Satyagrah souls: Indian Americans Making A Difference
SATYAGRAH SOULS is a monthly political series presented by Silicon Valley’s community leader, Saratoga Councilmember Rishi Kumar, in highlighting the community involvement and success of Indian Americans in the United States.
This series seeks to inspire us in giving back to our local community. We Indian Americans are going through a transitional evolution, as we get entrenched in a new world, embracing new culture, exerting zealous work ethics, supporting the American economy as entrepreneurs, high tech geeks, doctors, lawyers and more. We are definitely imposing the positive intentions and good citizen values upon this fantastic country and making a huge impact. But can our involvement run a bit deeper with issues near and dear to our hearts, perhaps within our local city, or with the local public school that our children attend? Do we sometimes hear our conscience imploring, “Am I doing enough?” Yes we can get involved just a bit more, push our comfort zone and enhance the learning and impact our involvement.
Our involvement can simply start with developing a healthy curiosity in our local community, instead of being ‘busy’ bystanders. Once we get involved, we will quickly discover, how easy it is for us to make progressive change happen and how receptive everyone around is, to leverage our skills for it.
There are leaders waiting to be discovered, why not “me”, by taking that first step? The give-back experience can be freeing, energizing, personally rewarding and transformative at the same time. There are many who have made their mark in doing just that. With this monthly series, we want to highlight these SatyAgrah souls who are showing us the path. Here is a SatyaGrah soul, who has found the calling:
Executive Director of Arizona Republican Party
Avinash Iragavarapu was born in 1985 in a small town – Rajahmundry, in the Southern part of Andhra Pradesh. He believes politics was a natural career for him as his childhood memories are filled with political discussions in his family, thanks to his grandfather’s active role in local politics. He went to school in Rajahmundry till his tenth grade and moved to Vijayawada in 2000 for his 11th and 12th grade.
He excelled academically and got admission in one of the prestigious engineering colleges in Visakhapatnam. He fell in love with the beautiful Visakhapatnam and six years later fell in love with his beautiful wife in the same city. Politics continued to be a draw. He vividly remembers the amusement on people’s face when he volunteered to work in 2004 elections as a freshman in engineering. He went to work on a franchisee business for 3 years from 2006 to 2009 and extensively travelled in Andhra Pradesh.
He managed to get admitted to one of the top business schools in India – IIM Lucknow. At IIM, he would try to adopt every management lesson he learnt in the context of politics and spent multiple nights discussing with friends how he can better political campaigns in India. As it is not a norm for highly educated people to enter politics in India, Avinash was unsure if he can make a living in that field and took up a corporate job after graduation in 2011 and continued to pursue his interest on weekends and travelled to meet with various political leaders and discuss his proposal with them.
A year after managing a weekday job and weekend job, in 2012 he quit his corporate job and started in politics as a full time career. He worked with YSRCP, a political party in Andhra Pradesh for 2014 general elections.
By turn of fate, his uneventful holiday trip to US opened doors for him in the US political campaigns. He started by working for one of the governor candidates in 2014 primary and had a meteoric rise to be the Executive Director of the Arizona Republican Party. He believes that he is the perfect example to prove that Republican Party is not anti-immigrants.
Persistent effort makes difficult things easy
Avinash, a lot of focus upon you and your role in President-elect Trump’s victory in Arizona. Tell me, how did you get connected into his campaign team?
Being an MBA graduate, I like the Republican platform – minimum government, fewer regulations, incentives to business, balanced budget and no populist schemes.
It all started with curiosity about how election campaigns work in the US. In 2014, I was on a holiday in US. I saw that elections were around the corner. I researched about the Governor race and analyzed the past voting trends, did some polling and approached a candidate by name Doug Ducey, who was running for Governor. He was a successful entrepreneur and was impressed by my past political experience in India. He gave me an opportunity to work on his primary campaign. After successful primary, they recognized my contribution and referred me to the state Republican Party to work on the victory efforts in general election.
I was recognized by all for my job in using data and building different models to fine-tune the campaign strategy and get a higher ROI for the dollars spent on the campaign. After the unprecedented success in turning out Republican voters, I was offered a job as the Political Director and within a short span, I was promoted as the Executive Director for Arizona Republican Party, the title which I hold to this day.
How difficult or easy was it to get engaged in a Governor’s race? Was it easy enough to convince Doug about the value you bring to his race? Were you surprised at how easy it was to get involved in a Governor’s race?
Success makes things look easy. However, things are always difficult, it is only the persistent effort that makes the difficult things easy. Early on, doing sales for my franchisee business, I realized that rejection is common and you need to be focused and should be always prepared for ‘the’ opportunity. To get engaged in the race, I made umpteen calls and emails and would hear only eerie silence but I never gave up. I would go to the library and spend long hours in reading and understanding the US politics to be prepared for one meeting. Finally when the meeting happened, I was completely prepared with my homework. Undoubtedly, my experience in Indian politics was helpful. This also shows how welcoming the Republican Party is toward legal immigrants.
In general, if it is something you are passionately committed to and have a core competence, you will be able to get opportunities. I am sure, if I applied for any other tech job, I would have not been successful. Though I am good at technology, I don’t excel in it and wouldn’t be able to convince anyone to take a chance on me in that field.
Looks like you campaigned in the 2014 Andhra Pradesh elections. What is the draw to politics and elections?
I have been interested in politics since my childhood. My grandfather was involved in politics at the local level and therefore politics is not a stigma in my family. I remember even as a 10 year old, I went out to canvass for the candidate our family supported. As I grew up and my analytical abilities developed, I started getting more interested in the thought of advancing the election campaigns. In 2004, as a 2nd year engineering student, when I went to campaign in the general elections, some people thought I was crazy because I was the only engineering student and also the youngest in the group. Even during MBA, after every class I used to keep wondering how I can apply that concept in the field of political campaign. I used to write notes based on my previous experiences and how some processes can be bettered.
I was in Delhi after my MBA where I used to participate in NDTV debates and met political leaders there. I used to share my ideas with them and took their feedback. I worked a little in one of the northern state elections in 2011.
I took up a corporate job after MBA and I dedicated my weekends to meet political leaders and policy experts. I used to pack my bag and leave by Friday afternoon to any place where some political activity was happening and I used to interact with people over the weekend and return to work on Monday. After a year, I got some clarity and conviction that I can work in the political management field. I quit my job and worked with Yuvajana, Shramika, Rythu Congress Party (lit. Youth, Labor and Farmer Congress Party) which is a regional political party in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh.
How important is big data and analytics in a political win? How do you see that shifting and evolving over time? Do you have a specific example how your big data analytics led to a campaign success?
The future of elections will depend largely on technology and big data. This is assuming that candidates on both sides are equal in other terms – capabilities, fund raising and popularity. Let us say, hypothetically some candidate has $10 billion to spend on the campaign. The candidate can bombard all available media of communication with messaging and high number of staff; it becomes difficult to match that juggernaut with an expenditure of only $100 million.
However an expenditure of $1 billion dollar can be easily outsmarted with an expenditure of $500 million, if the big data and technology are correctly used. Elections are very complicated, and understanding the voter’s choice is a complex phenomenon. This is simplified to a great extent by the use of Big Data. Use of technology simplifies the voter outreach programs and voter turnout programs.
Here is an example: During the initial early ballot returns, we observed a trend in a particular age demographic. The number of early returns was proportionately smaller than the past year trends. As we had a clear definition of that group and the reasons, we could laser focus on that particular age group and customize our message so that we could persuade them. Within eight days we could see that our efforts were clearly producing results
Where do you see yourself in 10 years? Do you envision a political run yourself, after all there is an interest in all things political?
Contrary to some rumors out there, I will be in the political campaign field. After my MBA, I made a conscious choice to be in the campaign management field and not become a politician or part of administration. I would like to be part of political campaigns internationally. Currently, I am working towards finding opportunities in countries other than India and US.
Do you see the Indian community around you equally engaged in the world of politics? And is there a specific change you would like to see?
Quite a few Indian Americans are taking a very active role in engaging in the world of politics including those who successfully ran for office. It is a great initiative by Shalli Kumar to start Republican Hindu Coalition. It will help in not only securing the Indian American interests through public policy advocacy but will also be helpful in producing future leaders from this community.
I would always want to see more people involved in politics. In democracies, politics is a process through which we determine most aspects of our life – from education to health to taxes. Democracy gets better when people from all walks of life are involved in the process. Fresh ideas, perspectives and solutions would be helpful.
One anomaly I observed is that not many young Indian Americans are involved in politics and I definitely want that to change.
So you have someone like you interested in being involved in politics, run for office someday. What advice would you give to him or her on how to get started?
I am not interested in running for office. I want to continue working in the political campaign field only. Here is the advice I would give to someone who would consider running for an elected office. Firstly, they need to make sure they are financially well settled. This will reduce conflict of interest when they are in office. Secondly, in the era of social media, people have to be cautious of what they post online. Certain things that are otherwise found to be funny or harmless will haunt you when you run for office. There are experts out there to dig out your past. Thirdly, developing people skills. Anyone hoping to run for office, should be patient in answering people’s questions. They should be genuinely interested in solving people’s problems. Fourthly, I would say that they have to spend some time working on policy so they can understand how to fix the real world problems instead of just having good intentions. Finally, I would say that they have to be willing to work long hours and stay motivated. There will always be a section of people who would disapprove of you despite your commitment to better the lives of people you represent.
Avinash thank you! We wish you success with all future endeavors.
Dear Readers, Do you have a story to share? We invite you to introduce us to folks in your community who are making a difference – we would love to profile them. Are there similar stories you are familiar with locally. The ones who helped address a simple issue in the community to make life a bit better. Perhaps someone you know decided to make a run for school board, was appointed to the planning commission. Provide us your insights on Indian Americans locally and nationally who are making things happen. These perspectives will help construct roadmaps for our community to empower ourselves, to hopefully ignite a desire in all of us to represent our local communities as doers, leaders, establish and entrench ourselves in this glorious country of America and help make it a better place
ABOUT RISHI: Rishi is an elected city councilmember in Saratoga, CA and politically active in the state of California, he continues to follow his passion for community service, seeking to provide services to his constituents cheaper, faster and better, seeking to truly make a difference. Rishi has community outreach and engagement a key focus for his political leadership. As Saratoga’s community organizer, Rishi is host of many community events in Saratoga, many of which are free and always inclusive usually addressing a need or a cause. Rishi’s day job is as a Silicon Valley hi-tech executive but his zeal for community service effervescent. Rishi is also the President of the Bay Area Indian American Democratic Club (www.baiadc.org) whose charter is to further the interests and values of Indian Americans, work towards political empowerment and advance ethical standards in the political system. You can reach him via his website www.RishiKumar.com.