When Vivek Ramaswamy strutted on to the stage at the Republican primary debate, most Americans watching at home had never heard of him. Alongside such political stalwarts as former vice president Mike Pence and the governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis, this 38-year-old tech bro was an unknown entity.
But he has rapidly become the runaway star of the Republican contest, attracting media attention for making outlandish and conspiratorial statements. He has suggested using Ukraine as a bargaining chip with Vladimir Putin, threatened to eliminate the FBI if he became president, and even questioned whether federal agents were involved in 9/11. He also has a tendancy to break into Eminem raps while on campaign stops. His latest rendition of Lose Yourself at an Iowa event so infuriated the rapper that he issued a request for Ramaswamy to stop using his music. Ramaswamy complied with the request, telling the press: “To the American people’s chagrin, we will have to leave the rapping to the real Slim Shady.”
Ramaswamy first caught the public’s attention at the debate last week, when he introduced himself to viewers with homespun charm. “First let me just address a question that is on everybody’s mind at home tonight. Who the heck is this skinny guy with a funny last name and what the heck is he doing in the middle of this debate stage?” he said, beaming to reveal very straight, very white teeth. Ironically, the line was clearly cribbed from Barack Obama’s description of himself as a “skinny kid with a funny name”, in his speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, widely considered to be the future president’s political breakout moment.
Ramaswamy, who has made his fortune (estimated to be more than £750m by Forbes magazine) with his biotech and asset-management businesses, launched into his all-American origin story. “I’ll tell ya, I’m not a politician, you’re right about that. I’m an entrepreneur. My parents came to this country with no money 40 years ago. I have gone on to found multi-billion-dollar companies. I did it while marrying my wife, Apoorva, raising our two sons, following our faith in God. That is the American dream.”
So just who is this bombastic business magnate declaring war on woke and aiming for the White House? And does he stand a chance of winning the Republican nomination, let alone replacing Biden and becoming the 47th POTUS? Let’s take a look at the potential next leader of the free world.
Vivek’s childhood was not so humble after all
It turns out Ramaswamy’s upbringing is not quite the rags-to-riches tale he likes to tell interviewers on Fox News. The entrepreneur was born to Indian immigrant parents but both his father and mother were highly educated professionals by the time they moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, and started a family. Ramaswamy’s father, Vivek Ganapathy, was an engineer and patent attorney while his mother, Geetha, was a psychiatrist. Ramaswamy himself attended an elite private high school, where the tuition today costs more than £12,500 a year. And his parents apparently established a stock portfolio for their son that was already bringing in hundreds of dollars in dividends before he graduated high school — and thousands by the time he graduated university.
Eminem fan who rapped at Harvard under the name ‘Da Vek’
While studying biology at Harvard, Ramaswamy co-founded his first business. The website, StudentBusinesses.com, allowed student founders to pitch their ideas to professional investors. A private charity purchased the website for an undisclosed sum, with Forbes estimating that Ramaswamy pocketed less than £790,000 in the deal — still, an impressive feat for a student who had yet to enter the employment market.
It was also at Harvard that he became interested in politics. Calling himself a libertarian, he became president of the Harvard Political Union. In his free time, he performed Eminem covers and original free-market-themed rap songs as a kind of alter ego called Da Vek. We’re just waiting for those videos to drop.
A university friend, who lived with Ramaswamy and later worked with him, said: “He knows his views and style rubbed some people the wrong way, but he didn’t care.”
At Yale, where he studied law, he was already brushing up his debate style, according to one professor. “He always came to class ready to argue,” David Grewal said. “He likes arguing.”
Ramaswamy fell in love with a fellow Yale student, Apoorva, who became his wife. The couple has two children together and Apoorva works as an assistant professor and surgeon while her husband shoots for high office.
Vivek made a fortune on failed Alzheimer's drug
Ramaswamy spent his twenties investing in pharma companies but it was founding Roivant Sciences, a biotech firm that buys potentially lucrative drug candidates discarded by big pharmaceutical firms and then develops them, that almost catapulted Ramaswamy into the billionaires’ club.
Controversially, one of Roivant’s most hyped products was an experimental Alzheimer’s medicine that it acquired from a British pharma company for just £4m. In private, the executives at the pharma company were scathing about the drug’s prospects and argued that they wouldn’t have parted with the drug for £4m if it had a shot at success.
The promise of a cure for the devastating disease helped boost Axovant Sciences, the subsidiary that would make the miracle medicine, and it was valued at a stunning £1.75billion in 2015. But, two years later, the Alzheimer’s drug’s clinical trial failed and the stock price plunged, losing 75 per cent of its value in a single day. Despite the failure, Ramaswamy had made a stunning £248m when Roivant went public. He later called the failure of the Alzheimer medication “humiliating”.
The anti-woke crusader
Ramaswamy left Roivant in 2021 and co-founded Strive Asset Management, which is when he appears to have decided to wage war on the woke. Strive is a so-called “anti-woke” index fund for investors who believe that companies have become too involved in societal issues, such as racial equity and climate change.
Oh, and on the topic of climate change, Ramaswamy is not quite an outright denier but he’s not far off. “The climate change agenda is a hoax,” he announced during the debate. “The anti-carbon agenda is the wet blanket on our economy.” He concluded by declaring that “more people are dying of bad climate change policies than they are of actual climate change”.
In interviews after the debate, he argued that instead of addressing the root causes of climate change, the US should focus on technological fixes to acclimate to the changes on our planet. “We should focus on adaptation,” he said.
These comments are perhaps not surprising, considering Ramaswamy is also the author of the New York Times’ bestselling book Woke, Inc.: Inside Corporate America’s Social Justice Scam. Published in 2021, the book takes aim at the nation’s “new secular religions like Covid-ism, climate-ism and gender ideology”.
Ramaswamy has said that he believes “woke-ism” has overtaken religious faith, patriotism, and the work ethic as a key American value. He has argued that the true test of the strength of a democracy is not how many people vote, but “the percentage of people who feel free to say what they actually think, in public”. These sentiments will certainly appeal to large sections of the Republican fan base, who feel that “cancel culture” is one of the biggest issues facing the US today.
A Trump fanboy
And then, of course, there is Ramaswamy’s frequently voiced admiration of former president Donald J Trump. In one telling moment at the Republican debate, the candidates were asked: would they support Trump if the former president won the nomination again and was convicted of a crime? Ramaswamy’s hand shot up first, to indicate he would indeed support the beleaguered former president, with fellow candidates including Pence, DeSantis, and former UN ambassador Nikki Haley raising their hands after a lag of a few seconds.
Ramaswamy has also promised to pardon Trump if he becomes president and has declared him “the best president of the 21st century” — there have only been three others. In fact, Ramaswamy appears to be running his campaign according to Trump’s playbook. During the debate, he made much of his “outsider” status without going quite so far as leading the audience in a chant of “drain the swamp” — Trump’s famous campaign refrain. “I do think that it is going to take an outsider,” he said. “For a long time, we have had professional career politicians in the Republican Party who have been running from something. Now is our moment to start running to something — to our vision of what it means to be an American today.
“If you have a broken car, you don’t turn over the keys to the people who broke it again. You hand it over to a new generation to actually fix the problem.”
Like Trump, Ramaswamy is happy to make attention-grabbing, headline-making statements and he has a talent for whipping the press into a frenzy. He has said that he will cut funding for Ukraine, has raised questions about potential government involvement in 9/11, laid out plans to eliminate both the FBI and the Department of Education, and wants to raise the voting age to 25 — a proposal that’s been questioned by his own staff.
Ramaswamy appears at home on a stage and, just like Trump, knows how to play the media to ensure maximum coverage of his campaign. As part of his closing statement, he told viewers: “God is real. There are two genders. Fossil fuels are a requirement for human prosperity. Reverse racism is racism. An open border is not a border.”
His fellow candidates are quick to pour scorn on his ideas and point out his lack of political experience. Former New Jersey governor Chris Christie said that Ramaswamy “sounds like ChatGPT” while Pence called him a rookie and said, “Now is not the time for on-the-job training.”
Can Ramaswamy win?
Many commentators declared Ramaswamy the clear winner of the first debate and the former unknown certainly has surged ahead in the polls. He has begun topping former favourite DeSantis and has won the praise of Trump, who is still an extremely influential figure among Republican voters (and perhaps could be the one who wins the nomination).
The former president said of Ramaswamy: “I think he’s great. Look, anybody that says I’m the best president in a generation… I have to like a guy like that. He’s a smart guy. He’s a young guy. He’s got a lot of talent.”
In fact, Washington insiders wonder if Ramaswamy is not really campaigning to be president, and instead has his eye on being Trump’s running mate and eventual vice president. Elon Musk has already said he would approve of such a ticket.
“There’s a sense that he is pitching to be vice president rather than president,” one source said. “There are people who will never serve in a Trump administration, like Mike Pence. Vivek could be Jared Kushner” — a reference to Trump’s son-in-law, who served as his presidential advisor.
One thing is for sure: Ramaswamy looks like he is enjoying every second in the political limelight and has no intention of shuffling off into the shadows anytime soon. With characters like this in the running, the 2024 presidential election is shaping up to be a wild, nerve-rattling ride.