From 2009 to 2011, Penn took a sabbatical from acting when he was appointed by President Obama to serve as an Associate Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, where he focused primarily on outreach to young Americans, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and the arts community. He worked on issues as diverse as the Affordable Care Act, the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, college affordability, countering violent extremism, and veterans benefits for service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan among others. Penn served as a national co-chair for President Obama’s re-election campaign in 2012, and later served on the President’s Committee for the Arts and Humanities, focusing on arts education in underperforming schools, and cultural diplomacy in Cuba and India.
Penn has taught courses on film and media at the University of Pennsylvania, and on politics and sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Originally from New Jersey, he received his BA in Sociology with a specialization in Theater, Film, and Television at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a graduate certificate in International Security from Stanford University.
He has maintained careers in both entertainment and public service, has been an active member of the Council on Foreign Relations and Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and most recently completed several global documentary series for Amazon, VICE, and National Geographic.
His book, You Can't Be Serious, was released in November 2021.
- From White Castle to the White House
“What possessed you to go from acting in huge movies to working in the White House?” It’s a valid question Kal gets all the time. As the Harold and Kumar star-turned public servant-turned college professor-turned actor again has learned, life doesn’t have to be a series of mutually exclusive decisions. In a talk that’s equal parts funny, eye-opening, and inspirational, Kal uses his own groundbreaking experiences and plenty of funny social context to debunk the myth that success requires you to pick one lane and stay in it. He shares his experiences balancing a number of careers with a life in public service, including plenty of behind-the-scenes stories from his time on R-rated movie sets to briefings in the Oval Office.
- Hope, Change and First Bumps
President Barack Obama’s historic ascent to the Presidency was marked by record political participation from young people. As an active member of the campaign’s youth outreach team and the Obama White House’s first Liaison to Young Americans, nobody has a better understanding of young activation than Kal Penn. Kal will discuss his unprecedented role in forever changing the way campaigns and government engage young people and the ways in which important - and sometimes divergent causes and organizations - can and must unify to engage the next generation. In our era of unprecedented polarization and negativity, Kal shares his thoughts on learning to come together again for a hopeful future.
- Not White. Not Black. But, Pretty Funny for an Indian Guy...
“Gandhi look-alike,” “Snake Charmer,” “Foreign Student” are some of the only roles that actors who looked like Kal could audition for just over a decade ago. That is, until sledgehammers were taken to the walls of an industry that has long struggled with representation and inclusivity. Kal speaks about some of his own unbelievable experiences with typecasting, taking a funny and biting historic look back at how far we’ve come, as well as a glance forward at the challenges that still lie ahead for performers of all backgrounds. What will it take to continue breaking down the barriers of discrimination both in and out of Hollywood, and why should we care? (Spoiler: artistic representation, content, comedy, and commerce are all better off!)