One of the most compelling attributes of the American way of life is the opportunity for upward mobility and advancement. While the right family and academic pedigree continues to give some people a head start and there do remain some systemic disadvantages for others, there is truly unlimited potential for those with vision, ambition and a strong work ethic. This is the basic idea of the “American Dream,” which was a term coined by James Truslow Adams in his 1931 book “Epic of America.” He stated, “The American Dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.”
Horatio Alger (1832-1899) famously captured the spirit of this ethos in his novels encouraging young people with his “rags to riches” stories. To this day, the Horatio Alger Association has an annual award for “outstanding individuals in society who have succeeded in the face of adversity.” While the idea of the American Dream does have its vocal critics (e.g. filmmaker Michael Moore), I believe that the hope that underlies the American Dream is the driver that has brought so many immigrants to our country and provides the incentive for entrepreneurs to boldly take calculated risks to pursue their journey.
I am always encouraged by stories of entrepreneurs who have followed their passions and created opportunities for themselves and others. Dr. S.L. Sethi is a prime example of what can be achieved through hard work and dedication pursuing the American Dream. Dr. Sethi grew up in a one-room house with his seven siblings in India before family members scraped together funds to send him to the United States to pursue a Ph.D. at Oregon State University. After returning to India and marrying his wife, Raksha, Dr. Sethi returned to the U.S. with his wife in 1968. With $50 in life savings, they moved to Greenwood where they both taught at Mississippi Valley State University. While there, he opened a Sonic Drive-In franchise in Brookhaven in 1973. He commuted back and forth working long hours as he built the business. In 1976, he stopped teaching and devoted his efforts to building his business enterprise through his company, Jackie’s International, which later relocated to Canton in 1999. Over the years, Jackie’s International has expanded out to be a full-service hospitality company that operates under numerous brands including, Bumpers, Western Sizzlin, Pan Asia, Super Saver Systems, Holiday Inn Express and Hilton Garden Inn. The company now employs more than 1,800 people in Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee and Arkansas and operates 16 hotels and 52 restaurants.
Dr. Sethi’s children, Monica Harrigill and her younger brother, Sunny, both work in the family business and his middle daughter Dr. Manisha Sethi has a successful medical practice in Ridgeland. According to Monica, who graduated from Millsaps College at age 18 and now runs the day-to-day operations, “the success of the company has been built on my father’s tenacity, fearlessness, strong work ethic and faith in people.” Even though the company has obviously grown to be substantial in size, the culture is still based on a family atmosphere, leadership by example, and a passion for taking care of the customer.
Dr. Sethi is often quoted as saying, “When I came to Mississippi, I came to heaven on earth.” Even at age 72, he continues to work seven days a week logging long hours as he pursues his passion of building a great hospitality company. As the business transitions to the next generation, I know that it will continue to prosper and have a positive impact on many Mississippians. As Mississippi entrepreneurs seek to achieve their part of the American Dream, they would be wise to take note of the example of Dr. Sethi’s own “rags to riches” story and the vision, dedication and incredible work ethic that helped him achieve it.
Martin Willoughby is a business lawyer in Jackson. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.