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What is common between the American Democratic Party vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris and the former CEO of Pepsi Indira Nooyi ? Their roots are in Chennai, which has produced many famous sons and daughters, including Nobel Laureates and scientists.  Both are examples of how to fulfill their American dreams. 

There are some similarities between Kamala and Indra. Both have been inspired by their mothers, both were educated in America and both are ambitious women.  Both were born in middle class Tamil Brahmin families.  

While Indra was born in Chennai , Kamala was born in the US but today both are Americans.  They both like Indian food like Idli and Dosa. They are good mothers and loyal wives. Both have reached the top of the profession and broken the glass ceilings. 

Kamala Harris has made history by becoming the running mate of the Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden in the upcoming US Presidential polls. Indeed a very big achievement. 

Kamala ‘s is a fascinating story of a changing, inclusive American democracy. So much has been written about her Chennai connection, her younger days as the child of two immigrants — an Indian woman and a Jamaican academic father and how her mother, late  Shyamala brought up her two daughters as a single parent living in a black neighborhood. It was Shyamala who made Kamala ambitious and enabled her to break many glass ceilings in her chosen profession law and later in politics. 

Los Angeles Times has described Kamala thus: “Historic breakthroughs have been a constant in Harris’ 17 years in politics. She was the first Black woman to hold every office she has won — San Francisco district Attorney and state Attorney General. “ If elected with Biden it will be another coup for her to become the first woman Vice President.With Biden declaring that he will be one term President, the doors are open for Kamala to become Democratic nominee for the presidential polls in 2024. Who knows, she might even win !

Interestingly Biden also has an Indian connection. He said During his visit to Mumbai in 2013 “ It turns out,” Biden said, “my great, great, great, great, great grandfather,” by the name of George Biden was a Captain in East India Company. After retirement, George Biden decided to settle in India and married an Indian woman.” 

Kamala kept her Chennai connection in a low profile and projected herself as a black woman.  Only now she refers to her Chennai “ chittis (aunts).” In her first remarks as Biden’s running mate on Aug. 12, she spoke of her mother’s roots but described herself as the “first Black woman” to be nominated for the vice presidency on a major party ticket.

It is understandable that she is focusing more on her African heritage. Asian Americans account for only 5% of the electorate compared to 13% black voters.  In the US, it is on black and white politics. Asian-Americans have only recently emerged in the past two decades. However, this group has grown by 139 percent, making it the fastest growing demographic of voters compared to other major races and ethnicities. In comparison, the white electorate grew by 7 percent in the same period.  If Kamala is elected, her first priority will be for the blacks. How friendly she will be with India is to be seen. 

Of Pepsi and Power

Indra Krisahnamurthy Nooyi has reached the top in the corporate world.  No small achievement indeed! She has scripted a success story that showcases what American dreams are made of. In a world where gender discrimination exists in almost every field, here comes the story of an immigrant American who became the CEO of the world’s fourth largest company Pepsi co.  She has also proven that” no matter who you are or where you come from, if you have a dream then all you need is the will and determination to achieve it. “ 

She has revealed since childhood she and her sister were groomed by their mother who would always ask them what they would do when they grew up and would award the one with the best answer. Her mother required her to prepare speeches on important topics of the day; her grandfather, a judge, practised maths problems with Ms Nooyi and her siblings.

To pursue higher studies, she went to US and graduated in business management from Yale University.  She wore her first suit for her interview after her Masters in Yale.  She was rejected because her suit just reached her ankles.   On her professor’s advice, she wore a saree for her next interview and she was selected. “Growing up in India, I never imagined I’d have the opportunity to lead such an extraordinary company,” Nooyi said in her official statement while laying down office as CEO. 

Nooyi is married to businessman Raj K. Nooyi, and they have two daughters. Her marriage has been successful.  “My mother believes that these jobs give you crowns, and leave those crowns in the garage” and she adhered to this.

She rubbed shoulders with the big business and important politicians. She made the company’s profit increase many times during her tenure.  After she stepped down US President Trump is reported to have considered her for the post of World bank President but it did not go through. Indira had struck up friendship with Ivanca and had dined with the Trumps at the White house often. 

Indra knows that a woman can’t have it all even if she pretends to. She has been ranked by Forbes magazine as fourth on its lists of The World’s 100 Most Powerful Women. She has also been listed at #1 on Fortune magazine’s list of Most Powerful Women in business from 2006 to 2010.  

What is her advice to other aspirants?“Aim high and put your heart into it. ”

Kalyani Shankar is a Delhi- based political commentator and currently consulting editor of the web portal "The Print" as also a syndicated columnist. She is a senior journalist, political analyst and a keen observer of Indo-US relations.

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