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President Obama's Indian-American Appointees

October 2010
President Obama's Indian-American Appointees Now that it is fall, the temperatures outside are falling. But as the election season gathers steam, the political temperature around the nation is rising—which could lead to big changes in Washington. That’s the expectation among many observers, while the participants wait for November anxiously.

Politics, however, isn’t just about elected representatives, important as they are for the functioning of government. There’s also the world of nonelected officials, who do much of the work for elected representatives. Regardless of what happens this year, we can expect Obama’s appointees to continue performing their duties, at least for a while.

It’s no secret that a record number of Indian Americans are currently serving in the Obama administration. Of the ones listed below, Kal Penn—or rather Kalpen Modi—stepped down earlier this year. Here, then, is a look at 15 Indian-American achievers.


WHO he is: Administrator, United States Agency for International Development (USAID)

WORK details: Shah played a big role in Haiti’s relief efforts and is involved in helping South Asia. He was an undersecretary for Research, Education & Economics and chief scientist at the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture. Shah also worked for seven years at the Gates Foundation, where he was involved in a green revolution project for Africa and a $5 billion child immunization program. Shah is a medical doctor and a health economist.

WORTH noting: This subcabinet post makes Shah the highest-ranking Indian American in any U.S. federal administration.

WHAT he said: “We can use our lives to create positive change in the world?Become an advocate in your own community, or use a vacation to volunteer abroad. It all starts with education.”


WHO he is: Acting (formerly Principal Deputy) Solicitor General of the United States.

WORK details: Katyal has won high profile cases like Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, which struck down the Bush administration’s military commissions system, and Northwest Austin v. Holder, which upheld the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act. Formerly a professor at Georgetown, his awards include ‘Lawyer of the Year’ in 2006 from Lawyers USA. Known for his work on national security, he was an advisor to President Clinton.

WORTH noting: Katyal defended Osama bin Laden’s chauffeur because he felt that “the first military trials to single out foreigners” were un-American and unconstitutional.

WHAT he said: “I did not come here to gloat. The decision to file a lawsuit against the President [in 2006] was the hardest professional decision I have ever faced.”


WHO she is: Vice Chair, Council of the Administrative Conference of the United States.

WORK details: Bansal is responsible for the smooth functioning of the federal government. A former law partner, she worked as the general counsel and senior advisor for the Office of Management and Budget, and was also the state solicitor general in New York. Dubbed a “legal superstar,” Bansal graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law School. She has also taught law and worked as a counsel in the Clinton administration.

WORTH noting: Bansal won the ‘Best United States Supreme Court Brief’ for each of the years (1999-2002) she was New York State Solicitor General.

WHAT she said: “It can no longer be argued that human rights violations are a temporary trade-off to achieve economic development?Achieving the full measure of economic development depends on improving human rights protections.”


WHO he is: Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Legislative Affairs, U.S. Department of State.

WORK details: Verma is the Department of State’s primary advisor on congressional affairs and the chief liaison to Congress. He helps to set the national security agenda and formulate legislative strategies. He practiced law after serving in the U.S. Air Force, and was the country director of the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs. Verma also served as the senior national security advisor to the senate majority leader.

WORTH noting: Verma has received the National Defense Service Medal, the Air Force Commendation Medal and the Meritorious Service Medal.

WHAT he said: “There’s probably no more important security challenge facing our country than keeping weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of terrorists.”


WHO he is: Assistant Secretary of Commerce and Director General of the U.S. States and Foreign Commerce Service.

WORK details: Kumar’s department guides U.S. companies and workers in the area of international trade. And it helps in the creation and support of local jobs through the sale of American goods abroad. Last year’s initiative led to 12,335 export successes, of which 85 percent can be attributed to mid-size and small U.S. firms. Kumar, who was the managing partner of KaiZen Innovation, has 30 years of business experience.

WORTH noting: For fifteen years, from 1970 to 1985, Kumar had been a news and sports anchor on national television in India.

WHAT he said: “Ninety-five percent of the world’s consumers live outside the United States. We must encourage and support U.S. companies, especially small businesses, to export goods and services.”


WHO he is: Federal Chief Technology Officer (CTO) of the United States.

WORK details: Chopra advances technological innovation, especially in the areas of job creation, national security and health care cost reduction. Previously, he was Virginia’s fourth secretary of technology. Picked as America’s first CTO, he works closely with CIO Vivek Kundra to ensure that America’s technological infrastructure is being used adequately, not to mention cost effectively, to meet the needs of ordinary people.

WORTH noting: On The Daily Show, TV host and political satirist Jon Stewart dubbed Chopra the ‘Indian George Clooney.’

WHAT he said: “We want to build an open environment for those innovations to take place?.We always have room for improvement. At the end of the day, the private sector is what creates jobs.”


WHO he is: Executive Director, Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion.

WORK details: Anand returned to a job that he held in the Clinton era. His department provides guidelines to Americans on food and nutrition, supports research on nutrition, and evaluates the diet quality of consumers. An ex-professor, with over 40 published articles, he helped to develop Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the MyPyramid food guidance system. Anand founded the Indo-American Political Association in 1987.

WORTH noting: His first Ph.D. is in biochemistry, physiology and nutrition, and the second one is in veterinary science.

WHAT he said: “People do not pick their parents or place of their birth. No one should be faulted or favored by the attributes on which one has no control.”


WHO he is: Deputy Assistant Secretary for Domestic Operations for the U.S. and Commercial Service, Department of Commerce, International Trade Administration.

WORK details: Khanna oversees 109 U.S. Export Assistance Centers across the country and is responsible for trade promotion programs, among other duties. He has worked as an attorney specializing in business litigation and intellectual property. Other duties involve developing marketing and communications strategies and organizing trade missions. He also supports efforts to open foreign markets to American technology.

WORTH noting: This is the first time an Indian American can directly influence U.S. trade missions to India.

WHAT he said: “I look forward to working to strengthen American competitiveness, increase exports and create good-paying jobs here at home.”


WHO he is: Director, U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E).

WORK details: Majumdar’s goal is to find alternative technologies that will allow the U.S. to reduce its dependence on foreign energy supplies. A related objective is to decrease environmental pollution through greater efficiency and the use of green technology. He was a professor of mechanical engineering and materials science at UC-Berkeley, where he headed the Environmental Energy Technologies Division.

WORTH noting: Through the use of silicon nanowires, he found a way to convert large amounts of heat—which is wasted during power generation—into usable electricity.

WHAT he said: “I came to this country as an immigrant and am deeply appreciative and indebted to this nation for opening the doors and welcoming me with open arms?.This is my way of stepping up and paying back.”


WHO he is: Federal Chief Information Officer (CIO) of the United States.

WORK details: Kundra is responsible federal planning and spending on technology initiatives. His duties encompass the safeguarding of information security and privacy in all areas of the federal government. Previously he was both the CTO for the District of Columbia, overseeing 86 agencies, and the assistant secretary of commerce and technology for Virginia. This dual cabinet role was the first in the state’s history.

WORTH noting: Along with CTO Aneesh Chopra, he launched Challenge.gov, which offers cash prizes to citizens who come up with good ideas that can help U.S. agencies.

WHAT he said:    “What Challenge.gov does is it engages the American people to be cocreators in creating solutions to some of the toughest problems this country faces.”


WHO she is: Special Representative to Muslim Communities, U.S. Department of State.

WORK details: Pandith engages with Muslims, both at the organizational and personal levels, not only to convey the State Department’s policies but also to better understand the concerns of Muslims. She reports to Hillary Clinton. Earlier, in a similar role, she focused on European Muslim communities and worked on countering Islamic extremism. Pandith has also worked with Muslim communities in the Middle East and South Asia.

WORTH noting: An Indian Kashmiri by birth, she immigrated to the U.S. as a child. Her master’s thesis at Tufts University in Boston focused on the insurgency in Kashmir.

WHAT she said: “When we talk about the West, Muslims are part of the West. There are 30 million Muslims in Western Europe. There are millions of Muslims in America.”


WHO she is: Director of Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation.

WORK details: Shah, who was a member of the Obama-Biden transition team, works with entrepreneurs and nonprofits to help them meet their social goals, and is also involved with the National Security Council. Trained as an economist, she now has a $40 million budget. A former head of Google’s Global Development Initiatives, and a VP at Goldman Sachs, Shah has worked on U.S. development programs in Africa and Asia.

WORTH noting: In 2001, Shah cofounded Indicorps, a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization that uses the talents of young people to bring social change in India.

WHAT she said: “Instead of creating new top-down programs, we want to partner and build upon the innovative ways people are already solving problems across the country.”


WHO she is: Member, Advisory Council, White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

WORK details: Bhargava focuses on social and public issues affecting the community and makes policy recommendations. Formerly she was the principal director of Global Synergy Associates, a consulting firm, where she worked on leadership, strategy and risk. She’s the president of Asian Indian Women in America (AIWA), which aims for advancement through empowerment. Bhargava has held senior positions in banking.

WORTH noting: Bhargava, one of the first Hindu woman priests in New Jersey,         cofounded the Hindu American Seva Charities.

WHAT she said: “We need to work together to dispel myths and stereotypes and show that we can contribute to the American society just as anyone else. There will always be obstacles. We have to figure out a way of overcoming them.”


WHO he is: Member, Advisory Council, White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

WORK details: Patel also serves on the Religious Advisory Committee of the Council on Foreign Relations. An Ashoka Fellow, he has presented his views in the U.S. media and spoken at the Nobel Peace Prize Forum and the TED Conference. He has a Ph.D. in the sociology of religion from Oxford. Patel and the Interfaith Youth Core (IYC), a movement he founded, won the 2009 Roosevelt Institute’s Freedom of Worship Medal.

WORTH noting: When Patel was a 19 years old, he was so inspired by a profile of Muhammad Yunus that he decided to become a social entrepreneur and launch IYC.

WHAT he said: “Is religion of the 21st century going to be a bubble of isolation, a barrier of division, a bomb of destruction or a bridge to cross? Which is it going to be?”


WHO he is: Former Associate Director, White House Office of Public Engagement.

WORK details: Modi is better known as Kal Penn, but he reverted to his given name when Obama tapped him for a public liaison position at the White House. Until April this year, he worked on improving relations with, and raising the visibility of, Asian Americans and the arts community. Though Patel was an early supporter of Obama, the pull of films was irresistible and he’s now making A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas.

WORTH noting: After Modi gave up his White House job, he was robbed at gunpoint in Washington, where the mugger made him lie on the ground before taking his possessions.

WHAT he said: “I love what I do as an actor. I couldn’t love it more. ?probably from the time I was a kid, I really enjoyed that balance between the arts and public service.”

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