South Asian community embraces Harris as role model for opportunity to lead

‘What Kamala Harris did for all women is that she achieved the dream that you can be a leader’

Varsha Waishampayan founded the nonprofit Wings for Growth in 2016 with one goal in mind: To help show women they can be leaders in the workplace.

A former executive of numerous financial and consulting firms — PricewaterhouseCoopers, Goldman Sachs, Bank of America and Citigroup, among others — she wanted to show women that nothing can stop them, regardless of their background.

The electorate just proved her point.

The all-but-certain election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as president and vice president of the United States, respectively, is a watershed moment, Waishampayan said.

Varsha Waishampayan. (Wings for Growth)

“To me, Kamala Harris is a woman, first and foremost,” she said. “Then, she is the daughter of immigrant parents. Yes, she’s Indian. And, yes, she’s Black. But to me, it’s about all of this. It’s not about race. It’s not about ethnicity. It’s about a woman being vice president. And that’s just so inspiring.”

Satish Poondi agreed.

Poondi, one of the leaders of the Indian Business Association, said the election of Biden and Harris is a turning point in the South Asian community.

“I think it’s really important to note that, not just a South Asian heritage, but a woman of South Asian heritage,” he said. “That’s especially powerful in our community.”

Poondi has long been involved in politics. Two years ago, he was a part of a group of approximately 50 members of the South Asian community who traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with elected officials. The group, however, was almost entirely male.

Satish Poondi. (File photo)

Poondi has been working to help South Asians understand and use their political power — whether it be running for office or supporting candidates. More importantly, whether they be male or female.

“I can tell you, here in Edison, a lot of South Asian women rallied around Kamala Harris,” he said. “They had what they called a ‘Chitti Brigade’ to help.

“We had a lot of volunteers, even during COVID. They were doing phone bank and other social distance ways of campaigning. I was really impressed and happy and excited to see so many South Asian women who were involved in the process.”

More may be coming.

Waishampayan said she heard from two of her mentees this weekend — and one said she had been inspired to run for office.

Whether she eventually does or not isn’t important, Waishampayan said. What matters is that she feels such a dream is now possible.

“What Kamala Harris did for all women is that she achieved the dream that you can be a leader,” she said. “To me, it’s all about this.

“This is about hope. This is about leadership. This is about this country being a land of opportunities. She is a role model and hope for the next generation.”

Poondi certainly hopes so.

The South Asian population is one of the fastest-growing in the state. Poondi is making sure its concerns are heard and acted upon by elected officials. He’s making sure members of his community run for office, too.

Next generation? He is working on that as well.

“I have a 4-year-old daughter,” he said. “She obviously doesn’t understand the implications now, but, as she grows older, she’s going to understand. And for her to be able to have a role model like that, to know that she can aspire to be vice president or even president, that’s huge.”