Punit grew up in Nairobi, Kenya, in what he calls “a humble upbringing in a traditional Indian family.” The Patels are Hindu. His dad owned an aeronautical services business at a private airport. Punit attended an IB program (similar to AP). When he was 16, his art teacher took his class to meet a “famous Kenyan architect,” Mehraz Ehsani. (Design nut that I am, I checked Ehsani out. He’s pretty impressive. mehrazehsani.me)
Punit’s teacher noticed all the questions he was asking. For a school project, she suggested he design a house and create a model. A family friend, a design student, taught him how to “make a flow plan and consider spaces and experiences.” Seeing his enthusiasm, his teacher suggested he apply to art schools in the US, including Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, FL.
Were his parents in favor?
“Hell, no. Either I was supposed to take over the family business or go into medicine. We have 25 doctors in our family.”
Punit kept pleading with his parents. “For almost 3 years, I tried to persuade them.” Eventually, he secretly applied to Ringling. For several months he heard nothing. That summer, when his parents were traveling, he called. Did the college receive his application? Yes, he was told. He’d been accepted months ago. The letter must have been lost in the mail.
6 weeks later, Punit arrived in Sarasota. His plane was late. He missed orientation. At 2am, a taxi drove him, and his 2 suitcases, to campus. Luckily he came across a resident assistant who directed him to his dorm.
At 19, Punit says, “I went from being a child to a man in 2 days.” His roommate turned out to be from Indonesia and spoke no English. “We were the only international kids without parents. We didn’t even have bed sheets.
“Adjusting to a different culture was hard,” he says. But he made friends. A fellow student took him to Walmart, showed him how to do laundry. Another invited him to dine often with her family. Still another introduced him to How to Win Friends and Influence People. Thanks to Dale Carnegie, some of Punit’s rough edges wore off. He found a part time job parking cars.
His parents remained skeptical. 3 years after Punit arrived in Sarasota, cousins visited. “They came to check up on me. They asked to meet my teachers, who told them, ‘Punit is an amazing student. Don’t take him out of school.’”
Each year Punit was in school, he won awards. (Best of Ringling; AIA) His parents finally started believing in him.
Now a US citizen, Punit has been in Sarasota for 15 years. He heads his own firm, Sawa Design Studio. He’s also become a landlord. To finance his first investment, he approached 9 banks before finding one that would give him a mortgage. For 10 years, he lived “from paycheck to paycheck.” Now he owns 5 commercial and residential properties.
He and his Hungarian girlfriend, Petra, have started an online store, Ethnic Origin Company. They sell home accessories they call “stunning curated artifacts” made in Africa. www.ethnicorigincompany.com.
“In Africa, there was a lot of resentment for Indians, who tend to be more affluent.” A close friend’s grandmother was injured in an attack on a temple. In Africa, Punit’s life revolved around Indian culture. Hindu holidays were celebrated. Family friends were Indian. He was expected to marry an Indian girl.
“In America, everything I do is determined by what makes me happy, by what inspires me.” When he first arrived, “everything scared me. Even going to the grocery store. It’s been a challenge to build my confidence. But I have, though some mistake my confidence for arrogance.“
Because of Punit, Ringling College now recruits students from Kenya.
Advice to others considering the road, make that: flight, less traveled? “Do what you love.”
The American dream is alive and well in this talented young man. Thanks, Punit, for sharing your journey. Doing what you love has brought you a long way. Literally.