Henry Paulson's Wingman: Neel Kashkari

The 35-year-old says he is not intimidated by his job as "czar" of U.S. economy.

October 15, 2008, 12:03 PM

Oct. 16, 2008 — -- At 35 years old, Neel Kashkari has already helped design a solar-powered car, worked as a mechanical engineer on a NASA telescope and served as a vice president at Goldman Sachs & Co.

Now, Kashkari is facing a challenge of new proportions: Save the U.S. economy.

Kashkari was nicknamed the "$700 billion man" and the "bailout czar" after being tapped by Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson last week to run the Office of Financial Stability.

Kashkari told ABCNews.com in an exclusive interview that he is not intimidated by the job facing him.

"When he [Paulson] offered me the job, I didn't have to think about it even for a second," he told ABCNews.com.

Kashkari told ABCNews.com in an e-mail interview that he thinks his diverse experience is exactly what makes him fit for the job.

"My engineering experience gave me the analytical foundation for working on the credit crisis," wrote Kashkari. "Working on NASA missions, I loved that we were trying to solve problems people had never even thought of before."

"This is similar to this credit crisis - which is unique and challenging," he said.

Dr. Meera Kelley, who knows Kashkari not as the man in charge of billions of the government's money but as her little brother, said he's always been passionate and ambitious.

"He's very determined and ambitious and enjoys being part of a process that makes things better," said Kelley.

Kashkari called his big sister with the news about his appointment last week and was unfazed by the assignment. "I don't think he's nervous about his position, but he's nervous about the position that the country and the economy is in," she said.

"He knows he's in a unique position," added Kelley.

It is his unique position has made some critics nervous, many of whom have not been shy in suggesting that he may be too young to handle the job.

But Jeff Kleintop, a chief investment strategist at LPL Financial, said that while his age is obviously on the mind of many, it's not as if Kashkari is running the show completely solo.

"He's not doing it alone," said Kleintop. "He's going to be able to draw on expertise from a wide variety of deeply experienced people."

Kashkari agrees, telling ABCNews.com that he will be relying heavily on Paulson for advice.

"Let's not overstate my role," he said. "This is Secretary Paulson's highest priority. He is all over it."

Kashkari's sister says she's sure he won't hestitate to ask for help.

"Just like everyone else, he knows he's young, too," said Kelley. "He's not going to walk up and think he knows all the answers."

"He knows to seek the expertise of the people around him," she added.

Youth, added Kleintop, may actually work to Kashkari's advantage.

"We are treading on new ground," said Kleintop, "so to some extent maybe it does take a fresh perspective to look at things."

"Maybe a touch of innovation and a fresher way of looking at things might actually help."

Growing Up Kashkari

Kashkari is a classic all-American story, only on the fast track.

His parents Chaman and Sheila Kashkari immigrated from India to Stow, Ohio, in the 1960s.

He was named after astronaut Neil Armstrong (Neel is the Indian spelling of the name) because of his mother's admiration for the famous moonwalker.

Growing up in Ohio, Kelley said that her brother had a fairly typical upbringing, playing football, wrestling and always hanging out with a lot of friends.

Drawing inspiration from his parents - his father was an engineer and his mother a pathologist - Kashkari, his sister says, was not necessarily a "top" student, but definitely a good one.

"I think he always knew he would end up in business in some way," said Kelley.

Kashkari said it's his father who is to thank for his interest in politics.

"My interest in government probably stems from my childhood watching Sunday morning news shows with my father," he said in an e-mail.

Kashkari enrolled in the University of Illinois where he followed in his father's footsteps and majored in engineering.

Jonathan Kimball, who studied with Kashkari at Illinois in the mid-1990s, said that Kashkari was a natural-born leader when they partnered on an intercollegiate project to build and race a solar-powered car.

"He was always a take-charge kind of guy," said Kimball, who said the duo would often go out and grab a beer after a long week. "He was friendly but also very intense."

After graduating from Illinois, and meeting the woman who would eventually become his wife, Minal, Kashkari worked for NASA helping to perfect the James Webb Space telescope, equipment the agency expects to be the next Hubble.

A few years later, Kashkari changed directions and enrolled in business school at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, leaving in 2002 with his MBA in finance.

Professor Michael Useem, the director of Wharton's Center for Leadership and Change Management and Kashkari's former teacher, said that he saw Kashkari "in action" during a leadership venture that required business students to apply classroom teachings to scenarios based on real-life events.

For Kashkari, that meant joining fellow students at a nearby army base to participate in a mock-scenario in which he was responsible for getting aide to thousands of Bosnian refugees during a cease-fire.

Useem, who explained that students were assigned to 14 different groups - ranging from the U.S. Army to the Red Cross to NATO - and had to navigate them on large computer screens, much like a video game, to complete their "mission."

"Well today Mr. Kashkari has a rather similar group of quarrelsome and even sometimes opposed stake holding groups," said Useem.

"You've got banks, mortgage lenders, several congressional committees, the White House, Henry Paulson and Wall Street, to name a few, and each of these groups brings their own set of concerns," said Useem. "He is, in that sense, again at the center of pulling these various groups together to get his mission accomplished."

"We stress that you can't lead by yourself and that was true in the Bosnia exercise as well," said Useem. "Kashkari is making many final judgment calls, but I would infer from his past learning that he will have to work as a team and consult quite a bit."

After completing his graduate work, Kashkari headed to the private sector, hired as a vice president at Goldman Sachs in San Francisco, where he advised companies on mergers and acquisitions.

According to his sister, Kashkari developed a relationship with Paulson when they were both working for Goldman, Paulson in New York and Kashkari in San Francisco.

"My brother met him one time and mentioned to Paulson his interest in politics," said Kelley. "Since then they've developed a trusting relationship."

Kashkari kept in touch with Paulson and called him when he was appointed as Treasury Secretary in 2006, spurring his move - wife and dog, Winslow (named after Cleveland Brown player Kellen Winslow), in tow - from California to Silver Spring, Md., to become Paulson's senior advisor.

"Paulson has obviously found he can rely on my brother," said Kelley.

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