Update: This morning Ravi Patel officially announced that he is a Democratic candidate for the 1st Congressional District. In a press release he calls himself a “pro-growth progressive” and says, “We need a fresh perspective, we need new leadership, and we need innovative thinkers who are genuinely interested in seeing our country succeed.” Below is our profile of him that we posted earlier this morning:
For a 29-year-old, Ravi Patel is already a lot of things in life. He’s a successful businessman in the hotel world, a start-up entrepreneur, a first-generation American and an up-and-coming politician. It sounds like Patel may soon announce [edit: he just did] a run for Congress in Iowa’s 1st District. His bid would present a unique candidacy, but Patel says that’s what his life has been all about: innovative ways of doing things differently than everyone else. Starting Line spoke with Patel last week about his life and political interests. We profile him here in our first “Rising Star” series piece.
Growing Up in the Family Business
Many American politicians of a certain era, when discussing their inspiration to serve, will point back to themselves or relatives marching with Martin Luther King, Jr. For Patel, his forefathers marched with a different rights leader: Mahatma Gandhi.
“The essence of hard work and service is literally in my bloodline,” explains Patel, relating how his great-grandfather marched alongside Gandhi in the struggle for India’s independence. Patel’s parents farmed sugar cane in India before immigrating to America, first making their home in the western Arkansas town of Mena. There they bought a shut-down hotel and began the family business of operating hotel properties. Patel recalls a difficult transition for the family in Arkansas, as they began their life and business in America. “We also didn’t know the kind of racial dynamics we’d face in the American South at that time,” he says. “We struggled for a while.”
Patel and his parents later moved north, first to Hannibal, Missouri for some time, then to Burlington, Iowa. He remembers a childhood of working in the family business. “I did everything from cleaning rooms to working night shift, to striping parking lots and doing landscaping. I replaced belts in vacuums and put up new shingles,” Patel says, feeling he had a very strong upbringing with a close family. His work in the hotels taught him many unique business skills early on, as he mentions, “I would joke that I was the only 6th grader who knew how to read profit and loss statements.”
While at Notre Dame high school in Burlington, Patel started to get involved in community service and student government. He chose to attend the University of Iowa after graduation, passing over east coast colleges he felt had too “snooty” of a vibe. It wasn’t until about this time that he says his family’s business really found success. He spent some time during college in Las Vegas, shadowing management jobs at some of the larger hotels. After college, he jumped right in to the hotel business.
Going Against the Grain in a Tough Economy
Patel formally entered the hospitality industry right in the middle of the credit crisis, where businesses were hesitant to invest. He worked with his father’s company, Hawkeye Hotels, and first secured funding for a project in Cedar Rapids. After that he says he went on a spree of buying properties and building them, bucking the trend of the conservative market. “We took a very contrarian approach to what everyone else was doing at a time when everyone else was hoarding money and reserves,” Patel recalls. “Instead we were putting it to work so we could build assets and hotels … We were a lot riskier.”
That risk-taking paid off. Hawkeye Hotels has rapidly expanded in the past five years, now owning nearly 50 hotels and properties across the Midwest and employing well over 1,000 people. They’ve been making headlines in Des Moines recently with the acquisition and planned redevelopment of the historic Hotel Fort Des Moines, with Patel’s brother Raj heading up the project. Even though he says he didn’t realize how risky their strategy was, Patel notes the effect it had on local jobs, saying, “It was really fulfilling to be one of the only companies that was not only not laying people off, but also really creating lots of jobs with massive economic impact in the communities of Cedar Rapids, Des Moines, Iowa City and Davenport.”
Bringing Innovation to Iowa’s Economy and Politics
The Patel brothers’ first foray into politics came in Iowa City, when Raj – then a college student – ran for city council in 2011. Neither had run a campaign before, and Raj faced skepticism as a young candidate. “I’ve always thought good ideas shouldn’t have a specific timeline for being put into action,” Ravi Patel said of his brother, who would lose in the election by about 200 votes. Ravi campaigned heavily for his brother and says he learned a lot about the issues facing Iowans while talking to voters. One such issue was the need for a “start-up ecosystem in Iowa.”
“Young people were leaving – they were heading to main coastal cities,” Patel says of his conversations with young voters. “We didn’t have the infrastructure, capital, mentorship” for start-up businesses that could keep young people in Iowa, he explained. So Patel set out on creating it. He invested in a number of entrepreneurial businesses, mostly run by young people. He backed projects that worked on health care, education, and student loan assistance. Patel says he’s seen that sector blossom in Iowa’s economy now and given him hope for retaining more young people in the state.
Between his funding initiatives and hotel business success, Patel started getting asked about his own political ambitions. He’s hosted fundraisers for top Democratic candidates, kept involved in campaigns, and says he passed this last cycle on running for office. But this year will likely be different. Patel believes voters are ready for an “outside-the-box” candidate, saying, “I think we have a chance to do something different. We have a chance to innovate our politics. The system is broken, people in Congress don’t want to work together … If we don’t ever change the negative feedback loop we can’t ever really get things done.”
Potential [edit: Official] Run for Congress
Patel has his eyes on the first congressional district, where he owns a home in Cedar Rapids. Doing so could fulfill his goal of getting more young people interested in politics, who he thinks “feel scared to get involved – the best and brightest aren’t going to run for office.” On what he sees as his advantage in such a race, Patel says, “One thing I think makes me different than anybody is I’m in the business of innovation. I’m new ideas and solutions-oriented.”
During his brother’s campaign, Patel recounts that he spoke with voters of all income levels and backgrounds. That experience helped form his current policy ideas. “I think we need a compassionate agenda for Iowa working families,” Patel says. “That means raising the minimum wage and indexing it to inflation. I believe that no one who works full-time should live in poverty.” On education issues, he believes, “Our colleges and universities are the envy of the world but the costs are spiraling out of control. If we have a generation of young people chained to insurmountable student debt, we’ll miss out on opportunities to really aid our economic system. They won’t be able to buy homes or automobiles or take risks like starting a business.”
When he announces, Patel will likely enter a crowded Democratic primary field. Monica Vernon has already announced, and Gary Kroeger and Swati Dandekar may soon as well. Having two Indian-Americans run in Iowa would certainly be intriguing, but Patel thinks there would only be a “minor amount of overlap” with Dandekar’s network. Patel’s connections pull more from the hotelier industry and younger entrepreneurs in Iowa and around the country.
Patel will also be running in a labor-heavy district, with many people meeting the 29 year-old for the first time as a successful businessman. However, Patel says, “I think I can connect very well with them because I was in their shoes for a very long time.” He acknowledges that may be a concern for working class voters, but asserts that he’s never forgotten his roots, arguing that “I think what you’ve seen a lot is wealthy politicians who tend to be out of touch with everyday concerns. I’m definitely not hiding that I’ve gone to be a successful businessman, but my parents were farmers, my grandparents were. They worked lots of odd jobs, I worked lots of odd jobs. I spent time in every facet of the business. That kind of opportunity needs to be open to everyone.”
For Patel to succeed in his new, political venture, he’ll need to utilize the same risk-taking and innovative tactics to stand out with a different kind of campaign. Iowans will be watching to see if the young man’s effective strategies from the business world will translate into similar success at the ballot box.
Ravi Patel was also featured in our 10 Iowa Democrats Who Can Lead the Party Back to Power