What Makes Me Texan by Nature –

Urvi Dani

Where I began my life couldn’t be further from Texas….I was born in Mumbai, India.  My cousins and I spent our weekends alternately at each others’ homes, requiring little beyond loads of free time and our imaginations.  Some of my fondest memories are the weekends we spent at my aunt and uncle’s second home, a modest bungalow in the hill country a few hours outside Mumbai.  The little village consisted of red dirt roads that wound through wooded hills.  With no paved roads, all traffic was on foot or horseback, as if we had traveled back in time.  Many afternoons were consumed with spirited games of Rummy and Clue, sometimes by candlelight in the event of power shortages.  Picnics were often disrupted by opportunistic monkeys looking for a morsel and a moment of inattention.  And mosquito nets were imperative for a good night’s sleep!  It was here I learned to ride a bike, build a bonfire, and ride horses.  As they say, it was a different time then and our parents would let my cousins and I (between the ages of 5 and 9 years old) ride freely through the woods for hours on end!

Good times with cousins (I’m on the bottom right)

So how did I end up in Houston, Texas?  Everyone’s immigrant story is unique and mine probably simultaneously shares and contradicts some of the prevailing narratives….
My parents grew up in Mumbai in relative comfort, enjoying the financial freedom of successful family businesses.  Both my mom and dad have the polished accent characteristic of Indians educated in the British curriculum of Indian private schools.  My dad worked in the airline industry and we were fortunate to travel frequently.  (By age five, I was so comfortable with international travel that I flew from Mumbai to Bangkok as an unaccompanied minor and loved every minute of the journey!)  We were surrounded by extended family and friends who may as well have been family.
At age nine, when my parents decided to uproot us and move to Texas, my world turned upside down.  Those first years were tough.  Overnight, we left behind our beloved community and my parents began building our new life and stretching their savings as far as possible.  We combed garage sales for furniture and cut coupons to save a few dollars on groceries.  Even now I can’t imagine the pressures they felt.  I tried desperately to “fit in” at school, which often left me feeling lonely and homesick.  (At least the humidity wasn’t foreign to me – Mumbai is worse!)  We missed our extended family and friends desperately but despite it all, my parents went out of their way to make sure our home was filled with love and happy memories.

It would be five years before we could afford to visit Mumbai again.  It would take many more for me to begin to comprehend my parents’ life choices (let alone explain them here).  But I grew to share their convictions and I continue to be inspired by their courage and sacrifice.
Eventually, my dad landed on his feet and went on to have a successful career in financial planning.  He’ll tell you he never loved the job but he made it work, exceeding financial goals while maintaining a work life balance and continuously picking up hobbies (his latest is homemade bread).  My mom followed her passion and talent for early childhood education and became a preschool teacher (she still teaches part-time) and she has always been the glue of our family.
I share all this to say, Texas and I were not a love-at-first-sight story….Those first few years of our relationship were complicated as we struggled to figure each other out.  We both had a lot to offer but we often misunderstood and underestimated each other.  But Texas is nothing if not stubbornly proud and persistent, its charms becoming harder to resist over time….From its people, I experienced kindness, loyalty, mutual respect, and diversity of every kind.  In my “backyard,” I discovered the trails at Brazos Bend State Park, the campgrounds at Lake Houston Wilderness Park, the waters of Lake Livingston, and the best hidden beaches in Galveston.  And when it comes to food, I learned the best two words ever combined: Tex Mex.

It was shortly after my family moved to Houston, now nearly thirty years ago, that I first learned the term “environmental conservation” after buying the book “50 Simple Things Kids Can Do To Save The Earth” from one of those Scholastic flyers distributed at school.  I still remember its promising bright yellow cover, its pages filled with information about recycling, wildlife preservation, climate change, water and air pollution, energy conservation….Conservation projects displaced my previous endeavors to master stealthy powers of observation and secret code breaking skills.  (Because the previous book I read was Harriet the Spy.)  My parents patiently indulged my enthusiasm.  (But they did draw the line at putting an empty milk gallon jug in the toilet tank to reduce the amount of water consumed by each flush, fearing plumbing disasters no doubt.)

It was in high school that I discovered the Houston Arboretum and began volunteering in the Nature Center there, helping kids discover local wildlife and nature while I wrestled with privileged decisions like to which universities to apply and what field of study to pursue.

Houston Arboretum

When I was admitted to my first choice of university, my parents wouldn’t hear of me going anywhere else, even though it came at a price tag I knew they had to make further sacrifices to afford.  Looking back, this factored somewhere in my decision to major in Chemical Engineering and ultimately accept a position at a major energy corporation upon graduation.  I wanted the fastest route to financial independence to make sure I’d never have to ask my parents for another cent (I now ask for babysitting services of course).

Fun Fact: My husband, brother, and I all graduated from Rice University with the same degree.  Go Rice Owls!

Traditional Indian wedding ceremony

Along the way, I’ve built my own family in Texas.  My husband and I had a traditional Indian wedding at a rustic ranch venue in Richmond, Texas, a literal blend of our cultures.  We are proud parents of two wonderful daughters.  My parents and in-laws continue to live in the Houston area and compete for time with our kids.  My brother (the best no-nonsense uncle to our kids) drops in every couple days, we play in a local orchestra together, and brother/sister camping trips have become a regular tradition.

I have always believed that true change comes from understanding, so I thought, what better way to understand how we develop natural resources than working in an industry on which any modern economy depends: energy.  Ultimately, my experience in the oil and gas industry has broadened my perspectives in the best way.  I understand now more than ever the importance of shared innovation, community partnership, and policy support to develop natural resources economically and sustainably.

But my passion for nature and wildlife never wavered, and the underlying principle that conservation and industry goals are more aligned than not resonates deeply with my own convictions.  So it’s not surprising that my inner compass eventually led me to Texan by Nature and I was proud to join the team earlier this year. Today, I am an idealist and a realist, a dreamer and a doer.  I value myself and my relationships.  I have faith in the power of stories and human cooperation.  I believe that our goals are just as important as how we achieve them.  I believe in going big or going home.  Turns out I didn’t need to be born in Texas to be Texan by Nature.