Shalabh Kumar (right) with US President Donald Trump.
Courtesy: Office of Shalabh Kumar
Chicago-based electronics king Shalabh Kumar has an uncanny knack for picking winners. He makes a beeline for them early in the race when they are solid underdog bets.
Kumar was a Democrat before being convinced by former President Ronald Reagan on the campaign trail to become a Republican. Kumar joined the Donald Trump campaign when hardly anyone gave him a chance. Kumar became the Indian-American face of the campaign and emerged as one of Trump’s biggest financial backers. After Trump’s victory, Kumar was appointed to Trump’s Transition Finance and Inauguration Committee.
Kumar says he was won over by Trump’s tough words for Pakistan when he first met him at his mansion in the Hamptons. The self-made entrepreneur, who is the founder and head of the Republican Hindu Coalition (RHC), is one of only a handful of donors to contribute to what Trump fundraisers call the “double max” – the holy grail of campaign fundraising. Kumar sent $898,800 to Trump Victory. While the individual maximum donation is $449,400, the “double max” is when a wealthy donor also gives the maximum contribution in the name of his spouse, as Kumar did.
Kumar studied electronics engineering at the Illinois Institute of Technology, one of the best value schools in the US. A multiple patent holder, he is the founder-chairman of AVG Group, a cluster of electronics-related companies. He invented the first microprocessor based French Fry computer for McDonalds.
Kumar sat down for an interview with BrainGain Magazine and allayed fears that a Donald Trump presidency would impact international students.
You backed Trump for president — a lonely position in the early part of the election cycle, but a decision that now seems prescient. Do you feel vindicated?
It isn’t so much a question of vindication. I believed in the wisdom of the American people. We have had too many career politicians, including politicians from our party — the Republicans — who make promises during the elections, but when they go to Washington they change. Donald Trump, on the other hand, is a straightforward businessman-president.
Will a Trump presidency have a short-term chilling effect on international students coming to America, not unlike there was after 9/11 because of the racist rhetoric and surge in hate crimes after the elections?
Negative stories have been overblown by the media creating an air of anxiety. But there should be no uncertainty among US-bound college-age students, as America will remain the No.1 destination for international students. Some students have expressed concern over perceived visa vulnerabilities. These fears are unfounded. Nothing will affect the ability of international students to complete their studies or Optional Practical Training (OPT) to work in the United States.
Trump is a businessman and long-term thinker first and foremost. He recognizes that skilled immigration is necessary for the US economy to grow. Silicon Valley has been fueled by start-ups launched by immigrants from countries like India and China — the top countries of origin for international students in the US. The key priority for the Trump administration is to create new jobs and keep the economy humming. Silicon Valley and US companies need STEM talent; they need foreign students with a Masters degree or higher coming out of US universities. International students and H-1B visa holders have nothing to worry about under Trump.
Do you agree with Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims temporarily from coming to the US?
I don’t think it can be based simply on religion. You have to look at countries from which the maximum number of terrorists can infiltrate the US. I am for extreme vetting, Trump is for extreme vetting, Newt Gingrich is for extreme vetting. This means Trump will seek to appraise immigrants from countries supporting terrorism. You are looking at the country of origin, not religion.
How did the Illinois Institute of Technology prepare you for your career?
Innovation comes from within, but my engineering skills were sharpened by Professor Gerald Saletta. He was my favorite professor at Illinois Tech and his advanced electronic circuit design course stood me in good stead. It helped me to implement ideas. My son Vikram, who is now the CEO of AVG , was also taught by Dr Saletta when he studied at Illinois Tech.
Did you complete your Masters in nine months, a terrific achievement in itself?
Necessity is the mother of invention. I needed to graduate early, complete my Masters in nine months instead of 18 as I had no money! With that necessity driving the equation, I piled on the credits to complete my degree in nine months and save on tuition.
Does studying in the US help engineers think outside the box?
The differential between Indian and US universities has gapped down. In India, there is great emphasis now on practical work, but in the US it has sadly diminished. There should be more practical content and lab work in US universities. US universities are teaching block design, not circuit design although the concrete design of your circuit matters. That approach automatically assumes that the blocks are going to be manufactured in China. That has to change.
Before coming to America, I studied in Punjab Engineering College, where Professor Bajwa who received his PhD from Ohio State University, actually made us build products. As a final year student, I got down to designing and building my own product which required many components. In those days, components were hard to find, they had to be imported from abroad. Dr Bajwa sent his store keeper to Delhi on a train five or six times to ensure I had everything for my project. Dr Bajwa was not only incredibly supportive, but encouraged the class to think outside the box. Engineering professors in the US should take a leaf out of Dr Bajwa's playbook.
I will say, however, that the labs in the US are more advanced than the labs in India. I would encourage Indian students to come to the US for higher education, particularly in electronics. In the electronics world, there is an outsized emphasis on software, there are a lot less people who are hardware and firmware oriented. Today, as an engineering student if you focus mainly on hardware and firmware and somewhat on software your market value will be very high as there is a shortage of good hardware engineers.
You invented the first microprocessor-based French Fry computer for McDonalds. What's your innovation mantra?
Thomas Edison said that invention is 10% inspiration, 90% perspiration but people tend to believe quite the opposite. It's not about ideas. It's about making ideas happen. I stay close to the ground. Focus on what the real problems are and then apply myself to problem-solving. My innovation mantra hinges on staying close to the ground, among end consumers. Practice the discipline it takes to work through hard problems.
What is your advice to students?
Work hard, dream big.
What can India expect from a Trump presidency?
We are likely to see an energetic defense, trade, cultural and foreign policy relationship between India and the US. The Trump administration will try to increase bilateral trade to $300 billion from a little over $100 billion a year currently. Deals on the defense side will reflect the new energy to deepen ties with India. Trump realizes that India is hungry for technology, hardware, energy and advanced weapons.
India has ratified the international treaty on nuclear liability and for the most part the liability issues are being worked out. Now American suppliers have to be convinced to go along with that and move forward with projects. On the energy side, India is also looking to increase natural gas in its energy mix and has been urging the US to greenlight liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports. Washington doesn’t allow gas exports to any country with which it doesn’t have a Free Trade Agreement, but in the past it has made an exception for India's state-run energy giants like GAIL India. You can expect things to move forward on the energy front under a Trump presidency.
The US would be supportive of India developing as a manufacturing hub, especially on the electronics side, as a counterweight to China. Trump sees India as a natural ally on both the business and defense spheres and the rise of India as a superpower will bring peace and prosperity to the region.
Will Trump visit India?
Yes, definitely! I would like to see it in the first year itself, the first term for sure.