’s Top 50 Coolest Desis of 2013

Here it is — the “Top 50 Coolest Desis” of 2013! Congrats to the dizzying array of artists, entrepreneurs and activists who made the list. Surprised and grateful to make the top 10 with brother Prabhjot Singh! When else do we get to be in the company of stars like Neena Davaluri, Mindy Kaling, Aasif Mandvi, Aziz Ansari, and Russell Peters? Check out the top 10 picks below, or follow the link to see the full list:

Excited to see so many trailblazers who inspire me, including Saru Jayaraman at #2, Amrit Singh at #11, Simranpreet Lamba at #18, Sri Srinivasan at #21, and Fauja Singh at #28. Don’t see your “coolest” Desi here? Jot a comment to celebrate them!

10. Prabhjot Singh 
Location: Harlem, NY
Who is He: An assistant professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University and a practicing doctor who was the victim of a mob beating in a hate crime in upper Manhattan.
Why is He Cool: Despite being subjected to and having survived the attack this proud turban wearing Sikh chose the route of compassion, love and understanding and offered to educate the attackers, if caught, about Sikh religion and generate a national conversation around ‘Who looks American? What does it mean to be American?’
What’s Next: He hasn’t let the attack ruin the love he has for Harlem, a place where he’s lived for some years and intends to raise his child in. He has chosen to be thankful for his life rather than be bitter about the attack. In his various press columns he wrote, “My hope is that our family continues to be a part of this neighborhood, from visiting parks and playgrounds to building relationships through our work. I believe this will bring about positive change that strengthens us through our diversity.”
Cool Fun Fact: Sikh American Legal Defence and Education Fund honored him with a Youth Leadership Award at its national gala.

9. Nivedita Chandrappa
Location: New York, NY
Who is She: Executive Director, Wishwas
Why is She Cool: A television Producer at Queens Public Television and an activist, she has a great deal of concern for the women who are first generation immigrants in this city. Through volunteering in various women’s organizations she identified the lack of economic support system available to the low-income women if they are in difficult situations. Nivedita then set up her nonprofit organization Wishwas to reach out to them. It focuses on two initiatives; empowering low-income immigrant women and helping them assimilate within society and train them in vocational skills to make them financially self-sufficient. The organization expands opportunity for low-income communities through leadership development, personal finance management, business/entrepreneurship training, community building and micro-credit/micro-finance loans.
What’s Next: Wishwas is seeking donations for sewing machines, materials, embellishments, craft materials and funds to pay instructors. We wish them good luck in their noble endeavor.
Cool Fun Fact: The nonprofit has drawn support from enthusiastic women like Reema Rasool and celebrities like jewelry designer Ranjana Khan, who is also Board Chair of Wishwas. In fact, along with her husband, fashion designer Naeem Khan, the latter hosted a cocktail soirée at their studio in Manhattan. The evening raised over $18,000 for the charity.

8. Valarie Kaur
Location: California
Who is She: Interfaith leader and filmmaker
Why is She Cool: Valarie makes her way into our list for the second time. This year Asian Americans Advancing Justice awarded 2013 American Courage Award to Valarie for her steadfast commitment to racial and religious justice and equality. She was also listed by the Center for American Progress’s Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative among 13 progressive faith leaders to watch. She was included in Audrey Magazine’s list of influential Asian American women, alongside Grace Lee Boggs and Somaly Mam, won a Person of the Year award by India Abroad, delivered the Baccalaureate address for Stanford University and spoke at the White House’s commemoration of Guru Nanak’s birth anniversary.
What’s Next: Valarie continues to promote racial and religious pluralism through her speaking, writing, and advocacy. A dynamic speaker she promotes interracial and interfaith dialogue, delivers keynote speeches, workshops, and lectures at universities, high schools, corporations, community organizations, educational associations, and religious and interfaith centers across the country and around the world.
Cool Fun Fact: Valarie is greatly inspired by her maternal grandpa Captain Gurdial Singh Gill, who lived with them during their entire childhood.

7. Kunal Nayyar
Location: Los Angeles
Who is He: Actor
Why is He Cool: This sitcom star turned producer with a documentary ‘Beyond All Boundaries’ on cricket craze in India, finished shooting for Dr Cabbie, a film produced by Bollywood actor Salman Khan, is writing a book on his story so far – all this apart from playing Raj Koothrappali on TV’s most watched comedy The Big Bang Theory, which is currently in its seventh season.
What’s Next: His book is a tell all about experiencing the two very different worlds – growing up in India and working in the US.
Cool Fun Fact: Born in England, Kunal grew up in New Delhi. His family moved there when he was four years old. He came to the US in 1999 to study business at University of Portland. He started acting in plays as a way of meeting new friends. He took acting classes as well. After getting his business degree he went on to get a Masters in Fine Arts from Temple University in Philadelphia. He did some Shakespeare for the prestigious Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford, UK. He then landed his breakthrough role in The Big Bang Theory in 2007, just a year after graduating.

6. Shiza Shahid
Location: New York City
Who is She: Consultant, McKinsey
Why is She Cool: Shiza was chosen in Time magazine’s list of ’30 people under 30 changing the world.’ She is the CEO of the Malala Fund, New York City-based nonprofit devoted to getting access to education for girls all over the world and which she co-founded with Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teen activist who was shot in the head during an assassination attempt by the Taliban because of her outspoken campaign for girls’ education rights. The 24-year-old has been referred to as Yousafzai’s mentor and right hand.
What’s Next: After three months helping Malala and her family, Shiza transitioned back to McKinsey. She plans to continue to support Malala – she’s currently helping the family negotiate the idea of developing a movie.
Cool Fun Fact: Shahid first made contact with Yousafzai when she heard about the teen’s blogging and education campaign and wanted to help. Upon her return to Pakistan during a break from Stanford, Shahid invited Yousafazi and several of her classmates to a week-long retreat Shahid organized for 27 girls in Islamabad. She stood by Malala’s family in UK, helping them receive all the support that came from all over while providing them the much-needed privacy during that critical time.

5. Vivek Ranadive
Location: Palo Alto, CA
Who is He: Techpreneur and NBA Team Owner
Why is He Cool: He became the first India-born majority owner of an NBA franchise, the Sacramento Kings when the National Basketball Association (NBA) Board of Governors unanimously approved the sale of the team in May this year. Bringing his business and technical prowess to sports, Vivek is changing the way the team and its fans connect. From developing an app to reach out to fans to having talked about on major media networks, in a few months the Kings have become a relatively hot topic – giving a much needed morale boost to the team while it improves its on-court performance.
What’s Next: A big plan for the team is to develop the India market while expanding its brand; the team launched the first Hindi-based NBA site and hosted a viewing party in Mumbai. The initiative was such a success, 15 more Kings games were picked up for broadcast in the country.
Cool Fun Fact: Vivek is credited with introducing ‘real-time’ concept digitizing information for clients around the globe – including the Wall Street trading floors, banks, airlines, telecom companies – with software that gives instant updates and analysis. He founded TIBCO, which specializes in “big data,” the art of storing and massaging billions of bits of electronic information, in 1997. It has grown into a billion-dollar-a-year enterprise with about 3,700 employees and offices in 31 countries.

4. Mindy Kaling
Location: Los Angeles
Who is She: Actor, Director, Producer, Writer and Author
Why is She Cool: In 2013, Kaling was recognized by Time as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. Her show, The Mindy Project was nominated for the NAACP Image Award, TCA Awards, Teen Choice Awards and won the Gracie Award in New Series category. The Association of South Asians in Media, Marketing & Entertainment (SAMMA) also awarded her with a Trailblazer award for being the first South Asian-American woman to be the headliner of her own network television show.
What’s Next: Though she’s regularly seen on the small screen with her hit Fox series (and in reruns of “The Office”), the 34-year-old actress’s voice will soon be heard on the big screen. In the upcoming animated flick, “Inside Out,” Mindy portrays Disgust, just one of the many emotions inside the mind of a little girl.
Cool Fun Fact: Mindy this year played herself in Seth Rogen and James Franco’s This Is the End.

3. Saru Jayaraman
Location: California
Who is She: Activist working for rights of low-wage workers
Why is She Cool: She authored Behind the Kitchen Door, a groundbreaking exploration of the political, economic, and moral implications of dining out in America. Blending personal narrative and investigative journalism, Saru shows us that the quality of the food that arrives at restaurant tables depends not only on the sourcing of the ingredients. The meals benefit from the attention and skill of the people who chop, grill, sauté, and serve and that the grave concerns of these oft exploited low-wage workers need immediate attention.
What’s Next: Highlighting the roles of the 10 million people, many immigrants, many people of color, who bring their passion, tenacity, and vision to the American dining experience, Saru has set out a bold agenda to raise the living standards of the nation’s second-largest private sector workforce – and ensure that dining out is a positive experience on both sides of the kitchen door.
Cool Fun Fact: Saru Jayaraman is the Co-Founder and Co-Director of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC United) and Director of the Food Labor Research Center at University of California, Berkeley. After 9/11, together with displaced World Trade Center workers, she co-founded ROC in New York, which has organized restaurant workers to win workplace justice campaigns, conduct research and policy work, partner with responsible restaurants, and launch cooperatively-owned restaurants. ROC now has 10,000 members in 19 cities nationwide.

2. Aasif Mandvi
Location: New York, NY
Who is He: Actor, Comedian, The Daily Show correspondent
Why is He Cool: His interview with a Republican Party official in North Carolina led to the latter’s resignation for making racially charged remarks. Talking to The Daily Show with Jon Stewart correspondent Aasif, Don Yelton hit out at African Americans calling them “lazy black people that want the government to give them everything.” He admitted he had been accused of being a bigot before. He went on to add that even though Aasif looks different, he treated him the same as anyone else. “You realize we can hear you?” Mandvi asked Yelton during the interview. Mandvi’s interview was focused on new voting restrictions put in place after the Supreme Court defeated a challenge to ID cards required for voting. Soon after the interview the Republican Party released a statement discrediting Yelton’s remarks.
What’s Next: Aasif has been cast in The Brink, HBO’s comedy pilot. It is a dark comedy focusing on a geopolitical crisis. Aasif will play Rafiq Massoud, a young Pakistani employed by the U.S. embassy whose love of America runs as deep as his resentment. He will also be seen next in Disney’s Million Dollar Arm based on the true story of Baseball pitchers Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel.
Cool Fun Fact: Aasif is an accomplished stage actor. ‘Disgraced’, his most recent endeavor, won the Pulitzer prize for drama.

1. Nina Davuluri
Location: New York
Who is She: Miss America 2014
Why is She Cool: She broke the long existing image of the conventional American girl next door. A dusky beauty with a beautiful mind of her own, who takes great pride in her Americanness as much as she respects her roots. Nina got her name etched in history as the first woman of Indian descent to be crowned Miss America and prior to that, Miss New York. We honor Nina because she is the embodiment of what it is to be an American of Desi heritage – we are all a reflection of Nina’s accomplishment and in our own way, we are all now and forever, Mister and Miss America.
What’s Next: Nina’s platform for her year as Miss America is “Celebrating Diversity Through Cultural Competency.” As a part of her agenda, she has launched a new social media campaign to encourage constructive and civil dialogue on diversity issues.
Cool Fun Fact: Nina took to pageants to fund her college fees! She won Miss Michigan’s Outstanding Teen 2006 and stood first runner up at Miss America’s Outstanding Teen 2007, in turn receiving a $25,000 scholarship that enabled her to graduate debt-free from the University of Michigan. She returned to the pageants five years later, this time to raise money for her medical school.