What do Wall Street and India have in common? Unless you already know her yourself, you probably wouldn’t guess a former investment banker named Tracy Kunichika. Whereas she once dressed in business attire for a 13-hour day at Merrill Lynch, now it’s common to see Kunichika riding in a rickshaw through the chaotic streets of her adopted home, Mysore, India, overseeing the work of the American Society for International Shanti. Spearheaded by Kunichika, the US-based nonprofit has a mission to “improve the lives of exploited, at-risk, destitute children” as well as the elderly and other destitute and needy people. While plans to build an orphanage on a recently purchased piece of land near Mysore take shape, ASIS has kept busy feeding homeless street children as well as providing meals to a leper colony.
Kunichika chuckles now thinking of how her path has wound its way from her birthplace in Hawaii through high-powered business offices in San Francisco and New York to India. “I would always wonder why I was a banker. There weren’t many third generation Japanese Americans from Hawaii doing that,” recounts Kunichika on a brief trip to San Francisco to host a fundraiser. After earning degrees from both Harvard and the University of Chicago, and a brief stint as a computer programmer, Kunichika spent eight years as an investment banker in New York and San Francisco. The life she created was far different from her parent’s humble lives in Hawaii, but she thrived.
“My dad was a pilot for the Air Force National Guard. Both parents were from poor families and we didn’t have a lot of money growing up. But I worked 100 hours a week and loved it. It was fun even if it wasn’t balanced,” she says. She eventually transferred from New York to San Francisco so she could be closer to her family. The hours began to wear but she had no immediate plans to leave banking. Then one day, her office went from 100 bankers to 30 within a day. “I got laid off and was so happy,” she says.
Kunichika took the resulting free time to start doing yoga and studying photography. “I was asking myself ‘what next?’” When her Ashtanga yoga teacher, John Berlinsky, mentioned that she might like to go to India to practice at the source, she thought “why not?” Kunichika flew to Mysore in 2003, hardly expecting she’d stay in India longer than the scheduled six weeks. “I expected it to be dirty and smelly,” she laughs. “Some friends thought I’d be back in a week.”
To everyone’s surprise, Kunichika extended her trip. “[India] was so much like childhood in Hawaii, the tropics and the people. My family in Hawaii wasn’t wealthy. My grandma used to wash the clothes by hand. Staying just felt like the right thing to do.”
Along the way, she met up with Sri Jamanagiri Swami, and her life path took a new and unexpected turn. Jamanagiri, a sadhu who lives a life of selfless service at a Shiva Cave Temple outside of Mysore, became her primary teacher. “Watching the way he lives with so little, I started questioning my possessions,” recounts Kunichika. “I’d ask him ‘why are we here?’ His answer was ‘to do good things.’ So I thought I could do something with my money.” Inspired, she read the autobiography of Mother Teresa, and recalled her own life-long interest in helping children.
Troubled by the level of poverty and the many homeless children she witnessed in India, Kunichika began to apply her business sense and resources to helping those without. The result, is the American Society for International Shanti. With a mission to improve the lives of the world’s most needy, ASIS completed the construction of its first orphanage in late 2008, to house up to fifty children.
Kunichika and ASIS will broaden the scope of its attention to the destitute and elderly. “We’ll go anywhere there’s need. Mysore is just the beginning,” she says.
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