Ajay Raju Profile: The Big Raju

Every once in a while, a person comes along whose dreams are so bold, whose style is so outrageous, whose entire being is so un-Philadelphian, that he’s bound to change our city just by putting his mind to it. Is Ajay Raju one of those people?

“Okay,” he said, “I guess this is more like Liberace’s man cave.

“When this house thing happened, I saw it right away,” Raju said. “This will become a gathering place for salons where people come together. One thing I noticed in Philly was that you had great people and great talent. But the cross-connects happen quietly. I want to make them visible. Make it so it’s stylish to have deep, cerebral conversations.” So far he’s hosted salons with Indian artists, nanotechnologists and leaders from the World Bank.

“It’s the reverse of Dinner for Schmucks,” he said. A devoted student of pop culture since he was an immigrant teen trying desperately to fit in, Raju sprinkles his conversation with references to movies and television. He said the best analog to the way his mind works is an episode of the cartoon Family Guy.

This morning, I was trying to get him to put aside the stump speech and talk about himself, the path that brought him from the Northeast to his lavish man cave in Society Hill. In many ways, he’d been plotting this move since he saw that chance to create A-Jay.

“I would hate for people to think I’m that programmed,” he said. “But yes. From 14, I was planning all this out.” He’d found a book about the Kennedys early on, and while most kids might choose to emulate JFK, Raju identified with the patriarch, Joe. He wanted to be the insider with money, the kingmaker who operates the levers of power from behind the curtain. It seems he’ll be forever disappointed that his younger brother shunned politics, leaving a gaping hole in his plans.

“Okay, I’m one of the insiders now,” Raju told me. “An unlikely insider. If it was 30 years from now, I would self-finance and run for office today, and not worry about lining my pockets or lining the pockets of my posterity. … But my thinking is, I can probably do it behind the scenes. I’m not young, but I still have a lot of energy. I have some money and some contacts. I think the next 10 years for me is when I can not only make sure my posterity is assured, but also that the footprints I leave are secure.”

Zack Stalberg has seen a lot of powerful people trudge by in his 35 years in Philadelphia journalism and, more recently, as the city’s nonpartisan government watchdog, leading the Committee of Seventy. Of Ajay Raju, he says, “I think he has the potential to be a big-time change agent in Philadelphia. He understands certain things that are real basic to the city, like reciprocity: You do this for me, I do this for you. It’s not like a stranger coming in, or someone trying to ignore the current culture. But at the same time, he dreams. He’s essentially an optimist. And in the business community, or the legal community, or just about any sector that I come in contact with, it is not easy to find optimists. Things do not defeat him. He sees potential in stuff.”

Raju had his legs up on a tufted ottoman; his ever-present iPhone and BlackBerry were near his feet. “One can make a commitment to a region by simply saying ‘I will support an orchestra or a museum’ — support by giving money,” he said. “Or you can say, ‘I will help lead. I will create’ — not just write a check. Be a volunteer. Help with the strategy. Help think through connections.”

His phone buzzed with an incoming text. It was former city councilman Bill Green, who’d recently been appointed head of the School Reform Commission. He was on his way over for a talk.

“I follow leaders,” Raju had told me. “When you look at the city, it’s not that complicated when you see it. You give money to this, take away from that. It’s a chess game, and you develop relationships.

“If I want to have a real debate about education, I can have a direct conversation with Bill Green. We have a long-term relationship from the past. I supported him when he was thinking of running for mayor. But beyond that, we’ve had tons of policy discussions. If I need something, if I call him up, it’s because we have a genuine relationship. Now that he’s head of the SRC, he needs me as much as I need him.”