Satnam Sethi is no stranger to risk-taking. When he was just 10 years old, he and his family of 10 lived as refugees in a 10’ x 12’ tent for six years after the 1947 partition of India. He likens the experience to those depicted in the movie Slumdog Millionaire. This early life of poverty made him determined to get an education.
Even while working three jobs to support his family, he had an insatiable appetite for learning. After graduating from high school in 1954, he earned bachelor and master’s degrees from Punjab University and then set his sights on a Ph.D. in the United States. Seeking new opportunities and emboldened by a strong desire to provide for his family, Sethi left his native India and traveled to Corvallis in the late 1960s to pursue a Ph.D. in entomology at OSU’s College of Science.
“I could not have done that without my graduate assistantship, which paid for my education,” said Sethi, an ardent supporter of scholarships seeded by a deep desire to give back to his communities at local and state levels.
Sethi and his wife have provided more than $400,000 for scholarship contests in Mississippi and established an endowed scholarship at Millsaps College valued at more than $1 million. He has also paid the college tuition for at least one student every year since 1974.
But things were not always so prosperous and the path was not always so clear.
After graduating from OSU in 1968, he returned to India where he “found my wife but not a job.” Sethi and his wife Raksha went to Canada because the U.S. would not renew his visa. When the academic couple could not find jobs in Canada, they headed back to the U.S. to seek employment that would renew their visas there.
Sethi recalls applying for teaching jobs he found from the list of universities in the back of a Webster’s Dictionary. His luck turned when he landed a position as an associate professor of biology and Raksha one in sociology at Mississippi Valley State University in the small town of Itta Bena. “Doc,” a name Sethi was called then and now, and Raksha have made Mississippi their home for nearly 50 years.
Seven years later after teaching college, he yearned for a way to better provide for his family. In 1972, guided by the prophetic advice of his neighbor that people need three things in life—food, clothing and shelter, Doc and his nephew decided it was time to find a “bigger purpose in life” and ventured out to learn the fast food business. He worked tirelessly for five months in a SONIC drive-in restaurant while carrying a full teaching load.
After a year of learning the industry by cooking, doing dishes, making fries and cooking burgers, he got a $50,000 loan and on December 18, 1973, the Sethi family opened a SONIC of their own in Brookhaven, MS. Two weeks later, the business netted $5,000 in profits. He incorporated his own company, Jackie’s International Inc., and it soared to $1 million in profits in one year. Over the next three years, he added 24 SONIC franchises and later added 38 Pizza Inn franchises among others.
Driven by an innate belief that nothing is impossible, Sethi has led a life marked by hard work and gritty determination that has resulted in an extraordinary and storied career.