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Welcome to Living Labels, where we look past preconceptions and listen to the human story behind the labels.

Sometimes I ask myself if certain people would have treated me differently if I had the same skin color as they have

PERSONAL DETAILS

Name: Shridhar Acharya
Date of birth: 8th of November 1987 (34 years old)
Place of Birth: Sambalpur, India
Job title: Global Account Director at Salesforce
Hobbies: mixing drinks

In this collection of personal stories, interviewees talk about the stereotypes they encounter in everyday life. Others are quick to attach labels to them, but often forget that a person cannot be summarized in one word. This is the story of Shridhar Acharya, Global Account Director at Salesforce. Originally from India, Shridhar has lived in multiple countries all around the world. He knows what it’s like to be part of a minority group in each of them. His response on how he labels himself is ‘Brown’. 

When I was asked to think about labels, I thought of many that could apply to me. One of them was ‘outsider’. I have lived in Singapore and now in the Netherlands, but I’m originally from India. I never felt different from others when I lived there. A large majority of Indians has a brown skin color like I have. Our eating habits are similar. But that changed when I moved across the border.

The first time I set foot out of India is when I moved to Singapore for a couple of months for an internship. I have to admit that I was a bit taken aback when I arrived. I had never seen anything like it. The buildings were tall, the streets were clean, there was a crazy assortment of things to buy and there were malls everywhere.

It was also the first time I saw this many people that looked different and think different from me. But I loved living there. Maybe I was a bit too swayed by the experience, but I did always have the feeling I wanted to see what’s outside of India. After that I definitely wanted to work abroad.

What was life in India like for you before that experience?

I might say a bit sheltered because of where I grew up. So I was born in Sambalpur, a city in an eastern Indian state. I think I lived there for just the first three months of my life. My mom and I moved to Mumbai where my dad worked at an atomic research center as a particle physicist. So Mumbai is a huge and busy city with a population of around 18 million people, but my experience of living there was different from others. That was because we lived in a colony that was associated with the center where my father worked. You can think of it like a small town within the bigger city of Mumbai. It was this super green area with lots of fields to play in. It had its own flats, grocery shops and schools. Very few people had access to this colony and residents would only leave for very specific items that you couldn’t get there or for school trips. So that’s what I meant when I said sheltered.

My grandparents were humble people who didn’t have a lot of money, so their first priority in life was having their children get a good education and having them excel at what they do.

But I had a great childhood in the colony. I played a lot of cricket and I was really into quizzing and trivia. Other than that I mostly focused on academics. I aimed to be in the top 3 of my class, anything less than that was not good enough for me. That was drilled into my head, partly because I come from an intellectually driven family. My grandparents were humble people who didn’t have a lot of money, so their first priority in life was having their children get a good education and having them excel at what they do. So my father was a scientist and all of my uncles were engineers. They made something of themselves and we were raised in the same manner. We were expected to study and get good results.

When I got older, I decided to pursue engineering. Because at the time you either became an engineer or a doctor if you wanted to be successful. Would I still choose to be an engineer if I looked back? Maybe I’d take a different decision. But I think it suited my skills as well. I was good at math and had an analytic mind.

After working hard at it I got into the computer science program at one of the better universities in the country. During my college days I found out that I enjoyed the extracurriculars a lot more than certain subjects, so I spent a lot of my time organizing festivals and getting sponsorships for them. At that period in time I never thought of myself as the most hard working and smartest person in the room. My grades were not terrible, but not the best either. I did have a great time though.

There’s a very competitive spirit in India. There are a lot of smart people and the general feeling is that if you don’t put in the hard work to reach the top, someone else will do so. When companies would come on campus to recruit, grade points would be one of the key filtering criteria. And I was definitely not on the wish list of the bigger tech companies. But that’s okay, that’s the choice I made. After getting my degree in computer science and engineering and working for a brief year, I went to business school and eventually landed a job at a top tier consulting firm. There was a period of time where I worked very hard, living out of a suitcase. The whole experience made me realize that I needed to take care of my health, balance work and my life and have time for myself.

It’s also a reason why I like living in the Netherlands as much as I do. I think for the Dutch work is a part of life, but not your entire life. In Singapore and India there is more emphasis on career and life is very fast paced. I was very used to that, but I have come to enjoy the Dutch way. There are small benefits that I haven’t thought of before and now I’m like ‘how did I not realize that earlier?’ Over here I can easily bike to work. I have time to go to the gym whenever I want. These aren’t things that I could do elsewhere. There I would spend a lot of precious hours commuting

What was your first impression of The Netherlands?

Well, Schiphol of course. But I stuck around in Amsterdam for a few days after my job interview so I could experience what it’s like and if I really wanted to live here. And I have to say, Amsterdam is hard not to fall in love with when you’re visiting as a tourist. I was there in June when the weather was beautiful and the city was so vibrant. I was enamored by it and I still am. When I walk past the canals at night I fall in love all over again. But imagine my surprise when I actually moved to the Netherlands and I temporarily stayed in Amstelveen. That city has a different pace of life than Amsterdam. I felt I would like to stay closer to the city to experience the life in Amsterdam a bit more. 

Making any deep friendships over here has proven to be very difficult though. It’s too bad, but it is what it is. I don’t blame anybody though. Maybe others would say I haven’t tried hard enough and that could be the case. I think Dutch people and Indian people are similarly set in their own ways. In both societies you grow up in your hometown, join a college and make a lot of friends for life in that period of time. I think that makes it harder for expats to be part of a Dutch circle, make Dutch friends and be invited to dinners with them, unless you have a Dutch partner. So most of my friends are fellow expats, at a similar stage in life as my wife and I.

A Dutch colleague said something interesting to me on this subject. He admitted that he’s not looking for friends at work. He keeps his personal life and his work life separate. That’s interesting, because it’s different in India. We’d work long hours after which we would grab some dinner together.

A Dutch colleague said something interesting to me on this subject. He admitted that he’s not looking for friends at work. He keeps his personal life and his work life separate. That’s interesting, because it’s different in India. We’d work long hours after which we would grab some dinner together. It’s the same set of people you work and hang out with, have a drink with and on weekends maybe watch a movie with. I found that a lot of Dutch people don’t think that way, but I personally really appreciate hanging out with my colleagues and consider some of them my friends.

I experienced a different Dutch culture shock when I invited a couple of those colleagues over for dinner. I ordered Indian food for them and told the chef to ease up on the spices. So we ate together and had a great time, but before they went home they asked me how much they owed. It didn’t make any sense to me at the time. They wanted to pay, but it doesn’t work like that in India. Generally if I invite you to dinner, it’s on me and you can return the favor by inviting me some other time. And if you don’t, you don’t. So I refused to take their money, and they were so happy with the hospitality that they gifted me a karaoke machine. I still have that machine and eventually my place became ‘the karaoke place’ for them. I have come to like the Dutch way of splitting bills though. It’s a very practical and mature manner of handling your finances. You can’t expect one person to foot the entire bill every time you go out with friends.

So we’ve talked about the label ‘Outsider’, but in the end you chose ‘Brown’. Why is that?

Well, first of all having a brown skin makes you stand out a bit in Dutch society. I’ve never felt directly racially discriminated against though. No one has ever said I wasn’t allowed to be somewhere because of the color of my skin. But there have been some negative experiences. Last summer I went to a bar in Amsterdam on a hot day, dressed in shorts. The guy at the door said they didn’t allow people in who wore shorts and I was okay with that. Makes sense, right? But the next thing I see is a white man wearing shorts walking in and they were very welcoming of him. Not really consistent I think. Other than that some people say I must be good with computers because I’m Indian. But that’s a stereotype I just laugh at, because I work in B2B enterprise software sales.

To me Salesforce has proven to be a company that champions diversity and tries to do right by its employees.

Sometimes I ask myself if certain people would have treated me differently if I had the same skin color as they have. My expat friends and I discuss it often and ask among ourselves if we will ever feel a part of Dutch society. Our general consensus is that we won’t fully become part of it, but if we learn to speak the Dutch language well enough at least we’ll be accepted. We understand that it’s the way things seem to work.

But I’ve never felt that way at any of the Dutch employers that I have worked for. To me Salesforce has proven to be a company that champions diversity and tries to do right by its employees. At first I was a bit worried because I was the only non-Dutch guy in our team, especially since I don’t speak Dutch. But they trusted me and told me that it was no problem that I only spoke English. They just thought I had the chops to do it. The fact that a brown guy who doesn’t speak Dutch gets to manage big global accounts speaks volumes. It’s proof that there’s no glass ceiling in the company that you have to break through.

I think it helps that our team is multicultural. I never felt treated differently or judged because of the color of my skin at employers that had an international character and a lot of cultural diversity in their team. So I try to champion the importance of diversity within my own team as well. I’m well aware of the fact that we have too many men in my team, for example. I’m in conversations internally about this. I want the funnel in the selection process to be wide enough to have a proper representation of society. Simply because I look at my wife and I and the way we look at things differently. There are times when I think the way she wants to do things won’t work. And then I’m completely wrong. So I think that when you have a lot of different backgrounds, you get different ideas which leads to better decision-making.

I do think that some companies tell others too easily that they focus on diversity and inclusion. They just simply promote some people here and there and think they are done with it.

I do think that some companies tell others too easily that they focus on diversity and inclusion. They just simply promote some people here and there and think they are done with it. But when you talk the talk, you have to walk the walk. You have to approach a lack of diversity as a problem that you have to solve. And I feel that Salesforce is doing that. I know for example that we have diversity targets at Salesforce for the higher ups that can affect their salary when they don’t achieve them. I think that’s the right thing to do. If your pay depends on it, a change in behavior will come eventually.

Are you planning on staying in The Netherlands?

I don’t know if we’ll settle here. I came to Amsterdam with a three year plan. That became a five year plan. And now I’ve lived here for seven years. My wife and I even bought an apartment here. But part of me worries that we’re getting too comfortable and that we should work hard while we’re physically able to. Our decision depends on a couple of things though. In the past year I’ve applied for Dutch citizenship and my wife is thinking about doing the same. That will play a part as well. I did have some difficult conversations with my parents because I’d have to give up my Indian nationality. But I assured them that I’m well aware that I was born and raised Indian. Even though I might integrate into Dutch society, that will always be a part of my identity.

I value balance in my life and my relationships a lot more than I used to.

I do feel living in the Netherlands has formed a new part of my identity. I value balance in my life and my relationships a lot more than I used to. Will I ever be a hundred percent Dutch? Never. But I want to integrate to the extent that the Dutch society will let me and conform to the rules. I’ve enjoyed living here. Things are very predictable and reliable. The metro’s mostly on time. Everything works in a smooth manner and that is something good to get used to.

I’ve made my peace with being seen as different in Dutch society and the labels others might place on me. Not everybody is the same. And I think that’s the best part of living here.

Curious to see the other stories?

Interview by Navin Bhagwat | Photography & Design by Sacha Verheij

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