OC INTERVIEW: OPEN CHEST Interview With Entrepreneur Anjula Acharia, Part 1

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Anjula-Bach

Open Chest Power Series
Anjula Acharia
Part 1

First Published In ANOKHI Magazine, Issue 39
First Published In ANOKHI Magazine, Issue 39

Along my many years as an entrepreneur, I have been blessed to have had the invaluable opportunity of meeting countless visionary minds who have changed the game in their respective professions. I call these stalwarts “forecasters of change,” who against all odds, have advocated for, and made monumental strides in, pushing the round peg into the square hole of life.

Since they have served as mentors for me in varying capacities and have helped me enormously along my quest for achieving my own personal calling, I have decided, as part of my yearning to give back to you for your years of supporting what I do, to offer you a gift of sorts, where you will receive firsthand insights into the private lives of some of these sensational personalities as they chat with me in a new no-holds-barred interview succession called the Open Chest Power Series.

Here, you will meet some of today’s greatest entrepreneurial minds who open chest like never before, revealing caveats of wisdom from their respective and compelling journeys. After a year and a half hiatus from doing ANOKHI magazine cover stories (due to a feeling that I had done every type of in-depth, life journey-related interview that resides within the pop cultural realm) I return with this new series which I’ll be doing once a month (or so), and I am pumped again with the hope that these inspirational real-life stories will help elevate your personal lives as they have mine.

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L-R: Anjula with ANOKHI MEDIA’s CEO, Raj Girn and American actress, Pooja Kumar at ANOKHI MEDIA’S 7th Anniversary Event, 2010.
Photo Credit: ProjectedLifePhotography.com

My first in this series is a two-part conversation with a woman who, although she has just now come into the frontal radar with the launch of Bollywood superstar Priyanka Chopra’s Hollywood career, has been responsible for some ground-breaking and pioneering efforts for over a decade. From her co-founded enterprise, DesiHits!, to her strategic management of Priyanka in Hollywood, to her partnership efforts at Trinity Ventures, this power woman is a force to be reckoned with like no other.

What do Hollywood and the venture funding space have in common? Brand-building, angel investor Anjula Acharia, whose single-minded, steadfast and unapologetic quest for advocating greater representation of the diversity quotient and gender equality mandate has made for some cross-cultural, cross-industry strides that have never been accomplished before. Why her desire to make an almost impossible feat possible? Let’s find out here, in part one of my chat with this buoyant, self-professed dichotomist, who has been one of my long-time mentors and dearest friends . . .

CHILDHOOD IDENTITY 

Your childhood, like most of us, is pivotal to telling your story and the psyche that led to your mission to champion the South Asian diversity quotient and gender equality mandate in entertainment pop culture and the VC world. I read an article in Her Agenda from which I want to share a snippet so as to give context to who you were as a teenager growing up in England: “It was a distressing time. Not that I didn’t have good times during my childhood, but, overall, it was really tough. I can tell you that most of my school life, I didn’t enjoy because it was horrible. It made me feel totally inadequate. Kids wouldn’t interact with me. We used to do this thing called country dancing at school, and the kids wouldn’t hold my hand. The boys wouldn’t hold my hand because they would say that the color would come off. They would hold my sleeve [instead]. Everyone would be laughing about it, and I would laugh with them because I didn’t know what else to do. The teacher would laugh with them. It was acceptable.”

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Anjula with her mother.
Courtesy Anjula Acharia-Bath

 

Tell me about this time in your life Anj, and this feeling of looking at yourself through the lens of others.

You know Raj, I think the pivotal moment at that point in my life, where I realized what I understood to be popular culture, was that I didn’t see myself on TV or in magazines. When I was a child, I remember that if there was ever a South Asian on a TV show, everything would be grossly represented and be stereotypical; it was bad. I remember the next day at school I would dread the people who would have watched that show.

Why, what would happen?

I would just be bullied harder and picked on more. People would have a reaction to what they had seen on TV and I would be the person they would take that out on. I remember at that age thinking TV directly impacted the way I was treated at school and that’s when I had this light bulb moment that has stayed with me to this day.

What was that light bulb moment?

That pivotal moment when I went, “Okay, it’s TV. If I can change TV where I can make it represent South Asians in the best way possible, then maybe another person wouldn’t have to get bullied as I was.” It became clear to me from a very young age that that is what needed to be done.

So let’s delve a little into self-image for a moment. When you and I were growing up in England in the ’70s and ’80s, these were the times when it was just easier to turn our backs on being identified as being South Asian so as to desperately belong to something that was larger than anything we felt we could challenge at that time — mainstream British society with its ideology of self-worth. As you mentioned, there were no real cultural role models being identified in pop culture whatsoever at that time and I know from my perspective that I identified with wanting to be like Farrah Fawcett not Hema Malini, although I looked more like the latter. What was your perspective back then in terms of self-image and role models that you wanted to be like?

When I was a kid, I really wanted to be like Blondie because I wanted to be white. That was the sad part. She was the epitome of white pop culture. I wanted blue eyes and blond hair like her. I thought that if I had all of that, I would be a hit. I wanted to be her. I was embarrassed by Bollywood; I was embarrassed by India. That’s why it’s so ironic what I do now, taking these mainstream stars to India and draping them in sarees, etc.

Totally! And I want to go there when we talk about your time at DesiHits!, but after we’ve spoken about the mindset from which you came from and why. Do you think it was easier to follow the status quo than to challenge it, especially at that time when there was minimal bandwidth of knowledge between the two cultures?

Yes definitely. I think that was a huge part. Also, I think the other part was that I just wanted to skip it.

Skip what?

I didn’t want to deal with being bullied and mocked every single day. [Pause] I would get by, by looking at a white pop star and wanting to be her in those moments. I remember holding my hairbrush and singing in the mirror.

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Anjula with her niece.
Courtesy Anjula Acharia-Bath.

Who did you see when you looked in the mirror?

I wasn’t looking at me, I was looking at a blond-haired, blue-eyed version of me.

For someone like you, who today is so pivotal in changing the way that talent in our community is looked at in American pop culture and beyond, why do you think that you identified with being blond-haired and blue-eyed?

Everyone wants to be accepted. Everyone wants to belong to part of the larger, more dominant community because we perceive it to be the one that will legitimize who we are. In my mind, being accepted was being blond-haired and blue-eyed because that was the most revered role model at that time. Being popular was being blond-haired and blue-eyed. When I looked at the popular girls in school, they were all blond-haired and blue-eyed so I would think, as an innocent child, that the solution was to be blond-haired and blue-eyed. [Pause] I thought that that was the solution to everything. I believed that I would be popular, I would attract boys, I would be smarter. In fact, the smartest girl in our class was blond-haired and blue-eyed and the best singer in our choir was blond-haired and blue-eyed.

Do you feel that there is a speck of some version of her that still resides in you today in any capacity?

No! I love who I am today.

How and where did that transformation take place? Was there a specific moment or a string of events that lead to this realization?

I was at an advertising event in the beginning of my career, where I was sitting next to a British guy who was the only black guy in the room and I was the only Indian girl in the room. I said, “Marcus, do you feel weird that we are the only people of colour here? Does it make you feel bad?” He said, “Does it make you feel bad?” I said, “Yeah.” And he said, “Why?” I was like, “How amazing it is that it doesn’t make you feel bad.” He said, “Anj, everybody here is trying to stand out. Everyone here is trying to be remembered. So trust me, you’re gonna be remembered and so am I!”

OMG I Love it!

Me too. [Laughs] It’s so funny, people ask me what I look for in friendships and what I look for in life. I always look for somebody that can give me a different point of view or point of reference.

Why?

Because that one thing he said to me all those years ago changed my whole outlook on life and perspective on myself. It changed the way I thought forever. It has rubbed off on my strategy here in America where I always stand out as the only brown girl for miles with a British accent (Laughs). Now, my uniqueness and my individuality are the things about me that I embrace about myself in every single way. And even though it is a constant fight, especially in the technology space, because there are so many Indians (Laughs), in Hollywood, I am a major, major minority. I’m talking about being a minority within a minority.

You are absolutely right! So now, unlike when you were younger where you wanted to be the majority, you revel in being the minority.

Yes, but it’s more than that Raj.

Tell me.

I want to make South Asians one of the majorities in Hollywood. I embrace my uniqueness and I love what’s unique about me, but in terms of my mission, I want the world to be colourblind. Women have a tough time in Hollywood too so I have a gender mission too.

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Catching the sun in Brazil.
Courtesy Anjula Acharia-Bath.

And we are going to talk about these missions a little later on in the interview but for now, so we can encapsulate your perspective on how you identify yourself, can you tell me exactly what that is?

Absolutely! I think for me, one of the things that makes me unique in Hollywood is that I come from Silicon Valley and I am from the tech space and I am merging both together all the time. I think that’s what makes me especially unique amongst other South Asian women who either only work in Hollywood or only work in Silicon Valley.

Who are you today?

As secure in my “Indianess” as I am in my “mainstreamness.” I’m proud to be a woman with a point of view as well as a point of difference that resonate with and relate to millions of people around the world.

BEING SOUTH ASIAN AND DESIHITS!

I want to take you back to two other pivotal moments in your life that were hinged in the music space that have specifically helped define your identity as a proud South Asian, which I feel ultimately led to your co-founding the online multiplatform music enterprise known as DesiHits! with its unique mandate of cross-cultural collaboration.

Okay!

One was when you were in a club in London where the deejay was playing bhangra fused with hip hop and the crowd went crazy over that sound. And the other was the impact the song “Beware” by Panjabi MC featuring Jay Z had on you. Tell me about these two experiences in terms of what they meant to you identifying with being a proud South Asian.

I was in a club where a couple of my friends knew the deejay. In my university, all the Indians were in engineering and medicine. I was doing theatre and I was the only South Asian girl in my class. I am at this club with a bunch of friends: two of them were British black, one of them was Indian, and then there were two white girls. We listened to the music and the amazing part was everyone was dancing to the hip hop mashed with bhangra sound that the deejay was playing and I remember going in my head, “Oh my God! I have found my place. I have found my home and my home was in music.” It was just so amazing! I remember feeling elated and happy. All of my friends were dancing with me and all of them were having a great time and so was I. It was just amazing! [Pause] It was just really, really amazing. It was a very pivotal moment for me that not just Indians but everyone was loving the Indian sound.

And the impact of “Beware,” what did the success of that song mean to you?

I remember thinking, “Wow Jay Z, how cool is that?” Growing up in a society where pop culture excludes your identity from a cultural perspective where you know everything about them [mainstream British society] and they knew nothing about you, I felt invisible. Even though you knew them, they didn’t know who you were, who South Asians were. When I listened to that song, I was like, “I wonder if he [Jay Z] has met Punjabi Indians? I wonder if he loves Indian music?” All these thoughts were going through my head. Years later, when I met Jay Z and I am having breakfast with him, I asked him about that song.

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L-R: Lady Gaga with Anjula.
Courtesy Anjula Acharia-Bath

What did you ask?

I was like, “What were you thinking?” I’m like, “Were you thinking pop culture, were you thinking India, were you thinking America?” He said, “I just really liked the beat.” It was so funny because it wasn’t about Indian for him at all. It was just about the music and sound and that is how it should be. So for me, it was a whole cultural revolution.

Absolutely, as it was for all of us from that generation that finally had an identity that the wider community thought was cool and not stereotypical as portrayed on TV when we were growing up.

Exactly Raj!

And this wasn’t about Jay Z legitimizing our music for us, this was about somebody who had mass global appeal in the mainstream music industry recognizing just how brilliant our music was!

Yes! And that’s why this was such a pivotal moment for me and even for us as South Asians in general. All of a sudden, they got us!

How did these music identifiers lead you from the investment space that you were in for a decade to DesiHits!?  

Honestly, it wasn’t like that. It was actually so coincidental.

Tell me.

Okay, so I was working with venture capitalists and they loved the traction we were getting with DesiHits! with our podcasts. I didn’t go out there to raise money, they just believed in me and gave me the funding. I think that was the moment for me when I was like, “Wow, I am really on to something.”

And you moved to DesiHits! full-time to explore the possibilities?

Something like that!

What was it that you and one of your investors, the legendary music mogul and serial entrepreneur Jimmy Iovine, saw in the possibilities that DesiHits! could bring to pop culture that you both felt was going to be indelible and that you wanted to get behind?

The vision for me and for Jimmy, was impacting pop culture. It was creating a shift in pop culture itself.

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L-R: Shahrukh Khan, Anjula, Arjun Rampal.
Courtesy Anjula Acharia-Bath.

How? That’s such a massive undertaking to change the mindset of the establishment as well as of the general population that had identified for generations with a certain version of what pop culture always had been?

Well, it wasn’t only participating in it which is what a community does, you hope, but creating it so the establishment which includes investors and celebrity endorsements get behind it because they see that it’s a real thing and not just an idea. [Pause] Pop culture to me is about evolution, constant evolution.

Give me an example to coin this belief.

I’ll give you a Hollywood example.

Okay!

Kerry Washington [star of hit TV show Scandal] changed the game.

How?

Let me tell you Raj, she was the first African American female lead in a prime time TV drama and there was a whole advertising campaign around that. There was a time when people used to say, “There aren’t as many South Asians or Asians in North America as there are African-Americans.” People would apply the same theory that if there aren’t enough African Americans to support this, then there definitely aren’t enough South Asians to support it for sure.

So how has there been a mindset shift in Hollywood?

We have transcended the quantity quotient because people aren’t looking at it like that anymore.

What people? The establishment or the community — society?

Society.

Okay. So how are people looking at it now?

People are moved by character and story. They aren’t moved by race, so there’s an opportunity there.

So taking this back to DesiHits!, you were able to successfully create that dialogue and create that opportunity by being conscious of moving people’s emotions (the establishment and society) by bringing together specifics that, as a whole, showed that a movement was in fact emerging and getting bandwidth.

Exactly Raj!

You went on to bring together key elements to accomplish this: Music, which is a major mover of emotions; pop-culture, where the power of influence lies; technology, so everyone can easily participate; and the celebrity quotient, to advocate for the movement. How did all of this come about? Was it a strategic plan on your part or something that just started to evolve organically and the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle started to prompt a strategy?

I always knew that for my own people [the South Asian community], for them to take DesiHits! seriously, we had to get A-list mainstream celebrities involved with what we were doing so as to show a point of difference that had not as yet been explored in mainstream music in America.

Why did you feel that going outside of the South Asian music scene would prompt more support from your own people?

Two reasons: one, because it would make us stand out amongst other companies that were pushing our music, and two, because I could get 50 Cent to come and do a show for us before I could get a British Asian celebrity to do the same.

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Anjula at Billboard Awards.
Courtesy Anjula Acharia-Bath

As insane as this sounds, I absolutely understand from experience at ANOKHI MEDIA over the past 14 years, how absolutely true this is. One of many examples being that I got an interview cover story with Kim Kardashian promptly yet six years of pitching Mindy Kaling’s people has yet to garner an interview.

Yes, I remember our celebrities at the beginning wouldn’t take our call or take us seriously, so I knew, to do this, I had to go really big. Go big or go home. The first person I went to was 50 Cent and I brought him in.

So let’s go here. Let’s talk about what DesiHits! brought to the table that it will always be remembered for — the multitude of collaborations between South Asian and mainstream musical artists. Why do this when no one else was doing it? What was the value you saw in initiating this cross-cultural dynamic?

The first reason was to get our own people to take me seriously and the second reason was because I wanted to shift pop culture. I wanted all these mainstream pop stars who I have looked up to over the years and who have influenced my life to know who we are so that the South Asian generations after mine can feel a sense of inclusivity that I never felt growing up.

Why was this important to you?

Because I want it to be easier for them to feel like they belong and that who they are matters. We are a huge demographic. I don’t believe we should be ignored and I was like, “I’m not gonna let anyone ignore us!” By bringing what we do to them and getting them to embrace it was my goal and I accomplished it.

Yes you did. For the uninitiated, name some of the collaborations you brought to the DesiHits! Portfolio.

Rihanna and Culture Shock, Britney Spears and Sonu Nigam, The Pussycat Dolls and Rocky S, and Pitbull and Priyanka Chopra but to name a few. We did so many.

Yes you did! One that I found really intriguing and I feel was DesiHits! biggest coup was when you orchestrated taking Gaga to India when she was at her highest global fan frenzy point of her career. Tell me about this.

We had a long history with Gaga. When Gaga wasn’t even famous, when she had just released “Just On,” Jimmy [Iovine] showed me the video and asked me what I thought about it. I thought about it and took back the video to the DesiHits! team and we all agreed that she was gonna be the next Madonna. We started working with her when she was doing small gigs in Britain. We started working with her in the U.K. right before she popped and then we stopped as she became huge. A year later, we got a call from Troy Carter who was her manager then and Troy was like, “When someone is on top of their game, you think about expanding their bandwidth even more. India is huge but we have no presence there for Gaga and Jimmy tells me you are the person we need to speak to.” I was like, “Hell Yeah!” So Troy and I worked collaboratively together with her now-manager Bobby Campbell. The entire thing, once it all came together, involved collaborations with Salman Khan, Shah Rukh Khan and Arjun Rampal. It was a whole, multi-layered strategy that we put in place for her and it was executed beautifully with massive global media support.

Any milestone moments you remember from the experience?

Yes! I will never forget when she walked off the stage, held my hand, and so humbly asked, “Was I alright?”

Wow!

[Laughs]. She was like, “Was I alright, I didn’t offend?” I was like, “You were amazing!” You know Raj, although she was the star player on stage, she really wanted to resonate with the audiences so she had many Indian influences on stage like the musical instruments she chose to participate with her like sitar.

Yes I remember seeing that!

And then we hung out afterwards and got drunk together. [Laughs]

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Anjula at ANOKHI MEDIA’s 7th Anniversary Event, 2010.            
Photo credit: ProjectedLifePhotography.com

[Laughs]. I love it! Anj, in closing, I want to ask you a question which I feel is a really important one. There was a small time over the past 15 years that we almost had an industry. We had artists flooding to the market, producers, songwriters, promoters, cross-cultural collaborations happening in unison — the kinds of things that give you hope that an industry was starting to garner mainstream legs, much like the African-American industry and the Hispanic industry before it. But we seem to be at a stalemate now. I feel that the reason for this is that a viable mainstream South Asian music industry cannot be built when only one company [DesiHits!] was pushing this mandate. What is your take on this?

I absolutely agree Raj. That’s the fundamental problem. You can’t survive as one. Moreover, you need competition to challenge you and to drive you. An industry can’t be built on one company. And getting people that are smart enough to figure out funding, advertising, etc. is key.

Yes, actually “business-izing” the industry since it can’t survive on talent alone. Without the business strategy, it can’t be an industry. You’re a lone island in a vast sea of nothingness. Where do you feel that others could participate to help legitimize a South Asian mainstream music industry much like the African-American and the Hispanics have done?

Oh Raj! Here is what I think. The problem is that people don’t want to get together collaboratively because they have got it in their head only one person can be a success. But that is not how it works. To create an industry, you need a collection of islands that have to work together. One person can’t do it on their own. It needs people to work together collaboratively. Unfortunately, Indians don’t want to help with anything. There are so few organizations that work together to create platforms that allow people to really shine. Like DesiHits!, ANOKHI MEDIA is one of them. In North America, we are one of the only two platforms that allow people to really shine and encourage the creation of a community where people can collaborate and work together. There is such a massive lack of that because people feel that they can’t be successful if they help anybody else out!

In part two of my chat with Anjula Acharia as we talk about the mindset and strategies surrounding the uber successful launch of Bollywood superstar Priyanka Chopra in Hollywood and Anjula’s insightful take on the diversity and gender quotient in Hollywood and the tech funding space click HERE to read it!

ANOKHI Magazine Cover Story. Issue 39, February 29th, 2016

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