Kalpana Mistry: An Unconventional Ambassador

September 1, 2007    BY Kristin Barendsen

“As a child growing up in Uganda, I could never have imagined the journey that would take me here today,” says Kalpana Mistry, who escaped from war and chaos in her home country and then from an abusive marriage to create a new life as a yoga teacher, mother, humanitarian, and high-powered executive in America. Today, Mistry brings yogic principles into her award-winning work at VITAS Healthcare Corp., the nation’s largest hospice care provider. 

Kalpana (“Kal”) Mistry was born in 1959 to affluent Indian parents who were part of a substantial minority population that ran much of Uganda’s industry. “Back then, Uganda was prosperous,” Mistry recalls. “We didn’t see beggars or poverty. It was a beautiful country.” 

Mistry was 13 in 1972 when the brutal dictator Idi Amin began an ethnic cleansing campaign, ordering all Asians to leave the country or risk death. But her father, a government judge, was not allowed to leave. Mistry remembers driving to the airport with her mother and four siblings through a crowd of militia who were beating citizens with rifles. Many of these citizens, desperate to escape Uganda alive, arrived at the airport covered in blood; they bought tickets and boarded planes with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Mistry and her family followed suit. Carrying no luggage, they flew to England, where they stayed for several months in a refugee camp in Suffolk. All their wealth was left behind.

Working in a factory job to support her children, Mistry’s mother had to feign serious illness to get her husband out of Uganda. “I learned that nothing is certain,” Mistry says. “You must be able to adjust to any situation—or you become a victim and don’t progress in life.” Mistry worked her way through school at the University of East London in retail jobs, and graduated with honors in industrial relations and personnel management. 

At age 24, following her parents’ advice, Mistry married an Indian man and moved to the United States to live with his family in Miami. Once again, her world was turned upside down as her new family forced her into a restricting, traditional role of Hindu wife and no longer permitted her to work outside the home. Several years and two children later, she left the abusive marriage and took her young son and daughter with her.

Career with a Purpose

It was a time of desperation. “I needed to get a good job,” Mistry says. “I wanted to support my children and make something of my life.” Fortunately, Mistry’s education in Europe had prepared her for a career in human resources (HR). Although she started in an entry-level clerical position, in seven years she worked her way up to vice president of HR at a bank, then moved to FPA, a healthcare company, where she managed explosive growth from 800 to 8,000 employees over a two-year period, and then had to oversee its radical downsizing when the company later filed for bankruptcy—a “heart-wrenching” experience, Mistry calls it.

Raised Hindu, Mistry began a formal meditation and yoga practice in the midst of these career shifts 10 years ago. Her morning asana and pranayama practice helped her to handle job stress and “maintain a calm and composed persona in any situation that I dealt with.” 

The yogic values of universal respect and compassion came to play a role in shaping her professional direction, as well as helping her personally. When she joined VITAS as vice president of HR in 2002, Mistry recalls, “I was extremely taken by the mission of the company—caring for people at the end of their lives.” 

Vitas means "Lives"

Today, VITAS (pronounced “Vee-tahs”) has over 9,000 employees in 16 states and yearly revenues of more than $800 million. According to Mistry, VITAS stands apart from the competition by offering more services to inner-city communities and by the size of its commitment—around the $8 million level—to charity care each year. “We don’t turn patients away,” she notes, “even if they don’t have insurance and can’t afford our services.” The company also trains caregivers in providing care that is “culturally inclusive,” with sensitivity to how death is viewed in different cultures. Mistry partnered with the Broward County schools to create a “Hospice 101” training program in which VITAS clinical staff teach hospice skills to students in the county’s vocational and technical schools. 

Mistry’s work has brought awards and honors. Dave Ulrich, a business professor at University of Michigan, says he recently chose Mistry for a Leader of the Year award in HR management because “Kal has a set of values she stands for and ensures that those values are consistent with the company values.” 

In addition to her current role as senior vice president of HR, Mistry represents VITAS in its global humanitarian efforts, which include partnering with the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization  to provide funding, medical supplies, and volunteers to hospices in sub-Saharan Africa. She acts as a kind of ambassador from VITAS, visiting humanitarian projects to create and strengthen partnerships. As VITAS CEO Tim O’Toole explains, “We want to spread our good work around the world to people in need. It’s the future of good corporate citizenship.” 

The company has also partnered with the Himalayan Institute on its global humanitarian projects. In 2005, with a small group from the Himalayan Institute, Mistry returned to Uganda for the first time since her childhood. “I was shocked at the changes,” she says, especially how the country has been affected by AIDS. At a hospice center partnered with VITAS, she says, “We saw firsthand how the hospice service has given patients hope of some quality of life, peace, and dignity in the face of death.” 

Yoga Threads Through Her Life

Kal Mistry’s yoga study and practice form the backbone of her success story. Mistry still lives in Miami with her daughter, Avni, and son, Vivek, both of whom now study yoga and attend Florida International University. “They have been such wonderful blessings in my life. They kept me going through hard times,” Mistry says. She also teaches vinyasa yoga part-time at Bally Total Fitness and Prana Yoga in Miami, which her daughter manages, and is midway through Rod Stryker’s Para Yoga Master Training program.

The study of yoga helped Mistry turn her own life around and enabled her to appreciate working in an organization whose mission is consistent with her own. Reflecting on her life and work today, Mistry says, “Facing sacrifice, difficulties, and challenges” is what has given her the desire to respond “with empathy and compassion for other people,” and VITAS provides the means. It’s a win-win situation.

Kristin Barendsen
Kristin Barendsen is a former contributing editor of Yoga International.

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