Posted on May 06 2019
V&V friend and team member, Marcie Cohen Ferris, sat down to chat with Durhamite and talented entrepreneur Sonny Caberwal whose passion lies in fostering human connection in our communities, work, and daily lives. Read their conversation and then come hear more from Sonny at the next Vert & Vogue Happy Hour event on Friday, May 17th, from 5:30 – 6:30pm.
Sonny Caberwal is an entrepreneur and executive interested in how technology can improve the human experience. His business, Union, located in Durham, and soon to open venues in Austin, Texas and Madison, Wisconsin, brings people together in a facility dedicated for work and play, connection and collaboration. Simply put, Union is “a social club for everyone.”
Caberwal’s professional arc has included corporate law, playing percussion with the band Thievery Corporation, opening a tea shop, modeling for Kenneth Cole and, with his wife, Preeti Bal---Union’s Creative Director--- creating an online fashion company in India. In 2013, he founded Bond, a business which incorporated the latest in writing technology to produce personalized, ‘hand-written’ correspondence for clients, printed on the highest-quality stationary tucked neatly into wax-sealed envelopes, then sealed, stamped, and delivered, of course.
Caberwal received his B.A. from Duke University, J.D. law degree from Georgetown University Law Center, and was a Lord Rothermere Scholar at Oxford University in England (New College).
From the Union website: “In a world that feels more divided than ever, we know the power of human connection can unite us. We believe there’s value in our differences, common ground between us, and untapped potential in everyone. The three qualities we ask from our members? That they're kind, curious, and open-minded.”
Your North Carolina upbringing. Where? Who? Why?
I was born and raised in Asheboro, NC, where my parents moved in the early ‘70’s after immigrating to NYC from India. At the time, there was a shortage of doctors across the country. Highly-accomplished, foreign professionals settled in small towns and cities to fill the need. There were six Sikh families, one Jewish family, and virtually no other immigrants present when my father and mother moved to Asheboro.
Our relationship with Durham began in the early ‘80s, when Sikh families first gathered as a congregation at the Edison Johnson Recreation Center. In 1984, they formed the Sikh Gurdwara of North Carolina off of Roxboro Road. We’ve been weekly attendees at this Sikh temple since that time.
Community and openness for all are central tenets of Sikhism, and equality and inclusion are at the foundation of the Sikh way of life. For example, consider the design of a Gurdwara---the Sikh house of worship. There are always four entrances, one on each side of the building. Becoming part of a broader community is central to our faith. In Durham, the Sikh congregation has sponsored interfaith exchanges with churches and synagogues since its inception.
You were in law school in Washington, D.C., living not far from the Pentagon when 9/11 occurred. How did that experience impact you then and afterwards?
I lived directly across the street from the Pentagon, in Pentagon City, and had just passed through the parking lot on my way to school that morning. There was a buzz in class about an invasion, and we went to the roof to see fighter pilots screaming through the sky, and a plume of smoke in the distance. As we watched the news, I saw images of the Taliban. I was unaware of this group, who also wore different, but similar, turbans, and kept beards. It was a tragic moment of racial stereotyping and bias that our community and country is still confronting.
In 2008, your worlds intersected with fashion when the Kenneth Cole Company asked you to model in their ad campaign, “We All Walk in Different Shoes.” From the New York Times, “The sight of a Sikh man on a billboard, in a turban and rakish sunglasses, was considered radical enough to be front-page news in The Times of India.” Tell us a bit about that campaign and why you chose to participate?
Kenneth Cole loves to push boundaries by taking up social justice causes. Casting a Sikh in their 25th anniversary campaign was a powerful way to challenge stereotypes. In 2008, and even today, there were no Indians, let alone Sikhs, positively portrayed in media. This was pre-Mindy Kaling, Aziz Ansari, and Hassan Minhaj. A family member encouraged me to share my Facebook profile, and that led to my participation in the campaign. A few months later, a friend called to tell me that a very large billboard of my face was posted in Rockefeller Center, right outside of my old law firm!
The photo became a viral sensation in India. Few, if any, South Asians have been positively portrayed in Western and American culture. Through the experience, Preeti and I realized the power that brands and products have to change how people feel about themselves. We also gained insight into the obligation of business leaders to operate from a strong sense of principal and purpose. It forever changed how I think about work, why it matters, and what it should accomplish.
Image courtesy of The New York Times.
A ‘loondani’--- your mother gave you one just before you left for college. What is this beautiful (hint, fragrant and delicious) object and why does it have such significance in your family?
A loondani is metal spice tin that is a staple in all Indian households. My mother and grandmother thought I might starve when I left for college, so they taught me how to make my favorite dishes, flavored with spices from my loondani. The loondani is significant in our family simply because it’s a core part of our culture and our lives.
Connection is your karma. How so?
I believe all things are connected. This is at the core of our understanding of what God is in the Sikh tradition. The one God is everything and in everyone. When we ask questions to create community, we make the world smaller and more supportive. This makes the anxious times in our lives a little easier to bear. I love thinking about how technology and other resources can make connection better, easier, and more robust. Hence Bond, and now, Union.
You are particularly interested in “how tradition and new things go together.” We see this in your embrace of technology to build face-to-face relationships, as well as your company, Bond, that honored the thoughtful ritual of communicating in writing to colleagues and loved ones. How does the notion of ‘tradition’ continue to impact your professional and personal life?
I love the paradox of the old contrasted with the new, both ideologically and physically. In fact, that is what innovation and problem solving is all about; many of the solutions for our future can be found by looking at the past. AND, you must understand where you come from, to help you get where you’re going.
Here’s an example of how tradition helps shape the future for me. Sikhs started formally wearing turbans in the time of Mughal rule in India in the sixteenth century. Only Mughal royalty could wear a turban. In our religion, we believe in equality for all and freedom of worship. By wearing turbans, Sikhs were recognized by anyone. The turban forced one to remember their ideals. While difficult, adopting a visible symbol of your principles reinforces those beliefs in your daily life. Those principles of equality and freedom mean more to me now than ever.
An example of how thinking globally and acting locally is present in your life?
Union is a good example. Our goal is to create connection and community across the country; however, it needs to happen locally first.
How would you describe yourself musically?
Your ‘go to’ supper at home when feeding a hungry table of friends and family?
Depends on the occasion, but if we’re making food for family, it’s probably going to be Indian, for example, rajma--a delicious curry of red kidney beans served with rice.
As a working father, a native North Carolinian, and an activist committed to breaking down social barriers, what is your biggest hope for our community?
That we walk the walk---versus talking the talk---on being open-minded. It’s easier said than done for everyone!
And, as it is Happy Hour, tell us your favorite libation that best brings people together.
The recipe for a good time is pretty simple: good music, good libations, and good (ie: different, interesting, and fun) people. If I have to choose one libation, it’s Champagne---everyone loves to celebrate!