Sondra Sen

Doing Business in South Asia: A Conversation by the Penn South Asia Center on behalf of Former Penn Graduates

Today we are talking with Sondra Sen, President of Sherisen International Inc. in Mountain Lakes, NJ. She earned her master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania South Asia Studies Department and is a member of the class of 1969.


Will you tell us more about your decision to study at Penn and what the department was like in those days?

Well, after I met my husband [who is originally from Calcutta] for a time there was some likelihood that we would be moving back to India together. So part of my decision to apply to the master’s program in South Asia Studies was very practical and about trying to hone a new set of language skills. It also fit my past studies in cultural anthropology and my larger interest in the world beyond American borders that was then opening up to so many young people in the United States.  So I applied to the department in 1963 when the esteemed Professor Norman Brown, its founder, was still there. Overall, I pursued coursework in Hindi and Bengali languages and in cultural anthropology with professor Dorothy Spencer…The thesis I wrote for my Masters focused on a topic in medical anthropology, as I was interested in physical and spiritual health among middle class Hindus in West Bengal.


What did you prize most about your experience in the South Asia Studies Department at Penn? Was there anything you wished was different about your program of study?

Pr. Brown’s course on Indian civilization really was wonderful. Being in a small program oriented to language and literature in those days, students were able to get to know and work with really great people—like Pr. Brown and the renowned scholar of Indian Art Stella Kramrisch. From those days I also remember Pr. Alan Heston in the History Department. Another strength of the department, then and now, was and is the opportunity to take courses in other departments. More generally, I feel the Masters program equipped me with a certain philosophical basis that has guided my spiritual journey throughout my life.


You just alluded to your career after the Masters Program. Can you tell us what came next? How did you end up being able to maintain professional ties to India?

At around the same time as the events I’ve been describing we also became involved in the founding of the first Indian voluntary association in the US. This was called the Association of Indians in America (AIA)…At the time, work-wise, I was teaching both high school and college in New Jersey and had begun to get into import/export work as well, starting my own small firm, Sherisen International, Inc. Therefore, it was really from this base that my professional expertise started focusing on what is now called the field of cross-cultural education and training. You have to remember that in the 1980s and 1990s there was a real need for such training, but that it was still very new, especially as relating to India. American companies had been starting to send their employees to live and work abroad, and some were offering them language and cross-cultural training programs as part of their relocation package. As a cultural anthropologist and cross-cultural trainer, I could conduct programs on numerous cultures.


Finally, what advice would you offer to current Penn undergraduates?

Well, I think we are living in an age when what they call ‘soft’ skills are increasingly important and increasingly seen as important. To both be a participant and leader in today’s global world, understanding what cultural competence means across cultural boundaries is vital. I do, therefore, think that learning about society, history and culture when you are trying to work in or with people in a country other than your own is important. The deeper level of knowledge one acquires can only enhance one’s ability to style-switch and to be more cognizant of perception and behavior.


For a transcript of the full conversation, please click on the following link: Sondra Sen-Full Profile Final.pdf