Arun M Kumar, the senior-most Indian American in the Department of Commerce and the point man for implementing President Barack Obama’s call to
exponentially increase United States’ exports to global markets, is unassuming to a fault and scrupulous in maintaining
a low profile.
Many don’t know of the profound and tangible impact he
has had as Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Global
Markets and Director General of the US and Foreign
Working behind the scenes, and with the full confidence
and trust of Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, he has
pushed forth the trade and investment promotion priorities
of the President’s agenda, including with India. With offices
in over 100 US cities and in 72 world markets, Kumar also
serves as the International Trade Administration’s lead official advocating better market access for US exporters.
According to senior administration officials and diplomatic
sources, it is no exaggeration to say Kumar was among the
key protagonists who helped craft the commercial component to the erstwhile US-India Strategic Dialogue in late
spring/early summer 2014 to make it into the new Strategic
and Commercial Dialogue.
He also played a pivotal role in making it a joint effort
between the departments of State and Commerce. Earlier, on
the American side, it was exclusively the preserve of the State
Department, with the emphasis largely on security and foreign policy.
And, to think that this is Kumar’s debut in public service.
Born in Mavelikkara in Kerala, Kumar, who received his
bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of Kerala,
started his career with five years with the Tatas in Mumbai,
directly under the tutelage of Ratan Tata.
“I was 20 years old, when I started working with him, and
it was a great experience to see the way he thought about
things. He was always an amazing person,” Kumar says.
It had a permeating and impactful influence on his life and
career. “I always say that the five years I worked with him —
it was like being in business school,” he elaborates. “I learnt
so much in so many ways.”
Tata, he says, “was very much a logical and scientific
thinker and he would think through issues very much like an
engineer; he was trained as an engineer. The other thing was,
he was always open to ideas. You could throw any idea at him
and he would deal with it and work with it. His open-mind-
edness to ideas and his very logical and scientific thinking
stayed with me.”
“Of course, there were many other aspects. As a person, he
was a very compassionate person, a strong person. When he
wanted to get something done, he knew how to get it done.
If you look at things he’s been doing, he’s extremely compas-
sionate in terms of taking care of the underprivileged and
being caring for him team and his people. He has been very
generous with Cornell and Harvard and in being associated
with USC (University of Southern California).”
At the end of those five years, Kumar came to the US in
1978 for graduate studies.
Then, with an MBA from the Sloan School of Management
at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he immediately
drove across the country from Boston to Silicon Valley. That
was in 1980.
In the decades following his arrival in Silicon Valley,
Kumar made a name for himself as an entrepreneur who
founded three successful technology start-ups and sold
It led him to KPMG LLP, one of the Big 4, where he lead
their West Coast Consulting practice serving major global
clients as well as emerging Silicon Valley ventures while creating thought leadership to advance business practices in
finance management. He also founded the firm’s US-India
Practice, was a partner and served on its board of directors.
And then four days upon retiring from KPMG, Kumar was
nominated by President Obama for his current position.
Kumar jokes, “My former colleagues at KPMG would say,
‘You retired and you just couldn’t wait more than four days.”
He acknowledges that joining KPMG after being an entre-
preneur “was very unusual,” but said, “I went to work for
them, actually thinking that I might hatch my next start-up.
Frankly, I enjoyed the firm, I enjoyed the work, did a lot of IT
work with a lot of companies, and it was also very entrepre-
neurial with clients and their projects both in California and
around the world.”
Kumar sat down for a chat with India Abroad in his well-
appointed office in the historic Commerce Department
building on Constitution Avenue in downtown DC.
You are near to completing two years into your stint. How
much have you enjoyed this avatar in public service?
It’s been an immensely fascinating experience because of
the variety — every region has a different set of opportunities
and challenges. The people we have all over the world and in
all 50 states, their innovations and creativity and how they
find ways to help US exporters or investors into the US.
Every day in the world, there is something happening in
the commercial service and global markets — there is match-making going on, firms being run, trade missions happening.
It is amazing — the trade missions that we run, but also the
trade missions that different states take. Our people are
involved in all of these: The state officials, governors’ visits,
Congressmen visits. In all of these, we try to use it to the
advantage of US companies, enhancing exports and enhancing exports into the US.
Every week, we send out a report to our entire team about
all the activities that happen around the world and its quite
a rich list of things, So, to be part of that is just enormously
interesting, it’s intellectually challenging, and it’s also physically sometimes challenging — the amount of work there is.
Specifically, what have been the highlights, the challenges,
particularly vis-à-vis you being a fierce proponent of realizing
the full potential of the US-India relationship in trade and
commerce and US exports to India?
There have been many highlights around the world. For
example, in 2014, we had the enormously successful Select
USA Investment Summit with 2,600 participants and so
Our team continues to be involved in very major initiatives
with a number of countries. We have large dialogues with
China, Mexico, we do a lot in Africa… been twice to India
with the Secretary, then to Philippines, Vietnam, Burma. So,
all of these have been highlights.
Focusing on the India relationship, I came in March 2014
and the (Indian general) elections occurred in April. Pretty
soon it seemed a good time for us to engage deeply with the
new (Narendra Modi) government. We did so fairly rapidly.
In my case, I took an economic team from the US in June
or July 2014 and then the visit by Secretary Pritzker who
went with Secretary (of State John F) Kerry in July when the
Strategic Dialogue was held in New Delhi.
We, fairly quickly, ramped up our engagement.
We focused on areas where we felt US companies can contribute most directly to the priorities of the new government,
particularly in the infrastructure space. We both agreed that
we should focus on business climate issues because it eases
So, very early, these conversations occurred and when
Secretary Pritzker was there with Secretary Kerry in July
(2014) for the Strategic Dialogue, the path was set to have a
deeper engagement. So, that was a good start.
Then, of course, the (Indian) prime minister came in September (2014) and his visit allowed us a change to further
engage deeply in terms of framing how we go forward.
That was the time the idea came out that US companies
could take a lead on working on Smart Cities (in India); that
was set up.
Then over Thanksgiving (in 2014), it was decided the
President would go as Chief Guest for the Republic Day
Parade (in 2015).
I remember, someone from the White House called me an
asked, ‘What are your plans for Christmas,’ and I said, ‘I
haven’t yet made any plans.’ And he said, ‘Don’t, because you
IT’S BEEN AN IMMENSELY FASCINATING EXPERIENCE BECAUSE OF THE VARIET Y — EVERY REGION HAS A DIFFERENT SET OF OPPORTUNITIES AND CHALLENGES. THE PEOPLE WE HAVE ALL OVER THE WORLD AND IN ALL 50 STATES, THEIR INNOVATIONS AND CREATIVIT Y AND HOW THEY FIND WAYS TO HELP US EXPORTERS OR INVESTORS INTO THE US. EVERY DAY IN THE WORLD, THERE IS SOMETHING HAPPENING IN THE COMMERCIAL SERVICE AND GLOBAL MARKETS — THERE IS MATCH-MAKING GOING ON, FIRMS BEING RUN, TRADE MISSIONS HAPPENING. IT IS AMAZING
The point man for
implementing the President’s
call to increase US exports to
global markets — on the brink
of completing his second year
at the Department of Commerce
— sits down for a heart to heart
with Aziz Haniffa.
Arun M Kumar
COURTES Y: ARUN M KUMAR