Ash Kalra – An Indian American inspiration


A monthly column highlighting the achievements of Indian Americans locally and beyond.

With this column, we intend raising political awareness, inspire all of us to
excel, reach greater heights. We Indian Americans are ourselves going through transitional evolution in this country. We are all doing a lot of good as entrepreneurs, high tech geeks, doctors, lawyers, imposing our good will upon this fantastic country. But our involvement can run deeper. It starts with simple contribution and involvement in our local community. There are few who are already beginning to make a mark – we want to highlight these SatyAgrah souls.
We invite success stories you have observed around you, provide us your insights on Indian Americans locally and nationally who made things happen. The ones who made a small change in the community, got into the school board, or planning commission. These perspectives will help construct roadmaps for our community to empower ourselves, to represent our local communities as leaders, and make this glorious country of America a better place. You can email your recommendations for this spotlight coverage to Rishi at [email protected]

Ash Kalra
Ash Kalra

We kick off this column with a meeting with Councilmember Ash Kalra: Ash in his 2nd term to the San Jose city council represents Council District 2, which is located in the Southern region of San José. District 2 has approximately 100,000 residents. He has been a resident of San José for over 36 years and is proud to be the first Oak Grove High School graduate on the San José City Council. Councilmember Kalra serves as the Chair of the Transportation and Environment Committee. He is the immediate past Chairperson of the Santa Clara County Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) Board, and past chairperson of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) Board.

Ash is a Professor at Lincoln Law School of San José and he previously was an instructor at San José State University. For 11 years, Kalra worked as an attorney for the Santa Clara County Public Defender’s Office representing indigent clients in Drug Treatment Court prior to being elected. He is the first Indian-American to be elected to the San José City Council. Earlier this year, Ash announced his intention to run for Assembly from California’s Assembly District27.

Ash, you have been a pioneer representing the Indian American community in the Bay Area on so many fronts. What led you down this path of community service and running for office?

From a young age, I have been motivated to find a way to serve my community. This urge began as far back as high school and led me down a unique path. I was never quite drawn to material wealth or even fame or celebrity. I was drawn to stories of those who have come before me that made a profound impact on their surroundings through diligence, courage, and dedication to the truth.

Some of those historical figures that I read volumes on included Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Mahatma Gandhi, Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. and others. It was that attraction to historical figures coupled with my upbringing as a Hindu that helped me find a path that sought to work for the betterment of the community without being attached to personal gain or immediate results. There are many intervening events and steps that occurred during my journey, but this gives a little flavor of how it began.

The road not traversed by many is never easy. What were some of the challenges along the way?
I would not describe my journey as difficult although it was certainly a path less traveled. I always followed my passion for service even when I did not know quite what that meant during my college years and even into law school. Ultimately, I decided to become a public defender in order to represent the poorest and most needy individuals who had been accused of crimes. This was certainly not a common path, particularly for a South Asian.

Despite many questioning whether I was making the most out of my Georgetown Law School degree, I never doubted my decision as it was the most rewarding and challenging job I could ever imagine. As I became more and more involved in my community and local politics, it was a challenge to run for office. Turning the attention to myself after spending over a decade focused solely on my clients was not the most comfortable position for me. It was due to the support of family, friends, and a community that rallied behind me in ways I never felt I even deserved that allowed me to win my race for City Council in 2008.

What is the one incident (if any) that set the tone, that perhaps emboldened you onto this path?
It is impossible to think of one specific incident or event that led me down my path as I truly believe it was a culmination of many factors throughout my childhood and into my college years that molded me into seeking a life of service.

However, I do have flashbacks of when I visited India when I was 8 years old. I remember seeing children that looked just like me begging for money and food from me. I felt a combination of guilt and obligation. I did not do anything personally to be born into a family that allowed me to grow up in California and have comforts that the majority of people in the world could only dream about experiencing. I never quite felt the same about what I expected for life or the path I would pursue as I grew older.

You have a busy public life, how do you keep up? What inspires you to keep running as hard as you do?
I know a lot of people that I have grown up with or I have come to know over the years that have worked just as much as or harder than I have over the years. I take inspiration from them. More significantly, I see those who surround me in the community who do back breaking labor for hours on end in order to give their children opportunities they never had. To that end, it is my father’s example that has taught me about a strong work ethic and it is his sacrifices that continue to inspire me. Ultimately, I do not feel as if much of what I do is work since I am passionate about service and doing whatever I can to reduce the burdens of those in my community.

Tell us about your 2016 run for Assembly. What are some of your key priorities?
As a State assemblyman, I want to create incentives encouraging Silicon Valley companies to remain in the State. In recent years, Northern California has experienced an exodus of technology companies migrating out of the State. I care about our ability to keep quality employers in our region and State. Tenant improvement funding and bridge loans allowing startups to scale up as successful initiatives were promoted by the city of San Jose. I want to ensure we launch similar programs to keep companies here in Silicon Valley.

I also want to see smarter approach to criminal justice. We are already seeing a reduction in recidivism rates by investing more in mental health and substance abuse treatment, job training and wrap-around services for nonviolent offenders. In order to help those released from jail and prison adjust back into the community, we should invest in what they need to educate and train themselves in order to be contributing members of society.
By locking people up at taxpayer expense without any support system upon release, we are setting up those released for failure and increase the likelihood that there will be more victims in the future. I would like to support California’s high speed rail project aimed at reducing travel time between San Francisco and Los Angeles. It must be built in a cost-effective manner, using private and public funds.

Do Indian American issues surf up on your agenda as an elected official, public figure on the San Jose city council?
Over the next few years, one of the issues I hope to continue to work on is civic engagement for Indian-American youth. We have some of the brightest, energetic young people you can find anywhere. Whether they become doctors, engineers, or lawyers, I would love to see as many of them as possible be fully aware of how their local government works and how they can influence important decisions being made on their behalf.
I also hope to continue to help create bridges between the Indian community and other large communities here in San Jose, such as the Latino and Vietnamese-American communities. I believe there is a lot we can learn from each other and a lot of help we can give one another as we continue to make America our home in growing numbers.

What are you doing to encourage up and coming leaders in the community?
One of the great joys of being in a relatively high profile position is the great privilege of serving as a mentor to others in the community. I relish the opportunity to speak with young people generally and mentor young leaders specifically. There are a number of different clubs and leadership programs that I am formally involved with that focus on cultivating young talent and creating a pipeline of leadership in our community for years to come. I try to encourage the youth to take advantage of the sacrifices of their parents and grandparents by finding a career they are truly passionate about and by living a live that truly fulfills them while never forgetting to serve those who may not have the same advantages they may have been fortunate to receive.

What is your vision for Indo Americans in the Bay Area and across the country?
As the Indian-Americans here in the Bay Area and throughout the country continue to grow in power and influence in the world of business and politics, I hope they stay grounded and not allow the success to alter the compassion and selflessness our community has shown as we have evolved in this country.
I envision a community that becomes more involved in their local community as much as they are concerned about national affairs here in the United States or in India. We must take ownership of the streets and schools in our own community and I hope to see more Indian-Americans getting outside of their comfort zone and making real friendships with so many of the diverse ethnic groups we are so fortunate to have as neighbors and co-workers.

Rishi is Silicon Valley’s energizer bunny deeply engaged in local causes to make his community a better place. He is an elected city councilmember in Saratoga, CA and a Silicon Valley hi-tech executive who continues to follow his passion for community service and community building. Rishi Kumar is also the founder of the Bay Area Indian American Democratic Club whose charter is to further the interests and values of Indian Americans, work towards political empowerment and advance ethical standards in the political system. You can reach him via his website He would love to get your recommendations for coverage of engaged Indian Americans demonstrating leadership in the community by emailing your recommendations to him at [email protected]

Rishi Kumar