Twelve ways to reach the top

How Asians scaled the heights of everything from comedy to the Fabian Society by <strong>Alice O'Kee

Shami Chakrabarti Age: 34

Director of Liberty, leading UK human rights and civil liberties organisation.

Has held her present post less than two months. Joined Liberty in 2001, and has been a firm critic of the anti-terrorism laws. Adviser in the legal department of the Home Office from 1996, where she worked with ministers including Jack Straw and Michael Howard.

She says: "Let's not paint a romantic picture of high-achieving Asians - many Asian children still underachieve at school. I'm from a family with two university-educated parents."

They say: "[Has] a mission to shrug off the image of civil liberties as . . . of interest only to liberal lawyers and the chattering classes" (Ben Russell, the Guardian).

Ten years' time? "The only thing I know for certain is that I'll be a mother to an 11-year-old boy. I want my son to grow up in a Britain with less racism and a culture of respect for human rights."

Sunder Katwala Age: 29

Since September, general secretary of the Fabian Society, influential British socialist and Labour think-tank.

Previously internet editor and leader writer for the Observer. Founding research director of the Foreign Policy Centre. Publications include Democratising Global Sport and Reinventing the Commonwealth.

He says: "Immigrants value education. My dad certainly did as a middle-class Gujarati immigrant. Perhaps we should ask why that's not the case among other sectors of society."

Ten years' time? "I've only just got here! Who knows where I'll be in ten years?"

Sandip Verma Age: 44

Conservative candidate for Wolverhampton South West, the seat once held by Enoch Powell.

Before this, her first foray into politics, she owned a fashion business and started an organisation to provide care to elderly and disabled people. Came from the Punjab to Leicester as a baby.

She says: "The first generation of British Asians laid the groundwork for us to be more ambitious. But I don't know if I bring anything distinctively 'Asian' to my career. I'm just me."

They say: "A walking two-fingers to the more inglorious sections of her party's past" (Esther Addley, the Guardian).

Ten years' time? "I want to be an excellent constituency MP, and rise up through the ranks. The cabinet? Well, that's harder to say."

Shailesh Vara Age: 43

Vice-chairman of the Conservative Party.

A former solicitor, stood in the last election as the Tory candidate in Northampton South but lost by a narrow margin. Delivered the "rising star" speech at the party's conference in 2000. Previously a solicitor in the City.

They say: "Future Conservative Party leader" (Lord Alexander of Weedon).

Waheed Alli Age: 38

Businessman and Labour peer.

Has been called a "multimillionaire television tycoon". Brains behind Channel 4's The Big Breakfast; made the youngest and the only openly gay peer in 1998. Ignored his father's advice to train as a bus conductor to found the Planet 24 TV production company with Charlie Parsons and Bob Geldof.

He says: (of racism in the Lords) "There is just this sense as you walk round the place of some of the officers thinking: 'What are you doing here?'."

Reuben Singh Age: 26

Chairman of the RS Group, one of the UK's fastest-growing companies.

The UK's youngest millionaire at the age of 24, according to The Guinness Book of World Records, with a fortune of $151m. Named "Pioneer of the Nation" this year. Started working in his parents' Manchester fashion business aged 12, often sleeping just four hours a night. Founded the Miss Attitude chain of fashion and jewellery stores aged 17.

He says: "Second-generation British Asians think, why not? I was born here. It's my country too."

They say: "The British Bill Gates" (the Times).

Ten years' time? "Expansion into North America is already under way. Next south-east Asia and the Middle East."

Rabinder Singh QC Age: 39

Barrister at Matrix Chambers.

Youngest Asian ever appointed Queen's Counsel (2002). First Asian and youngest person of any race to be appointed a deputy high court judge. Acted for CND when it challenged the legality of the Iraq war.

He says: "I am passionate about human rights - I understand suffering and discrimination. Though many asylum-seekers now are from different backgrounds, as an Asian you understand their vulnerability."

They say: "We are fairly certain it is the first time a judge wearing a turban has sat in the high court" (spokesman for the Lord Chancellor's Department).

Ten years' time? "I don't like to speculate - you never know what might happen tomorrow."

Sunita Shrotria Age: early forties

Consultant surgeon and breast disease specialist at Ashford and St Peter's Hospitals.

A leader in her field of scarless breast surgery. Opened the breast unit at Ashford in 1997. It has since received a "Certificate of Merit in Clinical Excellence".

She says: "I bring an Asian work ethic to my practice - just as traditionally Asian shop owners open all hours, for me the patient comes first and I work all hours to accommodate their needs."

Ten years' time? "Training more surgeons in scarless breast surgery, and understanding the importance of this for women."

Shazia Mirza Age: 27

Star of the comedy circuit.

Now in huge international demand, having embarked on her stand-up career only in September 2000. Won the 2001 Hackney Empire Best New Act competition at the London Comedy Festival, and as her prize performed at the Palladium. In 2002 won the Metro People's Choice Best Comic Award at the London Comedy Festival.

She says: "I don't feel ready to talk about being a Muslim woman in depth yet. People have expected a lot of me. Our culture doesn't encourage women to speak, never mind do stand-up. It has been a long journey to come this far."

They say: "Her laconic one-liners represent something unique in modern comedy." (William Cook, the Guardian).

Ten years' time? Has plans to conquer the American comedy scene.

Monica Ali Age: 36

Author of the Booker-shortlisted novel Brick Lane.

Born in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Grew up in Bolton and studied philosophy, politics and economics at Wadham College, Oxford. Worked in publishing, design and branding, before starting to write via an internet short story course. Included in Granta's list of the best young British authors before Brick Lane was published.

She says: "You know that you're working to fit in. It does give you a different feeling, a different perspective."

They say: "Believe the hype - Monica Ali really is the next big thing" (Andrea Henry in the Daily Mirror).

Anila Roohi Age: 32

Head of recruitment and development for the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority.

Brought up on a deprived housing estate in Leeds; graduated in law from King's College, London. Worked for Amnesty International on combating child slavery.

Appointed to current position a year ago, she now controls a budget of £2m.

She says: "It's long overdue that Asians are recognised for the huge achievements they've been making. When my father came from Pakistan to work in the diplomatic service, it simply wasn't accepted that Asians were making a valuable contribution to the country."

Ten years' time? "I'd love to stay in the fire service. It has a reputation as a very white, male organisation - but we're making great strides."

Meera Syal Age: 40

Writer and actress.

Author of two novels, Anita and Me (1996), shortlisted for the Guardian Fiction Prize and winner of a Betty Trask award, and Life Isn't All Ha Ha Hee Hee (1999). Wrote the film script for Bhaji on the Beach for Channel 4. Co-wrote and acted in the BBC's sitcom Goodness Gracious Me, and now writes and stars in The Kumars at No 42. Recently wrote the script for the West End musical Bombay Dreams. Awarded an MBE in 1997.

She says: "I don't want to be known as an Asian personality. I hate the term 'Asian'. It's something you end up saying because it's been used as our collective noun for so long."