Sheela Murthy is a world renowned immigration lawyer, entrepreneur and philanthropist. She is the founder and president of Murthy Law Firm, which has been ranked as one of the world’s leading U.S. immigration law firms. A committed leader and philanthropist, Murthy is recognized for her work in the United States and in her native India. Through the MurthyNAYAK Foundation, she and her husband, Vasant Nayak support the work of organizations that share their goals.
Sheela Murthy – lawyer, entrepreneur, philanthropist. Tell us more about your childhood, early life and education. What were your dreams and goals? When and how did you decide to pursue law as a career? Why become an immigration lawyer?
My father was in the Indian Army so we traveled all over the country and for many years I lived in Delhi, Punjab, Allahabad, Pune and South India. I was surprised by the difference in North and South India. Not in terms of their cultural differences but in terms of their attitude towards girls and women. We are three sisters and I remember, growing up, people used to tell my parents that they should have a son. I used to get very upset hearing that. I felt that we love our parents and we can take care of them better than anybody else and in terms of salary women are capable of earning well. So I grew up with a spirit of wanting to challenge the authorities that believed women are second class citizens.
When I was in my second year at University Law College in Bangalore, one of my classmates Donna Fernandes (who later married George Fernandes) started an NGO named Vimochana. The organization helps women who are abused, battered and killed for dowry. While supporting organizations like these, I realized, in India they need to change their attitude towards crimes against women. When a woman is burnt alive in kerosene, people brush it off as an accident. But it was not an accident, it was a very serious death and in some cases victims are women who are 7-8 months pregnant. Even animals don’t treat each other so brutally. It was just mind-boggling. So one of the main reasons I studied law was to fight for justice and to help the underprivileged. I felt if women get into positions of power and in positions to give out justice and help others, if they take authority and question/challenge the government, people would not dare take advantage of them. I wanted to be strong, financially independent and powerful and for these reasons I studied Law.
Winning an award
During my college years in India, I represented India in various world competitions and successfully won many. I wanted to work with my friend Donna Fernandes through her NGO, but my principal, Dr. V. B. Coutinho, talked me out of it. I learnt from him that women can be powerful, women can be in control, women can be helpful and caring, can have ethics and integrity, women can be tough, but also kind. He used to tell me that I had the potential of becoming a very good lawyer and if I became a successful lawyer, I could write checks to NGOs and support them even better. He told me, people would listen to me and I would have a much bigger impact as a lawyer than if I just joined an NGO. I remember not being sure but listening to him carefully and going on that path eventually.
I finished my first law degree in India and then moved to the US for a Masters in Law. My main focus along with studies was to work with non-governmental organizations because I believed in a very fair and just society and I was upset that women were not being treated with the dignity and respect they deserved. Thus, I started supporting many organizations by being part of the various tasks they performed. Like, I have been very actively fundraising for ASHA For Women in Washington DC, where they help abused and battered women of South Asian descent. I first got involved with ASHA 6-7 years ago when I was invited by them as a Chief Guest. Since then I have been one of their main fundraising activists.
With time, I realized that immigrants in the US were treated as underprivileged and downtrodden. People used to provide wrong and incomplete information to immigrants and take advantage of them. Lawyers use to fleece them with high fees. I too had been at a loss many times. Despite being a Harvard Law School graduate, my lawyer mistreated me. He never responded to my phone calls and voicemails. So I wondered if he was going to treat a Harvard Law graduate like this, imagine what happens to the million others who don’t even have a law degree. That’s when I switched from corporate and real estate law to immigration law and started a law firm with the vision to help people by providing them genuine guidance and dedicated service. My goal became to help people realize their American dream.
Today, Murthy Law Firm is one of the world’s leading U.S. immigration law firms and murthy.com is the world’s most visited law firm site. What challenges did you face as a business owner and how did you overcome them? How do you keep your employees motivated and happy in their professional lives while pushing them to achieve higher results?
When I started the firm, it was all I, me, myself. I did every kind of work that an entrepreneur would do. I was the secretary, the paralegal, the receptionist and more. Roles similar to anyone starting a new business. One of the biggest challenges I faced was that of employee retention. I expected everyone to buy into my dream and vision. I had a dedicated team but my expectations were always set too high. I expected people to work with me 14-15 hours a day, 7 days a week. If they would leave early, I would question their interest in the firm and their passion. Gradually I realized that I had been really demanding of them. I cannot make people work for that long. I had not shared my passion and mission equally with them to get them excited and passionate about our work. To be honest, it was my dream, not theirs. At the end of the day they had all the right to go back to their kids and families.
With My Team
My husband asked me why should they work 18 hours a day for you? So I ended up really struggling with trying to ensure that people would stay with me. I was very intense and demanding and had lofty goals for my organization.
By grace of God, getting clients has not been a challenge at all. I always tell my lawyers and colleagues, from the client’s perspective I don’t care how much you know, unless I know how much you care. My employees should know what we are doing and why we are doing it. They are the best lawyers but if they don’t care about their clients, they are technically not worth it. Making human error can be compensated when you reciprocate it with more willingness to help people and better their situations. So dedicated, passionate and cooperative team of lawyers and colleagues makes Murthy Law firm a better place to work for our vision that is to empower people and make this world a better place to live.
Biggest challenge I face – I don’t have any major challenges. We are not keen on growing for the sake of growing. We have a fantastic dedicated team of lawyers running the show. What do you want out of life? Where are you going? What would you want to change? In all those areas I feel satisfied and content. So I don’t have any major challenges. My husband and I feel blessed for all that we have. This is more that what we had imagined and wanted.
You credit your father for sparking your interest in social justice and philanthropy. The Murthy Nayak Foundation provides financial resources and other support, such as free media, to nonprofits and socially trans-formative projects designed to improve the lives of women, children, and immigrants, particularly in education and healthcare. Why is compassion for the less fortunate and community service important to you?
A lot of my interests including social justice and philanthropy came from my father who grew up in a very poor family. He was the child of a school teacher and imbibed such virtues during his childhood. When he was about 9-10 years old he used to teach the neighborhood kids and would also work in a few stores, earn money and give it back to his parents. He taught us the value of having a roof over our heads and food to eat. He used to tell us that you have a legal and moral obligation to help others. He taught me that if money is earned, it should be used both to empower oneself and also for the betterment of the society. The only thing that belongs to you is what you give away to somebody, because you get your Thanks now.
My vision for MurthyNayak Foundation is to help the world become a better place. To empower people, to make them feel valued, to give back to the society so that people can uplift themselves to the next level. I am less excited about the basics but I realize if people have not eaten and don’t have a roof, they cannot study. So I am willing to help people with the basics but after that they have to work hard and prove their worth.
At the Foundation in India
We wanted to give back to the community so we decided to put our money in causes we passionately believe in. Whether it’s feeding 2,500 children every morning in India, providing them with uniforms and scholarships or helping people in Baltimore. Our slogan is ‘From Baltimore to Bangalore, all life matters’. Baltimore was where I had my successful career in the US. My aim is to live this life well and leave a legacy so that after we are gone people continue to focus on the areas of women’s rights and immigration.
Your mother is an exceptionally strong woman and a constant source of inspiration to you. In what ways was or is your mother your role model? What do you admire most about your mother?
I was very annoyed and rebellious as a child. I am not sure I admired my mother growing up. I used to think like other human beings, she too had many flaws. But what I noticed and realized early on was how tough and strong she was all the while and how she never tolerated any nonsense in her life (even from my father). It was only later in my life that I began to appreciate her no-nonsense, take charge attitude in life. This attitude of hers was extremely powerful in a nonverbal way. Today, I am very grateful to her for showing me the courage and teaching me that a woman does not have to take nonsense from any man.
With my parents
Describe a typical day in the life of Sheela Murthy. If not a lawyer, what would you be doing? What do you like to do in your free time?
I usually begin my day with a morning swim or some exercise. Then the day follows with office work that keeps me busy, with consultation, meetings and phone calls. After office hours, In the evenings I support several NGOs. I either speak at their event or learn about their work or sponsor them, support them. I do a little bit of reading and am fond of cooking. I am passionate about my work and I love that it has been my hobby and my passion ever since.
At an event at United-Way
If I was not a lawyer – I would probably be very miserable and sad. This profession brings out the best in me because I feel I was put on this earth to fight for justice and demand rights for other people. My profession has given me a legal way to accomplish my vision to help the less privileged. I can be their voice and fight for them and their rights.
Panel session at the Chamber of Commerce
Did you have a mentor who inspired you immensely? What would be your advice to those wanting to become a lawyer?
To be honest, I never really had a mentor. My principal at my High School in Vizag, Mercy Jeyaraja Rao was a great role model for me. Now, I have lot more colleagues and people who constantly support and inspire me. I was always a little studious and wanted to come first in class and kept my life really busy. My parents, siblings and friends believed in me and in my cause to fight for justice.
Advice to young women – Two of my nieces want to become lawyers. Don’t do something because you think it will make you money. Do it because you truly believe in the cause and are passionate about it. Money will always follow commitment, passion and dedication. Become a lawyer if you want to fight for justice and want to help other people, not for money.
My spouse has been absolutely critical and vital in my life. If you find a partner who is loving, caring and supportive, success is much easier. My husband is loving, caring very spiritually evolved and advanced. We are totally opposite. I am very high energy, running at 100 miles an hour, he on the other hand is calm and composed. It works well for us.
With my husband Vasant
What is your idea of an empowered woman?
I believe an empowered woman is one who believes that she has choices and is free to make them without being judged. That’s how they become role models for others in their community and live a legacy because how we chose to live our lives makes a difference.
Sayfty’s mission is to Educate, Equip and Empower women so that they can protect themselves against violence. What is your message for our readers related to women’s personal safety and the issue of violence against women.
Well, I am not a sociologist and have not made extensive research on this topic, but I know that it has a lot to do with society accepting certain behaviour. In India, law is not very respected and admired as people think they can break the law. The foundation of law has to be really strong that people feel afraid to break it. Your rank, status, money should not matter in front of the law. The message should be clear, if you break the law you will be punished. We also need to believe in ourselves and believe that we are extremely powerful. We underestimate ourselves and think we are insignificant and continue to follow bad traditions and rules which were laid down by older generations. Believe in yourself, use your voice and go out and change the world. I understand that one drop cannot make an ocean but billions and millions can. What you are doing through your organization is making a huge impact. If each one of us does our bit, a big change someday is just around the corner.
A leader in U.S. immigration law, Sheela Murthy is founder and president of the Murthy Law Firm. This prominent immigration practice, with more than 100 dedicated professionals in the U.S. and India, helps to strengthen the U.S. economy by aiding companies that wish to hire the best and the brightest from around the world. The firm’s website is reportedly the most visited law firm site in the world.
Murthy has been awarded the AV rating from Martindale-Hubbell. This prestigious award, the highest rating for lawyers, represents a measure of esteem for which attorneys strive, recognizing her outstanding legal abilities, acknowledged by her peers, and signifying that her professional ethics and conduct are above question. Murthy is recognized as a Super Lawyer in Maryland, and listed as one of the top U.S. immigration lawyers in the world in the Who’s Who in Corporate Immigration Law.
Currently serving as Chair of the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, Murthy serves on the boards for a number of organizations, including the Cancer Treatment Centers of America (Eastern Region), Stevenson University, and The Indus Entrepreneurs (TiE) DC. In addition, she has been Chair of the United Way Worldwide’s Leadership Council of India. The United Way of Central Maryland recognized her in 2009 as Philanthropist of the Year at their annual Tocqueville Society Awards for her one million dollar pledge, announced in 2008. She was inducted into the Circle of Excellence by SmartCEO Magazine for her philanthropy in 2010.
Noteworthy among Sheela Murthy’s many other tributes and awards are her having been honored as a 2013 Outstanding Director, and her recognition in 2012 as Maryland Entrepreneur of the Year, Innovator of the Year, and Most Admired CEO. Murthy was selected for the 2012 Sadie Award for her philanthropy and humanitarianism, and was named among the 2011 Top 50 Most Influential Marylanders, as well as a Maryland Top 100 Women Circle of Excellence Winner. She received the Small Business of the Year Award by the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, Ernst and Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year Award, and has been a Regional Judge for the E&Y Entrepreneur of the Year program. Murthy and her law firm were among only seven companies honored in 2008 with the Maryland International Global Award for contributions to international issues, presented by the State of Maryland.
A committed leader and philanthropist, Murthy is recognized for her work in the United States and in her native India. Through the MurthyNAYAK Foundation, she and her husband, Vasant Nayak support the work of organizations that share their goals. The MurthyNAYAK Foundation focuses primarily on improving the lives of society’s most vulnerable and disenfranchised. Today, Murthy herself sets an excellent example for those who wish to realize their great American dream. While cherishing her roots, which taught her to make the most rewarding use of each and every opportunity, she also feels deeply attached to her adopted country, which respects perseverance over inheritance and limits an individual only by her dreams.