Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy speaks during the Pray Vote Stand Summit on Friday, Sept. 15, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)
CNN  — 

After a splashy debut at last month’s first Republican presidential debate, Vivek Ramaswamy has gone from an unknown to a contender who’s now facing questions about his youth and lack of political experience, especially given his position as the first millennial to run for the Republican presidential nomination. He’s being vetted over how he made his millions at the biotech company he started in his late 20s and frequent shifts in his foreign policy platform. He’s also facing questions about how he would, if elected, enact his agenda and defend it from legal challenges.

One of the latest moments to illustrate this came last week when, a few days after a dinner with social media personality Jake Paul, he became the first of the major GOP primary candidates to join TikTok in an effort to appeal to younger voters, despite his concerns. Up until that point, he had railed against TikTok, calling it an addictive “digital fentanyl” and expressing an openness to ban it as part of his broader platform on curbing China’s power.

“I’m a person who’s always open to new arguments,” he told reporters hours after he posted his first TikTok. “In this case, yes, I changed my mind.”

The moment underscores a growing challenge for Ramaswamy and his campaign ahead of the second GOP primary debate: proving that his policy platform is substantive, even as it’s constantly evolving.

Ramaswamy has gained ground in national and state polls, where he frequently places behind former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. A CNN/University of New Hampshire poll of Granite State voters released Wednesday showed him in a close race for second place with three rivals trailing Trump, who was the top choice of 39% of likely GOP primary voters surveyed. Ramaswamy, at 13%, ran about even with former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley at 12%, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie at 11% and DeSantis at 10%.

He’s built his message around the idea that Americans lack purpose and meaning, and that the country needs someone like him – young, unjaded and an outsider without the baggage of Trump – to help restore the country’s national identity.

“I think as a nation, we’re all really just a little bit young, actually, going through our own version of collective adolescence, figuring out who we’re really going to be when we grow up,” he said at an event in Washington Wednesday, detailing his plan to cut 75% of the federal workforce. “Yes, we go through that identity crisis, that national identity crisis, but we can be stronger for it, once we get through it.”

Critics have accused Ramaswamy of running to elevate his personal profile and described his on stage persona as “arrogant” or “annoying.” But friends and allies describe him as intellectually gifted, radically ambitious and willing to debate with anyone and possibly change his mind or evolve his views. They credit him for a willingness to surround himself with people he disagrees with, including longtime friends and even his wife, head and neck surgeon Apoorva Ramaswamy. Most recently, the two publicly disagreed on Covid-19 vaccines – he has regrets about taking it, she has none.

While some policy positions may change, those who know him say his core values – American exceptionalism and the importance of free speech among them – have not.

“To me, that’s a sign of strength,” Benjamin Zimmer, a friend of Ramaswamy’s from college who later worked with him at Roivant, said of his updated stance on TikTok. “It’s someone who’s willing to be honest and open minded and doesn’t come from some established dogma.”

Mark Kvamme, a cofounder at Drive Capital who has donated to Ramaswamy’s campaign and is helping him with fundraising, agreed.

“I’ve seen him digest information and look at things differently,” said Kvamme, who met Ramaswamy when the two served on the advisory board of InnovateOhio, an initiative run by Ohio Lt. Gov Jon Husted to cut costs and expand the state’s use of technology.

“He is constantly looking at new things, and he receives feedback,” he said. “He may not agree with you 100%. But he receives it and looks at it and understands it and digests it, and then figures out where he stands on it.”

Ramaswamy’s open mindedness, which first appeared during on campus debates at Harvard College and Yale Law School, has helped propel his candidacy and exposed him to audiences including MSNBC and “The Breakfast Club.”

But it’s also caused problems, as he’s adjusted his stances on issues including US military support for Taiwan, aid to Israel, the response to the Covid-19 pandemic and the importance of Juneteenth as a federal holiday.

Ramaswamy’s campaign did not make him available for an interview with CNN.

From Harvard to Roivant

Ramaswamy’s highly decorated resume resembles the last millennial presidential candidate and fellow Harvard graduate, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.

Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, to parents who emigrated from India, he graduated as valedictorian from the private Jesuit St. Xavier High School, where he also played tennis and was a member of the mock trial team.

At Harvard, he majored in biology, chaired the Harvard Political Union, where he moderated debates on issues like abortion rights, and moonlighted as a libertarian rapper under the stage name Da Vek. (Da Vek made an appearance in Iowa last month, when Ramaswamy rapped Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” at the state fair. Eminem later asked the candidate to stop performing his song.)

“I consider myself a contrarian,” Ramaswamy told the Harvard Crimson in 2006. “I like to argue.”

From Harvard, he took a job at a hedge fund as a biotech stock analyst and worked there while attending Yale Law School, where he met his wife and befriended Ohio Republican Senator J.D. Vance. In 2014, he founded Roivant, the source of the bulk of his fortune. The company targets drugs that large pharmaceutical companies have shelved because they didn’t fit into the company’s business model. Roivant would buy the right to develop those drugs and share the profits with the original company. The “roi” in the company’s names stands for return on investment.

Donald Berwick, a former administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services under President Barack Obama, joined an advisory group for Roivant after being recruited by former Democratic Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, another member. The group would meet two to three times a year, including when the company suffered a major blow after an Alzheimer’s drug it developed failed.

“He spoke of the social responsibility of the company, which was interesting,” Berwick said. “Pharmaceutical firms have really not been doing a great job of social responsibility in pricing. It really bothers me a lot, and he seemed to be willing to be more responsive, more thoughtful and more progressive.”

Fighting ‘woke’ companies and investing

By 2020, Ramaswamy had started popping up in conservative media spaces, including the Wall Street Journal op-ed section and Fox News, railing against “stakeholder” capitalism, which generally argues that companies have a responsibility to everyone who has a stake in a company, not just people who hold shares. Shareholder capitalism argues the goal of companies should be to maximize returns for shareholders.

“Speaking as a CEO and a citizen, I don’t want American capitalists to play a larger role in defining and implementing the country’s political and social values,” Ramaswamy wrote in a February 2020 Wall Street Journal op-ed. “I think the answers to these questions should be determined by the citizenry – publicly through debate and privately at the ballot box.”

Ramaswamy targeted large asset management companies like BlackRock, which have embraced ESG – environmental, social and governance – initiatives. Larry Fink, the chief executive of BlackRock, said in June he would stop using the term ESG because it has been politicized.

Ramaswamy expanded on that premise in “Woke, Inc.: Inside Corporate America’s Social Justice Scam,” in which he argued that companies and activists work together to “steal our shared American identity” and advance a left leaning agenda that would be difficult, if not impossible, to pass through Congress.

“Woke culture posits a new theory of who you are as a person, one that reduces you to the characteristics you inherit at birth and denies your status as a