Chandrika Tandon: Ellis Island is ‘symbolic beginning of the American Dream’

Chandrika Tandon during an interview at her home in Manhattan February 2020, (Photo by Luke Christopher/The American Bazaar)
Chandrika Tandon during a February 2020 interview at her Manhattan home. (Photo by Luke Christopher/The American Bazaar)

Tandon is one of the recipients of this year’s Ellis Island Medals of Honor.

Prominent Indian American businesswoman and philanthropist Chandrika Tandon, one of the recipients of this year’s Ellis Island Medals of Honor, said the recognition motivates her to renew her “commitment to serve in the best way” she can.

The humanitarian and Grammy-nominated musician, who was born in Chennai, India, is one of 93 illustrious individuals who will receive the Medals, awarded annually to men and women who “share with those less fortunate, their wealth of knowledge, indomitable courage, boundless compassion, unique talents and selfless generosity.”

Tandon, a New Yorker, is one of two Indian American honorees this year. The other is Google investor Ram Shriram.

They were scheduled to receive the Medals at a gala at the Ellis Island’s Great Hall, the entry point to America for more than 12 million immigrants for over six decades in the 19th and 20th century. But the event was postponed to fall due to the Covid lockdown.

“Ellis Island — to me — is the symbolic beginning of the American Dream,” Tandon told the American Bazaar. “It heralds the great possibilities that this ‘Land of the brave and the Home of the Free’ — my home for over four decades — represents.”

RELATED: Chandrika Tandon: I sang before I could speak (December 1, 2019)

Tandon came to the United States at the age of 24, after earning a bachelor’s degree from Madras Christian College and MBA from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmadabad. After serving as a partner at McKinsey & Company — she was the first Indian American woman to do so — Tandon and her husband, Ranjan, launched the Tandon Capital Associates, a financial advisory firm, in 1992.

“As an avid reader of American history, I remember shedding tears the first time I went to Ellis island many years ago imagining the hopes and fears of so many before us, and many that will come after us,” Tandon said. “I feel so much gratitude to be one of the recipients of this very meaningful medal… and renew my commitment to serve in the best way I can. My congratulations to all the recipients.”

The Tandons are well-known philanthropists, who support a number of causes and institutions, mainly in the fields of education and arts and culture. In 2015, they created history when they donated $100 million to New York University’s School of Engineering.

“Chandrika Tandon leads by example,” said Venky Raghavendra, a prominent Indian American social entrepreneur and member of Safe Water Network, who knows her through various philanthropic efforts. “She kindles the human spirit through her empathy and elevates everyone around her.  While she has led on many frontiers, what distinguishes her is her spirit of giving back and her deep sense of philanthropy.”

Besides Wall Street and philanthropy, Tandon has been increasingly focusing on a second career in recent years — in music.

RELATED: Indian American couple gifts $100 million to NYU School of Engineering (October 6, 2015)

Last November, she made her Kennedy Center performance with a dazzling performance of her fourth album, Shivoham.

“I really sang before I could speak,” Tandon told prominent South Asian American journalist Aziz Haniffa in an interview to the streaming platform Neestream. “Growing up, we came from a very simple family. I [did] thousands of chores growing up. I don’t remember what chores I did. But I remember what songs I used to sing when I did those chores. So music was always a part of my life.”

The businesswoman said that she got back into music two decades ago when she had “a crisis of spirit.” She added, “I had to really get into [the question of] what was success, why was I on this planet — all these important questions we don’t often get to ask. I was lucky enough to be able to ask these questions. That got me back to thinking that I really should do things that made me so happy. And music was always something that really completed me. So I went back to learn music, and I did it on the sidelines.”

She may have done it on the sidelines. But when she released her first album, Soul Call, in 2010, it established herself as a musician, when one of the songs, Om Namo Narayanaya, was nominated for Grammy in the “Best Contemporary World Music Album” category.

Distinguished Americans who have won the Ellis Island Medals of Honor include a number of U.S. presidents, prominent business leaders, sporting legends, artists and entertainers.

Previous Indian American honorees include physician and CNN journalist Dr. Sanjay Gupta, MasterCard President and CEO Ajay Banga and celebrity chef Padma Lakshmi.

‘Top Chef’ host Padma Lakshmi to receive 2016 Ellis Island Medal of Honor

Meera Gandhi, Chad Gehani among 6 Indian Americans awarded Ellis Island Medal of Honor

Six Indian Americans awarded Ellis Island Medals of Honor

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