From Nothing to Something with Priya Dhingra Klocek

From Nothing to Something with Priya Dhingra Klocek

Reggae music plays in the background as we sit down at a table next to Graeter’s Ice Cream downtown. Priya Klocek looks up and smiles at the Fifth Third Bank building on Fountain Square, and says, “This is where it all began.”

Interview by Katie Gravely. Photography by Jennifer Mahuet.

Tell me a few tidbits about Priya.

That is a big question, right? We’re so multidimensional. I would say the way I think of who I am is that I am Asian-American. I grew up in India. I’m an immigrant. I’m a mom. I’m a wife. I’m a business owner. A lot of different elements, right? I think that’s really a lot of what defines me; all of those different aspects of my life, in a way.

I was born in India. I moved to Cincinnati July 2, 24 years ago. It’s significant, because, for me, July 4 has a little different meaning. I came here at the age of 20. I came here with no education; I had half of my bachelor’s in India, no business experience, no job skills, zero. When I say it now, I’m like, woah. I really ended up in Cincinnati because my dad's family had migrated here in the ‘60s, and so we were going to start in Cincinnati, and we went through the immigration process; that took 10 years. Instead of being here when I was 10 years old, I came here when I was 20. I came here with my mom and my 17-year-old sister. That was part of the journey – as I joke, the humble beginning. Starting with nothing, in a way, and building it, ground up.

So how did you get to the place you are now? I know it’s a broad question.

It is, but it’s also a part of what I cherish. That’s why I celebrate July 2. It’s a big day to me. It’s funny how my mom and my sister forget the date, always, and I’m always like “Happy Anniversary!” For me, it was a lot of hard work. I’ve never come from the mindset of not enough. So, it was just coming in, rolling up my sleeves, and doing what I needed to do. What I really did was work full-time, at the building we’re sitting across from: Fifth Third Bank, working in the basement of the building, making sure every check had a signature. It was a place to start. I mean, fresh off the boat, as I often joke. What are you going to do? You’ve gotta start somewhere. I stayed there for about six months and then tried to figure out what I needed to do to go back to school. I ended up going to Mount St. Joseph to finish my undergrad. I worked full-time and went to school at night. What’s ironic is, I was raised in India, and I would say I had a very privileged life. If I needed a car, I would go to dad and say I needed the car. He would hand me the keys and hand me money and say, “Have a good time.” I didn’t have to work for it! When I came here, it was completely the opposite, and nobody ever said, “You need to do this.” It was autopilot.

What was your passion when you got here? What inspired you to work from the ground up?

I think it would probably go back to how I was raised as a kid. That was a value we always talked about: Work hard. I never quite knew what it meant. In the Indian culture, education is a big deal; that’s kind of a given. You’ve got to go to school and you’ve got to do well. The honest story is, I hated school in India and I was lucky that I made passing grades. So when I graduated from high school, my parents were like “Phew, our job is done.” They didn’t think I would ever continue with school and partly, as I reflected on it, it was really the way the education system in India was; it wasn't my way of learning. I remember starting school here and going, “This is the way I learn! An instructor wants to hear what I have to say?” In India, they didn’t care. You hear it, regurgitate it, and if you put it in your own words, they take away points. It’s evolved and changed, but when I was growing up, you took copious notes. No concept of understanding. I’ve never been able to repeat anything that way. I’m all about my own words and what it means to me and all those lovely things.

But going back to your question: I just knew that if I wanted to do anything, I had to do it. It's interesting – I think back, and I never quite stopped and processed it. You just did what you had to do. It really just internalized that if you want something, you got to earn it.

Tell us about becoming a business owner.

So, it’s funny. When I moved here, 24 years ago, no clue of the retirement system, social security, healthcare, literally, no clue...I remember talking to my now husband, who worked at the bank as well, and I told him I was going to retire at the age of 35. I already told you I was 20 with zero everything. I was going to retire at the age of 35, and he laughed. He is a born-and-raised Cincinnatian and he laughed at me, like “You’re crazy.” So I went through the process, got my degree, and spent the majority of my career downtown. I worked for Fifth Third, American Life Insurance, Ashland Inc. I did the corporate due-diligence, as I like to put it. I left Ashland to work for a small consulting firm, but it wasn’t the right culture for me. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I still hadn’t quite materialized what retirement was or thought about owning my business. Through that process where I wasn’t really excited, I was contacted by a headhunter for a contract opportunity out of the blue. I did not even take his name down; I thought it was a scam. Then I said, “I’ve got nothing to lose.” Long story short, I went through the process; it was real. Within three weeks of talking with him, I was out on my own as a contractor or business owner. I realized about three months into that, I was retired...I was 34 1/2 when that happened and I remember calling my husband and I said “I’m retired!” and he goes “What are you talking about?” I say that because I truly feel like I’m retired. For me, what that means is I’m doing what I want to do. I love to do what I do; it’s my passion and I do it with the people I enjoy working with. I joke, I don’t have a trust fund, but if I did, I’d still be doing this.

I am the president and CEO of a company called Consultant On The Go, and what my focus really is is helping organizations educate, engage, and retain their talent. So part of the work I do is in organization development, change management, and cultural competence. It’s about “How do you get your most important assets to work together to accomplish and collaborate toward the same goal?”

Would you call yourself as an entrepreneur?

Oh, absolutely. I think I’ve always had the entrepreneurial spirit and just didn’t know it! When I came here, and I joke, I didn’t know how to articulate it, retirement was the word I used. I still stick with that; someone said to me, “You didn’t retire, you rewired,” and I said “No, rewiring is when you try to change something. I retired.”

My dad was a business owner, too, so the entrepreneurial spirit comes from taking care of his business when he was traveling. I was 17 years old, and he was out of town. He said he’d have everything under control, until he left and clients started calling and I said, “Sure, I can come to the office. Sure, I can come meet with you. Sure, I can write you a quote for stuff I don’t even know.” I did. It’s always been in me.

What would you say to other immigrants about starting their life here in America and in Cincinnati?

Do what you believe you are meant to do. Ask a lot of questions. Learn as much as you can about the norms and how we operate and work and what success looks like. Success looks like different things to different people. If you’re coming in as an immigrant and you want to figure out what do you do and how do you do it, figure out what success looks like to you and then figure out how you translate that and what it looks like in the community you are in.

That’s an interesting thing when I put the Cincinnati lens on it. We are a city with a lot of legacy and we're often accused about not being the most friendly city; we’re friendly but we’re not your friends. You know what’s interesting, though, I don’t think people have bad intentions. I think it’s just different enough that they don’t know what to do with it. The whole thing of, “Where’d you go to school?” It’s not “Where’d you go to college?” It’s “Where’d you go to high school?” I remember the first couple of years I’d say, “Oh, well I go to Mount St. Joe,” and they’d say, “No, where did you go to high school?” “I went to school in India” and they’d literally look at me and say, “Oh, nice meeting you,” turn around, and walk away. They didn’t know what to do with me! It’s good intentions, because they’re trying to figure out “What’s your story?” They’re looking for a story and trying to connect to you. Are you Catholic, are you from money, did you go to private school? And that tells me something about you; I get it, but if you’re an immigrant and you don’t know what to do with it, that’s what creates those feelings of not feeling welcome. [Laughing.]

What would you say to young entrepreneurs trying to ‘make it big’?

I don’t put a limit on things! I show up open, so part of my message would be: Be open to the experience, go with the flow, and see where things go. Don’t just come in and say “I’m expecting this much,” because when you don’t get it, you’re upset. It’s natural for us to have expectations, but I never think in limiting terms. That’s a big piece of it. The biggest thing that I say, and people who know me know I say this a lot, but you have to have faith. Faith to me doesn’t mean I go to bed and have faith that everything is going to be OK. You get up, you work hard, you network, you do what you need to do, but you’ve got to have faith that things are going to work out. When you’re an entrepreneur, it’s hard because things don’t always go your way, and you still have to have faith and hold onto something and not give up.

Tell us about an influential woman in your life.

I have always been surrounded by strong women in my life, but the one that stands out would be my mom. She came to the US and took a risk with us girls to make it work. In India, she was a housewife with no business experience – came from her dad’s house to her husband’s. At 40, she had the courage to start over with us in the US.

Words We Heard: 'There is no place for you here in Charlottesville.'

Words We Heard: 'Going to work is way more than earning an income.'