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Indian American gets top post in Department of Commerce

By Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC
August 08, 2009 10:35 IST
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Ro Khanna, 32, has been appointed by President Barack Obama as the new deputy assistant secretary of commerce for domestic operations of the United States and Foreign Commercial Service, International Trade Administration at the US Department of Commerce.

He is the first Indian American to be named for a senior position in the Department of Commerce in the Obama administration, whose portfolio will have a direct impact on US-India trade and commercial ties.

Sources told that his appointment had been strongly pushed at the highest levels and recommended to the White House by influential US lawmakers including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, US Senators Richard Durbin and Ron Wyden, Congressman Mike Honda and Congresswoman Anna Eshoo, both of California -- where Khanna hails from -- and by Indian American entrepreneurs, including prominent Silicon Valley entrepreneur Vinod Khosla.

The US-India Business Council had written a letter to the White House and urged Commerce Secretary Gary Locke to appoint an Indian American to a senior position in the Commerce Department, where this person could be a liaison between US and India, to anchor the trade and commercial ties between the two countries.

The US and Foreign Commercial Service is the key export promotion agency of the federal government with a worldwide network of employees and a mission of assisting small and medium-sized American businesses in exporting their goods and services worldwide.

In his position, Khanna will be responsible for managing a number of mission-critical initiatives, including overseeing the domestic operations of 109 US Export Assistance Centres operating in 47 different states. In addition, Khanna will be responsible for a number of trade promotion programmes, the Trade Information Centre, and the development and execution of marketing and communications strategies.

The Trade Information Center has the India Business Centre, the China Business Centre, and the Middle East and North Africa Business Centre, and according to sources, Khanna would also be responsible for organising and leading trade missions.

 "I am honoured to serve under Secretary Locke and be part of a department that plays a critical role in President Obama's vision for economic recovery," Khanna told

"Together with Commerce's International Trade Administration team, I look forward to working to strengthen American competitiveness, increase exports and create good paying jobs here at home," he added.

The budget overall for all of the operations under Khanna, sources said, would be in excess of $250 million, with a budget of $50 million for his office alone.

One source said, "This is the first time an Indian American will have a role which is going to directly impact our trade missions, including to India, since the India Business Centre falls under his purview. So, he can have a significant impact on how this is carried forward."

"He will organise some of the trade missions for the Department of Commerce and will lead some of these missions," the source said, and added, "He will oversee the logistics and organisation of all these trade missions and can have an impact on where we go -- which countries we go to."

Khosla, who was a major supporter of Obama in his presidential campaign and a heavyweight among fund-raisers for the Democratic Party,  in his letter pushing for Khanna's appointment, said he was recommending Khanna "enthusiastically for a position concerning energy policy and/or international trade" in the Obama administration.

He spoke of how impressed he was "with Ro's passion for public service, his intellect, his ability to grasp complex issues concerning energy policy, and his leadership skills."

"Ro's idealism and experience in Silicon Valley will enable him to bring new ideas into the administration," Khosla wrote, and declared, "He is the future of the Democratic Party."

Khosla added, "He has also been a leading voice for the Indian American community for strengthening US-India relations, and advocated for the climate change and energy benefits of the US-India nuclear accord."

He said he discussed energy policy "with Ro on a regular basis, and I am impressed with the depth of his knowledge," and argued that Khanna recognises "that the federal government must increase Research and Development and deployment spending for clean energy," and also appreciated that "America's innovation of clean technologies will create new jobs and exports of the 21st century."

"Most important, Ro understands that any energy solution must be scalable and include China and India," and reiterated that "Ro's leadership in the Indian American and Asian American communities will enable him to advocate for energy solutions that include Asia. For example, Ro can push for open markets in India and for energy solutions that meet the India price. Ro can also leverage his relationships with the Asian American community to promote clean tech exports in Japan, Korea and China."

Khosla added, "Ro is the best and brightest that the Indian American community has to offer, and he is among the brightest and most capable young leaders in the Democratic Party."

"He represents a new generation of Silicon Valley leaders who understand the global economy and can help forge our relationships with India and China. I know he can make a real difference on energy and trade issues," he wrote.

Khanna had made an unsuccessful bid for the US Congress about six years ago but failed to wrest the Democratic nomination from longtime US lawmaker -- the late Tom Lantos who represented Silicon Valley for more than three decades. Till recently, he was counsel at O'Melveny & Myers, where he practiced intellectual property and complex business litigation.

He was named a Northern California Super Lawyers 'Rising Star' in their convention earlier this year and also served as chair of the Indo American Council at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, where he helped Speaker Pelosi shape the innovation and clean tech agenda for the Democratic Party.  For his work, he was awarded the Trailblazer Award by the San Francisco Democratic Party in 2008.

Khanna, a protege of Speaker Pelosi, is an active member of Environmental Entrepreneurs, served on the Board of Sustainable San Mateo County and the Human Investment Project, and was a mentor to the Irvington High School We the People 2009 team.

He is an alumnus of the University of Chicago, majoring in economics for his undergraduate degree and a graduate of the Yale Law School.

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Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC

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