My story: An improbable political journey
Many more pictures at https://rishikumar.com/press_kit
I remember that day like it was 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 monsoon season and clouds hovered over me. As I neared the consulate, I saw the American flag dancing in the wind and my heart lept. There was something magical about it! That day, 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. I stood, soaking in the special fragrance of the interior, an American student visa was a hit or a miss. I had no clue which side I would be on 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 an American visa.
My brother and I exited the consulate. We had to kill time until 4 pm that day when we could pick up my passport, stamped with the American dream I had worked hard for almost a year. I was on cloud nine and filled with disbelief. I must have opened up the passport to verify that the visa stamp was intact more than a hundred times. It was surreal!
Growing up in an apartment in Mumbai, my dad worked extremely hard in the cryogenics industry, and my mom often struggled to keep up with 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 felt 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 the government provided was not as good. We would enjoy a fabulous family lunch on Sundays enjoying the ‘high quality’ rice. The way I looked forward to those meals is ingrained in my memory to this day.
Taking the bus to school, I would see the realities of 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. I am still a fighter; I hustled for the poor and the voiceless because I feel they aren’t at fault for their situations. I wanted to and still do fight for the right values. Characters from the potboilers of Bollywood that were launched and crafted in my own city became ingrained into me. In these movies, evil always lost and the good always won. This 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, taught me 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 taught me of resiliency. 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.
COMING TO AMERICA
Arriving in graduate school in the United States, I discovered a country that I had a deep admiration for and still have this passion today. I love this country for how it embraced me and claimed me as their own. My university professors invited me to Thanksgiving dinners. I found America to be a country that just willingly gave. Looking back today, I realize that America offered me incredible opportunities. I initially struggled to find my footing, but there was always someone around who provided comfort and help. I certainly benefited. I intend to return the favor.
IT ALL STARTED IN MY NEIGHBORHOOD
I found opportunity to give back 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 worked for IBM. As I became aware of the unique culture of my city, I also discovered issues within my community. When a neighborhood break-in occurred and I looked around for help and leadership, I saw only myself. Perhaps me? I realized 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 confronted with resistance to change. Some said, “Who are you? I have lived here for 30 years and we haven’t needed to do this.” Despite this, something kept me going. I realized that roads in my neighborhood had not been paved in 30 years. No one had even tried. I reached out to our city’s public works director. Just like that, the roads were paved that summer and I received many “love letters” dropped in my mailbox. I love reading these messages of gratitude because it sparked the romantic, giving back to the world spirit. Little did I know 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 facing school districts, local businesses, and even a senior center strapped for funds.
MY STEM PASSION
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 disenfranchised communities across Silicon Valley who have never had a voice; we have to bridge the income inequality gap. I launched the no-charge Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for youth in many disadvantaged neighborhoods of Silicon Valley, which benefited thousands of students by empowering them through both STEM and entrepreneurial skills. Since 2012, we have hosted a free Lego Robotics Bootcamp to teach robotic design and programming. I was honored to be appointed to the California Dept. of Education’s Computer Science Implementation Panel, part of a team that drafted the curriculum for California’s K-12 public schools, which goes live in Fall of 2022.
A FAMILY BONDING WITH COMMUNITY WORK
Seema, my dear wife, initially wanted to pull me back to our family and the demands. Eventually, she acquired a taste for my public service when community members would reach out and thank her. They would say, “you have an amazing guy at home” and, “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 I succeed. I developed confidence, which I never knew I had. Together, we organized events, rallies and community activities. We shared a desire to help. This community work truly enhanced our family bond as we collaborated on these projects. My creative juices were oozing. Our kids became agile on stage, from emceeing events, managing sound equipment, and fixing the little glitches. They gained confidence too. When you give, the world gives back 10 fold.
AN ANOMALY OF A POLITICAL JOURNEY
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. I was first amongst 43 running for the seat. That’s not something I ever would have expected in my wildest dream! It also surprised me when the establishment-entitled party insiders hurled abuses at my win. According to them, I had done nothing to deserve a seat at the table. I shrugged my shoulders and pushed ahead to discover a platform and success, applying the tech industry “getting things done” approach. The results were very encouraging. 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.
MY CITY COUNCIL STINT
When a local council member met me at a Starbucks and told me to Cease and Desist my activism with a critical community issue, I realized that I have NEVER buckled under pressure. Bring it on! I pushed back, decided I would join this person on the city council, find a seat on the table, and NOT be listed on the menu. I barely scraped through the first election, winning by just 71 votes, as the same council member made it a personal mission to try to keep me out. I took my role very seriously, because I almost didn’t have it. I worked hard, taking on tough challenges and solving problems. I was putting in 60 hours at my day job and then another 40 each week with the city council, community leadership, and non-profit work. It became a 24 x 7 “job” but I loved it!
GETTING THINGS DONE
I found my calling as an activist, stepping up for complex issues facing the community that I couldn’t ignore. As a council member, 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, easing the worries of a million people ratepayers. 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 rollout new neighborhood watch programs. In the early days, it was just Seema and I knocking on doors, dropping flyers, and inviting people to the scheduled discussion on rising burglaries. I didn’t mind being the lone ranger putting in the work, as I learned the value of hard work during my formative years. When you’re passionate about something, the world will rally behind. 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 rolling in. When you are on the right side of history, you can do no wrong. This has always been the case! I never toed the line of 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. I pushed for a budget optimization approach instead to free up money for road repair. When I saw CPUC gutting California’s solar program thanks to PG&E’s pushback, I rallied my protest with CPUC - just like I had done with water. When I saw California’s Housing Department push flawed housing quotas (RHNA numbers), I pushed for the California State Auditor team to audit those numbers and the audit report proved damning. I asked four Valley Water Board members to resign when they spent millions of taxpayer dollars on a flawed ballot measure (Measure A on the June 7, 2022 Santa Clara County ballot) that would actually increase the term limits, while they made it look like they were capping it. I had no fear, as I always voted with my conscience - championing issues on behalf of the people.
THE HISTORIC REELECTION VICTORY
I was running against the mayor of Saratoga 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, putting my heart and soul into my role.. I truly believed that I did what’s best for the people and 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. We beat the mayor by a landslide. I was re-elected with the most votes in city history - 64 years. The people with the Silicon Valley mindset of “getting things done” were the ones who really appreciated what I had accomplished. Delivering on my promises led to support in massive numbers.
The drum started beating hard that night of November 8, 2018 — “take the leap and run for higher office.” We did!
RUNNING FOR CONGRESS
Today, I look back to our fourth year of this run for the United States Congress. It has been a fight for justice and to bring ethical integrity into politics. It has been about dealing with establishment politicians 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 integrity to American politics.
In the early months of the pandemic , we suspended our campaign and called 86,000 seniors. We offered them help with groceries, medication, and masks. Hundreds of our volunteers helped thousands of neighbors during the pandemic and California wildfires. That is the diligence I will bring as your = Congressional Representative. When we face a crisis I will call you asking, “How can I help?”
In the November 2020 election, we were honored to receive more votes than any other challenger in the last 30 years of this district (37%). Though we fell short in beating a 28-year veteran incumbent who spent 2.5 times more to ensure a win, we haven’t backed down. Yes, we were targeted and sometimes vilified, but we ran with unprecedented district engagement: 100,000 doors, one million phone calls, and 1.2 million video views. Yes, we fell short and were stunted by the pandemic, but remain proud of what our team managed with our first run.
During the COVID-19 shelter-in-place order, 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 young people, regardless of their family’s socioeconomic status, in order to begin bridging the income inequality gap.
My political run has been an anomaly that no one gave a fighting chance. Despite this, we believe we are poised to defeat an entrenched 30 year incumbent in the 2022 election cycle. 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 in 2020 with our first tun, and we are already scaling the peak, learning valuable lessons along the way. Our journey to a 2022 victory 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” because my record has crime fighting, 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. They never reported that it was declared a misdemeanor akin to a stop sign violation. My own turned me over for absolutely nothing. No matter the actions of others, I will always fight on with and for integrity. I will keeo my head held high.
My run seeks to bring ethical integrity back into politics by NEVER accepting PAC 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 within its 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 to America and Silicon Valley, which I love dearly.
We are pushing hard as we would like to be outside the doors again, except this time,of the U.S Capitol to serve this incredible country. 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?
We are giving it all! Join us at RishiKumar.com/volunteer. Students can sign-up at RIshiKumar.com/fellowship.
Please consider chipping in here for our Ethics in Politics run.
🇺🇸 Rishi Kumar 🇺🇸
Candidate for United States Representative, California’s district 18