The Future of Leadership

Changing the World in 2020 and Beyond

Kamala Harris, a role model for all generations

By becoming the Vice President elect of the United States of America, Kamala Harris has achieved three historic firsts. She will be America’s first woman Vice President, and she will be the first woman of African descent and first woman of Indian descent to serve in that second highest office in the land.

She praised President elect Joe Biden for his audacity to pick a female of color to be his running mate, breaking all traditions and precedents. In turn, Kamala deserves our admiration and thanks for accepting the role and thus subjecting herself to abusive attacks from racists that would reject her just because of her ethnicity.

She is clearly comfortable in her own skin. In one of her interviews, she said, “My point was: I am who I am. I’m good with it. You might need to figure it out, but I’m fine with it.”

It’s obvious that her self-confidence and sense of self comes from her upbringing by her mother, Shyamala Gopalan Harris, who was Kamala’s single parent since Kamala was 7. At every public remark, Kamala never failed to evoke the memory of her mother and talked about her impact as Kamala’s mentor. Shyamala demonstrated hard work and commitment and expected those around her to do the same. While campaigning for Kamala, if she asked you if you will be around the next day and you said “yes”, you had better show up. You never wanted to disappoint Shyamala.

Sadly, Shyamala lived only long enough to witness Kamala’s first election to public office as San Francisco District Attorney in 2003. Kamala’s mother died of colon cancer in 2009. Kamala went on to become the Attorney General of California in 2010 and junior Senator from California in 2016.

Kamala won every election she ran for and made history in every case as the first woman of color to hold that office.

When she first began her political career by running for district attorney, her good friend Julie D. Soo, attorney for California Department of Insurance and community activist, brought her around to introduce her to the large Chinese community in San Francisco. Julie’s father gave Kamala a Chinese name that implied Kamala and Julie are honorary siblings. Kamala promptly learned to say her name in Cantonese, the Chinese dialect popular with the community in Chinatown.

The Asian side of Kamala came from her mother’s family. Shyamala Gopalan came from India to study at UC Berkeley at the age of 19. Shyamala was not your typical student from India; she fitted right in the Berkeley scene and participated in the civil rights movement.

Shyamala’s father, P.V. Gopalan, was progressive and unconventional enough to encourage his oldest daughter and helped her financially. A career civil servant of limited means, he nonetheless saw his four offspring graduate from college with advanced degrees. Shyamala earned her PhD in endocrinology from UC Berkeley.

Kamala said that her grandfather’s progressive views of democracy and women’s rights, especially their right to education, made a strong impression on her. She kept in touch with her relatives in the Chennai area and visited periodically. Her Asian values came from her upbringing and the influence of a close-knit family.

The people of San Francisco Bay area are rightly proud of their native daughter. As Vice President, Kamala has reached the second highest office in the land and has made it possible for Asian Americans to feel that they have seats at the table.

As Asian Americans we share her values, admire her assertiveness, and are proud of her accomplishments. Because of her, we can hope to regain our place in America and not worry about random accusation of spy charges and sudden questions of our loyalty.

Now we can say to our children and grandchildren, especially the daughters, “Look at what a daughter of first-generation immigrant parents can accomplish. Kamala has broken through the highest glass ceiling for you. If you study hard in school and take pride in your Asian American identity, the opportunities will be limitless.

George Koo retired from a global advisory services firm where he advised clients on their China strategies and business operations. Educated at MIT, Stevens Institute and Santa Clara University, he is the founder and former managing director of International Strategic Alliances. He is currently a board member of Freschfield’s, a novel green building platform.

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API Women's Leadership Conference

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