Indian American newsmakers of 2018

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U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley gestures as she stands in front of Humayun’s Tomb in New Delhi, India, June 27, 2018. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

NEW YORK – It was a year dominated by President Donald Trump, who left his imprint on a swath of society, not just in the United States, but across the world. Some Indian Americans, mostly in politics, soared through to make global headlines, themselves.

Two Indian American politicians, Nikki Haley and Sen. Kamala Harris, were the most prominent of those who basked in the limelight. They did enough through the course of the year to ensure that they will continue to create buzz and increase their aura of popularity, as the 2020 Presidential elections come ever closer.

Haley stunned the world with her announcement to resign as the most powerful diplomat in the United Nations, in New York. By giving up the position of US Ambassador, and her links to Trump’s administration and the White House, however, only added to the sense of popularity and glamor associated with her.

Today, Haley is seen as someone with a strong chance to be the Republican nominee for the top job at the White House, if not in 2020 – since she has pledged her support to Trump, and avowed not to run against him – but in the 2024 polls.

However, with the long arms of the law nabbing several close associates of Trump recently, speculation is building up if Trump will run for office a second time. For now, only Vice President Mike Pence’s name has cropped up as a viable alternative, if Trump recuses himself.

But it won’t take long for Haley to throw her hat into the ring, if the scenario of the Republicans scrambling to find a nominee to replace Trump, were to emerge in 2019. For now, she’s planning to move to New York, in 2019, and write a book on her experience at the UN.

U.S. Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) speaks during U.S. Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., September 4, 2018. (Photo: REUTERS/Joshua Roberts)

California Senator Kamala Harris was a busy woman in 2018, rallying around the Democrats, and going on a massive fund-raising drive, crisscrossing the country, as she helped the Democrats regain majority in the House of Representatives.

Though Harris has said that she’s going to take a decision to contest the 2019 Presidential polls after consulting with her family over the holidays, the chances are that she will get into the nomination fight.

Harris would, no doubt, take heart from a straw poll released by the group She the People, where she is projected as the leader in the field of potential 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls among politically involved women of color, reported The Hill.

Harris virtually swept the field of would-be candidates, claiming more than 71 percent support, with Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke placing a distant second with 38 percent, the survey found. Former Vice President Joe Biden came in third, drawing 25 percent support from the group of 264 women of color leaders, campaign staffers, political strategists, organizers and activists, the report said.

Among those surveyed, nearly 50 percent identified as African American, nearly 40 percent as Latinx, more than 16 percent as Asian and more than 5 percent as Native American. Nearly 90 percent of respondents identify as Democrats, according to the survey.

For the Indian American community, it would be a hard choice, especially for donors, if both Haley and Harris were to be pitted against each other.

Apart from these two seasoned politicians, there were several Indian Americans who created a splash by their decision to embark into politics, but found the going tough as the race went along.

Prominent among those who lost out in national elections, were Harry Arora from Connecticut, Suraj Patel from New York, Hiral Tipirneni from Arizona, and Aruna Miller from Maryland. While it’s heartening to see more and more Indians Americans making a huge effort to serve society, there is also the disconcerting fact that a lot of the newer crop of politicians or wannabe politicians have not had either any or inadequate grass-root experience.

Neomi Rao (Courtesy: George Mason University) 

Another Indian American woman who hit the headlines in 2018 was Neomi Rao.

At a Diwali celebration held at the white House, Trump announced in dramatic fashion that he had nominated Rao, current administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs to fill the seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, vacated by now Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

With the issue of immigration being a hot button issue in the midterm elections, and likely to be one of the key factors in deciding the presidential race in 2019, the year also saw several Indian American immigrants in the limelight for their achievements.

Among the notables was Indra Nooyi, who resigned as CEO of PepsiCo, after 12 years at the helm. The Washington Post reported that the company reported better-than-expected earnings on Nooyi’s last day in office, with the company’s 16 percent boost in profits signaling a strong sendoff for her.

During her tenure, Pepsi reached into snack categories offering organic, healthful alternatives to colas and chips, including Sabra hummus and Bare Foods, a maker of fruit and vegetable snacks. Nooyi’s departure also highlighted the relative lack of female leaders — and particularly women of color — at the top of major corporations, reported the Post.

In her final remarks, Nooyi, who was born in Chennai, said that “even though I still have a lot of fuel left in my tank,” she was ready to finish out her years as chief executive. Nooyi praised the company’s achievements, ranging from investments in human rights and clean drinking water to nutritious retail options, and said that between 2006 and 2017 the company’s net revenue grew by more than 80 percent. Pepsi added a new billion dollar brand almost every other year, she said, according to the Post report.

PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi poses for a portrait by products at the Tops SuperMarket in Batavia, New York, U.S. on June 3, 2013. REUTERS/Don Heupel/File Photo

Another milestone was created by Jayshree Ullal, who became the first Indian American billionaire, with an estimated net worth of $1.3 billion, according to Forbes.com, which reported her status in March.

Ullal was born in London, England, and grew up in New Delhi, India. She was nominated by Newsweek as one of the 20 most powerful “Women to Watch in 2001.”

According to Ullal’s bio on Arista’s website, she was named as one of the “50 Most Powerful People” in Network World in 2005 as well as one of the “Top Executives” by Forbes magazine in 2012. She was co-awarded the “EY 2015 Entrepreneur of the Year” across the nation along with being named the “#3 IT Industry Disrupter” by CRN. She received the 2013 Distinguished Engineering Alumni Award at SCU and the SFSU Distinguished Alumni Award in 2016.

Within the last three years Ullal has not only “streamlined and doubled the metro optical business while forging key alliances with major service provider customers” but has also brought a small company like Arista Networks to the top in a competitive network, said Forbes.

There are different routes to wealth creation, as demonstrated by Indian American Nandlall Mangal. Some just get it by buying a lottery ticket.

Mangal, 42, from Staten Island, NY, came forward to claim the $245.6 million sole jackpot-winning ticket from the August 11, 2018 Powerball drawing. The newest lottery multi-millionaire claimed his prize in the form of a trust. On behalf of The Sea & Sand Trust, he chose to receive his Powerball prize as a one-time lump sum payment totaling $99,321,975 after required withholdings.

Fox6now.com reported Mangal, a construction worker, after he found he’s won, put the winning ticket in a safety deposit box, and then called only one person— a lawyer.

Author Salman Rushdie gestures during an interview with Reuters in central London, September 28, 2012. REUTERS/Paul Hackett/Files

Away from the world of financial wealth, the man with a treasure trove of literary novels behind him, Salman Rushdie, was awarded a doctorate by Indiana University.

A very young Indian-origin artist from Canada was also in the news this year, for exhibiting his paintings in New York. Four-year-old Advait Kolarkar, who is originally from Pune, Maharashtra, and now lives in the city of Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada, exhibited his works at the Artexpo New York, making him the youngest artist at the prestigious show in 40 years.

There were a lot of Indian Americans youngsters in the news for their incredible achievements, like in past years.

Karthik Nemmani won the Scripps Spelling Bee, Akhil Kondepudi won the Brain Bee; Dhruv Gaur created a sensation on Jeopardy; the TechnoQueens, comprising of a group of Indian Americans from Long Island, NY, won the inaugural Lego world championships; Venkat Ranjan won the National Geographic Bee; and Yuvraj Chennareddy won a world chess championship, in his age-group. There was an Indian American too in the US team which won at the International Math Olympiad.

Question is: was there any academic-oriented competition which an Indian American either did not win or feature among the top three? It would be hard to find any.

The year 2018 also saw a terrible tragedy, which highlighted the modern travails of social media, and the perils of going to extreme lengths to be in the limelight.

Meena Alexander (Courtesy: meenaalexander.com)

An Indian American couple Vishnu Viswanath and Meenakshi Moorthy, died after allegedly falling off a cliff, while trying to perhaps take a selfie, news reports said.

Their bodies were found at the bottom of a 3,000 foot drop off Taft Point in Yosemite National Park, according to a San Francisco Chronicle news report, in October. The couple were doing what they loved to do, going by their entries on a blog site chronicling their adventures and experiences during their travels.

Friends told SFChronicle that Viswanath had just taken a job with Cisco Systems Inc., in San Jose, and that the two were driving from New York to Silicon Valley, making it like a sight-seeing tour.

The blogsite, holidaysandhappilyeverafters.com, has beautiful pictures of the couple in various locations, including in a hot-air balloon, with Moorthy sporting pink hair. The headings of some of the entries shows a happy couple enjoying life — ‘A Renewed Yay-Saying Beginning. Summer Roadtrips in USA for this year (ending with a huuuge travel hangover!); Niagara Falls on my Birthday plus tips for an epic trip to the Mighty Falls.; Lessons Learnt from my Man in 7 years of love and 2 years of marriage; Road Trip from Chicago to NYC, from dreamy lighthouses to haunted covered bridges!’

Their death made headlines all over the world too, just like they did in their lifetime.

The Indian American community lost also one of its foremost literary writers too, poet Meena Alexander, in 2018.

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