Q. Where did you grow up?
A. I grew up in the Deep South on the Georgia-Tennessee border in a small town called Ringgold. One of Ringgold’s claims to fame was that if you had a ring of gold you could get married there. True story.
How did your family end up in the Deep South?
Well, my parents are immigrants from India. My father first came to America and ended up in California working for Boeing as a civil engineer. Being the entrepreneur that he was, he decided that he wanted to control his own destiny. He called up his brother, also an immigrant, who owned a hotel in Rome, Georgia. My father ended up moving to Georgia and learned everything he could about the hotel business. Over the years, he has become a very successful hotelier who owns multiple properties across the country.
So, you are first generation American?
Yes, I am. When my dad decided he wanted to get married, his mother was in Bombay and spotted my mom. My grandma could not believe how pretty my mom was. So my grandma asked around and found my mom’s parents. It turned out that my mom and her sister married my dad and his brother – arranged marriages.
What did you study in college?
I have two degrees. I graduated high school two years early and went to Trinity University. While I was at Trinity, I was diagnosed with a heart condition and had to leave to have heart surgery in Arizona. I ended up completing a degree in political science, but I was only 18 when I graduated. My dad said I wasn’t old enough to be a college graduate. I decided to also get a hospitality administration degree because I had grown up in the hotel business. I graduated summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts in hospitality administration and a Bachelor of Science in Political Science.
Yes, I am! Being a lumberjack is the most politically correct Arizona university to attend. You can’t hate me for being a lumberjack!
What are some early influences for you?
Early influences were my parents. My dad is a true entrepreneur who worked hard every day. My dad came to America with two dollars in his pocket. He now owns hotels all around the country. To be where he is now is inspirational. My mom was also a role model. She cared for our family, but also did all of the hotel’s accounting, finance and was an amazing decorator. We talk a lot about the “American Dream” and it works. I saw it in my own family, not just with my dad, but also with all of my relatives. I really do believe if you pour your heart and soul into something it will work out. Yes, people may help you along the way, maybe the government has a role in it, but if there is a desire to succeed you will be successful. I believe very strongly in willpower.
Looking over your career, you have always had an entrepreneurial spirit, too.
Definitely. When I was in first grade I made friendship bracelets. I convinced my parents to buy me a tackle box and I bought every single color of thread. I started taking custom orders from all of the kids in school and I made bracelets during recess. I made about $50 over a period of six months and saved it all. Then, I decided it was time to expand into a new product line – potholders. Everything was going fine until a girl tried to return one of my potholders because she didn’t like it anymore. Well, I refused to return it because it was used. So, she complained to the teacher. My parents were called into the principal’s office and they defended me, telling him I couldn’t return it - it was a used product! (laughter).
I have never looked at owning your own business as a hard thing – it is just what you do to earn a living and take care of your family. The ups and downs are part of it. But it is the joy of anticipating what’s next that keeps me excited.
Is it true that you were going to be in the Junior Olympics?
Yes, it was my dream. I am a horseback rider. I learned the art of dressage when I was 11. I did well, and won state and regional competitions multiple times. I qualified for the Junior Olympics, but then my horse got injured. He just passed away last month at the age of 32 years old. I continued riding and competing until I adopted my boys. After that I didn’t have the time or finances to devote to riding.
Tell me about your leadership style. Have you brought any private sector practices to your government work?
Yes, I believe in leading by example. I am not going to ask anyone to do anything I wouldn’t do myself. I am also curious to see what people are working on. I believe you have to go to the field and see what people are doing and experience it firsthand. Until we see the process with our own eyes, we cannot make it better in the government. Yes, there are state and federal measures to adhere to, but there has to be an emphasis on the customer in anything you do.
In the private sector, the point is to make money and you may look for ways to give your work purpose by giving to charity. In government, your purpose is handed to you – we are helping the poor, the underprivileged, or those who just need a little help. That passion is so powerful. So, when I lead by example, I do the work every day because I remember the impact we are having on so many.
Tell me about your current role at the Department of Economic Security.
I am the Chief Transformation Officer. It is a newly created position by Director Timothy Jeffries. My focus is on how to transform and bring private sector practices to the government. I think there is a common misconception that private sector principles don’t apply in government. I disagree. I truly believe that measuring outcomes, finding ways to improve and saving money are completely applicable. I am excited to bring those business skills to my new role.
Anyone who knows you, knows that you are passionate about helping children. How did you get involved in this cause?
Child welfare is a huge passion for me. I got involved when I was 20 years old. I learned of two teenage boys who were abandoned by their parents living in an apartment, working odd jobs to try to feed themselves. After I graduated from college, I went to their apartment and told them that I would be their mom from now on. At the time, I was so poor that I would feed the boys cakes as an afterschool snack because it was cheap; a box of mix, two eggs and some oil. I really struggled. When I took the boys, we had to voluntarily work with Child Protective Services. What I found was that there were definite opportunities for improvement. Once the boys grew up, I started volunteering as a court-appointed special advocate for very young children. My cases grew more complex and I began to take on sibling group cases. As my passion continued to grow, I realized how important it was to help siblings stay in contact while in the foster care system. My husband and I found a way to support and partner with a couple of organizations – Aid to Adoption of Special Kids to do a sibling summer camp and AZ Friends of Foster Care Foundation to help foster children become career ready. You may not know, but over 50 percent of foster kids are homeless when they come out of the system. They don’t have the support or career training to support themselves.
Do you have any favorite expressions?
Yes. One is the Golden Rule. Looking back, when I adopted my boys when I was only 20 years old. I thought to myself, “Would I want to be alone living in an apartment with no food when I was 13 years old? Of course not.” All the reasons not to help these boys and the liabilities associated with them didn’t matter to me.
The other phrase I always remember is, “The difference between ordinary and extraordinary is just a little extra.” My third grade teacher had this saying over her blackboard and I would read it over and over again.
What advice would you give to someone thinking about a career in public service?
If you are going to enter into a career in public service, find your passion and an agency that feeds it. It’s really important to make sure you are in a position that is the right fit for you.