In a crowd of native Iowans, good luck picking out the woman determined to involve children in world cultures. Sherry Gupta of Grimes may be executive director of the nonprofit group CultureAll, but she looks like the mom next door.
Gupta, a former farm girl from Grinnell, is now is a kid-chauffeuring suburbanite who served mac and cheese for her daughter’s birthday dinner. She’s fluent in one language—English.
Still, Gupta’s passion is helping Iowans explore unfamiliar cultures. She founded CultureAll in 2005 with a goal that “all students, in every community in Iowa, have access to high-quality cultural experiences,” she says.
Gupta, 46, first was exposed to foreign cultures through exchange students from Chile and Germany in her parents’ home. In high school, she traveled to Spain on a class trip. “Spain was my first love,” she says.
While attending Grinnell College, Gupta studied in England and Russia, changed her planned English major to anthropology (“the study of mankind,” she says) and married classmate Atul Gupta, a native of India. Their son Yash is now 14, daughter Shabana is 12 and son Nitin is 9.
Iowans have a tendency to be open and welcoming. … We’re becoming diverse at a time when we know we have to be global citizens.” Sherry Gupta
Turns out, Gupta’s anthropology major led to a good job. “Principal International was looking for anthropologists, because they heard they made really good market researchers,” Gupta says.
Her job there—from 1992 to 1999—took her to Chile, Argentina and Mexico. She’s also visited Germany, Wales, Costa Rica and India.
Since starting CultureAll, Gupta has recruited “cultural ambassadors”—all Iowa residents—to give presentations in Iowa schools. The ambassadors represent more than 30 countries. CultureAll also hosts occasional “house concerts” to engage adults in cultural discovery through food, music and discussion.
The organization operates from an office at her husband’s business, Advanced Technology Co. A grant from the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs and corporate and individual donations now provide compensation for the ambassadors, although Gupta still receives no paycheck.
CultureAll has been well-received in schools. “Iowans have a tendency to be open and welcoming, and we haven’t had the kinds of strife that some of the large cities have had with multicultural conflict,” Gupta says. “And we’re becoming diverse at a time when we know we have to be global citizens.”
The presentations immerse students, she adds. “We make the experience authentic,” she says. “We go beyond clothes, food and language to really shift people’s perspective and help them hold off on judgment.”
Without Gupta, CultureAll wouldn’t exist as an organization, says Tej Dhawan of StartupCity Des Moines. “Some school districts have found so much value in the program that…they’ve earmarked a portion of their curricula and budgeted funds to CultureAll’s programs,” he says.
Gupta is introducing tolerance that provides a lesson for a lifetime, says Dawn Martinez Oropeza of Des Moines, who presents CultureAll workshops on Aztecs. “It especially touches my heart when students of Mexican descent leave with a bit more pride in their culture,” she says. “In my childhood in Des Moines, I never learned about my culture or saw a teacher that looked like me.”
The effects of Gupta’s work will continue to ripple throughout the Des Moines community for years to come, Oropeza adds. “Because of her vision, we touch children’s lives in a way the school system doesn’t have time to do,” she says. “She is creating a world of understanding and, while highlighting difference, is showing students that we are all human.”