(Note from Editor: After six years as director of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, Kiran Ahuja has moved on to a new position with the Federal Office of Personnel Management. She talked about her journey with AsAmNews’ Aswin Mannepalli)
Kiran Ahuja’s day begins early. Coffee cup in hand, she is scanning her e-mail, catching up on updates, and trying to get ahead of the day’s challenges. “I should probably do more yoga in the morning,” she jokingly tells me later, reflecting on her morning routine.
As chief of staff in the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), Kiran is essentially responsible for making sure that the trains are running on time in one of the federal government’s most important agencies while empowering the Acting Director, Beth Cobert, to set and execute a transformational agenda.
In practical terms, this means that Kiran is responsible for the policies and infrastructures that drive the recruitment, engagement, and professional self-actualization of all federal employees. This includes the astronaut orbiting the earth in the International Space Station to the EPA worker taking soil samples in the Midwest. (Also, when blizzard season hits the capital, it’s the OPM that calls the snow day.)
Kiran’s current role marks a long career in public service and the nonprofit world. But it all started in Savannah, Georgia, thanks to two very important people in her life.
“My mother was a remarkable woman,” she notes. “She always challenged me to look beyond social conventions and try to do the morally right thing.”
Her father, a civic-minded psychiatrist, further fostered a sense of social commitment. “When I saw poverty,” she remembers, “I wasn’t raised to simply ignore it or shrug my shoulders.”
This mix of unconventional thinking and social consciousness took her to Spelman College—a historically black all-female liberal arts school—and later to the University of Georgia School of Law where she graduated with a JD in 1998.
With a law degree in hand, she went to Washington DC working in the Department of Justice. Kiran was selected as one of five Honors Program trial attorneys in the department’s Civil Rights Division. “I applied for it and didn’t think I’d get in. But when I got in, I was beyond honored,” she says.
The job had her returning to the South where she litigated education-related discrimination cases. She was also part of the core team of attorneys who charted a response strategy to rising backlash discrimination following 9/11.
After a meaningful tenure, Kiran looked to new challenges. “I felt I had more to add apart from litigation,” she thinks back to this time of transition. “I really wanted to build and lead a professional organization focused on important issues around my community.”
The desire took her to the nonprofit world as the first executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF). As the head of this group, she led a transformation from an all-volunteer outfit to a professional and mission-focused organization. The fruits of her efforts became apparent in the form of successful policy and educational initiatives that saw a substantial rise in membership and local chapters.
Most of all, the experience taught her fundamental managerial and leadership lessons. “I felt, and still do feel, that building organizations is about finding the right talent and empowering them to do the best work possible,” she says, remembering the experience. “A mission without a managerial support structure to deeply engage with the workforce can become really hollow really fast.”
Following her stint at NAPAWF, she was tapped to lead the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in 2009. Established at the end of the Clinton administration, the initiative had functioned with varying scope and success over the years. Kiran sought to rebuild and reenergize the organization under the new Obama administration.
As head of the initiative, she prioritized community outreach and interagency engagement. She also structured the organization to offer a consistently open and obstruction-free way for community leaders to work with the government on issues of importance.
When I asked her for the initiative’s best moment under her leadership, she pauses for a moment. “There’s so many things that the team did that it’s hard to pick one!” she adds with a laugh.
Then, after thinking deeply, she notes, “I was very proud of the work we were able to do with outreach—especially getting the word out to Asian Americans about the Affordable Care Act, helping Native Hawaiians establish the kind of relationships with the federal government that other indigenous people in our country enjoy, and helping bridge the gap between the Asian American and Pacific Islander community across the federal government wherever they were in the country.” This last effort became a successful regional network of federal officials tasked with connecting with local leaders across the country.
These years also provided Kiran much experience working with various governmental agencies. This is apparent in the case of getting the word out to the Asian American community about Affordable Care Act sign-ups. Under her stewardship, the organization became a way to coordinate various federal agencies and mobilize them to execute on the president’s priorities.
Now Kiran brings her deep experience in government to assist Beth Cobert at the OPM as her chief of staff. “It can get daunting, but a lot of lessons in good management are the same,” she says, measuring the challenge ahead.
In a world where the government has to compete for talent with the hottest start-ups, she remains laser focused on attracting the best and empowering them to do their best work for the good of the nation.
The scope of the task energizes Kiran Ahuja. “We have a lot to get right, but I’m sure we can get there.”
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