Captain American will be swooping down and visiting the campuses of Google and NASA next week.
Only this Captain America’s name is Vishavjit “Vish” Singh and aside from his trademark shield and red-white-and-blue costume, he also sports a turban and a long black beard.
The 46-year-old software engineer-turned-cartoonist-turned-super-hero has been giving diversity talks for years. But this is the first time the UC Berkeley graduated and New York City resident is visiting companies – and he’s starting with Silicon Valley.
“Every company these days now has an office of diversity,” Singh told KTVU ahead of his visit to the Bay Area, which also includes a talk with students at Doughtery Valley High School in San Ramon. “I have been traveling across the U.S. talking about labels and stereotypes. Labels confine us. If we focus on stories, we find out we have a lot more in common.”
Singh uses his platform to share his story with the crowd: He was born in Washington, D.C. but grew up in New Delhi, India. He graduated from Cal with a master's in public health with an emphasis on biostatistics. But it was the beginning of the tech boom and he had student debts. So he taught himself computer skills and ended up becoming a software engineer, mostly at Verizon, a career he held for 15 years. Then 9/11 happened. It seemed as though the world turned against him and anyone else who had dark skin. People flipped him off in the streets. It was hard. "I'm an American and I was being targeted," he said. "It was hard to process."
A turning point came in the form of a story laid out by Pulitzer-Prize winning San Francisco political cartoonist Mark Fiore, who once worked for the San Jose Mercury News. The satirical, animated cartoon was called "Find the terrorist" and a Sikh character was unfairly targeted purely on the basis of his looks.
That cartoon changed the course of Singh’s life, and he began drawing his own, all which emphasize his favorite theme: Labels confine us, stories define us. That eventually morphed into him dressing up as Captain America in 2013 to show that "Americans come in all shapes, sizes, backgrounds. There is no American look."
And now, Singh’s journey is taking him across the country as a motivational speaker and performance artist. He charges anywhere from $500 to $4,000 an engagement.
He also performs for free at times when schools can't afford him. He spoke recently at two schools in the Bronx, where faculty member Antoinette Quarshie said the "kids absolutely loved him. They did not stop applauding. He got rave reviews."
The Google employee who invited Singh said he wasn't allowed to speak to the media, and the spokesperson at NASA Ames Research Center also didn't have immediate comment.
As for playing the part of a hero, Singh is much more humble than his flashy costume portrays.
“I try to channel the super hero that lies within us,” he said.