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The American Dream

Author: Beth Galleto
August, 2011 Issue

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One family’s inspiring story of business success.

 

“The news has a lot of people bad-mouthing this country—but it really is the land of opportunity. Until you live somewhere else, you can’t fully appreciate the opportunity we have here,” says Venessa Dixon, operations manager of Golden Years Medical, a durable medical equipment company that opened a branch in San Rafael last year. About 25 years ago, her father, Ronnie Naiker, had to flee South Africa for his life because of his involvement in anti-apartheid politics. He eventually ended up in San Francisco, with no money and no family or friends in the area.

History tells us that plenty of immigrants—“huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” as Emma Lazarus’ poem says on the Statue of Liberty—arrived on our shores in the 19th and early 20th centuries with nothing and then built lives for themselves and their families here. It may seem that such things don’t happen in today’s world, but Naiker’s story demonstrates they still can.

Under surveillance

From Venessa’s point of view, the story starts when, “Dad had to leave for political reasons. He was being investigated for his political involvement.” In 1986, her father fled his native country for the United States amid growing concern for his family’s safety in light of his involvement with an anti-apartheid organization. She was 13 and her brother, Ryan, was 11.

Apartheid was South Africa’s system of enforced legal racial segregation (it lasted until 1994). It divided the population into four racial groups—White, Black, Indian, and Colored (racially mixed)—each restricted from associating with the others. The system made it possible for the minority white population to keep political and economic control of the country. In those days, she says, South African authorities didn’t always arrest those under suspicion—instead, protesters were just as likely to disappear…and never be heard from again.

The Naiker family was part of the Indian community, which made up less than 3 percent of South Africa’s population. Most descended from ancestors who emigrated from India a century or more earlier. Under apartheid, the Indian community lived in segregated areas and attended segregated schools.

Ronnie worked for the South Africa Department of Post and Telecommunications, where he taught employees about phone lines and the state-of-the-art technology of the day. He, his wife, Viggie, and their children lived comfortably in Durban, where his family had been for five generations.

“The South African government had a system of divide and conquer,” says Ronnie. “It did it so well.

“I couldn’t stand the color thing,” he continues. He also couldn’t stand the fact that he could never be next in line to become his company’s boss, because the position of the boss was reserved for whites only. He joined the United Democratic Front (UDF), a non-racial anti-apartheid coalition. Ronnie and Viggie kept a lot of things from the kids, including the fact that their house was under surveillance by the South African police.

When things became too hot, Ronnie left with a family friend and took a long “vacation” in the United States. “This is the only country I know that would afford you the opportunity,” he says. They spent a week in New York, visited Miami and Dallas, and eventually ended up in San Francisco. “I fell in love with San Francisco,” he says. “I love the water. It’s a good thing I didn’t try it, because it’s ice cold! But when I got here I said, ‘This is the place that will make me happy.’”

Viggie joined him a month later. Both had tourist visas, and they applied for Venessa and Ryan to get student visas. Meanwhile, the two kids stayed with their grandmother in South Africa for three months. Venessa has vivid memories of the trip to join her parents. “I had never been on a plane before. We went through Germany, and there was a 10-hour layover. I don’t remember sleeping at all during the whole trip.”

Promise kept

Ronnie had been forced to leave all his money and belongings in South Africa. His first job here was driving a taxi in Oakland, which he did for six months. One day, driving around the city, he saw a sign in a window advertising for a sales person for a medical equipment store. As a child, Ronnie had dreamed of going to medical school, but his parents had died when he was 16, making it impossible for him to fulfill that dream. The idea of selling medical equipment appealed to him as a different way to enter the medical field.

He applied for and got the sales job, and within six months had built up a large clientele. Citing this measure of success, he asked his boss for a raise. When the boss refused, belittling him as “only an immigrant,” Ronnie said, “One day, I promise I will buy you out.”

He found a small, vacant storefront off Ocean Avenue in San Francisco that had been a flower shop. “It was dirty and grimy, but the whole family cleaned it up, painted it and cleaned the windows,” says Venessa, who remembers she loved the Styrofoam hearts they found in the abandoned shop. Since the store was in such bad condition, Ronnie had negotiated free rent for the first few months, and that’s how Golden Years Medical began—and yes, he did eventually buy out the business of his former boss.

Sky’s the limit

In San Francisco, Venessa attended a middle school that was one of the most ethnically diverse in the city. It was a new experience for a young woman who’d previously attended school only with others of Indian origin. Always at the top of her class, she’d learned well the lessons taught in the South African school system. “I was taught that there were three levels of intelligence, based on race, and that the whites would always be the highest.”

When she earned the highest score on her first test at her new school in San Francisco, she was shocked—she couldn’t believe she had gotten a higher score than the white children in her class. When she expressed her confusion to her father, it was his turn to be shocked. He had no idea she’d so thoroughly accepted the things she’d been taught.

It was a transformative moment for her. “From that moment, the sky was the limit,” she says. “I thought, ‘No one is ever going to tell me I can’t do something or put limitations on me again.’”

With her teacher’s encouragement, she tried public speaking. She attended prestigious Lowell High School, where she continued to enter competitions in public speaking and debate, sometimes speaking out against apartheid in South Africa.

Meanwhile, her family made do on very little money. Venessa shopped for her school wardrobe at Goodwill, and a trip to McDonald’s was a once-a-month treat. “While I was at Lowell, I had one pair of shoes and I couldn’t dress like everyone else. I still had my clothes from South Africa, no American brand names.” Today, she wears stylish business clothes, but “I’m still not brand conscious or brand specific in my choices,” she says. “I was teased so much.”

Ronnie applied for political asylum for himself and his family when they arrived in this country, and it was finally granted to him in 1995. One of his arguments was that his daughter was so outspoken, returning to South Africa would be a safety issue for them both. He soon became a citizen, and the rest of the family followed, all achieving citizenship by 1999.

Big decisions

As Golden Years grew, Venessa worked there on weekends and after school. She was still doing her shopping at Goodwill, but by her senior year in high school, things were getting better. She was recruited to the University of California with a scholarship and entered as a premed student.

Become a doctor or join the family business—that was the choice she had to make at graduation. “Dad said, ‘Look, in 10 years, I came from nothing. Now I live well and I’m getting ready to buy a house.’ It made sense to join the business.”

About the same time, she noticed a medical billing company was eating up a large amount of Golden Years’ revenue every year, so she installed new software in her computer and studied up on medical billing—a complex task, because insurance criteria are different for each product. She’d come in between 7 and 8 a.m. and read the manual, she says. As she went through it, she wrote her own manual geared specifically to Golden Years. Within a few months, she began doing all the company billing in-house. She became so good that she spent some time as a billing consultant to other durable medical equipment companies.

Her parents bought a house in Mill Valley. Eventually, Venessa moved to Marin as well, and her daughter started kindergarten in Mill Valley.

Second chance at life

“My father ran a marathon; he climbed Half Dome,” says Venessa. “He seemed invincible.” But seven years ago, he bumped his head on a closet door while packing for a business trip. The bump didn’t seem important at the time, but it had perforated an artery which hemorrhaged through the night. “He had flu-like symptoms,” says Venessa. “He was supposed to fly to Florida to a trade show the next day but decided against it.” His family soon realized something was very wrong.

They took him to the hospital, where a neurosurgeon did tests and diagnosed a stroke caused by bleeding into his brain. Ronnie was rushed to Redwood City for brain surgery and then given a blood thinner to prevent future blood clots in his brain.

As Ronnie was recovering in a Vallejo rehab center, at least one member of the family was always with him. One day, as she was having lunch with him there, Venessa realized her father was having another stroke: “I found out what they do for emergencies in a rehab center,” she says. “They call 9-1-1!”

An ambulance rushed him across the bridge once more, back to Redwood City for another brain surgery. But they couldn’t operate right away because they had to wait for most of the blood-thinning drugs to be out of his system.

The family had to make a decision: to have the surgery, which could end in death or brain damage, or not to have it, in which case Ronnie was likely to spend the rest of his life in a vegetative state. “Because of how he had lived his life, we knew there was no way he would want to live that way,” says Venessa. “We knew if he could, he’d choose to gamble on the operation.”

After the surgery, the family was told Ronnie would never be able to walk or talk again. They weren’t willing to accept this prognosis, and they all became involved in Ronnie’s therapy. They were with him constantly—and, of course, they were able to provide every type of medical equipment he could possibly need.

Before his injury, Ronnie had a habit of bringing Viggie her morning tea. Venessa remembers talking with her mother and saying, “He’ll never bring us tea again.” She’s not wrong about many things, but she was wrong about that. Not only has he learned to walk and talk again, but he once again makes the morning tea. He has a driver’s license, and talking to him, you’d have no idea that he had to learn to talk for a second time.

“I lost 10 years in 10 hours,” says Ronnie. “I couldn’t have recovered like this without family support. Venessa kept the business going, and Viggie was able to spend all her time with me.”

He says this whole experience taught him to appreciate life. “There was something in me that made me fight.” He remembers a moment when he heard his family discussing his prospects. “While they were talking about it, I moved my finger in my wife’s hand. She took courage from that. Viggie is amazing.”

Beating the recession

The company’s website puts it this way: “Golden Years Medical, Inc. was founded in 1987, a small San Francisco-based company with a simple mission: We strive to offer the best service and provide high-quality products at an affordable price.”

Golden Years kept growing and, at one point, had 24 employees and three locations. There are currently 12 employees and two locations. After declining a few years ago, things began to turn around, Venessa says. They began renovation of their San Francisco store—moving to a new location during construction—opened a store in Marin, updated their software and automated many of their procedures.

The San Rafael branch of Golden Years is located at 625 DuBois Street, Suite C, where the company has a 3,000-square-foot retail store and a 3,500-square-foot warehouse. Its products and services include power wheelchairs and scooters, diabetic shoes, incontinence products, hospital beds and a wide range of other devices to assist elderly, disabled and injured clients.

The staff strives to build relationships with seniors and their caregivers. It’s trained to conduct patient evaluations and educate clients on the proper use of all the equipment, and can answer questions about coverage and eligibility. The employees can speak to clients in Spanish, Tagalog, Chinese and several other languages. There are currently close to 600 individual clients.

“We bill the insurance company and get paid directly,” Venessa says. “This gives us a competitive edge.” Other companies are paid by their clients, who then have to wait to be reimbursed by their insurance. Golden Years accepts Medicare, MediCal and a wide range of private insurance carriers.

Giving back

Ronnie’s office wall is decorated with photos. One shows him and his wife with President Clinton. Another shows clippings of articles about the donation of a motorized wheelchair to a disabled child in South Africa. He’s more proud of the latter. Ronnie is a member of the San Rafael Harbor Rotary Club, through which the donation was made. The chair transformed the life of this child, and Ronnie says going to South Africa to present the chair and seeing her ride in it was a special moment for him.

His belief in participating in the local community led to his becoming president of the local merchants’ association in San Francisco, and his face was painted into a mural still located at Ocean and Junipero Serra Boulevards. Today, both Venessa and Ronnie stay involved in their community as active members of the San Rafael Chamber of Commerce, Rotary and Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church in Mill Valley.

“My father really believes people are people and that you should treat them all the same. He’s truly lived his life that way—that you can’t judge people by the way they look,” says Venessa.

“A kid once asked me how come immigrants are so successful,” Ronnie says, looking back on the experience. “I told him that, for immigrants, failure is not an option.”


 

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