Many Indian-Americans now choosing public policy jobs over corporate careers, feels top Obama aide

Nish Acharya, who served in the administration of President Barack Obama as director of innovation & entrepreneurship and senior advisor to the secretary of commerce, also led the President’s efforts to nurture economic growth through innovation, entrepreneurship and commercialisation and managed the national advisory council on innovation and entrepreneurship.
Though he did not join the team of President Joe Biden in 2021, he is now ready to go back. “It is likely that I will participate in the second term of the Biden administration. I chose not to join the White House team for the first term of the Biden-Harris government because my children were teenagers and I felt the time was not right since the responsibilities are not conducive to family life,” Acharya told the Times of India. But the good thing about the US government is that one can go back after a break, he feels.
Acharya, who is CEO and founder of Equal Innovation, an organisation that connects the world’s emerging startups and research discoveries with the resources and partnerships they need to succeed, feels that through his organisation he is making a big impact. Equal innovation, he feels, has helped him understand that people in top government jobs are not necessarily technology experts. “Often the policy experts in government roles don’t understand what innovation is required to solve the real problems. When you’re talking climate change, for instance, you need new tools, products, innovation and research to solve problems. We are doing just that and addressing the issue of mismatch with high level government policy,” says Acharya who has earlier consulted with universities, hospitals, federal labs, startup accelerators, foundations, companies and government agencies to assist them with innovation, entrepreneurship and strategy formation. In his job with the Obama government, he engaged with federal agencies to provide over $100 million in funds to universities, research centres and companies to increase the commercialisation of federally-funded research.
And even though he personally chose to stay away from a role in Team Biden; Acharya feels that the growing number of Indian Americans seen in prominent roles in the present administration is the result of a shift in the mindset among members of the community. “Some key people such as Gautam Raghavan [director of the White House presidential personnel office] have pushed members of the Indian American community to taking up important roles in the Biden administration. And it’s a great thing that now there are not just policy experts who are coming in; but also many from other sectors because they are interested in public service,” Acharya says. Navin Girishankar, counsellor to the deputy secretary, US department of commerce, he feels, is an example of a business leader with long term experience in the World Bank Group, who chose to move to a governmental role because of he was drawn to public service. “There are many professional experts in the Indian American community who are now moving into government and policy positions. During the pandemic, we also saw many Indian American doctors take up senior policy related assignments. They are usually doing that not because they have political interests but because they want to serve in mainstream roles,” says Acharya, who is himself open to participating in a policy role if President Biden is elected for a second term.
On the other hand, the number of Indian Americans in politics is going up slowly, feels Acharya. “Indian Americans usually follow the path of first being successful in their careers and then serving in public roles and running for political offices only after building a strong foundation. While this is changing and the victory of Shri Thanedar [US Congressman from Michigan], who was born and raised in India, reflects that change, many don’t want to put themselves out there at this time because American politics is so toxic right now,” he says. But we also sometimes miss out the activism, by many members of the community, at the local level, he adds.
Acharya feels that the US-India bilateral relationship is set to gain momentum after the recent successful G20 Summit, considering that in the past there had not been such high engagement of people between the two sides. “In 2000, when President Bill Clinton visited India, he travelled with a team of around 800. But President Biden had a significantly smaller team for the G20 Summit. This shows greater relationships at the government to government level and the fact that conversations are already going on between the two sides, said Acharya who also served for five years as a presidential appointee in the Clinton administration.

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