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Desi Making Waves
By Carol Kuruvilla

Chili's Fight for Congress

ABCDlady has profiled South Asian American comedians, artists, actors, musicians and fitness gurus. These Desis have made waves in the past. Surya Yalamanchili is looking towards the future. This politically active, socially conscious, American-born child of Indian immigrants has his eyes set on Capitol Hill. And for him, there is no backup plan.

In May, the 28-year-old Yalamanchili won the Democratic primary for U.S. Representative in Ohio’s 2nd Congressional District. He will face incumbent Republican Jean Schmidt in the November 2nd election.

Although the district has historically been in Republican hands, this underdog is confident about his prospects. “The district isn’t as hard to win as people think,” Yalamanchili said in a phone interview. “There’s an anti-Washington mood right now. I’m not a politician from Washington. People will just see a regular guy who has had some success, quits his job and is running for office.”

Yalamanchili is hoping that residents of his district will relate to his blue-collar roots. Born in Pennsylvania, he’s from a hard-working immigrant family. One of the goals of his campaign is to give other Americans the same “opportunity to struggle” that he had. “Today, a lot of American families want to work hard and save for college. But with the unemployment rate where it is, a lot of families are just unable to work hard.”

Surya Yalamanchili

Yalamanchili remembers that his mother would leave the house in the middle of the night to work the night shift at the post office. This image of the struggle of immigrant parents is one that resonates deeply with many Desis. “I imagine how hard it must have been for her,” he said. Compared to what parents went through, “We [the second generation] seem to be complaining about small things.”

Despite the struggles of his parents, Yalamanchili says he didn’t feel like there was pressure for him to succeed. “My mom always just said to do the right thing,” he said. “I’ve run in a way that I’m proud of.”

Switching from the private sector to politics isn’t that much of a leap for Yalamanchili. It’s just coming a few years earlier than he had planned.

“I thought I would be getting into politics decades from now, after retirement,” he said. “But it made sense to do it now. I looked at it long and hard. It took six to seven months [to make the decision to run].”

Yalamanchili made the decision because he’s frustrated with what’s going on in Washington. “What’s going on in Washington is so egregious, there’s no way I can’t do better,” he said. Now, he said that he has dedicated “100% of his time” to the campaign and gives “zero thought to losing.”

Risk-taking is not something Yalamanchili seems to shirk from. At the age of 15, he started his own internet company. While attending Rutgers University, he worked as director of marketing at DiversityInc. He became one of Proctor & Gamble’s youngest brand managers.

His “go-get ‘em” attitude was noticed by producers of Donald Trump’s The Apprentice, and he was selected for the 2007 season. “Reality TV was training for politics,” he said, adding that the backstabbing that happens in politics today is what you find on reality TV.

Still, Yalamanchili says his years at Proctor & Gamble, and later on at LinkedIn and SocialMedia Networks, did a much better job preparing him for political office.

“I’m looking for more accountability,” he said. “That’s what being in the private sector has taught me.”

Yalamanchili is looking to foster responsibility in the government, growth in the economy and security in the nation. He wants to create transparency. “You come in with principles,” he said. “I felt really strongly about this. It’s something I believe in.”

After Yalamanchili’s win in May, his former opponent, David Krikorian, accused him of winning because of the “race card,” according to Yalamanchili took the accusation in stride. “I feel like I’ve kept race out of [my campaign],” he said. “Other people, they were the ones that brought it up.”

Yalamanchili’s long and uniquely Desi name has received plenty of attention in the media. He says his first name comes from his grandfather. His family is from Andhra Pradesh, India. He suggests that Yalamanchili might have been the name of a village, years back.

Whatever its origins, Yalamanchili said his name has actually become useful for his run. He’s campaigning as “Chili” now, a nod to the fact that chili is actually one of his region’s favorite foods. Like an experienced brand manager, his Facebook, Twitter and Web site are branded under the tag “Vote Chili.”

He said the feedback he’s getting from South Asians in his district is encouraging. The South Asian community has held fundraisers for his campaign. “Ohio has a strong and successful South Asian presence,” he said. “They’ve been very supportive.”

Yalamanchili’s career advice? Look at what you’re really passionate about, what you feel like you can do well,” he said. “No one should feel trapped by what they’re doing.”

“I didn’t know I would win the primaries,” he said. “I just went for it. You should just really do it.”

Yalamanchili’s goals are certain: he’s looking for a place on Capitol Hill. When the results of his efforts are announced in November, we’ll know for certain whether the Hill is ready for Chili.

Carol Kuruvilla is currently a senior at New York University. She is studying journalism, with a concentration in broadcast communications.


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