Open Chest Power Series
In part one of angel investor and brand builder Anjula Acharia’s story, we spoke intimately about the ideology and mindset from which her staunch diversity and gender mandate blossomed. She shared nuggets of wisdom about the larger vision behind her co-founded company, DesiHits!, and her perspectives on the Hollywood machine. She also shared insights into how she learned to stand out, project her point of difference and exude a clear narrative on who she is, what she represents and why. In case you missed this powerful reveal, click HERE for the full part one of her story.
In the second half of this two-part interview, I spoke with Anjula about her foray into managing powerhouse Bollywood superstar Priyanka Chopra and her orchestration of the actress’s strategic rise from being barely known to becoming Hollywood’s sweetheart. She also speaks poignantly about getting back into the tech sector as a serial angel investor and sheds light on the state of affairs for women in business…
THE BRAND BUILDING MANAGER
Continuing your mandate to push forth the South Asian voice and larger diversity quotient in the mainstream, you crafted what is now considered one of the greatest coups of mainstream talent branding when it comes to the South Asian arena. You are known as the woman behind the woman — the woman who brought Bollywood superstar Priyanka Chopra to Hollywood with an atomic bomb-sized bang!
[Laughs] Thank you!
I remember when I interviewed Priyanka on stage during the 10th Annual ANOKHI MEDIA Awards show in Toronto, I told her that she’s a rare phenomenon — a serial game-changer — having gone from winning Miss World, to becoming one of today’s biggest and most bankable Bollywood stars, to “breaking bad” into the mainstream music scene with a-list collaborations (Red One, Pitbull etc.). There’s no doubt that this is exactly what she is.
Yes, that’s right!
There have been two phases of Priyanka’s professional, pop cultural journey in America that you’ve been an integral part of: her mainstream music breakout and her explosion into Hollywood. You were recently quoted as stating that you don’t “manage” Priyanka, even though you are technically her manager, as this is not your style of brand building. Rather, you and she are strategic partners in the business of building her mainstream American brand, since she’s already a substantive global brand by default of her huge Bollywood following and international brand endorsements. What are the parameters of your partnership in making Priyanka an American household name?
First thing I will say is that I was never a manager. I didn’t grow up in the management line of work. I never managed anyone before I managed Priyanka, so I didn’t come from that world. It was Jimmy Iovine that kept telling me I should manage her and I kept telling him that I’m not going to manage her. He said more specifically, she doesn’t need a manager, she needs a partner. She needs somebody that can write her story with her and help people understand it. She needs someone who can inspire others to go on a journey with her, and with you.
Powerful! Not just build but advocate. What did you think of this?
I didn’t really understand it at that point, but he kept pushing. The way people are being managed in India and the way people are managed in Hollywood are very different. The American way was the way I knew and know.
Tell me what that is specifically? Manufacturing her?
No. I think a lot of people think that stars are told what to do, what to say, and are “manufactured acts” where people stand behind you and pull your strings.
That is the case with a number of them and we know who they are too!
Yes, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth where Priyanka is concerned. Everything we do, is a collaborative effort.
Tell me how?
We talk about it all. We come up with ideas together. We are very collaborative. We have very similar views on things too which makes for a productive collaborative relationship.
Give me an example.
Well, she was told to sound more like Apu from the Simpsons for this one role and we were like “No way, we are not doing that!” That’s both of us coming from exactly the same place about how we wanted to represent South Asians. If she had come to me and said “No, I just want that role. I just want that big role and I don’t care what I have to do to get it!” Things would have been much different. Priyanka has never had that attitude and I have never had that attitude.
Many do have that attitude. Why not you two?
Because I am very careful about what images I want put out there because those images hurt people like me and those images hurt people like her. In Quantico she is a South Asian woman who is also the lead of this show. Her role is not about her South-Asianess but about being a woman that anybody could relate to.
And there’s more to her than her ethnicity.
Exactly Raj! Why can’t she be taken seriously as a woman who is kickass and amazing? Why does she have to be all brown about it? Why do I have to be this or that about it?
You’ll get no arguments from me!
And Raj, while working together, we just see things in a very similar way. [Pause] And one of the key things that Pri is about and I am about is that she is willing to use her celebrity and fame for great causes. She works for UNICEF, Girl Rising, the UN, mainly based around girls and education, and you know how I feel about that.
Yes, I do, as do I!
Yes, we’ve talked about this! We have very aligned viewpoints on the world and we don’t see it in a myopic way. We see this in a very large and holistic way.
How can we, with what we have, create a better world for girls? She experienced so much racism in America when she was living in Queens and Minneapolis, just like I did in England, so we just look at everything through the same wide lens.
Why did you decide to take on the task of diversity in Hollywood?
I didn’t do it for the money, rather, I did this for the passion. I wanted to change something. I did this because I wanted to shift pop culture and I wanted to see someone that looked like me in entertainment, breaking barriers.
Absolutely, that’s exactly what has been done! Of all of the talent in Bollywood, why Priyanka?
That’s a great question. I saw Priyanka in a movie years ago, before I was in the industry, called Bluffmaster with Abhishek Bachchan. She was dancing to a song I was obsessed with called “Right Here, Right Now.” I loved that song and I remember looking at her thinking “Wow, she is really cool!” She has this kind of a hip thing that makes her stand apart from everyone else in Bollywood.
So where did you go from there?
When Jimmy and I worked on Slumdog Millionaire and we saw this huge hit with “Jai Ho,” at that moment, we both wanted to do it again. Jimmy said, “Is there anyone else? Who is the next Britney Spears? Who is the next Gaga? Who is the next big thing coming from India?” And I said, “You know Jimmy, there is this girl. Her name is Priyanka Chopra and we started Googling her right there on the spot. He said, “Yeah she is really, really cool!” Next thing I knew, I was on a plane to India. I was sitting in her hotel suite explaining to her that this is what my vision is.
And what was that vision? What did you say to her that clinched the deal because let’s face it, it’s not like she needed a job, money or fame? She was already a megastar globally as a Bollywood star.
I remember being very intimidated. I remember feeling very unnerved. I was like, “This is my one shot to get her to come on this journey with me.”
Knowing this, what did you say?
I think I told her my personal story and kind of why I want to do this and why this is important to me.
What did she say?
She kept asking, “Why do you think I can do this? Why do you think that I am the right person?” I can’t remember everything I said, but I do remember saying to her that “I just think you have that global citizen appeal. You’ve lived in America and you understand American pop culture.” And I was right. I remember early on, being in the studio with her and her dancing to hip hop. She loves house music and she was dancing around in the studio and I was like, “She’s really cool! She’s got it. My instincts about her were right!” I needed someone who could move effortlessly between the two worlds and have no angst about it. I don’t know if there is anybody else that can do it like she can.
Clearly you knew that this was going to be one heck of a journey, so if the fundamental belief system and passion in what the end goal needed to be wasn’t on point and you weren’t aligned, it wasn’t a journey that you guys could have moved forward with because the glass ceiling that needed to be smashed was six inches thick. Am I correct?
Yeah, absolutely! For it to have worked, I think she is very essential and I think I am too. She didn’t need another job as you said.
She didn’t need to do this. She is still, today, at the height of her career in Bollywood as she was then when I first approached her. This wasn’t something she really needed to do.
What I find really interesting is just this whole journey that you and Priyanka have been on together. Not the outcome so much, which we all know has been mammoth already and this is just the beginning. Is that what you’ll remember as you move through it all?
Yes, because it’s changed my life. It’s told me that I’m not the only one that strongly believes that we matter.
When you first launched Priyanka in the West through music, her then manager, Gaga’s manager no less, Troy Carter, described her as a “triple threat” becauase she can act, sing and dance. You could have gone any of these routes, but you decided to go the music route. Was it because you were by default already in the music arena and it just seemed the easier route to break in?
Yeah! Wow, so basically, yes, it was very much by default that I was in the music world that we went this route. The other thing was that I heard Priyanka sing. I then had a demo tape sent to me by Salim-Suleiman and I was like “Wow! She really can sing!” Since I was already working with Jimmy (Iovine) in the music scene, it was like it was the natural route.
And you had a great breakout with A-list collaborations with the likes of RedOne and Pitbull, which forayed into Priyanka becoming the first Indian personality in a Guess campaign.
This was also a very pivotal moment, seeing her on billboards all over the Western world; surreal.
It was a huge cultural breakthrough for us to finally be pop cultural.
Yes Raj! What’s more pop cultural than Guess?
Exactly! How did you make the move to American TV?
Well, Jimmy always said to me, “You have got to look into the world and see what people are talking about and where are they talking about it.” I remember, every time we were out, people were talking about TV shows. They weren’t talking about music. They were saying, “Did you see Game Of Thrones, did you see How To Get Away With Murder?” Everyone was talking about TV shows and I was like, “Hang on a minute!” And then RedOne, who was Priyanka’s producer, said, “You gotta figure out how she can stay relevant in pop culture every single week. How can we get people to talk about her every week?”
And knowing you the way that I do, your wheels stared to churn.
[Laughs] You know it Raj! I just got thinking. I said to Jimmy, “What we should do with her is a TV show. She’s an amazing actress.” At first, she was kind of a bit like, “A TV show? In India, TV shows don’t have any A-list actors in them.”
But they do here.
Right, exactly! I think she was taken aback at first.
So how did you move this forward?
Priyanka and I were at a dinner party where we were seated next to Kelley Lee on one side and Barbara Streisand on the other. You would think I would want to introduce her to Barbara Streisand but I wanted to introduce her to Kelley. [Laughs]
Because she was the one who found Kerry Washington, Sandra Oh, Viola Davis and Sofia Vergara.
Anjula’s EIR dinner in San Francisco. Discussing diversity and technology in Hollywood. With Keli Lee, ABC, EVP of International Casting and Development, and Ajay Chopra, General Partner at Trinity Ventures
I see. So what did you do?
I was like, “Dammit! She’s the person I should be talking to.”
And when you did, what happened?
She started telling me about all these actresses and how getting diversity on televisions was such a big deal to her. And I said to her, “You haven’t put a South Asian women on TV yet have you? And she said, “No I haven’t!” And I said, “Do you want to put one of the biggest Bollywood stars on TV, how would you like that?”
And the rest is history, as they say.
Why did you guys feel that Quantico was the right launching pad?
Here’s how it went Raj. We read 26 scripts, Priyanka and I. When we came to Quantico, we both looked at each other and said, Quantico. But here’s the interesting part. The part Priyanka plays in Quantico was not written for a brown girl, it was written for a white, American girl. We went back to Kelley and said that we both really love Quantico, so she went on and decided to change that. If Priyanka wasn’t around, that show probably would have been about a white, American girl. It would have had a very different spin to it. ABC was really forward thinking and colour-blind, and it worked.
What do you think the show’s success is attributed to? Do you think it is a combination of Priyanka’s star power and massive social media network, the fact that she is relatable in America, the power of the ABC machine, timing?
I think it was everything. She is not one thing. We are not one thing. We are a combination of things and that makes us all special, thus relatable. I think her social media following definitely helped and the fact that she is an incredible actress. I think the writing helped. I think the fact that ABC is colour-blind helped. And I think she has a great cast behind her.
The success of the show has gotten Priyanka a People’s Choice win this year, not to mention appearances at the SAG Awards and even the Oscars as a presenter. It seems there’s no stopping the force! So what next? Not just as it relates to Priyanka, but for the South Asian talent community in general in American pop culture. What do you foresee?
What I foresee doesn’t relate to South Asians only, but to any minority. When someone is winning academy awards, when they are South Asians, or African Americans, or Latinas, I feel lots of pride. That’s what I foresee. That’s what I want! I want to get to that point where people aren’t surprised anymore because that’s the norm. That is what I hope for. I hope Trump does not get elected because that will take away the cultural mosaic being the norm.
Well, it doesn’t seem to be a far fetched dream anymore as it was when you and I were growing up. You’ve had your integral part to play in that!
If you can dream it Raj, it can happen. So why not give it a shot?
THE INVESTOR, THE DIVERSITY MANDATE AND THE GENDER MISSION. . .
If all of this isn’t enough on your plate, you go off and become a partner at a huge San Francisco investment firm, Trinity Ventures, and bring to fruition three successful start-ups: The Muse, The Hunt, ClassPass and the list goes on. What led you back into the world of tech and investments, and why now?
I just met some really incredible female founders that I believed deserved to win and I wanted to give them my time and commitment, as I really believed in them.
I invest in incredible people, but it just so happens that I attract a lot of women entrepreneurs. I guess I like being the woman behind the woman. [Laughs]
What do you look for in female entrepreneurs, or in any entrepreneur for that matter?
It is really simple. Did they solve a problem and can they solve the problem better than anyone else? That’s it. Can these people solve legitimate problems and are they the best at it?
How do you feel the funding space has changed for women led start-ups since you initially worked in funding about fifteen years ago?
I still think there is a very strong vibe in the valley about the notion of raising capital for women. It is hard. There are far more female investors now which helps. A lot of these people investing generally invest into women so they can get on the wagon and start building their companies to build enough traction so, to a serious investor, they will be undeniable. I think that’s changing as more and more women enter the workforce. It helps immensely when you get funding.
So the female quotient is starting to gain some indelible traction then?
Whether it’s fundraising or Hollywood, as women, we are nowhere near where we need to be, but we can’t focus on that. We can just focus on the positive stories. I was a South Asian woman with no background in start-ups and it was just down to the fact that I had relationships. I like telling my story because I like focusing on the fact that I am a woman and I didn’t have an Ivy League education. I am a minority and have a whole list of things going against me if conventional wisdom was to be the judge, which would only make someone say, “We would never invest in her.” But they did! And I just think we should focus on positive stories like that if we are to parlay and build upon what has gone before us.
What do you feel women bring to the entrepreneurial space that perhaps is lacking in a historically male-dominated arena?
Well, lets see. Take social media for example. Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest are all different community-based platforms, but they are all dominated by female consumers. That’s got to tell you something right?
If the biggest IPOs are dominated by women and women are the users, do you not think it makes more sense to bring more women into the decision making process of the companies we back?
It seems elementary but the challenge is the conventional mindset that men are worth more than women, that is still an active part of the work environment on all levels. How do you feel women and men can band together to make this space more inviting for women to participate in, so that it’s not a gender parity issue anymore?
I would say let’s make men our champions. I have been lucky enough to have a number of men champion me and they are powerful men at that! They have really paved the way for me. I think the smart man just cares about talent. The smart man will care about championing people that have talent, period. Nothing more, nothing less.
Why do you feel that gender parity still exists today, when women and men both bring the same education and skill to the table? Is it a male driven gap or a female driven gap, whereby she still believes in the existence of the unbreakable glass ceiling and settles for less?
I think it’s both. Our current system gives preference to those who are already at the top. Right now, this happens to be men and they tend to feed into a cycle of hiring other men who look and think like they do. If men only look to those who are most like themselves, they are adding to the problem. It’s important to seek diversity, not only does it mean creating a more inclusive work environment, it’s smart business. Having a diverse group of people make decisions means you’ll get comprehensive results and appeal to a broader customer base. As women, we also need to make sure we don’t buy into the belief that we can’t break through these barriers. We need to remember to hold up ourselves, as well as each other, in the face of this adversity. We got the goods, we just need to believe in ourselves and each other.
Amen sista! You’re clearly a staunch advocate of diversity and gender equality and we’ve presented this quite deeply throughout our chat together. That which you denied growing up, has become your advocacy — full circle.
Absolutely! I often think about that and realize how far I’ve come and how something that can effect one person, can be the fly in the ointment of change. I’m on that journey with many people. People like you Raj, who continue to do what you do because you believe in something more than what you’re told can be.
Thank you babe. You know me, I cannot NOT believe. It’s my purpose and calling to be, so the journey continues in blind faith and strategic effort.
You know it babe!
We live in a very interesting time due to technological advancements that have coined the existence of three distinct groupings of people that, until the advent of technology, weren’t perceived to exist: Baby Boomers, Gen X and Gen Y-Millennials. How do you feel technology can work to further identify and serve them all effectively as we move forward as a technological civilization?
From a technology standpoint, there are all these platforms that allow these people to congregate in one space. Take Facebook, the obvious example. My nephew, mum and I am on Facebook. He is a Millennial, I am a Gen Xer and she is a Baby Boomer. So I think technology platforms allow these conversations to come together effortlessly. I think the conversation, dialogue and discussion between these different generations is eased through what these platforms have to offer.
Your advice to dreamers like you who are sitting on the fence of action due to fear of failure?
Everything you want is on the other side of fear. Just go for it!
Motto you live by?
Life is the company you keep. Surround yourself with the dreamers and the believers!
And there you have it. My first chat in the Open Chest Power Series edition of OC Interviews. Would love to know what you thought of this and the previous part of this conversation that delved into the psyche and mindset of a woman who is on the forefront of changing pop culture as we’ve known it!