‘We realized how natural a path
public service was for him’
Though nervous about his career choices, Janardan and Reena Shah could not be more
proud of their trailblazing son, they tell Aziz Haniffa.
Janardan and Reena Shah, Dr Raj Shah’s parents, who hail from Ahmedabad and Petlad, in Gujarat, respectively, had different wishes vis-à-vis their son’s career paths.
Janardan, 73, wanted Raj to get into some technical field
and then go into management.
Reena, 69, dreamed that Raj would become a highly successful physician.
Both common aspirations of Indian-American parents of
that generation who had crossed continents for better
opportunities, especially for their children.
Janardan came to the US in 1967 on an engineering
scholarship at the University of Arizona. After receiving
his master of science degree he moved to California to
work as a project engineer for aerospace companies.
In early 1970, he says, “I took a three months leave of
absence, bought a round-the-world airline ticket and trav-
eled through Europe before going to India. While in India,
I met Reena and we got married in March 1970. I then
traveled through Asia Pacific and got back to California.
Reena could not join me because her visa had not been
finalized. She joined me in July 1970.”
“In October 1970, we moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan,
where I worked as a senior engineer on the Apollo 17 pro-
gram and upon completion of the project, I joined the
Ford Motor Company, in Dearborn, Michigan, to develop
and test exhaust emissions technology to meet govern-
ment clean air and fuel economy standards.”
Reena, who had teaching experience in pre-schools, eas-
ily landed a job as a director of the Ann Arbor Child Care
Center, which was part of the University of Michigan.
Both parents, now in their retirement, say they could not
be more proud of their trailblazing son and what he has
More importantly, they say, they are proud that first as
director, Global Health Development, at the Bill and
Melinda Gates Foundation and now as Administrator, US
Agency for International Development, he is making a difference in the lives of those less fortunate, all around the
Janardan says this facet of Raj’s personality manifested
itself very early in his life.
“He always felt compassion for the less fortunate. When
he was eight years old, we visited the southern city of
Mysore, and the king (maharaja) of Mysore’s palace. The
palace was very impressive and full of rich art, crafts,
paintings, crystal chandeliers, etc. But when we came out
of the palace, there were children begging for food.”
The Shahs: Janardan, Reena, Ami and Raj
COUR TESY: THE SHAHS
“Seeing this, Raj got sad and asked, ‘If people are so poor,
how did the king get so rich? Is this India?’”
Then, of course, there was the now famous drive and
walk through a Mumbai slum, where Raj was shown the
abject poverty side of India by his uncle, which he says had
a significant impact on him and triggered his passion for
development work in poverty-stricken countries.
In 1985, when Janardan was transferred to Michigan.
“We moved to West Bloomfield — a suburb of Detroit — in
the Birmingham School District. Our primary considera-
tion in choosing this area was because of the quality of the
school system and professional environment. We asked
Raj to go to a private school, but he insisted on going to the
public Groves High School in Birmingham.”
He recalls Raj as saying, ‘I want to be part of a more
diversified group of students, without any special privi-
Janardan recalls, “We did not insist as it was one of the
best schools in Michigan. We felt that he would be chal-
lenged and he was.”
While at Groves, Raj excelled, winning Michigan state’s
debate championship — a first for his school — played var-
sity tennis and participated in various other programs
while maintaining excellent academic achievements.
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