I remember the day like it happened yesterday. I walked towards the American consulate in Mumbai with trepidation and heavy steps. I had just gotten off the bus, passport in hand. It was the rainy season and cloudy skies over me. As I neared the consulate, I saw the American flag fluttering and my heart leaped. There was something magical about it! Today, my dreams were either going to hit the stars or be shattered. I could barely think straight as I walked through the door into the air-conditioned comfort and calmness of the consulate, soaking in the special fragrance of the interior. An American student visa was a hit or a miss and I wasn’t sure which side I would be in a few hours. Graduating from one of the best engineering schools, I was still not sure if I had the merit to qualify for a visa.
We exited the consulate. My brother — who our mom had forced to join me — and I had to kill time until 4 pm that day when we could pick up my passport…. stamped with the American dream that I had worked hard for almost a year. I was on cloud 9 and in a daze. I must have opened up the passport to verify that the visa stamp was intact — a few hundred times. It was surreal!
Growing up in an apartment in Mumbai, my dad worked super hard in the cryogenics industry, and my mom sometimes struggled to keep up the demands of three high energy boys. As little kids, we would pile onto the small family scooter for outings. Being the youngest, I would get to stand on the floor of the scooter, my dad’s arms around me as he steered the scooter. The wind would brush my face and my eyes would wince at the dust that flew at me. But, I would feel like a king!
It was a stark middle class life. I remember how my dad drove the Vespa scooter many kilometers away to purchase quality rice, as the rationed rice that we picked up from the government quota was not the best. We would enjoy a fabulous family Sunday lunch with the “high quality’ rice, still ingrained in my memory as I would look forward to it so much.
Taking the bus to school, I would see the life in Mumbai: abject poverty at so many levels. I worried how life would play out for me. Fight to survive or perish. Bombay turned me into a fighter, always hustling to keep up with the world. And now I was a fighter; I hustled for the poor and the ones who don’t have a voice, because I feel they are poor for no fault of their own. I wanted to fight for the right values; characters ingrained into me by the potboilers of Bollywood that were launched and crafted in my own city. Watching these movies – evil always lost and the good always won – grew the seed of righteousness that my mom had planted telling me stories when I was barely three years old about ancient kings and queens. Stories of King Ram and of Queen Sita, who had wonderful hearts, and did magnanimous things, demonstrating courage and fortitude. Stories akin to that of an underdog Shivaji “David,” who walked into the “Goliath” lair, and came out the winner while never having a fighting chance! If you had a good heart, if you cared for people, if you had courage and if you had compassion, you would always win. I wanted to be like them.
Arriving into graduate school I discovered a country that I had deep reverence for, and still do today…passionately. I love this country for how it embraced me, claimed me as their own with my university professors inviting me to Thanksgiving dinners — I found America to be a country that just willingly gave. One of the greatest strengths of America is the diversity of its citizenry. Our country is a melting pot of cultures from around the world and I found the ideal bubble to thrive. This country has offered me many opportunities. I initially struggled to to find my footing, but it not only built character within me. I loved the kindred spirit of people I met. I for sure benefited. Someday, I would give back.
I found that opportunity to do so in Saratoga where my wife Seema and I ended up – chasing that innovation dream. We found Saratoga to be that perfect bubble to raise a family — she was working for Cisco and I for IBM. As I got aware of the unique culture of my city, I discovered little problems in my community. I would look around to see who would step up. A neighborhood break-in. I looked around. No one! Perhaps me? I discovered that the long established frameworks of the Neighborhood Safety Watch program could help. I knocked on doors to see how I could organize my neighborhood and I was told, “Who are you? I have lived here for 30 years. We don’t need such things.”
But something kept me going. I realized that my neighborhood roads had not been paved in 30 years. No one had even tried. I reached out to our city’s public works director. Presto, the roads were paved that summer and I received many “love letters” dropped in my mailbox. I love reading these love letters and it sparked the romantic give-to the-world spirit. Little did I realize that an incredible journey had begun with that first step – that first knock in my neighborhood. I joined our city’s planning commission. I became an activist, jumping into problems of the school district, hurting businesses, a senior center strapped for funds, or organizing Lego Robotics and Entrepreneurship bootcamps for the students of Silicon Valley, along with Silicon Valley Youth Tech Day to showcase the startup prowess of middle school and high school students.
Seema, my dear wife, initially wanted to pull me back to the family and the demands – but eventually found that acquired taste for my community service when community members would reach out and thank her — “you have an amazing guy at home, we love the work he is doing.” Her response was always, “Who’s that guy? Really?” Now we tango together – and she is the reason why I succeed. I developed my confidence, which I never knew I had. We together organized events, rallies and community activities…a desire to help. The community work truly enhanced the family bond as we collaborated with these projects – my creative juices were oozing. Our kids became agile on stage. emceeing events, managing sound and fixing the little glitches. They gained confidence too. When you give, the world gives back 10x.
My anomaly of a political journey started in 2012 when a state senator invited me to a meeting and asked me to run for a political party position. I wondered, why me? I was subsequently very surprised at winning the Executive Board and Delegate position — the top spot. First amongst 43 running for the seat. Never would have expected! I was also surprised when the establishment-entitled party insiders hurled abuses at my win. I had apparently done nothing to deserve a seat on the table. I shrugged my shoulders, and pushed ahead to discover a platform and success applying the tech “getting things done” approach. The results were very encouraging. But, I had to work 10 times harder and found myself an easy target for everyone — as I never had the so-called “powers that be” supporting my run. As a person of color, I had to prove myself again and again, especially when pioneering a new course.
When a local councilmember met me at a Starbucks and rebuked me to STOP my activism with a critical community issue, I realized that I have NEVER ever buckled under pressure. Bring it on! I pushed back, and decided I would join this person on the city council, and find a seat on the table, NOT be listed on the menu. I barely scraped through the first election, winning by 71 votes as the same councilmember made it a personal mission to try to keep me out. I took my role very seriously, as I almost never had it. A God given platform needed my due diligence. I worked hard, taking on tough challenges and solving them. I was putting in 60 hours on my day job and then another 40 every week with the city council, community leadership and non-profit role. It became a 24 x 7 “job” but I loved it!
I have found my calling as an activist stepping up for complex community challenges that I couldn’t ignore. As a councilmember I challenged the system, unafraid to be the dissenting vote, and focused my energy on the tough community challenges. I led efforts to reject many water rate increases alleviating the angst of a million people of Silicon Valley. I worked hard to reduce burglaries – the largest reduction compared to any other Silicon Valley city.
As part of the crime fighting effort, I organized neighborhood meetings to roll out new neighborhood watch programs. In the early days, it was just Seema and me knocking on doors dropping flyers, inviting people to the scheduled discussion on rising burglaries. I didn’t mind being the lone ranger putting in the work – as I had been taught the value of hard work during my formative years. When you are passionate about the something the world will rally behind.
Very soon, we were being contacted by many who wanted to get involved with crime reduction. Our work was being publicized on Nextdoor and the help started coming. When you are on the right side, you can do no wrong. Always been the case! I tried to never toe the line of the establishment politics and the old guards of our city. I stopped a potential 300-room hotel mega development project on a hillside in a high fire hazard zone. When my colleagues on the city council proposed a road tax, I was the only dissenting vote, pushing for a budget optimization approach instead – to free up dollars for road repair. Yes, I had no fear, as I voted with my conscience. I always sleep like a baby.
I was running against the mayor for my re-election in 2018. I was told by a council colleague, “Don’t worry. You will still win, but #2 is not bad.” I had worked hard for 4 years, put my heart and soul into my role, into applying the tech framework of solutions and a getting-things-done approach. I truly believed that I deserved to be on top. I have always believed in running stellar campaigns. We knocked on every door of our city — something that had never been done before. Surprise, surprise! We beat the mayor easily — I was re-elected with the most votes in city history - 64 years. The people with the valley mindset of “getting things done” were the ones who really appreciated what I had accomplished, and results I had delivered — to support me with such massive support numbers.
The drum started beating hard that night of Nov. 8, 2018 — “take the leap and run for higher office.”
And we did!
Today, I look back to our 3rd year of this run for United States Congress. It has been a fight for justice and to bring ethical integrity into politics. It has been about dealing with establishment politics, and entitlement. In March of 2019 as we launched the campaign, we started with just 5 close friends who believed in me, and 18 student interns. Our grassroots efforts snowballed. For the November 2020 run, we had a thousand volunteers from 29 states, who wanted to be part of our fight for justice and to restore the integrity to Washington politics.
During the March 2020 pandemic, we suspended our campaign and called 86,000 seniors offering them help with groceries, medication and masks. Hundreds of our volunteers helped thousands of neighbors during the pandemic and California fires. That is the diligence I will bring as your next Congressional Representative. When we hit a crisis, I will call you with, “How can I help?”
In the November 2020 election, we garnered more votes than any other challenger in the last 30 years of this district (37%) but fell short by 45,000 votes in beating a 28-year veteran incumbent who had to spend 2.5 times more to ensure a win. Yes, we were targeted and sometimes vilified, but we ran an unprecedented district engagement: 100,000 doors, a million phone calls, and 1.2 million video views. Yes, we fell short handicapped by the pandemic, but remain proud of what our team managed with the first run.
As a person of color, I believe that if you are lucky enough to do well, it’s your responsibility to send the elevator back down. I seek to champion issues of disadvantaged communities across Silicon Valley who have never had a voice; we have to bridge the income inequality gap. Towards this, I launched the no-charge Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for youth in many disadvantaged neighborhoods of Silicon Valley, which benefited thousands of disadvantaged students by empowering them through both STEM and entrepreneurial skills. Since 2012, we have hosted the no-charge Lego Robotics Bootcamp to teach robotic design and programming. As a member of the California Computer Science Strategic Implementation Panel, a California Department of Education initiative, I helped roll out a K-12 Computer Science curriculum for every public school student in California that is scheduled to go live in fall of 2022.
During the COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders, we organized hackathons, facilitated entrepreneurial boot camps for young students, and provided online coding classes. Our fellowship program today is providing valuable leadership experience for hundreds of high school and college students all over the country. I truly believe that equal opportunity should be afforded to all youth, regardless of their family’s income level to begin to bridge the income inequality gap.
My political run has been an anomaly, that no one gave a fighting chance for. And we believe we have a really good shot of finally beating an entrenched 30-year incumbent next year. Is 30 years too long? Should we measure our elected leaders with the accomplishments and results they deliver or should we just blindly vote? When you climb Mount Everest, you have to go through the first base camp. We got there last year and we are already scaling the peak, learning a ton along the way – a journey to a 2022 victory that will shock the world.
This congressional run has not been easy. The establishment of Silicon Valley has cast aspersions, made up false rumors, called me “Batman” or said, “Rishi does not deserve to even be on the city council,” and surrogates have pressured people to pull endorsements. Even news reports targeted me with “an axe to grind.” They made up false stories. My accident in Cupertino became a huge drama with newspapers writing about it again and again – but never declaring the outcome – that it was declared a misdemeanor akin to a stop sign violation. My own turned me over for absolutely nothing. But I will always fight on…with and for integrity, my head held high.
My run seeks to bring ethical integrity into politics by NEVER accepting PAC money or Special Interest Group money. I bring a result-driven outcome to challenge the Washington status quo and divisive partisan politics. America is ready for a new leadership and a change of political culture.
Now is NOT the time to sit on the sidelines. I invite you to jump in and support my run — allow me to take these values to Washington. I promise you — I will never let you down!
This country is a dream come true. I want to give everything I can for America and Silicon Valley, who I love dearly.
Next year, I will be outside the doors again …of the U.S Capitol. Will my “visa” for entry get stamped? Will I find myself on the hallowed grounds of the U.S. Capitol, as the first tech savvy congressional leader from Silicon Valley?