Cornell University

June 12 2009

Road to Washington

Tarak Shah, MILR/MBA '09

Roles on Obama team filled by Tarak Shah MILR/MBA '09

Culminating with a White House post, the past two years have been packed with action for Tarak Shah MILR/MBA '09.

In May 2008, Shah became deputy human resource director of Barack Obama's campaign staff. 

After the November presidential election, Shah was named human resource director of transition for the Obama team.

In December, the Illinois native completed requirements for the MILR/MBA dual degree program.

In March, he started as special assistant to the chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

Shah's road to Washington, D.C., began in 2004, when he was a senior at the University of Illinois at Champaign.

The phone rang. It was Obama, then a candidate for an Illinois seat in the U.S. Senate. He and Shah had met several times during campus campaign stops.

"What are you doing after you graduate?" Obama asked.

"Hopefully," Shah replied, "coming to work for you, Senator."

The day after graduating, Shah started working as a fundraiser for Obama's campaign.

"I traveled with him three or four nights a week to homes and events where he talked about his vision for the Senate and America," Shah said in an interview.

"It was an amazing experience. I would get to be with him for an hour or two at each of those events," he said.

"It was great getting to talk to him one on one," Shah said. "It was remarkable to hear his vision for the nation, and then have him ask about my family, and my own interests."

After Obama won the general election for the U.S. Senate that November, Shah went to work in Washington, D.C., for the Hopefund, Obama's political action committee, for two years.

In addition to raising money, Shah worked on the "Yes We Can" training program designed to help minorities advance in the political campaign ranks.

Obama's talent was obvious, Shah said. "We all knew he was going somewhere, all the staff, we just didn’t know the timing."

Obama urged the young people who worked for him to further their educations, said Shah, who began the MILR/MBA dual degree program in 2006 with a goal.

"One of my big frustrations in politics is we don't have the best human capital practices," he said. "There are no performance evaluations, communications are not always the best between the staff and upper echelon."

"I came to Cornell with this in mind -- that this was one of the things I thought I could do better. I didn't know it would lead me back to politics."

During the 2008 Cornell winter break, Shah volunteered for Obama's presidential campaign in Iowa and decided "I want to come back to the campaign and focus on HR. I knew we could do it better."

In May 2008, Shah became deputy human resources director of Obama's campaign staff. When Obama won the election, Shah was appointed human resources director for the White House Transition Team.

The campaign, Shah said, "was a wild ride. Lots of cold pizza."

And, "the most dedicated staff you could ever possibly hope to imagine. Everyone had the same goal and same vision -- to elect Barack Obama and change the country."

"A lot of the initial work was building software that would help us keep track of 4,000 employees, ages 17 to 75, across all 50 states," Shah said.

Shah was eager for managers campaign-wide complete post-election performance evaluations that would help guide White House staffing in the year ahead.

First, he had to create the survey.

"There were lots of campaign professionals all around us, many of whom have been working on campaigns since Jimmy Carter. None of them had ever seen a performance review, much less created one or implemented one."

"I was really lucky to have Chris Collins as my adviser," he said, referring to Professor Chris Collins. "I wouldn't have known where to begin if it weren't for Chris's class."

In the four days after the election, managers across the campaign completed over 3,800 evaluations through an online process. Information gathered through the interviews helped staff the transition and inauguration teams, he said.

Shah said he also relied on what he learned in Professor Kevin Hallock's compensation course to help build a salary model for campaign employees.

In the Obama administration, Shah works for Nancy Sutley, a 1984 Cornell graduate. Sutley's office, the White House Council on Environmental Quality, helps set national environmental policy.

President Obama, Shah said, "is just as friendly in reality as you see on television."

Shah calls him "one of the smartest people I know, with a unique ability to listen to many sides of an argument, distill what each is saying and then derive what works best for the most people."

"You've got this combination of professor, civil rights attorney and a really wonderful man, all in one, and now he’s our president."