Immigrants from all around the world come to Long Island to start their new lives, usually settling in an immigrant enclave established by those from the same country or area. It takes something of a pioneer to come to an area that doesn’t already have a substantial immigrant population.
Raj Kumar is one of those people. The Indian-born entrepreneur came to Hicksville to pursue his dream of starting his own business.
Born in Jammu, India and raised in Kuwait, Raj first arrived in Miami in 1980 to attend Florida International University and study Hotel and Restaurant Management. After graduating in 1982, he worked for several companies in the hospitality industry, including Holiday Inn, Hilton and Norwegian Cruise Line. He made the life-changing decision to pack up and move to Long Island in 1987, where he has been ever since.
“My aunt was already here in Kings Park, so I decided to moved to Long Island,” said Raj. “I’ve always liked the northeast and the change of weather, the atmosphere. Long Island is also a good place to raise a family, especially because of the education opportunities here.”
On the insistence from his wife of 25 years, Geeta, Raj eventually left the hospitality industry altogether and opened his first business, Modern Bazaar, in 1987. Raj insists that at the time, the small Hicksville store was the first Indian food market of any kind on all of Long Island. It wasn’t until 1990 that he started to see other Indian immigrants coming to Hickville and starting businesses. Modern Bazaar was successful, developing a loyal customer base which has stayed with him to this day.
After a successful run of 15 years, Modern Bazaar was destroyed one night when a car crashed through the store, effectively eliminating more than a decade of hard work. It took six months just for Raj and his wife to regroup and recover after such a devastating event. Rather than reopen the same store under the same name, his wife suggested a business shift and Bengali Sweet Shop was born. Offering only healthy Indian vegetarian food, Bengali Sweet Shop picked up where Modern Bazaar left off, as it continues to be a staple of the Hicksville Indian community.
“It’s great to see the same faces for the past 25 years,” said Raj. “Now I’m starting to see the children of those friends coming in and they’re calling me uncle. It makes me feel old,” he joked, “so I tell them to please call me Raj.”
Raj and his wife of 25 years are themselves parents to two boys, aged 18 and 14. The older son will be attending Stony Brook University in the Fall to study engineering and his younger son is attending Hicksville High School.
Immigrants are twice as likely as the native-born to start their own businesses. Raj believes that this is because immigrants are inherently risk takers and hard workers, which is key when you run your own business.
Not only has Raj been a successful entrepreneur, he is also a very active member of the community, serving on the planning committee of the annual Hicksville India Day Parade. He is also a member of the Hicksville Chamber of Commerce, and is a founding member of the Rotary Club of Hicksville South, the local chapter of the internationally renowned humanitarian organization.
Raj’s contributions are just some of the many that immigrants make to their communities here on Long Island.
“Look around you, the effects and benefits of immigration are everywhere,” said Raj. “I look at my landscaper, most of his workforce are immigrants. Take a look at the local restaurants here, 50% of the workers are immigrants. Look at all the high tech immigrant workers that are here on work visas. I was at a Stony Brook orientation with my son and there was a very healthy population of Asian students that are in the medical and information technology fields.”
But of all the contributions that immigrants have made to Long Island, Raj believes that culture is most important.
“We live in a small world these days, explains Raj. “Whether it’s music, art or food, it’s very important that people know about the different cultures around the world.”
“This is why immigration reform will be good for our country,” added Raj. “Some of these workers have been here for 20 or 25 years. They started families here, they are Americans. It’s only fair that these people get the dignity they deserve.”