Two Tamilians on Capitol Hill, and many more

Google CEO Sundar Pichai speaks during the Google I/O Developers Conference in Mountain View, California, on May 8, 2018. (Bloomberg photo by David Paul Morris)

NEW YORK – It was a quaint, polite exchange of pleasantries by two Tamilians, on Capitol Hill. There was no attempt to hide their pride and laughter, though. The elation was totally justified: of being immensely successful in the country they now call home, after emigrating from Chennai.

Pramila Jayapal, the Democrat Congresswoman from Washington state, at a Congressional hearing this week, where Sundar Pichai, the Google CEO, and IIT Kharagpur alum, testified on the search engine’s data privacy protections, told him before she started to pose questions: “Let me just take a point of personal privilege to say that I was born in the same state as you in India and I am excited to see you leading a company and continuing to show that immigrants to this country contribute great value, in spite of some of the rhetoric we hear. Thank you Mr. Pichai.”

Republican Congressman Keith Rothfus Keith from Pennsylvania chimed in by lauding the success story of the two immigrants, telling Pichai: “I just want to echo what my colleague Ms. Pramila Jayapal had said. I am glad you are here at the committee but I am glad you are here in our country. You are a success story and I can just think of you sitting as a teenager in India, thinking that this was probably never even on your radar.”

Rothfus added: “But you came to this country, because this country had that promise out there and I want to thank you for being here today and encourage you to continue collaborating with this committee.”

While Pichai and Jayapal – both of whom were born in Chennai – are two of the most prominent and publicly visible Indian Americans today, there are plenty of other successful Tamilians from India, or of Tamil-origin, who have made significant impact and contribution to American corporate world, society, and public life, over the decades.

There are almost 200,000 Tamil-origin people in the US, with New Jersey, New York, the Washington, DC metropolitan area, and Silicon Valley being home to the largest population concentration of Tamils, according to Wikipedia. There are significant pockets of Sri Lankan Tamil population too, especially in the New York City borough of Staten Island, with numbers exceeding 5,000.

Amongst prominent Tamilians and Tamil-origin individuals from India in the US, the name of California Sen. Kamala Devi Harris might arguably spring up on top of a list, especially if she were to declare her candidacy and go on to become the President of the United States, in the 2020 Presidential race.

Born in Oakland, California, Harris’ mother, Shyamala Gopalan Harris, was a breast cancer scientist who emigrated from then Madras in 1960. Her father, Donald Harris, was a Stanford University economics professor who emigrated from Jamaica.

The former chairwoman and CEO of Pepsico, Indra Nooyi, is another illustrious Tamilian, who was consistently ranked among the world’s 100 most powerful women, with Fortune ranking her the 2nd most powerful woman in their 2015 list.

There are several Tamilians who have made their name in the technology world, like Pichai. Scientist and entrepreneur V. A. Shiva Ayyadurai has been heralded as the inventor of Email. Thomas S. Anantharaman, a world-renowned computer statistician, laid the foundation for the IBM chess-playing computer Deep Blue which beat world champion Garry Kasparov in 1997.

Google has several brilliant Tamilians working for it, apart from Pichai. There is Krishna Bharat, who is the creator of Google News, a service that automatically indexes over 25,000 news websites in more than 35 languages.

Then there is Maya Shankar, who served as an advisor in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and moved on to be the first head of Behavioral Insights at Google, last year.

However, if one were to put a finger on one field where Tamilians are the crème de la crème of top notch performers, outmatching even their peers, it’s the entertainment industry.

Manoj Nelliyattu, popularly known as ‘M. Night’ Shyamalan, who was born in Mahé and raised in Pennsylvania, is one of the modern auteurs of the thriller and science fiction genre, with classic films like ‘The Sixth Sense’, ‘Unbreakable’ and ‘Signs’, under his belt.

Ashok Amritraj, former tennis pro, is one of the top producers of big budget films in Hollywood. The chairman and CEO of Hyde Park Entertainment, and the former CEO of National Geographic Films, Amritraj also became a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador, earlier this year.

Vera Mindy Chokalingam, popularly known as Mindy Kaling, has had an upward curve as far as success is concerned, in every genre she gets into, be it comedy, writing, or acting. The Emmy-nominated entertainer is now headed to the UK for her limited TV series, an adaptation of the British classic ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral.’

Stand-up comedian, author and actor Aziz Ansari is the male version of Kaling, when it comes to quality entertainment. He is one of the top standups in the US, raking in millions, and audience cannot get enough of his clever lines and riposte.

Another glamorous Tamilian who has captured America’s imagination is Padma Lakshmi, the former wife of Salman Rushdie, who has stamped her class in a variety of genres, including in the world of cooking, as a television host, executive producer, and author. She has been the host of the cooking competition program ‘Top Chef’ since 2006.

Other eminent Tamilians include Kavitark Ram Shriram, a top serial investor, renowned for being a founding board member and one of the first investors in Google; and Raghuram Govind Rajan, the former Governor of the Reserve Bank of India. Then there is Padmanabhan Srikanth ‘Sri’ Srinivasan, a judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, who was considered by President Obama as a potential nominee to the Supreme Court. The list is large; space too short to enumerate all personalities here.

Take a bow all you Tamilians. As a community, you are an indelible asset in America.

(Sujeet Rajan is Executive Editor, Parikh Worldwide Media. Email him: Follow him on Twitter @SujeetRajan1)



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