The Ambassador of the United States of America to the Kingdom of the Netherlands – Born in India, made in the U.S.A.
Mayelinne De Lara, chief publisher of Diplomat Magazine, had the honor and pleasure to have a friendly discussion with H.E. Shefali Razdan Duggal, the United States Ambassador to the Kingdom of the Netherlands.
Ambassador Shefali Razdan Duggal is a very warm, modest and authentic person, with a genuine interest in people, which transpires through every action or word that she shares. She began by expressing her pleasure and excitement for talking to Diplomat Magazine, because, as she says, “I have many bilateral and personal goals for my time in the Netherlands. Of course, our bilateral relationship is historically lengthy, as the Netherlands was the first country to acknowledge U.S. Independence 247 years ago. And, if we look even further back, the first settlers from the Netherlands came to the United States over 400 years ago. For example, New York City was first called ‘New Amsterdam’ and New York State was initially named ‘New Netherland.’ The relationship between the two countries is very solid, and one of my aspirations is to continue maintaining that balance, as well as do my small part to improve upon it. The Netherlands is an important member of the EU and NATO, and the United States values the international work with this vital country. Another very critical Ambassadorial goal for myself is to further grow our vibrant economic relationship. There are around 3,000 U.S. companies based in the Netherlands. The U.S. is the largest foreign investor into the Netherlands, with more than 1 million jobs are created between both countries and a $38 billion USD trade surplus in 2022. The scale of our economic relationship is vast and wide.”
Right from the beginning of our conversation, Ambassador Razdan Duggal reveals her deeply human, affectionate, optimistic and vibrant personality. She introduces herself as “Shefali,” as she does with everyone, irrespective of rank or title. She brings a common touch to each interaction, expressing an authentic interest in each person whom she meets. She talks about the shared values between the United States and the Netherlands, stating that this is one of the many reasons why President Joe Biden chose her as his on-the-ground governmental representative to the Netherlands. She mentions that the two countries share and appreciate the same values: freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of press, women’s empowerment, freedom of religion and many others. She states candidly: “I realize that Dutch values are also my values.”
In addition to the bilateral goals of her diplomatic posting to the Kingdom of the Netherlands, Ambassador Razdan Duggal also has personal hopes, dear to her heart. “I will be visiting all the provinces here in the Netherlands, to meet with real people. Not just from The Hague, not just from the fancy parties or within the diplomatic circle, but to meet people from all corners of this historic country. It is an extremely high personal priority to meet and show respect to the good people who are, effectively, the backbone of this vast and beautiful Kingdom….from local governmental and business leaders, to students, NGOs, women’s shelters, local neighborhood establishments and diverse socioeconomic and ethnic communities. I have already visited 5 provinces, and we are currently scheduling the 6th. I traverse through many neighborhoods to learn about varying cultures, and I am often undetected in my baseball hat, jeans and no makeup! I have also traveled to two of the six islands, and am looking forward to visiting more in the near term. I am speaking with people, openly expressing my respect for and to them. I am attempting to be a walking example that we humans, irrespective of job title or background, are all equals. That we are each contributing to society….just in different ways.”
Her eyes light up as she talks with so much passion about the people she meets and what she hopes to convey through the message she attempts to bring to them. She tells us about her past and childhood, as a clear example that “America is the land of all possibilities.” In her perspective, when people have faith in something greater than themselves, exercise active humility, are kind and empathetic to others, and work incredibly hard…. anything is possible in the United States. “The future possibilities for those living in democracies, like the United States and the Netherlands, are infinite. People who may not have come from any feasible version of advantage can passionately strive towards achieving their goals. I was raised by a single mom who worked two minimum-wage jobs to support us. Mummy and I lived in a one-bedroom apartment. I didn’t have any contacts, I had no advantages, I paid for my studies through loans and scholarships. To imagine that someone with my background, an immigrant who moved to the United States at 2 years old, would be representing the United States as an Ambassador 48 years later, is surreal, a dream, an unimaginable blessing. I will never forget my roots….in fact, quite the contrary. I will always honor them. When I walk into communities where people may not expect a U.S. Ambassador to be actively and opening walking around, I want for people to see not just the U.S. Ambassador, but a real person who understands, to a great extent, what it is like to be in their circumstances. The face of the United States is changing, and I am a living example of that reality.”
Her life philosophy is about helping others, being grateful for all opportunities (and, challenges) in life, and paying it back and paying it forward. She wants to lead by her own example. She says something that will definitely stick within everyone’s hearts: “God is a verb. How you treat people is the reflection of God coming through you.”
She does her part by also mentoring others. “We have, at the Embassy, the ‘Women’s Mentorship Network,’ which matches 20 mentors (Dutch professionals) to 40 young women, all of varying ethnicities, education and backgrounds. In addition to those young women, I personally mentor an additional 6 young Dutch women. Personally, I have also been so touched by the fact that young women often approach me, when I am out-and-about for official work, to ask for my guidance, to share their experiences and difficulties.
I always listen and make time, give them my card and try to be there when they need me. I often welcome them at the Embassy or speak with them on the phone. I brought this mentoring focus with me from the United States, as I mentored quite a few young women there, as well. A strong passion of mine is to be a voice for women. I want for these young people to know that they are not alone, that there are people who have very likely experienced what they are dealing with right now and we elder (“experienced”) women are now here to help. We went through what they did at some point, and we can share our wisdom and hopefully help guide them down a less difficult pathway.”
As the first person of color to become U.S. Ambassador to the Kingdom of the Netherlands, human rights is very dear to her, especially racial, equity and Holocaust related issues. “I came from the human rights world. I believe that my presence here, serving as Ambassador, has had a positive impact on people of color. I try to actively, through my words, action and counsel, send the message that believing in yourself and having faith in your potential is critically important to your self-esteem and to your future. I want to gently remind people that things can be difficult at times, although please do not let that diminish your spirit and focus. Be kind and good to yourself and others. And, please have forgiveness within your heart. Life is a blessing and we must actively improve from our challenges and occasional missteps. I have a sign right outside of my office in the Embassy that says, ‘Work hard and be nice to people.’ That is my mantra!”.
Ambassador Razdan Duggal came to the Netherlands with substantive experience in the political world. She served as the first Asian Deputy National Finance Chair at the Democratic National Committee, served as the first Asian on the National Board of Directors for Emily’s List (an organization dedicated to electing pro-choice Democratic women to all levels of government) and was the first Asian appointed by President Barack Obama to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Council in Washington, D.C.
Additionally, she worked for the Massachusetts Democratic Party, the New Hampshire Democratic Party, Al Gore for President 2000, Hillary Clinton for President 2008, Barack Obama for President 2008, Kamala Harris for California Attorney General 2010, Obama for President 2012, Hillary Clinton for President 2016 and Joe Biden for President 2020. Ambassador Razdan Duggal was always actively seeking ways to pay back the country which gave she and her mother so much opportunity. “There is an old adage in the U.S. which asks…’Do you want TO BE someone or do you want TO DO something?’ I was never the person who thought about being someone, although since childhood, I always thought about ways to contribute to the country, the United States, which gave me to so much and that I loved so truly and deeply.”
When asked about any challenges between the two countries, she believes that while it is an already exceptionally positive relationship, “‘Maybe we talk a little more, meet a little more often. Perhaps President Biden and the Prime Minister meet over an ice cream or oliebollen,” she says jokingly.
“We have the same values, the collaboration is very symbiotic. The United States is so incredibly grateful to the Netherlands for the dedication, partnership and passion for human rights, especially in respect to the illegal invasion of the sovereign nation of Ukraine. The United States is in constant communication with the Netherlands within the bilateral and multilateral fronts. History has revealed that the United States and the Netherlands have an unbreakable relationship. As my time as Ambassador, I have generally witnessed that the good people of the Netherlands have such an incredible affection for the United States, and we have the same positive emotion towards the Dutch. Everywhere I visit, people are enthusiastic.”
Ambassador Razdan Duggal evoked a recent visit to the Netherlands American Cemetery and Memorial in Margraten, the second largest war cemetery in Europe for fallen WWII soldiers. She was incredibly touched by the unique generational connection of this Cemetery with the Dutch people. Since 1945, members of the local community have adopted graves, bringing flowers to the Cemetery and researching the life of the fallen soldier(s), as a way to honor their sacrifice. “Each Memorial Day, Mission the Netherlands, in collaboration with several allies, organizes a large event at the Cemetery. There were approximately 10,000 people attending this year’s moving ceremony. We are incredibly grateful to have this level of appreciation and love for our brave soldiers and veterans.”
The process to becoming a U.S. Ambassador is a long and arduous one, which includes a Presidential Announcement, a Senate Confirmation Hearing and then a vote on the Senate Floor. As a first time Ambassador, Razdan Duggal shares that the honor of serving her country was something that she took very seriously and deeply within her heart. She decided to “bring her whole self” to this job, staying true to her personality, which included her diligent work ethic, positive attitude, authenticity, curiosity, empathy and her kindness.
In fact, when doing research for this article, one longtime employee of the U.S. Mission voluntarily stated, “In the 19 years that I have worked here, it is very rare that I have seen the combination of professional, kind, elegant, charming, hardworking, always smiling attitude. We all notice it, and we are glad for it. It is felt throughout our Mission. And, people from other Embassies, both U.S. and other countries, notice it. It is often one of the first things they comment on when they enter the building. This is, in large part, due to our Ambassador.”
To conclude, the most important message that Ambassador Shefali Razdan Duggal would like to send to all Dutch people is that “we are your friend, you are our friend and we are true partners! Thank you for allowing me to be a guest in your wonderful country.”
Thank you, Ambassador Shefali Razdan Duggal for your time and kind message!