By ALEXANDER NARINE
A visionary who is sometimes compared to a gentle great white shark in the boardroom, Shanti Ammar is never one to shy away from a challenging negotiation, much less an interview.
Upon recently receiving an award for South Asian Women’s Empowerment at Leonard’s of Great Neck on March 7th, Ms. Ammar found time in her philanthropic schedule to speak with me about her childhood, an always flourishing business, and even spirituality.
Q: Where in Guyana were you born and how has it helped mold you into the person that you are today?
A: I was born in Corentyne, 60 Village, Berbice, Guyana. I lived in a village where everybody is family. My grandmother and grandfather were the matriarch and patriarch of the village. Food was always available, and it was cooked and served with humility. Yes, those were different times. Cousins were everywhere, there was no judging. Everyone was very open and kind. I mean, think about it, the whole village knew you. If you did anything wrong, anyone in the town can reprimand you and it was okay. I still carry those notions of community protection with me today.
Q: Can you tell me a little bit about your mother and how she empowered you to become the person that you are today?
A: My mother was a teacher of economics. As the eldest in my family, I worked alongside her. I was in charge of the grocery list. At our local market she taught me how to barter our goods for others. I would trade veggies for fish at the market. I even made ice-blocks from kool-aid and sold them for 50 cents. She showed me how to stretch a dollar and do it in the most honest way. I think you can say the results now speak for themselves, right Alex?
Q: What pushed you to become better than the average broker, and why do you think you’re such a household name in the West Indian community today?
A: I always had an inner personality of wanting to please people, even as a child. I never got punished for disobeying the rules. I always reached for the stars. I topped my class in school, and hoped my parents never yelled at me. Here in New York City, I wanted to be a realtor that pleased the community, and also one that reached for the stars. I always thought to myself: shouldn’t I be more selfish? But no, I cared. I wanted to make people smile. The rewards were tenfold, because everyone started recommending me. Before I knew it, I wasn’t too far away from becoming that star I always used to stare at in the sky.
Q: Given your wide experience travelling the world and seeing how so many diverse peoples live, where else would you want to be a real estate professional?
A: Athens, Greece. Every other building I saw in Athens was covered in graffiti, and I thought to myself, “Aren’t these sacred sights? Why the anger?” If I was a broker in Athens, I would get to the core of the citizens’ mind, and I would love to get to the core of why these citizens are so angry. When I returned to the United States, I really appreciated why we are a democratic nation.
Q: What is the name of the award you were given, and why do you think you were chosen?
A: It’s called the South Asian Women’s Empowerment Award. It was given to me by Miss World, Manushi Chhillar, at Leonard’s of Great Neck on Wednesday, March 7th. The event was hosted by Bindu Kolhi. She picked great women from areas populated by South Asians, and she asked me if I would be interested in representing the West Indian, in particular, the Guyanese community. I sat back and thought about my entire life for a little while. From earning $4.00 an hour in the garment industry to showing women to rise and never stay at that level, I was honored to be considered. When I stood at the podium and spoke that night, I said that even across a continent, where we migrated to a little country of Guyana, I can now stand amongst women from India. The DNA and the blood still runs deep because the National Anthem of India still makes me tear. Arguably more than Indians, we still keep our culture and that connection to Hinduism alive. The East Indian does not realize how much we’ve protected our culture.
Q: I know this is a bit out of the box, but what or who do you love most?
A: Alex, I love my community, family, and friends. I am a people’s person. I am in my element when I am connecting with people, especially family and friends. This has made me very partisan towards my community. I stand up and fight for them.
Q: You are a philanthropist at heart, but also an investor. How is donating to selfless causes made you a better thinker and investor?
A: I cannot give if I do not have. When I am able to get, by investing, I use my smarts and skills to make money. This makes it easier to give when I have. As I said before, at $4.00 an hour, who could I give to? But now, for example, when a high school student whose mother lives in one of my buildings came into my office and pleaded his case for $3,000 for a saxophone to one day perform at Lincoln Center, without knowing the kid, I wrote a check to his mother. He ended up performing there later that year, and I knew the little I did for him helped.
Q: Is it true that you met Deepak Chopra?
A: Yes, I was at his retreat in California. It was interesting. I wasn’t a skeptic, but he showed me the physics of the universe, and connected it with religion. There is a common denominator. This is now clear to me. There is an energy force connecting all of us. Instead of being God-fearing, I am now God-loving.