Missouri Treasurer Vivek Malek wants to be an inspiration to future generations.
"If a person who is not native to this country can come and make this country his own and achieve what he can, then anybody can," Malek, Missouri's first statewide office holder of Indian descent, said of himself. "I want to make that message very strong among new generations."
Malek, 45, was born and raised in India before moving to America in 2001 as an international graduate student attending Southeast Missouri State University in Cape Girardeau.
Coming off a 14-hour flight, he had $300 in his pocket, two suitcases and a "mixture of hope and apprehension," he said during his swearing-in address in January.
Through hard work and education, he said in an interview that he developed from "an immigrant who barely spoke English" to a point he never imagined.
"This is a country which can make things happen for you," Malek said, adding "The sky's the limit."
Malek was appointed state treasurer by Gov. Mike Parson in December. A political newcomer, he will serve out the remaining two years of former treasurer Scott Fitzpatrick's term before facing an election in 2024.
Malek said he's settling into the Treasurer's Office well. He finished staffing the office after hiring a chief of staff last week. The biggest surprise, he said, has been the politics.
"I do not come from political circles. I do not have a background in politics so that is something new and a little surprising," he said. "But I am well received wherever I'm going, but that is apart from my treasurer position."
"But I'm enjoying it at the same time," he continued. "There's a lot of learning that needs to happen, but I am doing that and I hope I'm a fast learner and will catch up on things that my other contemporaries have a better hand at."
Malek, a Republican, had never held elected office before his appointment. The governor had also previously appointed him to the governing board of SEMO, Malek's alma mater, but his background otherwise is largely in immigration law.
He's practiced law in Missouri since 2006 and in 2011 opened the Law Offices of Vivek Malek, where he focused on legal immigration litigation and business immigration consulting in St. Louis.
Malek said he chose to practice immigration law because he wanted to be an American citizen and help others have the same opportunity.
"I think we need to value citizenship and what being an American means," he said. "What it means to be an American is very, very important and we can lose it if we don't understand how we have achieved in this country where we are today."
After more than 17 years of practicing immigration law, Malek said he wanted to do something more and have a bigger impact on the state.
"I believe that would be achieved only through public service and that was my motivation to get into public service," he said.
As Missouri treasurer, Malek is the state's chief financial officer. The office has about 50 staff members that handle unclaimed property, manage two economic development programs and administer two tax-advantaged savings plans.
He said his philosophy for the office is centered on three pillars: protecting taxpayer dollars, providing opportunities through office programs and "promoting the promise of America."
Priorities for his time in office are also set, he said. Expanding unclaimed property return efforts, MOScholars, the state's school choice program, and MO ABLE, a tax-free savings program for disability-related expenses, are at the top of the list.
Malek said there's approximately $1.3 billion worth of unclaimed property sitting in state vaults waiting to be returned to Missourians. He set a record returning more than $1.7 million in unclaimed property within his first three days in office, according to a news release.
As more states adopt procedures that allow treasurers to automatically return unclaimed property to taxpayers, Malek said it's something he wants to work toward.
"One of my goals would be to return as much unclaimed property back to Missourians as possible in the shortest amount of time," he said.
Malek said he also wants to grow the MOScholars and MO ABLE programs.
Parents need options when it comes to making educational choices for their children, he said, and more parents should know about the state's program for supporting those options.
MO ABLE is in a similar position, Malek said. More veterans and people with disabilities should be aware of the state program and that it won't impact their social security or disability benefits, he said.
Malek said he's also been asking lawmakers to appropriate more funds to the linked deposit program his office administers to provide low-interest loans to small businesses, farmers and local governments, as well as raise the spending cap.
"This is one office that you can do so much good for Missourians," he said. "... We have so many resources for students, for veterans, for the elderly, for kids, for generally everybody. We can do so much good and offer so many good services to people."