Rishi Sunak showed his ‘charm’ and political potential at Stanford

The admissions officer who gave the greenlight for Rishi Sunak to get his MBA at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business in 2006 is not surprised that this son of middle-class immigrants has made history as the U.K.’s first prime minister of color.

Derrick Bolton, who was the Associate Dean of Admissions when Sunak applied to the internationally ranked program in 2004, said the school looks for three things in successful applicants: intellect, leadership and character.

“I just remember Rishi being off the charts in all three — if you could wave a wand and create the person who you would want to lead an organization and a country at some point,” said Bolton, who is now the school’s Associate Dean for External Relations.

Sunak, 42, ascended to top of Britain’s government Monday. He won the race to become the Conservative Party leader after Liz Truss announced her resignation last week, following a turbulent 45 days in office. He becomes the first person of Indian heritage and the first Hindu to ever serve as prime minister in an increasingly multi-ethnic nation known for its colonial past. He also becomes Britain’s youngest prime minister in more than 200 years.

Bolton predicted that Sunak would one day make “a great prime minister.” He said Sunak, who received his  undergraduate degree at Oxford and attended Stanford on a Fulbright scholarship, was known around the school for being hard-working, “unfailingly kind” and with “a strong sense of self.”

Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak (R) pose with his wife Akshata Murthy (L) for pictures during a reception to celebrate the British Asian Trust at The British Museum on February 9, 2022 in London. (Photo by TRISTAN FEWINGS/POOL/AFP via Getty Images) 

“Every time you’d see him in the hallway, he had a smile on his face, he was chatting with people,” Bolton said, then laughed, “The British accent always played well in the States. He’s incredibly charming and erudite.”

Indeed, Sunak has been variously dubbed “Dishy Rishi” or “Slick Rishi” by the British media for his youthful looks, sharp suits, confident manner and polished social media messaging that, critics say, might be more about promoting his brand than government policies, according to the Associated Press and The Telegraph. 

For his part, Sunak said in a 2021 podcast interview that spending two years at Stanford, in the heart of Silicon Valley, changed his life. He told the Twenty Minute VC (20VC) podcast that Stanford “teaches you to think bigger” and to embrace a “more dynamic approach to change.”

“Other than an appreciation of the weather, it’s also a home of entrepreneurship, creativity, innovation, and those are probably the most important ways being out there in the U.S. changed my life in terms of the trajectory that I was on,” Sunak said on Facebook. “It broadened my mindset out considerably because you’re in that world surrounded by that culture.”

Stanford changed Sunak’s life in other ways. He met his future wife, Akshata Murty, at Stanford, possibly at one of the lunches Bolton said he often threw for small groups of students. A fashion designer, Murty also was in the class of 2006. Her billionaire father, Narayana Murthy, co-founded the technology giant Infosys and is said to be one of India’s richest men.

“He and Akshata are the most adorable couple,” Bolton said. Sunak and Murty are the parents of two young daughters, Krisna and Anoushka.

Conservative leadership hopeful Rishi Sunak with daughters Krisna, Anoushka and wife Akshata Murthy ahead of a speech while campaigning on July 23, 2022 in Grantham, England. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images,) 

Sunak’s origins are far more humble than his wife’s. He was born on England’s southern coast to parents who emigrated from British colonial East Africa. His father was a doctor, his mother ran a pharmacy, and his parents picked up extra work in order to send their son to one of Britain’s top private schools, according to the Tatler. On his website, Sunak said that one of his first experiences in business was working in his mother’s small shop. “I grew up watching my parents serve our local community with dedication,” he wrote.

Sunak is known for his meteoric rise in U.K. politics, a Conservative MP from Yorkshire who controversially backed Brexit and was named by Boris Johnson to be Chancellor of the Exchequer — or head of the Treasury — at age 39, just before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. His profile rose even more after after he put aside his small-state, Thatcherite ideals to hand out billions in government money to keep people and businesses afloat during the pandemic, the Associated Press said.

Nearly 20 years earlier, Sunak arrived at Stanford after a short stint working as a hedge fund manager at Goldman Sachs. Sunak wanted to shift his career focus to some kind of public service and hoped Stanford would broaden his horizons, Bolton said.

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