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Mumbaikar Runs For US Congress

November 01, 2021 16:24 IST
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'Mumbai turned me into a fighter, always hustling to keep up with the world.'
'Now I hustle for the poor and the ones who don't have a voice because I feel they are poor for no fault of their own.'

IMAGE: Meet Rishi Kumar, the hi-tech Silicon Valley executive-turned-politician. All photographs: Kind courtesy

He was just 22 when he left Mumbai for the US, holding on tightly to his student visa and a few hundred dollars in his pocket.

Today, Rishi Kumar, a Silicon Valley executive and council member from California's Saratoga serving his second term, is running as the Democrat candidate for the United States Congress from the state's District 18.

"When a local council member met me at a Starbucks and pressured me to stop my activism about a critical community issue, I realised I have never buckled under pressure. Bring it on!" Rishi Kumar tells US Contributor Abhijit Masih:

You left Mumbai when you were 22. What memories do you have of Mumbai and India? What was the most difficult thing to leave behind?

Riding the school bus, I would see life in Mumbai -- abject poverty at so many levels. I worried how life would play out for me, about the fight to survive or perish.

Mumbai turned me into a fighter, always hustling to keep up with the world. Now, I hustle for the poor and the ones who don't have a voice because I feel they are poor for no fault of their own.

I have always wanted to fight for the right values.

I was influenced by the characters I saw in the potboilers of Bollywood, movies that were launched and crafted in my city, Mumbai.

Watching these movies -- where evil always lost and the good always won -- nurtured the seed of righteousness that my mom had planted as she told her three-year-old baby stories about ancient kings and queens.

She told tales of King Ram and of Queen Sita, who had wonderful and magnanimous hearts and demonstrated courage and fortitude. She told me about the Maratha king, Shivaji, who, like David, walked into the lair of Goliath (India's then Mughal rulers) and came out a winner, even when it looked like he did not have a fighting chance!

If you had a good heart, if you cared for people, if you had courage and if you had compassion, you would always win. I wanted to be like them.

IMAGE: Rishi Kumar with wife Seema.

How did you transition from a Silicon tech exec to the city council?

When my wife Seema and I moved to California in 2000, we felt Saratoga was the perfect place to raise a family -- she was working for Cisco and I was working for IBM.

As I became aware of the unique culture of my city, I discovered little problems in my community.

I would look around to see who would step up to help if there was a neighbourhood break-in. I looked around. No one! Perhaps me? I discovered that the long established frameworks of the Neighbourhood Safety Watch programme could help.

I realised that my neighbourhood roads had not been paved in 30 years. No one had even tried. I reached out to our city's public works director.

Presto, the roads were paved that summer and I received many love letters in my mailbox. I love reading them and they sparked the give-to the-world spirit in me.

I joined our city's planning commission.

I developed confidence, which I never knew I had.

I became an activist, jumping into problems plaguing the school district, hurting businesses, helping a senior centre strapped for funds and organising Lego robotics and entrepreneurship bootcamps for the students of Silicon Valley, along with a Silicon Valley Youth Tech Day to showcase the startup prowess of middle and high school students.

Seema, my dear wife, initially wanted to pull me back to the family and its demands, but eventually acquired a taste for my community service when community members would reach out and thank her: "You have an amazing guy at home; we love the work he is doing."

Her response was always, "Who's that guy? Really?"

Now we tango together; she is the reason why I succeed. Together, we have organised events, rallies and community activities. Our work for our community has strengthened our bond as a family.

My political journey started in 2012, when a state senator asked me to run for a leadership position within the California Democratic party. I wondered, why me? I was subsequently very surprised at winning the executive board and delegate position -- the top spot; 42 other people had contested for the post.

I pushed ahead to discover a platform and success, applying the tech getting-things-done approach. The results were very encouraging.

But I had to work 10 times harder and found myself an easy target for everyone, as I didn't have the so-called 'powers-that-be' supporting my run.

As a person of colour, I had to prove myself again and again, especially when pioneering a new course.

When a local council member met me at a Starbucks and pressured me to stop my activism with a critical community issue, I realised I have never buckled under pressure. Bring it on!

I pushed back and decided I would join this person on the city council and find a seat at the table. I barely scraped through the first election, winning by just 71 votes. I took my role very seriously. I worked hard, taking on tough challenges and solving them.

I was putting in 60 hours on my day job and then another 40 every week with the city council, community leadership and my non-profit role. It became a 24 x 7 job, but I loved it!

Four years later, we won with the greatest number of votes in Saratoga's 64-year election history. Our fearless zeal to tackle tough challenges that no one else wanted to touch and deliver results was appreciated by our people.

I was always apolitical growing up, but I could not watch something bad happening or a problem emerge and do nothing about it.

Along the way, I have discovered the deep joy that comes to the fore when I help my community, help people.

I have always felt there is so much more fun in giving than in taking.

Public service, I have realised, is my calling. Kindness has amazing outreach. Helping others brings me deep joy.

IMAGE: Speaking at a meeting.

You are running against Anna Eshoo, an incumbent for almost 30 years. How confident are you in defeating a fellow Democrat in a historically Blue district?

We continue to forge ahead with courage and conviction.

During the November 2020 election, a Democratic challenger was running against a Democratic incumbent for the first time ever.

We made top two in the prior primary election, based on the open jungle California primary.

We did well in the run-off and garnered more votes than any other challenger from this district in the last 30 years. A key metric -- we gained more votes over the incumbent from the primary to general election. We continue bridging the gap and gaining ground.

Our strategy is definitely working and the positive feedback from district residents is a huge boost for our volunteers.

Thanks to unprecedented district engagement and support, we have an army of volunteers supporting our run. We are ready to win!

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/

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