Nimrata Nikki Randhawa’s mother is an immigrant from India. She also was a small-business owner in South Carolina.
As a daughter, she paid attention to the business and learned enough about it that by the time she was 13, she was its bookkeeper. Selling high-end jewelry and clothing, that business eventually turned into a multimillion-dollar enterprise.
But that story isn’t why she was keynoting the formal dinner Wednesday night at the Association of Washington Business’ spring meeting in Spokane at the Davenport Grand, which was filled with many of the region’s biggest business leaders and local politicians.
They were there to hear Nikki Haley, most recently the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and a two-term governor from South Carolina. She was the daughter turned bookkeeper, and understanding the environment of a successful business is one of her favorite things to talk about.
Growing up, her family always called her Nikki, which means “Little One” in Punjabi.
“Knowing business gets into your blood,” she told the group, according to several in the room. It also taught her the value of a dollar, as well as the important role government can play in local business – for better or worse.
She said government can either have a local business owners’ backs or stab them there. It was one of the issues Haley focused on as South Carolina’s governor from 2011-2017.
She told the group she wanted to change the fundamental relationship between government and business. She said she began working to change the culture of the state starting with how state agencies answered their phones: “It’s a great day in South Carolina. How can I help you?”
She said she worked to change the business climate by focusing on tort reform, deregulation and education reform.
Haley said the government’s role is not to pick winners and losers in business, but to help create an environment where they can succeed.
“The challenge is to find solutions to today’s challenges without jeopardizing a business climate,” she said. Haley said government policy shouldn’t demonize businesses doing the right thing through innovation and improving current conditions.
She said the reason she ran for governor was she “got tired of seeing how hard it is to make a dollar and how easy it is for government to take it away. There were too many lawyers when what was needed was one good accountant.”
The Republican entered politics in her early 30s, running for the South Carolina House of Representatives against the state’s longest-serving legislator. She won, becoming the first Indian-American to hold office in the state.
Haley then ran for governor, winning to become the state’s first female governor, as well as the first Indian-American to hold the role.
She said the country’s nationally elected officials could stand to learn a thing or two from governors.
“Listen to who you represent,” she said. Haley emphasized that governors better understand that “results matter.”
That’s why she said the most recent federal government shutdown bothered her so much.
“Congress has one job,” she said, and that’s to come up with and pass the nation’s budget.
“They went home and continued to collect their pay, while federal employees didn’t.” She said that if voters could have taken away Congress’ paychecks, members would have fixed it much quicker.
Haley had a front-row seat to the shut down. She was appointed U.N. ambassador by President Donald Trump in January 2017 and served until December 2018, when she abruptly resigned.
She left the role with her reputation largely unscathed, but notably wouldn’t talk about whether she might run for president in 2020 or 2024. She wrote in her resignation letter that she wanted to “take a step up” to the private sector after 14 years in public office.
To that end, she recently joined Boeing’s Board of Directors.
Despite her previous denials of interest in the Oval Office, many attendees said Haley sure sounded presidential Wednesday night, tackling a wide range of topics in both her speech, and especially during the event’s question-and-answer period with the audience.
Haley said her biggest challenge as the ambassador was that the current culture of the U.N. is not respectful of the United States, and both China and Russia took advantage of that.
Through that she said she realized the lessons from her youth could help her in negotiating with those two nations.
She said her family was the only Indian family in her South Carolina community. Her father wore a turban. Her family’s differences led to constant harassment. When she complained about being bullied in school, her mom told her “your job is not to show them how you’re different but how you are the same.”
Haley said she used this idea to bring warring sides together by first outlining the common ground and then calming them down. She said once you learn about what different sides care about and better understand their fears, it becomes easier to help them protect against those outcomes.
It’s a lesson that seems more and more relevant here in the United States.
She said this is the most toxic political environment she’s seen in this nation, to the point where people are hateful to each other. Haley said she has seen “real evil,” pointing out the Republic of Congo and children being killed by chemical weapons.
Haley said Americans need to better understand that what is happening here is just polarizing politics.
“People need to realize we are just dealing with politics,” she said. “People need to realize they are blessed” to be in America.
She said the next U.S. presidential race will be telling on several levels. She said it will be interesting to see if there is a repeat of the chaos of the 2016 Republican primary in the 2020 Democrat primary.
She wondered if Democrats will go further and further to the left.
“Will the Democrats learn from what the Republicans did right and what they did wrong?” she asked. She said the more the Democrats’ presidential candidate leans left, the greater the chance Trump will get re-elected. She told the group that if the Democrats choose a more moderate candidate, it will be a much closer election.
In regard to immigration issues, she said her family is offended by those who try to come into this country illegally. Haley said her family followed all the rules to immigrate to the United States.
“If you won’t follow the rules to get in, why would you follow the rules once here?” she asked. She said rules shouldn’t be about about stopping immigration because immigration is beneficial to the nation, but “only if there is a process in play.”
Haley said South Carolina was involved in the federal refugee program, but with strict processes involved. “It worked well,” she said.
She said it worked when Afghanistan refugees who served as interpreters for the U.S. were brought to our country after we pulled out, but in the case of Syrian refugees, “we had no background info on the individuals, so you could not treat it the same way.”
In a room full of Eastern Washington business executives, the conversation kept returning to the topic of business and government.
She told the room to stay be involved in local political processes.
“Nothing scares an elected official more than involved business people,” she said. “Business people have the best bully pulpit to get the message out.”
She said businesses don’t want to offend anyone, but it’s their duty to hold elected officials accountable.
“You understand the impact on jobs and how you do your business,” she said.
Editor’s note: Media was not credentialed for the event, so The Spokesman-Review newsroom purchased a ticket for it. After the newspaper’s reporter was seated in the venue, an official from the AWB escorted the journalist out of the room.
Spokesman-Review officials were told that Haley’s speaking contract prohibits working press in the room. This account was pulled together by talking with several of those in attendance, including some who took notes, as well as listening to a recording of the presentation.
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