As a kid, Neel spent hours building ships, cars and trucks with Lego blocks, Lincoln Logs and Erector sets. He recalls watching the NewsHour with MacNeil/Lehrer, the McLaughlin Report and other politics and talk shows with his dad.
He liked sports (he named his pet Newfoundland dog Winslow after Cleveland Browns star Kellen Winslow, and the avid skier painted his helmet the team colors, orange and brown), but he never showed an interest in making money growing up, his sister said.
"He did not have a lemonade stand or any kind of a little business when he was younger," said Kelley, 42, a physician and hospital administrator in Raleigh, North Carolina. It was clear by high school that he was going to follow in his father's footsteps.
"Even as a young science student, Neel possessed a synthesizing mind, able to take seemingly disparate bits of information and connect them into a coherent whole," said Patrick Smith, who taught Kashkari biology at Western Reserve Academy in Hudson, Ohio.
Kashkari competed in football and wrestling at Western, and even played the role of head waiter in the school's production of "Hello Dolly." He received departmental honors in mathematics and was chosen by the Class of 1991 to be the graduation speaker.
While attending the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Kashkari led the mechanical engineering portion of the school's entry in the 1997 "Sunrayce" — an event in which teams design and build a solar-powered vehicle, then race each other from Indianapolis to Colorado Springs. The "Photon Torpedo" didn't win, but Kashkari impressed.
"Everybody recognized that he was the one — he was the guy that should be in charge," said fellow student Jonathan Kimball, now an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at the Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla. "He was always very committed and very driven."
With bachelor's and master's degrees from Illinois — and a future wife, Minal, also an engineer — Kashkari went to work in 1998 for TRW in Redondo Beach, California, where he was a principal investigator in research and development.
"He was one of my favorite engineers to work with," remembers Charlie Atkinson, deputy manager for the telescope project. "Very easy going."
Atkinson said Kashkari had "a very good briefing style," which came in handy during the competition phase. He inspired confidence in those who heard him.
"I knew when I would get an answer from Neel that I had 100% faith in it," Atkinson said.
Kashkari shaved his head even back then, prompting colleagues to tease that he looked like a character from the Brendan Fraser "Mummy" movies. Watching him tool around in his prized Corvette, it seemed to Texter that Kashkari was "the sort of person who wanted a more high-profile, affluent sort of existence than being what an engineer would generally afford."
So, his co-workers were caught off-guard when Kashkari sold the black sports car and signed up for an MBA course at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School.
"We never talked about money," said Allen Bronowicki, who shared lab space with Kashkari at TRW's Building R4.