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Kapos: Chicago CEO in the fray at Democratic convention

Smita Shah speaking at a Museum of Science and Industry event. | Photo by J.B. Spector/MSI

Chicago businesswoman and civic leader Smita Shah has had a busy summer but this week tops it all. She’s in Philadelphia serving as a vice chair of the powerful Rules Committee for the Democratic National Convention, where emotions are high and the WikiLeaks drama has become personal.

The Rules panel determines how the convention governs itself, and with that in mind it’s worked to soothe tensions between the Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders camps. In a nod to Sanders, the committee formed a “unity commission” to revamp how the party handles superdelegates.

Shah declined comment on that and the WikiLeaks case that put the Democratic National Committee and her father in the spotlight over the weekend.

Shah is the president and CEO of Spaan Tech Inc., which helps big organizations solve high-tech problems.

She’s also the daughter of immigrants from India. Her father is Niranjan Shah, an unassuming and soft-spoken business owner whose name popped up in the WikiLeaks email scandal that led to Debbie Wasserman Schultz resigning as party chief.

Some emails show how Niranjan Shah, a longtime Democratic donor, became persona non grata within the DNC because of ties to disgraced former Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Niranjan Shah, chairman and CEO at Globetrotters Engineering Corp., had received state contracts while also donating to the governor’s campaign. The appearance of pay-to-play prompted the DNC to shut him out of events, emails show.

The elder Shah, who recently suffered a heart attack, has remained a quiet force on Chicago’s civic scene, especially to support his daughter’s philanthropy.

Along with a passion for politics, Smita Shah is a math and science geek. She just wrapped up a mentoring project at the Museum of Science and Industry where she co-chaired the Science Achievers graduation, an out-of-school science program for teens. She’s also on the board of Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital.

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Shah was drawn to math and science growing up in the western suburbs and then attending University of Chicago’s Lab School.

She earned a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from McCormick School of Engineering at Northwestern University and a master’s in civil and environmental engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

It was during a post-college internship at the White House that she came to know then-President Bill Clinton. Her family donated to his campaigns and now Shah is following suit. She hosted a fundraiser for Hillary Clinton last year.

“They’re like family,” she said at the time.

Shah has remained active in the Democratic Party. Along with the Rules Committee, she was a member of the Platform Committee at the 2004 and 2008 conventions.

Acclaimed artist turns heads with words too

Kerry James Marshall
Kerry James Marshall

Kerry James Marshall‘s paintings make your head turn. The Chicago artist did the same at a microphone too.

During a dinner event celebrating The Joyce Foundation‘s 20 years of funding diversity in the arts, Marshall spoke about the importance of integrating arts into schools.

His acclaimed work depicting African-American life is on display at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art before it heads to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art.

Marshall’s a big deal and the crowd at the MCA was held rapt during a Q&A with Joyce Foundation President Ellen Alberding.

Marshall revealed he had volunteered this past school year at Herzl Elementary School in the city’s North Lawndale neighborhood. He taught art as part of President Barack Obama‘s Turnaround Arts program, which connects well-known artists with struggling schools.

Marshall said he asked Herzl’s principal how he could further students’ interest. Did the school need more paint brushes or art supplies? Marshall wanted to do whatever he could to help.

“She said ‘I’ll tell you what they need. They need coats,'” recalled the Chicago artist. Art supplies are fine, he said, “but if they can’t get to school, that’s the issue.”

Marshall says he was “shocked” and spent the rest of the school year raising money to buy coats for all 600 students. “They had them by the end of the year,” he said.

Guests burst into applause and buzzed the rest of the warm July evening talking about coats.

“He put it all into context,” said Richard Steele, host of “The Barber Shop Show” on WBEZ.

Others attendees included Joyce board members Paula Wolff and Piyush Chaudhari; Goodman Theatre Executive Director Roche Schulfer; Navy Pier civic engagement officer Michelle Boone; Chicago Sinfonietta Executive Director Jim Hirsch; Puerto Rican Arts Museum CEO Billy Ocasio; DuSable Museum CEO Perri Irmer; Black Ensemble Theater founder Jackie Taylor; and Court Theatre Executive Director Stephen Albert.