When you were 17, what did you want to be?
When I was 17, I was oscillating between a few things. I thought I might want to be a psychologist. I was kind of interested in being a karate instructor. I did taekwondo for six years. I didn't study it so much as that my parents forced me to go to classes. I'm not very athletic. I thought that I wanted to maybe become a journalist, but I think really what it was was that I was so intrigued by high school speech and debate, and that there was a forum in which you could exchange ideas, and also kind of recognize that there's no one worldview, that every issue has multiple sides. That sort of led me to this belief, whether it's true or not, that being a lawyer is the professional version of being a high school debater. I think at 17, that was sort of the path I was thinking about.
I remember going to Berkeley with my older brother, and being mesmerized by the campus when we went to his new students' orientation. There was nothing more to it other than the aesthetic and the energy that was on display that weekend.
But I do think that my admission into Berkeley was an important moment in how I started to see the world. By any objective standard of SAT scores or grades alone, I should not have been admitted. But I think that my focus on extracurricular activities, of which debate was one, but also student government and newspaper, made a huge difference. Colleges always talk about how they want well-rounded students, and that was the first time that I felt like maybe that was actually true. It made me feel like you could take another path.
How did you choose your major?
Remember AOL Instant Messenger? Towards the end of senior year, people started putting their away messages in the colors of their school, like, “I'm a UCLA Bruin, class of '07!" I remember using that real estate of the AIM profile to map out what I wanted to do. I wanted to major in political science at Berkeley. I wanted to go to law school right away. I wanted to be a lawyer at a really nice, fancy corporate law firm, make partner at that law firm, drink martinis, and have a nice apartment. That's just sort of how I saw life. It seemed so rock solid to me.
I did go into college thinking that poli sci was the major for me, because it just seemed like a fairly natural offshoot to pursuing the law. And I loved it. I sort of veered into this world of political science freshmen year, taking all your standard intro classes. Reading about what a social contract in society looks like. Or certain basic principles in international relations that countries behave around, including how a nuclear arms state is more inclined to behave compared to one that's not nuclear armed, which was a conversation we’d had in one of the debate tournaments. Or certain philosophers who are in the American canon of political theory, de Tocqueville and Locke and Hobbes, people like that.
When you come into [Berkeley], you almost feel imposter syndrome, and then, all of a sudden, these were all texts that I was familiar with from debate. And then you feel like, "Oh, this is kind of cool. These are issues that I liked debating and having spirited conversations around just a few months ago. I could do this full-time." I think it was a very lucky moment, because I assumed poli sci was what I ought to do, and it was validating that it was something I was genuinely interested in.
How did you get from college to where you are now?
I ended up moving quickly through college because of that roadmap I had laid out, not meaning it was a breeze, but I thought I knew exactly what I wanted to do next. I was able to finish my major in three years. I was kind of in a hurry to grow up. I think I got more caught up in the strides that I was making, as opposed to the actual path that I was taking.
Toward the end of college, I got really, really interested in reading the news. In 2005, 2006, blogs were just taking off, and more and more of these very niche political blogs started sprouting up. I was watching The West Wing, and I remember thinking, "This world of politics is so fascinating, but it's nothing like what I'm learning in the classroom." In the classroom, I was learning the theory of political science as it existed in a vacuum, not how it was playing out in whatever I was reading, or what congressmen and congresswomen were doing. That sort of opened up an interest in politics as opposed to being a lawyer.
Then I got very intrigued by how people got careers in politics, because you hear about people that want to be teachers, or artists, or lawyers, or doctors. But rarely do you hear about people wanting to go into government. I was very intrigued by the whole cast of characters around politicians, the speechwriters and the people who read polling numbers and the policy people. That sort of fundamentally rerouted me within a matter of months from wanting to be a lawyer.
As I was researching how people get professionally involved in politics, I didn't really know that there was a whole set of fresh-out-of-college interns on Capitol Hill, or that you could apply for an internship at the White House. All of that was very opaque to me. Because I just assumed the thing you do next after college is a graduate program, I ended up going to grad school at George Washington University in Washington, DC. I moved to DC literally three days after I walked in graduation. To me, it was just about, "Okay, you finished college. Now on to the next one. In fact, Vikrum, you're taking time away from law school. Do this quickly. Scratch this itch, and then move on."
My program was in the Graduate School of Political Management. Because there are so many professional folks that work in politics in DC, their faculty was made up of lobbyists, chiefs of staff, senators, and former White House aides and advisors. I think it's hard to teach politics in a classroom, but when you're in the environment of DC which is such a political town, it starts to animate your interest in different ways.
I ended up getting a job working for the then-congressman (now Senator) from Massachusetts, Ed Markey, when I was in grad school. I was basically an assistant to the communications director. The communications director is tasked with owning the voice of the congressperson, so that meant that if there was news of the day, we had to come up with a pithy statement about that so the media would quote our views on an issue, not another congressman’s.
I would take the first stab at writing it, and then of course it would get redlined and edited a million times over before it was official. I remember the first time that I wrote something, and one of the few lines that I had written actually made it to the final set of edits and was quoted in the newspaper. I got very fascinated about the fact that words in politics are like live ammunition. If you have a pen, you have a megaphone in some capacity, and you can use it in an interesting way.
This was wildly different than anything I had mapped out in my AIM profile, which is kind of peculiar because I had just assumed that poli sci led to law school, not that poli sci led to politics. That's when I started to appreciate that you can iterate as a person. You don't have to be confined to the path that you put on yourself. I think that, to this day, is the most alarming part of life, that there's a huge chunk of life in which you will have no idea what's next, that you have to just sort of amass different skills and tools to add to your toolkit. Just know that if you start stitching all of those things together, you can kind of be an effective human. That's liberating, even though it might be frightening to not know exactly what's next.
After GW, I started working for a political consulting firm that was doing a lot of the polling for Hillary Clinton when she was running for president [in 2008]. When she lost the primary, I kept doing the political consulting thing, and eventually met the mayor of DC along the way and joined his communications team. Working for the mayor, you end up meeting a lot of folks in the federal government, so after the mayor lost reelection, I joined the Obama administration as a speechwriter for one of the cabinet secretaries.
I think one of the biggest lessons that I took from this was the art of a cold
handshake. Very early on, I remember seeing some ranking of prominent DC hotel bars. One night after work, I was seated next to this guy, blond hair, blue eyes, maybe from the Midwest, probably in his 40s, and he was speaking perfect Mandarin on the phone. I was just intrigued, and obviously didn't understand much or any of it, but he hung up and I said, "Is that Mandarin or Cantonese?" He said, “Mandarin,” and he told me a little bit about what he did. It was the first time I discovered that if you reach out to a stranger and ask them a little bit about themselves, then you can start to create this network. In a town like DC, or finance in New York, or entertainment in LA, or tech in SF, you often hear that it's the people that you know who help you find opportunities. But it takes a certain kind of pluck to start meeting people you don't know.
When I got into politics, I was mostly doing PR for politicians. I did communicatons and press related work for Congressman Markey. I did it for the Clinton campaign from the perch of that private consulting firm. I did it for the mayor on his communications team. It was all in this bucket of representing the elected official and their policies in the best way you can, with a nice rhetorical bow on top.
Then I started shifting to more policy. When I started working as a speechwriter for the Under Secretary of Commerce, there was a bill that the White House really wanted to get passed that was focused on patenting and how quickly entrepreneurs and startups could get patents. It was a very wonky thing, and I drew the short straw and got assigned those speeches. I don't think anyone watches The West Wing and says, "I want to go to Washington and write about patents!" But it's storytelling at different levels.
I worked on this bill to try and sell it to the media and sell it to Congress. I got really conversant in this one technical area. And then any time there were tech policy related things, I started getting assigned those. Over time, I started leaning into more and more of these tech policy issues, shifting away from the PR side. After that, I became a senior advisor to the Under Secretary of Commerce. I started liaising with the pharmaceutical community and startups and small businesses and the software sector, asking them, "Is this the way you want the law to work? If not, how can we help?"
Then I became the deputy chief of staff for that department within commerce, which meant that I oversaw the communications and PR team I used to work with, the policy team, and the team that lobbied Capitol Hill, all with an eye towards what is the president trying to accomplish in this.
Then around 2014, I got an opportunity to join Obama's economic team inside the White House. I was a senior advisor for innovation and manufacturing, working on everything from early rules and regulations around driverless cars to manufacturing policy. America lost a ton of manufacturing jobs, particularly during the economic downturn, and our premise was that we could bring manufacturing jobs back to the US if we invested in next generation manufacturing like high-performance computing or 3D printing or wearable fabrics that could read your vital signs. It was very cool.
Then, my final year, my old boss at the Commerce Department asked if I would come back and be the chief of staff, working on policy as the main political advisor to the Secretary or Under Secretary, and also coordinating a massive budget and the personnel and human capital that makes the machine hum.
So there are two types of employees in the federal government. There are political appointees that each president gets to bring in. And then there are the career civil servants. Whenever you hear about Middle East peace being negotiated, chances are there's a key ambassador that the president at that time has picked; but supporting them are probably hundreds of lifelong workers that know the dynamics of Israel and Palestine and work at the State Department. They have more institutional knowledge, and the political appointees have more of the mandate of carrying out whatever the president's agenda is.
I was a political appointee, which means that you're out of a job when the president's out of his job. I knew that even if Hillary had won, I wanted to go into the private sector. After 11 years of only working for elected officials or government agencies, a good chunk of that on economic or tech policies, it’s one thing to say that this is good for economic growth, but it’s obviously a totally different thing to be on the receiving end of those policies and regulations. I always thought that I would like to stay in government or politics long-term, but to do that meaningfully, you have to go out and experience what it's like to be in the business community.
I started talking to a few technology-based companies out in San Francisco, and a friend of mine said, "Oh, you've got to meet the CEO of this company, [Postmates]. It's pretty cool." I'd used Postmates a lot, living in DC, but I’d never really thought of a career in it. If one of the lessons from this conversation is that you've got to meet as many people and have many experiences as you can, the other is always take the meeting. I met the CEO of Postmates, which is a smaller company. I thought that would be better if I really wanted to learn the business side of the equation, how the finance team operates, how they use data to detect fraud, or why they put this button over here on the app versus over there. I thought I would have much more visibility into the entirety of the company if I joined a smaller team. So that's how I landed at my current company.
Looking back, what seems clear to you now?
Don't box yourself into a certain lane. That could mean taking a gap year, or taking an internship one summer that's totally outside of your plan for how to best position your applications for grad school. Be open to realizing that there are a lot of different things to learn outside of that lane. And if you find yourself enjoying something new, don't ignore that.
Just be willing to be uncomfortable, which is really nebulous and doesn't really make a lot of sense. But I think day-to-day it just means that we'll all be a little bit stronger and better off and more resilient if we can just focus on the opportunities in front of us, rather than one specific opportunity.