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February 1, 2000


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2 Indians bring more diversity to White House program

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Shanthi Shankarkumar

One is a banker, the other banks on public policy. They are among the 16 people named as the White House Fellows for 2000 by President Clinton.

Aligarh-born Khalid Azim, 34 and Pittsburg-born Sunil Garg 32, are part of a class that is the most diverse in the program's history. Besides Azim and Garg, the class has a Sri Lankan-American, three people of Hispanic/Latino origin, three African-Americans and one Chinese-American.

According to Jacqueline Bluementhal, program director, the diversity in this, the 35th class of White Fellows, is really a reflection of the changing landscape of America.

"This is the most diverse group in the history of the fellowship and is a measure of the changes in American society. We recruit fellows from the same places year after year and America seems to be becoming a more diverse society," she said.

To Azim, an investment banker and a vice-president at Morgan Stanley Dean Whitter, the White House Fellowship is once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meet influential decision-makers.

"We get to meet a whole lot of people from Colin Powell to Bob Dole, to the President of course. We get to talk with really important power brokers in the country, so it helps to build contacts that we can use or leverage in our career path," he said.

Azim's parents immigrated to America from Aligarh, when he was just two years old. He grew up in New York City, but was educated in Massachusetts with help from 'A Better Chance' program that helps academically promising students to get into elite prep schools. He graduated from Pitzer College and has an MBA from the Darden Graduate School of Business Administration at the University of Virginia.

Adventurous and always ready for a challenge, Azim did a five-year stint with the navy, straight out of college. He served on a nuclear submarine and became the only minority officer in his submarine squadron. He participated in operations like Desert Shield and Desert Storm. It was when he was in the navy that he first heard about the White House Fellowships and decided that at some point in his career he would like to get it.

While in the navy he also got involved in the 'A Better Chance' program and in Big Brothers, a program where men and women, mostly in their 20s, mentor children. Azim is a mentor for a 16-year-old Bangladeshi who goes to private school in New York. He pays for his tuition.

"My parents always taught us to be grateful for what you have and to help others. I particularly would like to be involved with Asian-American organizations and that is why I am sponsoring this Bangladeshi boy through high school," he said.

As an investment banker based in Hong Kong, Azim covered big Indian companies like Reliance and the Tatas from a debt-capital market's perspective. During the financial crisis in Asia, he helped formulate an innovative structure to tap money from the domestic markets to bring capital into the largest Thai bank.

In his present assignment he has been posted as a special assistant to the chairman of the Ex-Im Bank, James Harmon, a former CEO of a major Wall Street firm.

"It is very educational for me. Understanding government is very interesting and useful for me," he said.

Stressing that it is important for Asian-Americans to have a voice in the political process, Azim maintains he would not be averse to going into public policy.

"I would not like to get into politics, maybe policy. God willing, if I do well in my private sector career, I would like to come back in the senior level and do something for the cabinet," he said.

Brought up by parents to be proud of his Indian heritage, Azim still has ties with his and his wife's hometown, Aligarh. His wife is a computer scientist and the couple has a two-year old son.

"I am very proud of my Indian heritage. The people who are successful here are the ones who know themselves and are comfortable with themselves. I think this country's greatness is that it allows people to hold onto their ethnicity and be American. I have tried to find a balance between what I want to hold on as an Indian and an American in a way that is productive and positive," he said.

The other Indian-American in this year's class, Sunil Garg worked in Chicago Mayor Daley's office as an assistant. He primarily managed the mayor's initiatives in the area of economic development. He also helped in the development of a new public-private organization to attract new business to the city.

For Garg, the fellowship is an experience, which he describes as "irreplicable".

"I don't think there are any other fellowships or opportunities like this one. The people you are going to meet and the fellows themselves -- all 16 -- are pretty outstanding so it'll be a treat working with them for a year," he said.

In his present assignment as senior adviser to the deputy director, Office of Management and Budget, Garg acts as a sort of gatekeeper for the deputy director.

"I help filter information and make sure that assignments and projects delegated to others get done. I also write memos and wrote one the other day to the President on her behalf," he said.

Garg is impressed and surprised by the work atmosphere in the White House.

"I find everybody wonderfully competent, committed to the President and his vision for the country, extremely hardworking-basically a reverse view of the stereotype view of people who work for government," he said.

Unlike the other fellows in his class, Garg comes from a policy background and will probably pursue a career in that field. He has also done research on inner-city poverty and might continue studying poverty, race relations and issues of diversity.

"I will probably continue to work with policy. I might also get into research. I don't anticipate I'll stay with an administrative center, whether local or federal," he said.

While he does anticipate coming back to Chicago since his wife works there and since their families live here, he does not see himself coming back to Daley's office.

"It was a great learning experience. Daley is one of the best mayors in the country, but I will not be going back to work with him," he said.

Like Azim, Garg also has been very involved in community service. He helped launch the Open Book Program, an after-literacy program for Chicago's South Side. As an undergraduate, he took leave of absence to conduct independent research in Nicaragua about the civil war there.

He has been an associate with the Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago where he co-wrote papers on the unintended consequences of efforts to revitalize low-income neighborhoods.

Garg was born in Pittsburgh. His mother is from Ajmer and his father from Indore. He grew up in Maumee, Ohio, and went to the University of Chicago where he got a bachelor's degree in political science. He then went to Harvard and got a master's in public policy. He is completing an MBA from the University of Chicago.

Coming to the role of Indian-Americans in America's foreign policy, Garg believes that they can have a strong voice in America's foreign policy vis-a-vis India. At present, the community does not have the same influence as, say, the Jewish-Americans and that is understandable, Garg said.

"Right now there is no cohesiveness in the Indian-American community," he said.

"It is not unusual for immigrants to wait two or three generations before they find a cohesive voice. The first generation wants to settle in and assimilate, not create waves. But, in the long run, the Indian-American community should move towards the Jewish-American model, where voting decisions are influenced by how the candidate leans towards Israel."

Garg is a married to an American Jew and the couple just had their first baby. They got married in the US, but also had a traditional wedding, attended by about 20 American friends and their families, in Jaipur.

"Our kids will get a healthy dose of India," said Garg with all the self-assurance of an American comfortable with his Indian roots.

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