'If You Are an Immigrant, You Are a Bridge': A Conversation with Sonal Shah

Sonal Shah, right, at a 2011 symposium on women in finance. Shah served as President Barack Obama's Director of the White House Office of Social Innovation. (Photo: Department of the Treasury)

Sonal Shah, founding president of The Asian American Foundation, joined IFYC founder and president Eboo Patel in a conversation with IFYC staff last month. Launched in May, The Asian American Foundation represents the largest philanthropic effort in history to focus on funding, convening and advocating for the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, a diverse cohort representing over 23 million people, 50 ethnic groups, 100 languages and a variety of religions. Yesterday, President Joe Biden nominated Shah to serve on the President's Advisory Commission on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders.

Dr. Janett I. Cordovés, director of higher education partnerships at IFYC, wrote the following reflection on Shah's visit. Her colleague Noa Nakao's essay about Shah can be found here

Dr. Janett I. Cordovés

Because the world often informs us of what leadership is and isn’t, and exclusive definitions permeate the field, I often like to encourage us all to revisit the importance of authentic leadership, humility, and empowerment; revisit its definition and images; truly reconceptualize leadership theory; and recognize the positive impact it can have in general society and on interfaith leadership. I want to tell you about a short-ish, soft spoken-ish, Indian woman with a quality Shonda Rhimes would call “badassery.”

Last month, I had the honor to observe and be in conversation with Sonal Shah, who prompted everyone with her stories and laughter to move closer, sit at the tip of their chairs and turn up the volume to listen (by the way, this is a great strategy to garner a group’s attention), and who confidently and humbly (yes, you can be both) shared her story. Shah highlighted the various opportunities she said “yes” to, knowing little to nothing except “I can figure it out,” had the faith in herself “I know enough,” and made space to imagine, create and “build something out of nothing.”  

Shah sat in the café at IFYC’s headquarters in Chicago and shared her life with me. There were others in the room, but I felt like it was a one-on-one conversation, and I’m sure others felt similarly. She has a way of drawing you in, so much so that the conversation felt like it was between us two. She shared stories that covered the spectrum of life’s adventures and big decisions. She talked about being bold and brave as she led and facilitated post-conflict reconstruction in 1995 in Sarajevo; innovative and creative in leading initiatives for investing in clean technologies at Goldman Sachs; and strategic and thoughtful in building trust and mutually inspiring relationships as founding Executive Director of the Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation at Georgetown University.

She also shared how she knew when it is time to leave a position, and how important it is to know to trust “your gut” when you don’t want to do something. There isn’t a sector that Shah has not influenced (click here to learn more), and yet her demeanor was one of humility and empowerment. As seamlessly as she shared her professional accomplishments, she also shared how she immigrated to the United States at the age of 4, how she played tennis, and how immigrant communities are created and help families flourish.

One of my teammates asked Shah about being an immigrant -- a third culture child -- and how it helped Shah build bridges in her work. Shah replied, “We all build bridges all the time. If you are an immigrant, you are a bridge... you live this out every day.” 


1. (noun) the practice of knowing one’s own accomplishments and gifts, accepting one’s own accomplishments and gifts and celebrating one’s own accomplishments and gifts; 

2. (noun) the practice of living life with swagger: SWAGGER (noun or verb) a state of being that involves loving oneself, waking up “like this” and not giving a crap what anyone else thinks about you. 

From Shonda Rhimes’ memoir, ”Year Of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand In the Sun and Be Your Own Person.” 


#Interfaith is a self-paced, online learning opportunity designed to equip a new generation of leaders with the awareness and skills to promote interfaith cooperation online. The curriculum is free to Interfaith America readers; please use the scholarship code #Interfaith100. #Interfaith is presented by IFYC in collaboration with ReligionAndPublicLife.org.


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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.