This Harvard/Yale graduate has been on the covers of Forbes and, more recently, New Yorker. The startup multi-millionaire now wants to make a run for the White House—as the “CEO of Anti-Woke, Inc.” Ramaswamy is the perfect symbol of the American NRI dream—and the worldview it often nurtures—which is now finding resonance with the right.
Researched by: Rachel John & Priyanka Gulati
Vivek Ramaswamy: the early years
Little Vivek encounters caste: Ramaswamy’s parents—VG and Geetha—are brahmins with strong ties to their ancestral village of Vadakkanchery in Kerala. This is where Ramaswamy spent his family vacations—and encountered the Indian caste system—which left him so disillusioned that he fell in love with American capitalism instead. Ramaswamy would later write in his bestselling book ‘Woke Inc.’:
Capitalism was the first ideal I really loved, the first time I’d ever loved a system. Capitalism brought people together; the caste system kept them apart.
Of course, it may also have been the lack of “air conditioning, indoor flush toilets or proper refrigeration” in Vadakkanchery that hurried along this epiphany. As the Telegraph UK approvingly notes: “These trips were uncomfortable at first for an American kid, but proved vital.”
Quote you can’t miss: These family vacays also helped show Ramaswamy what made America truly great:
In ‘Woke, Inc.’, he maintains that “American-style capitalism” is repairing the damage of that pernicious [caste] system, writing approvingly that a “lower-caste guy” in India can now deliver Domino’s pizza and “my family tips him to show their appreciation.
Little Vivek rises above the ‘riff raff’: Soon after his birth in Cincinnati in 1985, his dutiful parents had his horoscope made—which predicted Ramaswamy was “destined for greatness.” He would later say that his family bestowed on him, their firstborn, a sense of “deep-seated superiority.” Ramaswamy’s upbringing reflected the familiar blend of deep immigrant insecurity and entitlement:
But as well as the insecurity and the anxiety about making ends meet, “there’s this other side of your brain that has a deep-seated superiority, to see these, average mediocre Joes running around you knowing that you’re destined to be so much better than them because you’re wired to work harder. [That sense that] we’re not just one of them who just goes home after school and goofs off.” There’s a word in Keralan vernacular for kids like that, he says, that means “riff raff kids.”
He attributes a great part of this drive to succeed to his parents’ academic accomplishments. Ramesh was an engineer in General Electric—while his mother worked as a geriatric psychiatrist.
Vivek totally kicks ass: Ramaswamy succeeded beyond his parents’ wildest dreams. By the time he became a valedictorian in high school, he was also an accomplished pianist and a nationally ranked junior tennis player with a 120-mph serve. As a Harvard undergraduate, he worked in the lab of renowned stem cell scientist Douglas Melton—while getting his degree in Biology. Also: a summary of his senior thesis was published in the New York Times.
Point to note: Not satisfied with mere academic achievements, Ramaswamy also—wait for it—“performed Eminem covers and original free-market-themed rap songs as a kind of alter ego called Da Vek.”
Vivek discovers his politics: He showed the first glimmers of his political worldview as president of the Harvard Political Union. When his classmates campaigned for a wage raise for janitors, Ramaswamy accused them of linking their “fundamental human worth” to a paycheck:
True, a bigger paycheck might give the janitors more financial stability. But the higher pay… would signify that Harvard students felt sorry for the janitors. This would harm the janitors in other ways, as “a condescending strain of sympathy subtly yet naturally replaces the mutual human respect that otherwise would have existed.”
No doubt, Harvard’s janitors were grateful for Ramaswamy’s advocacy of their true worth—much like that Domino’s delivery guy.
Vivek Ramaswamy: the money-making years
After graduating summa cum laude (sigh!), he took a job at a New York City hedge fund in 2007—while doing a law degree at Yale (of course!). Yale is also where he met his future wife Apoorva—who was studying for her degree at medical school (aww!).
Vivek’s first company: In 2014–at the tender age of 29—Ramaswamy set up his first company Roivant—raising an eye-watering $100 million. Interestingly, the board was stuffed with A-list members of the Democratic party—including a former Obama cabinet member and former Senate Majority leader. None of them are his supporters now.
The idea for Roivant was simple and seductive. In the pharma industry, many drugs go through rounds of testing—but are abandoned because they don’t make business sense. Roivant would licence these drugs—and take them through to market—sharing the proceeds with the original manufacturer. Ramaswamy called it the “Berkshire Hathaway of drug development.”
Vivek mints the moolah: Roivant acquired an experimental Alzheimer’s medication which had been abandoned by GlaxoSmithKline—even though early tests showed very promising results. In 2015—at the height of the biotech boom—Ramaswamy created a subsidiary in Bermuda called Axovant. The subsidiary now owned the drug—and planned to go public—the IPO conveniently timed before the critical phase III trial.
The IPO was a blockbuster success—raising a whopping $300 million. Forbes put Ramaswamy on its cover—with an article headlined ‘The 30-Year-Old CEO Conjuring Drug Companies from Thin Air.’ That headline turned out to be prophetic. In 2017—right when Axovant’s valuation was $2.6 billion—the magical Alzheimer drug proved to be a dud. But, hey, Ramaswamy had made his money. His net worth today is over $500 million.
Vivek Ramaswamy: Darling of the right
By 2020, Ramaswamy had found a new way to grab the world’s attention—as a crusader against woke culture. He found himself possessed of an “itch” to offer “a competing vision for the world as it should be”:
We developed a number of medicines [for cancer], but I grew more interested with what I saw as a cultural cancer that no medicine was going to address, one that would require a cultural and societal thoughtfulness that was lacking and that I felt I had something to add to.
Vivek, the culture warrior: Ramaswamy started dashing off op-eds in the Wall Street Journal attacking corporate America’s appeasement of liberals. Examples: Goldman Sachs backing diversity on boards—or JP Morgan CEO kneeling in solidarity with Black Lives Matters. But his critique was often effective because it targeted corporate hypocrisy:
Examples include Unilever positioning itself as “the corporate leader in the fight to empower women” while facing a lawsuit from female Kenyan tea plantation workers “who claimed it had failed to protect them from rape”, or Nike pledging $40 million to “the black community” while flogging trainers to inner city black kids who “can’t afford to buy books from school”
These days Ramaswamy is just as worked up over Black Lives Matter, the World Economic Forum and affirmative action—which has made him a fixture on rightwing news shows on Fox News.
You can get a taste of his views below:
Vivek vs ‘woke capitalism’: Ramaswamy has the perfect solution for the corporate hypocrisy of Nike, Unilever etc. They should just stop pretending to care. He wants corporate America to forget about things like climate change, gay rights or gender equality—and go back to its real job: keeping investors rich and happy.
For example, Ramaswamy believes oil companies shouldn’t be trying to bring down the carbon emissions: ‘It’s like McDonald’s volunteering to take responsibility for the adult body weight of anyone who’s eating a Big Mac.” Conscious capitalism is inherently undemocratic—because it allows big corporations to make decisions that affect vast numbers of people. Let the government spend money to fix these things—if (and it’s a big ‘if’) the voters want it to do so.
Vivek, the anti-woke investor: Ramaswamy also insists funds should abandon what is now his pet bugbear: ESG investing—which rates a company on how it performs across three areas—Environmental, Social and Governance. And it doesn’t hurt that his anti-ESG campaign has proved greatly lucrative. Ramaswamy’s latest venture is an “anti-woke” asset-management firm that has $500 million in assets—and is backed by influential rightwing investors like Peter Thiel.
FYI: Ramaswamy saves his greatest vitriol for rival Blackrock—the world’s biggest asset manager—for advocating ESG investing. So much so that he’s managed to recast its CEO—one of the most powerful men on Wall Street—as a “darling of the American left” and a secret collaborator with liberal elites.
Vivek, the politician: As Ramaswamy becomes more vocal and visible, he has stepped away from his corporate role to fully embrace politics. He first considered a run for Congress, but now has his eye on a far bigger prize: the White House. He is bouncing around key Republican primary states—testing the temperature and networking with local party leaders. His first big stumbling block: farmers in Iowa have no knowledge or interest in ESG investing.
But that has not dented the attitude of a man who has been a winner all his life. As Politico notes,
Ramaswamy’s self-confidence barometer is off the charts. When talking to his Iowa host… Ramaswamy speculated that if he were to jump in the race and start polling well, [Florida Governor Roy] DeSantis might reconsider running. (To be clear, we’ll sooner see snow in Miami.)
Not many share Ramaswamy’s optimism about his presidential prospects. But he is confident of pulling a ‘Donald Trump’—turning a long shot into a sure win with an out-of-the-box campaign. If he does take the plunge, one of Ramaswamy’s rivals will be fellow Indian-American Nikki Haley—which reflects the increasing clout and visibility of NRIs in US politics. Also see: The Democratic ‘samosa caucus’ in Congress.
The bottomline: It’s uncanny how much of Ramaswamy’s background, trajectory and ambition resembles that of Rishi Sunak. Now imagine how unbearable the Indian media will be if he actually decides to run. Don’t complain that we didn’t warn you so.
The New Yorker’s deeply reported profile of Ramaswamy is an absolute must-read. Financial Times looks at his campaign against ‘woke boardrooms’. This older Forbes cover story reflects his stellar reputation in the corporate world. Politico and Bloomberg News have more on his political ambitions. The Conversation explains why Indian Americans are becoming highly influential in US politics—while LA Times looks at the Kamala Harris effect and Hindustan Times has more on the ‘samosa caucus’ in Congress.