stigma kept people with disabilities in the dark.  This work was inspired by his wife, with whom he conducts this work, and his stepson.  He considers his family his motivator.  Airi is involved in multiple similar civic groups, and enjoys spending his time helping others, from people with disabilities to senior citizens.

            From being an exceptional salesperson in the insurance sector, to extending a hand to those in need, Airi’s story shows the value of perseverance and the extent to which strong morals and adaptation can help any person cultivate themselves to find success and improve the lives of those around them.

The Rutgers Oral History Archives received an operating support grant from the New Jersey Historical Commission, a division of the Department of State. In the 2023-2024 cycle, this grant assisted the ROHA staff in making this oral history available to you for your use.