Santha Perian

A Place to Grow

On Mondays after school, a small classroom in Johnston Middle School transforms into a miniature robotics fieldhouse. Two groups of students cluster on either side of the boxed-in arena. This Monday, it’s a scrimmage between two teams to see whose robot can pick up and transport a large Lego piece across the arena faster.

Santha Perian is one of the adults in the room. Lead application developer at Grinnell Mutual by day, robotics team co-coach by late afternoon, Perian got involved in the activity to get his sons involved.

In the four years Perian has coached robotics, his team has seen much success. In 2016, after winning regional and state-level competitions, the team went on to compete against other U.S. and international teams in Arkansas. In one of the events, the team from Iowa was paired with a team from Israel. Not speaking a common language, the only way they could communicate was through illustrations on a whiteboard. They placed in the top half of the field.

To get on the robotics team, students had to apply.

“It was like a job interview,” said one. “It wasn’t really about what you know, it was how you work with a team.”

Diversity of talent is the foundation of the team. “Everybody has different strengths,” Perian said. “I can’t expect the same thing from all the kids. It is important to accept everybody’s abilities and work with them. If I have this understanding, I am worried less about things that happen around me.”

In order to be a great team member himself, Perian said, he needs to listen first. He discovered this through his own story, as he replanted himself across the world from where he was raised.

Seeing the world

Perian grew up in Coimbatore, a city in southern India. He describes it as being similar to Des Moines  — a small city, but a city nonetheless.

Perian had always wanted to see the rest of the world, and he credits his father for his love of travel. And for getting into IT. Perian’s father, who worked for the Indian government, would travel around India, returning home with magazine articles and newspaper clippings about electronics for Perian to collect.

After Perian finished school, he worked for a year and a half in India before he was offered three jobs in the United States – one in California, one in New York City, and one in Chicago.

He chose New York. In 2000, Perian arrived in New York City, just 21 years old.

“Once I got into the airport, I saw all kinds of people,” Perian remembered. “People from different countries.”

When he first arrived, he couldn’t keep his eyes off the city. “I hadn’t seen big buildings like that,” he said. “It was phenomenal to see all the roads and buildings, the fashion, different ethnicities — it was all new to me.”

Perian remembers shopping at a mall near the Hudson river when something strange started falling from the sky. Alarmed, he called his friends. It was Perian’s first snowfall.

A field to grow

Not everything new felt as exciting. Perian had to learn to cook. His new roommates didn’t speak the same language he did. He was lonely, missing life in India. And spending time in Coimbatore during holiday breaks left him with even more longing.

During one of those breaks, a family friend told him a parable that altered how he saw his situation.

Rice, the friend told Perian, is sown in a small plot. After two weeks, green will begin peeking from the dirt. When that happens, the seeds are uprooted and taken to another, bigger field, where they will have the space to stretch out and produce healthy rice.

Then she looked Perian in the eye and told him, “You are one of those people. You grew up here and now it’s time for you to be replanted. You’re not missing anything. We’re here for you.”

Planted in Iowa

The field where Perian has found himself is in Iowa. In 2003, Perian married Nandhini Venkataswamy, a childhood friend, and the couple moved to Iowa when Perian was offered a job in insurance.

Iowa is where Venkataswamy and Perian are raising their two sons and where Venkataswamy’s and Perian’s careers are flourishing, both at Grinnell Mutual.

“Grinnell Mutual simply treats people with respect and supports its employees' creative and innovative endeavors,” Perian said. “There is exciting work to do, and tremendous opportunities to learn. You're not just given a task to do and asked to finish it as soon as possible. It is explained why it's important. And you decide how it should be done efficiently."

Not to mention other perks. “The cafeteria’s breakfast burrito is irresistible,” he added.

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