Ethan Allen CEO Farooq Kathwari Shares Remarkable Personal Journey, Discusses Business and Community Leadership
HOUSTON, May 28, 2021 — Asia Society Texas Center (ASTC) hosted Farooq Kathwari, chairman, president, and CEO of Ethan Allen Interiors Inc., in conversation with Martyn E. Goossen, Vice Chairman of J.P. Morgan Private Bank and ASTC vice chair, as part of its Muslim Series. The evening spanned topics including Kathwari’s childhood in Kashmir, his remarkable journey from Kashmir to the United States, his rise as a business leader, and his involvement in the community. Many of the topics discussed were a snapshot of Kathwari’s 2019 memoir, Trailblazer: From the Mountains of Kashmir to the Summit of Global Business and Beyond.
Early life in Kashmir
Kathwari kicked off the conversation by briefly sharing the history of Kashmir as a region, describing it as a place long inhabited by Kashmiris, people who are thought to have been Buddhists who later became Brahmin Hindus before converting to Islam. He noted that, politically, Kashmir had existed as an independent kingdom until it was conquered by the Mughal Empire, and then became a British-occupied territory through 1947 when British India was partitioned into India and Pakistan, leaving Kashmir a disputed territory between the two newly established nations.
Kathwari’s personal story starts around this time. Kathwari shared that his family had long established themselves in the trade of arts and crafts, which would benefit him later in life. They had also become involved in politics, and his father due to his political activity became trapped on the Pakistani side of Kashmir following the partition of India and Pakistan and was not allowed to return home to the Indian-administered area known as Srinagar. As his father went on to serve as an official with the Pakistani government, Kathwari and part of his family subsequently also crossed to the Pakistani side where they lived in Muzaffarabad for 10 years before returning to Srinagar to rejoin the rest of the family, although his father was still not allowed to return. Kathwari then, at the displeasure of his grandfather who wanted him to study medicine, went on to study English literature and political science at Kashmir University while also becoming the captain of the university’s cricket team.
Coming to America and ascending the summit of global business
According to Kathwari, he came to the United States to pursue graduate studies in marketing at New York University, overcoming significant political hurdles in Kashmir to be able to do so. His first job in the U.S. was as a bookkeeper, a job he admitted in conversation that he wasn’t entirely qualified for at the time. Using that experience, he said he was able to later get a job as a financial analyst on Wall Street. Simultaneously, he also got married over the phone and began selling Kashmiri arts and crafts on the side — an entrepreneurial venture which ultimately secured him a significant partnership with Ethan Allen as a supplier. Kathwari managed to do all this while he was still a full-time student.
After merging his company with Ethan Allen, Kathwari rose through its ranks and, in 1988, became the CEO of Ethan Allen. As CEO, Kathwari explained that he made changes to styles offered by Ethan Allen that allowed the company to become a more competitive business. He also committed to having much of Ethan Allen’s products to be made in America, almost 75 percent, with other products also being made in Mexico and Honduras.
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Community involvement and leadership
However, even as a successful businessman, Kathwari was not immune to tragedy. He shared the personal tragedy of losing his son Irfan, who died in a shelling in 1992 while visiting Jalalabad, Afghanistan, with his friends who along with him were students at a local university in Islamabad. The loss had a profound effect on Kathwari: he has since become an outspoken opponent of violent conflict, including involvement in efforts to shape the debate on Kashmir by forming the Kashmir Study Group. Kathwari’s passion around community engagement reflected what an audience member termed “people-to-people diplomacy.” For Kathwari, he said, “the objective is to shape the debate, to say, ‘Let us see how we can improve the conditions for people, how can we work together on areas of common ground.’”
Kathwari is also a staunch advocate of interfaith relations and serves as the co-chairman of the Muslim-Jewish Advisory Council, co-convened by AJC and the Islamic Society of North America and founded to address anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish bigotry in the U.S. An essential part of that interfaith work for Kathwari is the responsibility of Muslims to share what Islam is, both within and outside of their own communities. He shared what Islam meant to him personally, through an explanation he learned from his mother — that Islam means submission to God, and God is goodness; so a Muslim, according to Kathwari, is one who submits to goodness and strives to be a good person. “Islam means goodness,” he said simply.
About Asia Society Texas Center
With 13 locations throughout the world, Asia Society is the leading educational organization promoting mutual understanding and strengthening partnerships among the peoples, leaders, and institutions of Asia and West. Asia Society Texas Center executes the global mission with a local focus, enriching and engaging the vast diversity of Houston through innovative, relevant programs in arts and culture, business and policy, education, and community outreach.
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