He formed his first company at the age of 12 and by the age of 27 he was sworn in as deputy mayor of Jersey City, the second largest city in New Jersey, US. Raj Mukherji, a soft-spoken, witty and incredibly focused 28-year-old man, who was in Calcutta with the New Jersey Trade Mission, chats with Metro about what drives him, his future plans for Jersey City and how he would like to build bridges between the two cities he loves.
You started a company at 12, sold it at 17, enlisted for the Marines at 17, co-founded another company at 19, were the youngest commissioner and chairman in the history of the Jersey City Housing authority at 24. How did it all start?
I guess I was born intellectually curious, probably restless is the right word for it and it was a way for me to not drive my beloved parents nuts. It gave me something to do. It all sort of happened by accident. I am happy. I am having a lot of fun in government because there are so many different types of challenges everyday.
Did you always want to get into the government?
I was always interested in politics. I loved lobbying and government advocacy so much because of the diversity of the assignments everyday, but I didn’t know I would end up inside government. Which is a new set of challenges. And I am enjoying the challenges very much. They are very different. A few months ago we were responding to a hurricane and then focusing on public housing and the next day you are working on a public safety initiative… then you are doing economic development, promoting investment in your city, creating jobs in an economic recession. So, all very necessary functions, but all so different and all carrying their own sets of challenges. That’s the most fun thing about this job.
You’ve gone places at a very young age. Does your age work to your advantage or disadvantage?
A common perception about youth is that it is associated with inexperience. I have a background in business prior to coming to government and that helped to do away with a little bit of inexperience theory, but I am sure looking young and the age can have that effect. But you just have to have tunnel vision and focus on whatever you are trying to accomplish. If it is not age then there’s another factor, there will always be some factor, that will provide an obstacle for what you are trying to accomplish. It could be age, it could be bureaucracy, someone acting out of self-interest, there will always be obstacles but you can’t waste your time thinking about that. You can’t be afraid of failure and you have to have thick skin.
Plans for Jersey City?
We have been sharing a lot about our success of our downtown and our waterfront, the bustling Wall Street West and the beautiful skyline there. But that is only one part of the picture. Just like the different parts of Calcutta, there are many parts of Jersey City that unfortunately are still blighted, that are rough parts and haven’t applied the smart principles of development, where there is crime and other problems. So in the immediate future, I would love to implement some plans that the mayor and the council and different agencies have to redevelop and completely transform these neighbourhoods. So that the success story of downtown can spread to other parts of the city that haven’t seen that success. So, locally that would be my short-term goal.
Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?
I don’t think about that. No time for ambition (laughs). When you have time for ambition or for planning your future then you are not working on what you are tasked to do today.
Your Calcutta connect…
I was born in Calcutta. And up until my father’s death last week my parents were splitting their year between New Jersey and Calcutta. I have had an on-and-off love affair with this city.
Jersey-Calcutta partnership potential…
We are interested in bilateral investment and we are facilitating opportunities between members of the Hudson County Chamber of Commerce and members of business chambers here in Calcutta. That’s for trade, that’s for investment and tie-ups and that’s also to allow them to explore partnerships outside of the traditional industries like higher education and the hospitality sector. We are also looking to promote travel and tourism to Jersey City and to New Jersey for many people who aren’t aware of what we have to offer and they think of more traditional destinations like New York City, when in fact Jersey City is just minutes across the river and closer to Manhattan than most of the other parts of New York City. We’ve got a better view, better commercial rent and better priced hotel rooms. And we want to share some of our downtown and waterside redevelopment story with Calcutta where there is tremendous potential for riverfront development.
On the higher education front that I am particularly excited about, two universities, New Jersey City University and St. Peter’s University, accompanied our group on this delegation and one of the university presidents will return to Calcutta at the end of the year to pursue potential articulation agreements for undergrad students to enable students to have a streamlined admission process.
It could be a dual degree or an advancement that will allow them complete their undergrad degree in Calcutta and go on to complete their graduate studies at the American university without the hassle of another step in the application process as long as they maintain certain grade point averages.
If you were to become the deputy mayor of Calcutta you would…
Not being here on the ground I am unqualified to pass any judgement on my counterparts in Calcutta. But there are signs of progress everywhere and I commend chief minister Banerjee for the progress that her administration is showing after a short time, not just in Rajarhat but with regard to the new airport terminal, which is the first impression anyone has of Calcutta when they arrive and with this delegation, I didn’t have to prepare them.
They’ve been to other cities before they arrived in Calcutta and that was a burden off my shoulders coming as a native Calcuttan with a delegation. Also she has taken steps to attract additional investments and there is development, new star hotels coming up… these are signs of progress and I commend them for that.