‘He believed in the community, when our
community did not believe in ourselves’
work, without a distinct path or any kind of
infrastructure. Nor was there much support
from the mainstream American community
who could not comprehend the need to separate from others — or much understanding
from the first-generation Indian community
who felt activism should be replaced by studying, earning money, or getting married.
Remember, this was the late 1990s. These
were the years before 9/11 changed the social
landscape for South Asians in this country.
This was before a young filmmaker named M
Night Shyamalan added color to Hollywood
through his groundbreaking film, The Sixth
Sense. Those were the years before Bobby
Jindal became Governor of Louisiana, Dr
Sanjay Gupta became a familiar face on CNN
and the technology industry’s boom put
Indian cities on the American map.
Raj, Shivam and I — along with the other
Project IMPACT co-founders and members —
believed the South Asian-American community could play a greater role in mainstream
social and political American life, but it would
take courage and action.
We dreamed of a time when people would
ask us where we are from and we could
respond with ‘Philadelphia’ or ‘Detroit’ without getting a quizzical look followed by, ‘No, I
mean, where are you really from? Originally?’
The organization grew to include chapters in
seven cities and hundreds of volunteer members who participated while working full-time
jobs or studying.
In 1997, we formed The Creating a Voice
Awards to bring to light the South Asian
Americans who were making a difference —
locally or nationally.
Our early honorees had run for school board
in their neighborhoods or created the first
South Asian Bone Marrow registry. Each year,
we honored a different group of carefully
selected individuals. Some were well known in
their field, while others were unsung heroes.
Many went on to become household names
within a few short years. All were our heroes
and role models. A reminder to ourselves of all
that was possible. So, it is not only a little ironic that today, Rajiv Shah would have certainly
been one of the individuals we would honor if
the Creating a Voice Awards still existed.
SPONSORED B Y
Raj Shah with wife Shivam at the Indiaspora event
Raj, Shivam and I often reminisce about those
early days of community service, and I know Raj
feels that forming and running Project IMPACT
was a defining moment for him as it strengthened his resolve to pursue the path less taken.
From medical school, he went on to work for
the Gore campaign, which led to an opportunity to join The Gates Foundation.
The rest, as they say, is history.
I should also say that during this time, Shivam
completed her MBA from the Harvard Business
School, the two got married and Shivam became
a leader in the field of education innovation and
I have watched this couple over years as they
support each other’s goals and nurture each
other’s dreams. Shivam’s encouragement of Raj,
and willingness to sacrifice, has made all the difference.
Nowadays, Raj, Shivam and I don’t have
always have time together to discuss stereotypes
or why more South Asian-Americans didn’t vote
in the last election. We are busy with our careers
and combined five children (their three, and my
husband and I have two).
But Shivam and I still speak nearly every day
over the phone, and we try to meet as families as
often as possible.
On a recent visit, Raj took a look outside my
home in suburban Houston and noticed a lake.
After a quick debrief with my children (our
daughter Asha is their godchild and our son
Jaisal thinks Raj hung the moon), he ordered a
kayak online for us. I yelled at him. I told him
he was nuts.
“You know me, Raj!” I said, “I am not going to
use a kayak!”
Well, that’s why I’m getting it for you, was his
Yes, that’s Raj in a nutshell. He pushes you
and believes in you — often more than you
believe in yourself. Just like he always pushed
for and believed in the South Asian-American
community, even during those years when our
community did not believe in ourselves. ;
Mika Rao Kalapatapu lives in the Houston
area with her husband and two children. She serves as director, public relations and communications, K+S Consulting and owner of Rao Communications. She remains active in South Asian-American community affairs and serves on the
Advisory Board of Directors for the Houston-based Indian Cancer Awareness Network.