It’s hard to say which has been bigger for Dillon Patel this year: starring in season 2 of the first-ever American reality television show with a full Indian-American cast, or receiving a full-ride fellowship to get an MBA at Wharton this fall.
As one might expect, Patel is ecstatic about both.
Patel, 27, originally from Miami, Florida, was selected this month as the second-ever recipient of the Prism Fellowship at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, where he will join the MBA Class of 2023 in the fall. The fellowship, which covers full tuition, is awarded to a student who demonstrates leadership in the LGBTQIA+ community. “I was shocked that a fellowship like this even existed, and that the committee chose me considering how many impressive candidates apply each year,” Patel says.
His colleagues will recognize him from the upcoming season of Bravo’s Family Karma TV show, which profiles Indian-American families in the Miami area. The new season premiered June 2.
‘WE CAN ALWAYS PUSH TO BE BETTER’
Now in its second year, the Prism Fellowship recognizes an outstanding MBA student who demonstrates leadership in the LGBTQIA+ community. The first of its kind at any business school, it covers the full cost of tuition for Wharton’s two-year, full-time MBA program.
Patel’s leadership experience at Zendesk — a $16B customer support software company — included his role as LGBTQ Employee-Group Lead on top of his day job as senior manager of global operations. He hosted Zendesk’s first Coming Out Day, advocated for non-discriminatory healthcare coverage for transgender employees, and spearheaded the company’s first application for the Human Rights Campaign’s “Best Places to Work For LGBTQ Equality,” where Zendesk scored a perfect 100% rating.
“We can always push to be better,” Patel tells Poets&Quants. The time for diversity, inclusivity, and organizational change is now, he says, and it is happening all around us. “The shift toward acceptance of this community has been so fast,” says Patel, “People forget just how much public opinion has reversed in the past 20 years.”
In his application to Wharton, Patel described his leadership role at Zendesks’ Pride Group as one of two significant moments that demonstrated his passion for advocating for LQBTQIA+ community rights. “Zendesk,” he says, “will continue to progress and demonstrate what it means to be an inclusive company for years to come, even after my time with them.” The other key moment was the AIDS LifeCycle bike ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles, which “made me realize how strong and powerful this community is, and the importance of having allies in the mission to support the LGBTQIA+ community,” he says.
WHARTON’S EMBRACE OF THE LGBTQ COMMUNITY
Patel decided to pursue an MBA to sharpen both his hard and soft skills, especially in leadership and mergers and acquisitions. He favored Wharton as a top choice among other comparable programs because Wharton offered an ever-shifting and up-to-date curriculum that aligned with the areas he wants to grow in over the next few years: Business and Technology. The other schools seemed to have a very set curriculum. Wharton also hosted a large class size along with an impressive LGBTQIA+ presence.
“The fellowship really solidified my decision to attend Wharton, not just because it was offered to me but because of the fact that this program decided to invest so much money into the LGBTQIA+ community,” says Patel, who has openly been a part of the LGBTQIA+ community for about eight years now.
Patel grew up in a very large tight-knit multigenerational Indian-Jamaican household. “There are twenty family members sharing three adjacent homes, and even more family very close by. I easily have over a hundred Patels in my phone,” he comments, laughing.
“Coming out as queer isn’t a single moment,” Patel notes, although he himself did have a big moment. “Sometimes it’s a process.” He decided to come out to his family and entire extended family at once through a written announcement that was published in the Duke Student Chronicle called “Dear Mom.”
“Feeling the need to come out to everyone and feeling like they needed to hear it from me was very overwhelming. I didn’t want anyone hurt with ideas that I told some people and not others. This way it was in my own words,” says Patel. How was it received? “Some people take time,” he says, “But eight years later and I feel like we are all in a really good place of acceptance.”
FAMILY KARMA: A GROUNDBREAKING REALITY SHOW
This past year, Patel has played a significant role in Family Karma, a documentary series that follows the Indian-American experience of seven families that have settled in South Florida. The other families are those he has grown up with his entire life. “Some of the friendships are literally multigenerational,” he says. “We have a small Indian community in Miami, and those of us that are here are really closely connected. These are very close and real connections.”
“Family Karma” is the first ever American reality show with a full Indian-American cast. “It is so cool to have a representation of my culture in a way that is very genuine. I’m excited to be a queer Indian on TV, and also glad others have paved the way,” says Patel. Some of his role models include stars such as Lilly Singh and Tan France. “While their stories are all different, together we show the beautiful fabric of what being queer and South Asian looks like,” he says.
Although he didn’t have much air time on Season 1, Patel says, “I had several people tell me that seeing my story gave them the confidence to come out to their family, or it sparked conversations that were not otherwise happening.”
Being on the show has taught him a few life lessons that he can take with him to his MBA, the first one being how to juggle many competing priorities. “I was filming this last season while fully employed at Zendesk, filming nights and weekends,” he says. “With two different sets of people (Family Karma and Zendesk), you’re really the only touch point, which can be challenging for time management. Plus I was working and filming all during the pandemic.”
A FOCUS ON TECH
The other lesson Patel took was that you can’t always control what people say but you can control how you react to what they say. “Many dramatic situations happen during the show, and I learned how to stay true to who I am.”
In his MBA, Patel wants to focus on his passion, technology, because of the industry’s ability to globalize and scale. He is specifically interested in data analytics, M&A, and change management over the next few years.
Patel’s personal mission is to continue pushing for change and inclusivity in organizations. “Inclusivity in the workplace isn’t just about doing the right thing, it’s good for business, it builds stronger employees, and it helps you connect to your customers. Businesses should reflect the diversity of the customers they serve.”
Post-grad he’s hoping to lead a strategy and operations team at a large enterprise technology company and explore the entrepreneurial route. He’s hoping to parallel and apply what he learns in his MBA to his own business, his apparel brand at Dilpop.com.
“Not everyone is going to like you,” Patel says in offering a final lesson that he’s learned, “but as long as you’re true to your values and true to the people that matter to you, that’s OK.”