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Day Shifts, Night Shifts On the Road to Success

An Indian immigrant’s story: Making it and giving back.

Kamini Shah greets customers at the pick-up desk and said she enjoys interacting and developing relationships with them.

Kamini Shah greets customers at the pick-up desk and said she enjoys interacting and developing relationships with them. Photo by Anagha Srikanth

When the chain pharmacy he worked for opened a drive-through pharmacy, it was the final straw for Amit Shah of Fairfax.

“I thought, ‘we are becoming Taco Bell,’” Amit said. “So I said ‘I’m going to open my own store.’ The chain had moved away from taking care of customers. They were more like a machine playing a number game. You went there, they filled your prescription but they counted numbers more than people and it wasn’t something I liked.”

Having arrived in America from India in 1987 with only $20 and a green card in his pocket, it wasn’t going to be easy. For over a decade he had worked day shifts at pharmacies and the night shift as a technician at George Washington University hospital, all the while studying to earn a bachelors degree in pharmacy from Howard University and a license to practice pharmacy in New York, Maryland and Virginia.

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Amit Shah checks an order for a customer during a busy Friday morning at his Woodbridge Pharmacy.

IN THOSE YEARS, before Google or smart phones, information was scarce, and it took him over a year just to figure out how to obtain a pharmacists license. His wife Kamini Shah gave up her hopes of pursuing further education in psychology to take computer courses at a local university and become a technician.

During all that time, however, they were learning lessons that would prove invaluable in the future. Amit said communication was one of the biggest challenges he faced as an immigrant and it took years of interacting with customers to earn their trust and acceptance. He had to overcome his accent and learn to talk slower, use less medical jargon and listen.

Kamini, who had earned a masters degree in psychology and sociology from India, found she could use her education to reach out to customers.

“Our customers are all sick people and in their difficult times it helps to have someone to listen to their problems,” she said. “I might not be able to do anything but just listening to them makes them feel a little better. Especially when they are all alone by themselves, seniors and single parents taking care of little kids, [they] have a lot to handle. It makes you feel like you can give back to society by helping them.”

Providing the best services they could to the community has been one of their main priorities since they opened their first store in 2001. Even when it was just the two of them working seven days a week, they would make deliveries after store hours with their two children, still in elementary school at the time, doing their homework in the back seat of their Honda minivan.

NEVER COMPLAINING about the sacrifices, Amit says he’s most proud of contributing to the economy by giving people jobs and volunteering to train students who want to become future pharmacists. Three students who had come to him for advice now own successful businesses in the area, and he finds satisfaction in having been a part of their journeys.

“You don’t leave your country if you don’t see a better opportunity somewhere else, so when you come here you want to do something different,” he said. “I’m proud of my accomplishments. I can say that I did something without looking back and regretting anything. There’s no ifs ands or buts about it. I wanted it and I did it.”