Women in Public Affairs to Know: Prashanthi Rao Raman

April 3, 2019

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This interview is part of a series on “Women in Public Affairs to Know,” by the McGuireWoods Consulting Women in Public Affairs initiative. To learn more about the initiative or recommend a woman for a future interview, please visit our website.

Prashanthi Rao Raman is Director of Public Policy at Lyft, the ridesharing company. She received her undergraduate degree from Northwestern University. Thereafter, Prashanthi pursued a joint Juris Doctorate and Masters of Public Health degree from Chicago-Kent College of Law and University of Illinois at Chicago.

Prashanthi has always had a passion for government relations and finding a way to make meaningful policy changes. 

After practicing healthcare law for 6 years, she was appointed by then-Illinois Governor Pat Quinn to serve as his associate chief of staff for healthcare and human services, where she managed legislative affairs for eight different state agencies.  

In her free time, Prashanthi is actively engaged in the Asian American community, not-for-profit and foundation executive boards and community service.

The interview below was conducted by Michele Satterlund, senior vice president on McGuireWoods Consulting’s Virginia State Government Relations team and Lara Mbayed, vice president on McGuireWoods Consulting’s Illinois State Government Relations team.

Question: Your public affairs experience encompasses a variety of sectors, including private legal practice, non-profit, government, and now, for one of the world’s most recognized start-ups. Can you share your thoughts on how these sectors can better work together and what the private sector can learn from government and vice-versa? 

Prashanthi Rao Raman: Working in this industry has given me the chance to meet with people from all over the world who have worked in a wide variety of professions. This exposure has provided me an incredible understanding of how things can be so different at times, but, at the same time, also very similar.

I think the private sector and government have a lot to offer and learn from each other.

First, I think we probably need to understand they are not enemies. This is not a private versus public battle. In many cases, for one to be successful, working with the other is a necessity. In my opinion, the first step is to have that open mind and dialogue, and in my experience, the sooner you can begin talking to each other instead of at each other, the sooner you can take the first step towards a positive working relationship.

 Prashanthi testifying in Canada in front of a municipal city council.

Prashanthi testifying in Canada in front of a municipal city council.

I think the other big takeaway I have learned is that despite what your goals might be the person on the other side of the table has their own goals and it is very important to find a middle ground so both parties can be successful. In the private sector we have to remember that an elected representative may have a certain constituency or issue that he or she is focused on and that might be their only focus during negotiations, so it’s very important to understand what everyone is trying to achieve and focus on the common ground you share to reach that goal.

Q: Prior to Lyft, most of your academic and professional experiences were healthcare related. How did your career path lead you to Lyft and what was the transition like? What is your advice for individuals seeking to move from one industry to another?

Prashanthi: I focused on healthcare initially because I wanted to help provide people with access to quality healthcare. Because of my focus in that industry, I found myself working for the governor of Illinois and with a number of talented elected officials and public affairs professionals where I was able to learn what they were looking for, what they wanted to know, how to help them achieve their goals in Springfield, in their districts, and more. This experience helped me make the transition to Lyft where I have had the opportunity to use my previous experience as we educate representatives about the benefits Lyft brings to their community, city, and the state as a whole. So while healthcare and Lyft might seem different, they have one very important thing in common: they are both about helping people and making a positive impact on the lives of others.

 Prashanthi giving a TedX Talk: Creating Hope and Opportunity Through Transportation.

Prashanthi giving a TedX Talk: Creating Hope and Opportunity Through Transportation.

If I were to give advice to someone making a career change, I would say do what motivates you, stay true to yourself, and never underestimate yourself. I was able to come to Lyft by working on the ride sharing bill in Governor Quinn’s office in 2014. I met individuals from Lyft, listened to the story behind the company, and the mission and passion the founders have for creating a service that allows for safe, affordable, and reliable transportation. 

That motivated me to have a better understanding of the transportation industry and to understand that Lyft was allowing individuals to be picked up and dropped off in underserved areas. Today, almost 40 percent of our rides pick up and drop off in underserved areas. Lyft gets them to work, to school or even to the doctor to take care of their health, and that is really my motivating factor.

Q: I understand you spent time in New Orleans post-Katrina. What was the impetus for going to Louisiana and what work did you do while you were there? How did that experience shape who you are today?

Prashanthi: As a third-year law student I got involved with a group called Student Hurricane Network, which allowed law students from across the country to go to New Orleans or the Gulf area and help the community, either by providing legal aid or just physical help. I went to help and do whatever I could for the residents there. The experience was life-changing. Seeing stairs of a house that led to nowhere because the house had been washed away, or watching two-year olds live in a FEMA trailer, or seeing displaced individuals be told by their landlords that their houses were ready to be inhabited again only for them to come back to a home that had no roof or running water – I won’t forget that. I won’t forget the stories. I had never been to New Orleans before Katrina, so I can’t speak to how it was, but I can speak to the resilience of New Orleanians and how they lifted each other up. I have been back a number of times since and seeing the revitalization of the city is amazing and a testament to the people and their will to rebuild.

I was fortunate to be able to work on a package of shovel-ready projects in the Gulf area to send to President Obama during his transition to the presidency. I traveled all over the Gulf Coast region to understand what people needed to economically stimulate their community and learn about the devastating effects Katrina had on them. In the process, I was able to take what I learned and advocate for Lyft to get involved in the negotiations for ride sharing in New Orleans in 2015. I thought the values of Lyft and the culture of New Orleans went hand-in-hand and I was able to successfully articulate that to the city and people of New Orleans in 2015.

Lyft and New Orleans have been a perfect match. In New Orleans, 39 percent of rides begin or end in low income areas, which is incredible because there isn’t a great public transportation system in New Orleans. Allowing people to get to a job interview, to and from work, or just to the grocery store, has changed people’s lives. Now, we have spent $39 million in local NOLA economies due to the availability of Lyft. It makes my time in New Orleans come full circle – from being there post-Katrina to see what my profession and Lyft can now bring to the community.

 Prashanthi, and PowHerful Co-Founder, Soledad O'Brien, at a PowHerful Fundraiser.

Prashanthi, and PowHerful Co-Founder, Soledad O’Brien, at a PowHerful Fundraiser.

Q: Can you tell us about PowHerful Foundation, including how you became involved with the organization, and how, as the mother of two young girls, it has informed your perspective?

Prashanthi: The mission of PowHerful Foundation is to transform lives, one young woman at a time by allowing them to have wraparound services to and through college. The foundation holds summits across the country where we bring 200-300 high school- and college-aged girls for a day-long summit. 

There, they are provided with hands-on skills like how to apply for FAFSA or how to dress for an interview. I got involved with the foundation because I was a young woman who needed that assistance myself, specifically in the mentoring that exists in the foundation as one of the wraparound services. I met the founder, Soledad O’Brien, through a mutual friend several years ago. Our mission and our values aligned, and she invited me to join the board not too long after that. Watching these girls really showed me that the world is full of amazing, strong, powerful women – not that I didn’t already know that! – but it helped solidify it. Not all women are afforded the same advantages as others and this foundation wants to give everyone a chance.

 Prashanthi and her daughter, Ria at an Indian Classical dance event.

Prashanthi and her daughter, Ria at an Indian Classical dance event.

I am a first-generation South Asian American and I was raised with a hybrid of east and west cultures, which sometimes is dichotomous in nature. I had to deal with immigrant parents who provided me with everything they possibly could, but were still trying to make it themselves. Now, we are fortunate to have better opportunities and more access to resources and I hope to make sure my girls have all of those available to them. I want them to grow up to be strong, independent, and powerful women, and in fact, I already know they are well on their way! I have a three-year-old who is head strong and very independent, and my five-month-old is very inquisitive and alert, and I know that once she starts talking, she will make her voice be known.I think that is something I’m instilling in them – they don’t have to wait for anyone to ask them to speak their mind; their opinion matters.

Q: How do you decompress? Do you still play the piano or do you have other relaxation activities you enjoy?

Prashanthi: I still enjoy playing the piano and being surrounded by music, but I think my favorite breakaway from work is really my family. I am fortunate to be the mother of two incredible young girls and love spending time with them and my husband. 

 Prashanthi, her husband, Roshan, and daughters, Ria (3) and Iyla (newborn).

Prashanthi, her husband, Roshan, and daughters, Ria (3) and Iyla (newborn).

Outside of the home, it’s friends and family that get me going and other than that, it’s traveling and seeing the world. I love to travel. We have taken my eldest to Barcelona and Iceland and all across the United States and we continue to open her eyes up to the beauty the world has to offer. I work for one of the best transportation companies in the world; we help improve people’s lives and being able to travel with my girls and show them what the world is like and how their mom is helping improve it in even a small way is incredibly rewarding.