By Sheryl P. Simons
Rajiv Shah, nearing his thirtieth birthday, has already accomplished the work of several careers, traveled the globe, and married his college sweetheart. Throughout his busy career, however, Shah has remained clearly focused on what motivates him. “I am so grateful for the many opportunities I have had and want to help others who are struggling,” he says. Indeed, helping people is one of the primary reasons he is working towards a Ph.D. in health care economics from Wharton.
Shah knows first hand the ravages of inadequate health care, having returned several times to India, the homeland of his parents, Janardan and Rena Shah. On one particular trip, he worked with Dr. H. Sudarshan, renowned for his social welfare initiatives. Going from house to house, Shah visited each family in the village of Karnataka, testing for tuberculosis and leprosy. If a patient tested positive, he would explain to the family what was happening and assist the person into nearby clinics for a full treatment and nutrition program.
From his own family’s immigrant experience, Shah has learned the importance of helping others, not only with health matters but with economics as well. Poignantly, Shah recalls his own grandfather’s sacrifice – liquidating his entire retirement savings – so that his father, who became an electrical engineer, could come to America. Because of his father’s work with the Ford Motor Company, the Shah family settled in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he was raised and where he watched as other relatives were assisted in their quest for success in the United States.
Appreciating the opportunities that resulted from both his grandfather’s and father’s risks, Shah created Project Impact as a way for second-generation South Asians to reach out and help less fortunate families. Now in its 6th year, Project Impact has more than 5,000 members nationwide and sponsors mentoring, leadership, scholarship, and ESL programs.
“There are many people who come to America from India who, although educated, are working in low-paying jobs such as taxi drivers and gas station attendants,” he says. “It is their children that we seek to provide assistance for. There is a larger responsibility to the community aside from ourselves. We who have benefited so much from the fruits of others must give back.”
Project Impact’s mission also includes involving more young South Asians in America’s political process. “It is so important to participate because our political system has such a critical affect on our daily lives,” Shah says. He gravitated to the world of politics in the early days of the Clinton Administration and eventually worked with the Gore Presidential Campaign. “I was dismayed at how uninformed people were and how much misinformation surrounded the debate on health care reform in 1993.”
Now, in an official capacity of Chief Policy Analyst and Senior Economist, Shah currently serves as an advisor to Bill Gates at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Washington, DC, and is in a position to educate many about preventative health care.
Clearly in command of his subject, Shah effectively translates statistical trends into bottom-line results during meetings with represen- tatives of developing nations. His cost/benefit analysis indicates that utilizing widely available Hepatitis B and Influenza B vaccines lowers long-term health costs and, ultimately, saves lives. Regarding HIV and AIDS, he states, “In my opinion, a comprehensive education and prevention program through media awareness is the best strategy to curb transmission of this disease. Thailand and Uganda have seen dramatic results from strategic investment in AIDS education.”
Thinking back over the past decade, Shah recalls, “The notion to pursue a Ph.D. in economics occurred as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan because I felt a close affinity to the subject.” He spent his junior year abroad at the prestigious London School of Economics because he liked the rigorous analytical program that it offered. Later, Shah added the medical component to his educational plans, receiving an M.D. from Penn in May 2002
While in London he met his future wife, Shivam Mallick Shah, a graduate of Georgetown University, who is associate director of the New Schools Venture Program in Washington, D.C. Reflecting upon his life, Shah smiles as he notes, “Of all my achievements, I believe my parents are the most proud of my wedding day in May 2000.”