The night before Sunil Puri’s father passed away, at the age of 94, he called his son to say goodbye. Speaking by phone from Mumbai, India, the retired yarn-trader offered a few final words of advice to his son, a multimillionaire property developer and business owner. Puri’s father urged him to embrace the United States and give back to his adopted home of Rockford, Ill. “Water the flowers where you smell the roses,” the old man told his son.
It’s a message that Puri, who left India in 1979 to study accounting at Rockford University, has taken to heart. Arriving in Illinois at 18, with just $150 in his pocket, Puri emptied bedpans in a nursing home to pay his way through college. After graduating and being sponsored for a green card by his brother, a U.S. citizen, he started a hugely successful real estate and property management company.
As president and owner of First Midwest Group, Puri now has over 350 commercial tenants, including warehouses, restaurants and major retailers, and has created thousands of jobs for Americans in Illinois and beyond. Most of Puri’s business interests are concentrated in the Midwest, but he has built a sprawling business empire, which includes the successful Road Ranger chain of truck stops, and has done development work as far afield as California and Florida.
And while Puri has been a successful businessman, he has never forgotten his father’s words, and has constantly sought to give back to his new home. Puri serves as a trustee at Rockford University, where he recently donated $5 million to establish the Puri School of Business; co-founded the Keeling-Puri Peace Plaza, a tranquil 2.5-acre park promoting diversity and global harmony; and donated $2.25 million to fund the launch of the Puri Family YMCA in southeast Rockford. He also spends hundreds of hours a year working on the Rockford Public Schools budget and operations committees, and was President Obama’s appointee to the White House Commission on Asian-American affairs. “I’ve tried to give back as much as I can,” Puri says. “Not just money, but also time and talent.”
The vast majority of immigrants are full of gratitude, and want to participate and contribute.
Ultimately, that is “the real genius of America,” Puri says—that the country is a meritocracy where an immigrant can arrive with nothing, make something of themselves, and make significant contributions to their new home. “Most immigrants are very parochial, and feel a great sense of obligation to the hometowns where they arrive and prosper,” Puri says. “The vast majority of immigrants are full of gratitude, and want to participate and contribute.”
And small-town America badly needs immigrants. The best and brightest U.S.-born young people in communities like Rockford are increasingly migrating to major cities. This causes a “severe talent shortage” across the country, says Puri, but it is a problem that could be mitigated through the responsible use of immigrant workers, who tend to be perfectly willing to move into rural and suburban communities. “I’ve definitely looked at bringing in talented people who would appreciate coming to suburbia,” Puri says.
Puri says the urgent need for talent, especially in smaller communities, makes it all the more perplexing that foreign college students aren’t given more opportunities to build careers in the United States. Especially in the case of foreign undergraduate or graduate students in STEM fields, it is all but guaranteed that young, educated immigrants will prove immensely valuable to their new country. “Why do I belong here any more than they do?” Puri asks. “In this global environment, they can compete anywhere—why would we want to send them away, and have them compete against us?”