Boston, Founder Stories
19 October 2015

Deportation to Innovation: How Lifes Unchosen Paths Prepared Hitesh Tolani for a Life of Entrepreneurship

I had now visited multiple states to debrief their Healthcare/Medicaid organizations, but when I paused at the rotunda of this state house and looked up, there it was along with the other 12 colonies in breathtaking stained glass, the seal of my home state??South Carolina! I closed my eyes and the first memory that came to mind was of me looking down at my feet in a pair of $1.99 yellow Old Navy flip-flops running through a rare snowfall in South Carolina. Wow, never did I imagine that today my feet would be walking in such professional shoes, with such opportunities in such amazing places. What a journey this has been

 

 
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Dr. Tolani with his father (1984).

 

 

My father immigrated to the United States with my mother and me, his one-year-old son, after fleeing government upheaval in Sierra Leone, Africa in the early 1980s.

 

With him, he brought $2,000. He applied for U.S. permanent residency, and as he waited for his residency petition to be approved, he and my mother turned that $2,000 into a bustling family-run clothing business. Along the line, my parents had my brother, and as clich as it sounds, we started living the American dream.

Like most Indian immigrant parents, mine stressed hard work and education. My father would often ask, Hitesh, what do you want to be when you grow up? As a very nerdy kid, I would give ambitious answers such as an Egyptian archeologist, volcano geologist, and of course, astronaut. My father would chuckle and reply, You can do anything you want as long as you work hard and get a good education. He firmly believed that these two characteristics would take us far in America, our home.

It was during those endearing father-son moments that my father passed down to me the foundation of his entrepreneurial success.

The night my father died, I was thirteen and my brother barely seven. My mother, while grieving, still managed to remind us of my fathers values, Sons, an education and a good work ethic will allow you to soar in America. Make both me and your father proud.

 

 
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The Tolani Family??Boston, MA 2012.

 

Over the next several years, I watched my mother struggle through breast cancer, a mastectomy and chemotherapy, all while working to keep my fathers business afloat. She had no choice: she had inherited entrepreneurship. It was all she had to feed her family and she had to make it work. Many times, she almost lost our store. However, each time she crawled back up and rebuilt the business to what now has even a more robust clientele and a more recognized name than what my father left her.

 

During those times in the store when I saw my mother smile with customers, despite her nausea, extreme fatigue, and all consuming worries, I learned what dedication to a business means as an entrepreneur. Her sheer will and grit taught me the art of hustle. You want it? Then you gotta get up and go get it??every day!

I was fifteen when my mother tried getting back in line for residency after my fathers death. She quickly realized that we were left with no recourse for becoming legal U.S. residents. Upon learning this, she woke me up, particularly disheartened and softly said, Son, you werent born in Chicago, Illinois. You were born in Africa and youre an illegal immigrant. On that sunny Sunday morning, my identity changed completely.

My mother and I decided to honestly approach the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) for help with getting back on track for residency. We had always followed the law, paid our taxes, and given back to the community. My fathers death was not our fault. However, in our meeting with the representatives from the INS we did not find the help we expected. Instead, we were immediately put into deportation proceedings.

You were born in Africa and youre an illegal immigrant.

Our trial took two and a half years to reach court. Meanwhile, my mom decided we just had to continue with our lives. She kept building the store and pushed me to keep up with school. I was cornerback on my high school football team, served as school mascot, was Beta Club president and student council representative, and founded and lead the youth group at my temple. To help with the declining financial situation at home, I spent my weekends working at Dairy Queen and the night front desk clerk at Ramada Inn, where I was able to do my homework. I was inducted into the National Honor Society and earned my way into the top five percent of my class.

It was during those pep talks??or should I say stern, but loving Indian mother lectures??when my mom forced me to push aside the feeling of despondency, look beyond the immediate hurdles and keep achieving for future success. Who cares if youre illegal? That should never be an excuse to stop trying! Your job is to keep doing your best. Its okay to kiss your boo boos, but get up quickly and go try again! Something good will come of it! Today as an entrepreneur those words echo in my ears every day.

I learned how to become a project manager and how to keep calm, collected and composed under any and all circumstances.

My hard work paid off. I was accepted to top tier US Schools, but then letters asking to Please submit proof of legal residency for financial aid, followed. With these letters I initially felt that my college dreams were stifled, but Wofford College, a small liberal arts school in South Carolina, offered me a full scholarship. The administration believed I deserved an education, and as a private school, they were able to provide me private scholarship money.

The summer after I graduated from high school, we had our immigration trial. The expected thirty-minute trial took six hours. My fathers death was the only reason we were illegal. Confused, the judge looked at me and said, You have a bright future young man. He then excused himself, and a short time later he delivered his verdict: deported.

My mother and I had fifteen days to either leave the country or submit an appeal. If we left the country, my brother would be torn apart from us and put into foster care. My mother was overwhelmed with the logistics of what steps to take next, but I refused to give up on finding a way to resolve the situation in our favor. I wanted to stay together as a family, go to college, succeed in America, and make my mother proud.

This was home and I had faith that if I gave it everything I had something good would come. With the family finances drained, it seemed impossible to find a lawyer to fight our complicated case. Fortunately though, within fifteen days I found a lawyer and filed an appeal. Two weeks later, I was a freshman in college.

My legal advisors insisted that I study computer science instead of pursuing my passion for medicine because companies such as IBM and Intel frequently hire such majors and help them gain residency. There were days where staying hopeful was tough, but I remembered my parents words that An education will open doors for you that you cant even begin to fathom. I knew I had to do my best in school and continue trying to resolve our immigration status to the best of my ability. Then one weekend during the summer following my sophomore year, we finally lost the appeal and received another deportation order.

The judge looked at me and said, You have a bright future young man. He then excused himself, and a short time later he delivered his verdict: deported.

Once again with only fifteen days to leave the country, I wasnt ready to leave. However, if I was going to be forced to leave the only home I had ever known, I was going to leave knowing that I had done everything I could do to stay.

At that time there was no tutorial on How to save your family from deportation after your father has died. I needed to clear my own path and create my own opportunities. I needed to ask for help, build relationships, garner support and get people bigger than me involved. So, I did what any rational 20-year-old who was facing this predicament would do I drove to the office of the local newspaper and told them everything!

 

 
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Hitesh Tolani, a dentist and a Top 26 MassChallenge Finalist, started his company, Virtudent, to help break down barriers to oral healthcare.

 

The next day our story swept every paper and news station in South Carolina. And within the week, thousands of South Carolinians petitioned our legislature, which moved both senators from South Carolina to work diligently to save my family.

 

US senator Strom Thurmond (R-SC) eventually introduced an incredibly rare private relief bill. Throughout U.S. history, these have passed less than 1% of the time. The introduction of this bill put a stay on our deportation order, and gave my family hope.

Enlisting the press and thinking in untraditional ways to advocate for my family and myself taught me probably the most important lesson every entrepreneur needs to know: No, is not an acceptable answer. Respect rules, regulations and laws but to get where you want, dig deeper. If the answer is no, youre asking the wrong question. You have to look beyond and find the path that leads to the but. No, but you could that is when you know that youre on the right track.

Over the next two years I did not accept no for an answer and met people along the way who not only helped me, but most importantly taught me first hand the meaning of generosity, compassion, the importance of doing for others: what being American is truly about. As newspaper articles described our predicament, my family received phone calls from across the country from people saying, Were praying for you. Youre just as American as us.

Teachers, students, and alumni at my college nationally campaigned for me and people unknown to my family from many states contacted their senators and congressmen on my behalf. In total, 35,000 people across the United States wrote for our family. These efforts lead to support from members of congress such as Hillary Clinton, Bill Frist, Ted Kennedy and many more.

You can do anything you want as long as you work hard and get a good education.

Today my passion for what I do stems from those 35,000 letters written by people unknown to me. I am a product of their good will, generosity, and compassion. I ask myself, how will I ever pay this forward? Well, as a highly trained dentist, I know that 40% of Americans can not access this basic healthcare need. So, how do I make Virtudent a success to help reach these people? This insatiable desire to give back is what gets me up every day and keeps me ticking. Entrepreneurship is not easy.When the excitement and glamor starts approaching E, something else needs to be powering you along.

As I juggled the national press, campaigning from event to event for my cause, Congress members, lawyers, immigration advocacy groups and school, I once again wasnt going to allow my circumstances to dictate my college career. I made the Deans List, and I was a Glee Club member, admissions tour guide, school mascot, thespian, community volunteer, and an elected representative in student government. I had to build for the future; I had to build for my application to graduate school.

It was during those extreme and unusual emotional roller coaster rides, while juggling meetings with and calls from high profile individuals along with my studies as a 20-year-old, that I learned how to become a project manager and how to keep calm, collected and composed under any and all circumstances. As an entrepreneur today, this helps me manage my team through high stress moments and think strategically all while trying to keep that smile like my mother did with her customers.

 

 

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Finally, I graduated magna cum laude and around the time of graduation, I received a phone call, Hello Hitesh, this is US Senator Fritz Hollings office. Were pleased to tell you that you and your mother just became legal US residents. Congratulations! The decision set precedent and I went on to receive a prestigious NIDCR fellowship at Harvard/Forsyth Institute, completed my dental training at the University of Pennsylvania and trained in residencies at the University of Washington, Stony Brook, and Tufts and today I lecture at both Tufts and Harvard Dental Schools, while running Virtudent.

 

 

 
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Hitesh Tolani Pitches at MassChallenge Minute-to-Pitch-It

 

Today, much like when my family was in immigration limbo, I am not in possession of a tutorial on how to build a business in teledentistry and how to run Virtudent. I am finding myself clearing my own path and creating my own opportunities. Once again, I need to ask for help, build relationships, garner support and get people bigger than me involved. I am having to put into gear again the art of hustle because experience has taught me, if I want it, I am gonna have to get up and go get it??every day!

 

In retrospect, I would never choose to travel down the same tumultuous path, but somehow the journey prepared me for where I am today standing in these shoes, exchanging ideas with national thought leaders and impacting the landscape of oral healthcare delivery.

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