CulturalConnect website breaks down ethnic career stereotypes

Washington Post

Pooja Merai was taught from childhood that she would succeed when she became one of three things: a doctor, a lawyer or an engineer.

Merai, raised in a family of doctors in the Chicago suburb of Orland Park, felt pressure from the South Asian community there to follow in her family’s footsteps -- even though she longed for a career in the world of nonprofit organizations.

As she was looking for opportunities to pursue, Merai came across the CulturalConnect, a website aimed at young professionals in specific ethnic groups working to break down stereotypes imposed by family and society. It was there she learned that many of her peers had gone through similar struggles and were turning their passions into careers.

“There are so many individuals doing amazing things in different fields,” said Merai, a 20-year-old sociology and finance student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “It’s important that we know about these people so we feel like we can do the same. It’s not only doctors and lawyers out there.”


CulturalConnect,, begun last summer, publishes four culturally specific online magazines: desiConnect for readers of South Asian descent; mideastConnect; asiaConnect; and the latinConnect. It is planning a fifth, for African Americans.

In less than a year, it signed up 36,000 online subscribers, logged 3 million website visitors and attracted a few advertisers.

The magazine’s 17 staffers are all volunteers under 25 who are scattered across the country, working full-time or finishing their educations. They communicate by instant messages, text messages, e-mail and conference calls on the weekends, when cellphone minutes are free.

They market themselves through social networking websites such as MySpace, Facebook, Friendster and Xanga.


“It’s grown through pure word of mouth,” said Raymond Rouf, 25, a co-founder of CulturalConnect and a computer consulting firm.

Although each edition is aimed at a particular culture, co-founder Sumaya Kazi, 23, said CulturalConnect’s content is relevant for everyone. “We have readers in 100 countries, and I know a lot of Caucasian readers who read all the magazines every week,” she said.

CulturalConnect builds on the idea that the definition of success isn’t the same for everyone, said Eduardo Gonzalez, an assistant professor of mathematics at Rutgers University who was profiled in a recent edition of latinConnect.

Unlike Asians, who traditionally lean toward medicine and engineering, Latino immigrants often lack the academic backgrounds that make those careers possible. “The only thing they have in mind is trying to survive,” said Gonzalez, 29, who is from Mexico. “It’s almost impossible to be a Latin guy and have the idea that you can be a scientist.”


Many minority students ask him for guidance in math and science and “are very happy to see that somebody of their own culture is a professor,” he said.