Indian Americans who hit the headlines in 2021

It was a tough and tumultuous year. Yet there are those who broke barriers, charted new paths and raised the bar for their peers. Here’s raising a toast to prominent Indian Americans who hogged the limelight for all good reasons. 



In December 2021, Meera Joshi created history when New York’s Mayor-elect Eric Adams announced that he would appoint five women for deputy mayor positions including the Indian American attorney. She has been named as Deputy Mayor for Operations. 

Joshi was the acting administrator for the Federal Motor Carrier and Safety Administration since January. 

As Deputy Mayor for Operations, Joshi is entitled to ensure that New York City can respond in real-time to meet and exceed the needs of every community and be a model of excellence for all urban centers, said Adams. 

Joshi served as the chair and CEO of the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission, the largest in the nation for-hire transportation regulator. With them, she spearheaded novel Vision Zero campaigns using data tools to keep high-risk drivers and unsafe vehicles off the road, her bio noted. 

“I am deeply honored to serve Mayor-elect Eric Adams and all New Yorkers. Our work ahead is clear. The operations of our city must meet and exceed the needs of every community, respond in real-time and be a model of excellence for all urban centers,” Joshi said. 


Indian-origin professor Neeli Bendapudi became the first woman and person of color to be named as the president of America’s prestigious Pennsylvania State University, the educational institution. Bendapudi, who was born in Visakhapatnam and came to the US in 1986 for higher studies, is currently serving as the president and professor of marketing at the University of Louisville in Kentucky. 

She was unanimously named Penn State’s next president by the Penn State Board of Trustees on December 9. She begins her appointment as Penn State’s 19th president in spring 2022. 

Bendapudi is a recognized leader in higher education who specializes in marketing and consumer behavior. With a nearly 30-year career in academia, she has taught marketing and served in a variety of administrative roles over the years, including as provost and executive vice chancellor at the University of Kansas, dean of the School of Business at the University of Kansas, and founding director of the Initiative for Managing Services at Ohio State University.  


In July 2021 when Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson embarked on his first trip to space just ahead of Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, the billionaire was accompanied by an Indian onboard. Sirisha Bandla, vice president of government affairs and research operations for the company, was among the five passengers hopping on the trip with Branson. 

Hailing from Guntur in Andhra Pradesh, Sirisha became the second Indian-born woman to go into space after Kalpana Chawla, who died in the tragic Space Shuttle Columbia disaster. 

Sirisha joined Virgin Galactic in 2015 as government affairs manager and has since then risen through the ranks. She was also handling Washington operations for Virgin Orbit, which recently delivered a satellite in space using a 747 plane. A graduate of Purdue University, Sirisha has a Master of Business Administration from Georgetown University. 

In October last year she also joined the Board of Advisors of The Kalpana Chawla Project for Innovation. 




NASA announced in November 2021 that Indian American Bhavya Lal will be leading the agency’s newly-created Office of Technology, Policy and Strategy.  

Lal is a Biden political appointee who has held several positions at the agency since the inauguration.  

The reorganization merged two units including the Office of Chief Technologist and Lal will also serve as Acting Chief Technologist.  

Lal was a prominent public voice of NASA since the beginning of the year, representing the agency at many conferences and webinars.  

As a space policy expert at the Institute for Defense Analyses’ Science and Technology Policy Institute, Lal was appointed as a member of a National Academies committee assessing the merits of nuclear thermal propulsion and nuclear electric propulsion for sending humans to Mars.  






NASA’s SpaceX Crew-3 astronaut team headed to the International Space Station in November last year led by Indian American astronaut Raja Chari. This was for the third commercial crew rotation mission aboard the microgravity laboratory.  

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket propelled the Crew Dragon Endurance spacecraft with NASA astronauts Tom Marshburn, Kayla Barron, Raja Chari as well as ESA (European Space Agency) astronaut Matthias Maurer, into orbit to begin a six-month science mission on the space station.  

Chari is commander of the Crew Dragon spacecraft and the Crew-3 mission. He is responsible for all phases of flight, from launch to re-entry. He also will serve as an Expedition 66 flight engineer aboard the station. This will be the first spaceflight for Chari, who was selected as a NASA astronaut candidate in 2017.  



Neera Tanden, whose bid to be White House budget chief was derailed by opposition from Republicans after her sharp critiques of them on Twitter, was named White House staff secretary in October 2021, putting her in a key behind-the-scenes role.
The appointment, which does not require Senate confirmation, was announced during a morning staff call, a White House official said. 

The staff secretary job manages the paper flow, circulates documents among senior staff for comment as part of the decision-making process and is often known as the “nerve center” of the White House. 

It is a job once held by current Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who was staff secretary for Republican George W. Bush’s White House.
Tanden reports to White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain. 

Tanden, previously an adviser to then President Obama and then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, had been serving as president of the Center for American Progress (CAP), a left-leaning think tank, until she became a senior adviser to President Joe Biden in May 2021. 




Shree Saini became the first Indian-American to win the crown of Miss World America 2021.  

Diana Hayden crowned Shree at the event, which was held at Miss World America headquarters in Los Angeles on October 5,2021. She was also the first Indian-origin contestant to represent America at a global stage.  

An advocate for heart health, Saini has had a permanent pacemaker since she was 12 and overcame a major car accident which left her with burns all over her face. But she rarely lets any of that hold her back or define her.  

The official Instagram handle of Miss World America shared the news with a caption that read as, “Shree, who is currently Miss World America Washington, also holds the prestigious position of ”MWA National Beauty with a Purpose Ambassador”, a position she earned by working tirelessly to help those less fortunate and in need. Among her many accomplishments, her work has been recognized by UNICEF, Doctors without Borders, Susan G Komen, and many others.  

We are certain Shree will continue to immaculately embody Beauty With A Purpose, and no doubt will be successful in raising awareness and attention to the Miss World America mission. Stay tuned and follow the Miss World America 2021 journey!”  

Shree Saini was also crowned Miss India Worldwide 2018 at a pageant held in the Fords City of New Jersey.  


Shekar Krishnan, a civil rights attorney and activist, who ran and won the race from District 25 for New York City Council became the first Indian American on that legislative body. Intriguingly, Indian Americans have been elected to the New York state senate and assembly, but not so far to City Council. 

“Thank you Jackson Heights and Elmhurst for believing in me! I am deeply humbled to be elected to represent our communities in the City Council. These two neighborhoods have been a historic part of the immigrant experience in this country,” Krishnan said at his victory event. 



Abhimanyu Mishra became the youngest chess grandmaster in history. The 12-year-old player from New Jersey scored his third GM norm in Budapest, having already crossed the required 2500 Elo rating barrier. He defeated the 15-year-old Indian GM Leon Luke Mendonca with the black pieces, securing a performance rating higher than 2600 over nine rounds. 

Mishra broke GM Sergey Karjakin’s record that stood for 19 years. On August 12, 2002, Karjakin, a world championship challenger in 2016, secured the grandmaster title at the age of 12 years and seven months. Mishra, born on February 5, 2009, took 12 years, four months, and 25 days to obtain the highest title in chess. 



Indian-origin Parag Agrawal became the new chief executive officer (CEO) of social networking company Twitter in December. With that, he joined an elite club of Indian-origin CEOs of top US technology companies, which includes Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai, Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. 

Mumbai-born Agrawal did his B.Tech in Computer Science and Engineering from IIT Bombay before moving to the US in 2005 for a PHD from Stanford University. Agrawal’s doctoral thesis titled “Incorporating Uncertainty in Data Management and Integration” was published in 2012. 

After working briefly with Microsoft, Yahoo, and AT&T Labs, Agrawal joined Twitter in 2011 as a Distinguished Software Engineer and climbed the ladder to reach the top position. 



Gita Gopinath, the IMF’s Indian-American chief economist, who was scheduled to return to her academic position at Harvard University in January 2022 was promoted as its first deputy managing director, recognizing her exceptional intellectual leadership in helping the global economy and the Fund to navigate the “twists and turns” of the “worst economic crisis of our lives.” 

Gopinath replaces Geoffrey Okamoto who plans to leave the International Monetary Fund early this year. 

Gopinath, 49, has served as the first female chief economist of the Washington-based global lender for three years. 

Gita Gopinath has had the honor of having many historical moments in her career, one being the first-ever woman chief economist of the International Monetary Fund.



Eminent Indian-American mathematician Nikhil Srivastava, who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, was jointly selected for the inaugural Ciprian Foias Prize in Operator Theory by the American Mathematical Society (AMS). 

Along with Nikhil Srivastava, the two other awardees are Adam Marcus and Daniel Spielman. The award recognizes their highly original work that introduced and developed methods for understanding the characteristic polynomial of matrices. 

The trio’s breakthrough paper “Interlacing families II: mixed characteristic polynomials and the Kadison-Singer problem” (Annals of Mathematics, 2015) solves the famous “paving problem” in operator theory, formulated by Richard Kadison and Isadore Singer in 1959.  The prize will be presented at the 2022 Joint Mathematics Meeting in Seattle, described as “the largest mathematics gathering in the world.”


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