University of Pittsburgh

Alumni Spotlight: Appointment to President’s Commission Latest in His Legacy to Service

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Businessman Shekar Narasimhan (MBA ’75) has seen the cruel effects of poverty in Appalachia and in the urban jungles of his native India. For three decades, he has helped people get ahead, despite their difficult environments, by supporting affordable housing, community development, and entrepreneurial ventures.

In May 2014, Narasimhan began his next chapter of service when he was appointed to President Obama’s Advisory Commission on Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) in a ceremony at the U.S. Department of Interior. Immigration reform, entrepreneurial ventures, and affordable housing are subjects of importance to the AAPI community, and as one of 16 commissioners, Narasimhan plans to approach each topic with a non-partisan, business-driven mindset.

“In the United States, our greatest advantage is our incredibly robust and energetic entrepreneurial economy. How do we get back to that? From a public policy perspective, it’s the only thing I’m interested in. We can’t look back and say our best days are behind us. What can we do as citizens to make sure our best days are ahead of us?” Narasimhan says.

Narasimhan is a co-founder and managing partner at Beekman Advisors Inc., a Washington, D.C. area firm that provides strategic advisory services to companies and investors in the real estate, mortgage finance, and related sectors. He is also the chairman of Papillon Capital LLC, a venture capital firm that invests in early-stage startups that create sustainable businesses in emerging markets.

Before Narasimhan was an executive, he was an MBA student at the University of Pittsburgh’s Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business. Of all his classes, the experience with greatest impact was a consulting project for small businesses in Pittsburgh’s inner city. It exposed him to the reality of urban hardships, the side of American life incongruent with his image of the country as the land of opportunity. So striking was the contrast that Narasimhan decided thereafter to embark upon a new course in his life.

He knew that working for a major corporation wasn’t for him, so he did the unexpected. After graduation, he moved to David, a small Kentucky coal town in the Appalachian Mountains, 100 miles southeast of Lexington named after the mining company that once owned the town but had shut down. The population plummeted as young people left in mass exodus, and the few people who remained lived destitute.

“I was young; I was 22 years old; this was my chance to prove something and do something useful,” Narasimhan says.

Taking the Path Less Traveled

From 1975 to 1977, Narasimhan was the executive director of the David Community Development Corporation. The nonprofit created a financing system that enabled people to buy homes. It funded a new water and sewer system, a fire station, and the construction of several new homes, all small but important steps to rebuild the economy.

“The people of David had never met an Indian before. Yet, this turned out to be one of the greatest decisions of my life,” he says.

After his position in David, Narasimhan became director of housing of the Human/Economic Appalachian Development Corporation and later was the associate director of Rural America, Inc. Next, he was general manager of Greenbelt Homes, the corporate vice president of real estate for National Cooperative Bank, and the executive vice president of Clark Financial Services Inc.  From 1988 to 2000, he was chairman and CEO of the publicly-traded Washington Mortgage  Financial Group (WMF Group Ltd), and after the company was purchased by Prudential Mortgage Capital Company, Narasimhan was the managing director from 2000 to 2003.

Today, Narasimhan is dedicated to helping people in India and other emerging markets. He uses entrepreneurship as a tool for the public good. His Papillon Capital supports new companies in the sectors of renewable energy, education and training, inclusive health care, and, of course, affordable housing.

In 2011, he co-founded the Emergent Institute in Bangalore, India, which works hand in hand with funds like Papillon Capital, in order to provide entrepreneurial training to people at the bottom of the socio-economic pyramid.

“My life is a complicated but simple existence. I just try to do the most important things that will have the biggest impact,” Narasimhan says.

In addition to his MBA from the Katz School, Narasimhan earned a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology, New Delhi. He is also a Certified Mortgage Banker.

In 2010, the Katz School honored him with the alumni association’s H.J. Zoffer Medal for Meritorious Service. He has supported the school in a number of ways, including his co-sponsorship of the Thought Leaders in Business speaker’s forum.  The annual event has given hundreds of Katz students the opportunity to hear advice from prominent executives in the banking, entrepreneurship, and metals industry.

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Narasimhan’s advice for today’s students is to embrace experimentation and, early in their careers,  to change jobs frequently.

“Most of life’s learning is finding out what you don’t want to versus what you want to do. If you go through life stoically and keep your nose down, you will never find out what excites you, what you do better than everyone else,” he says.

In his case, it meant leaving behind everything he knew and moving to Appalachia to help those everyone else forgot. The wisdom he gained, combined with his subsequent executive-level experience, will now benefit the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian American and Pacific Islanders.