Perhaps it is the flip side of feminism, but women today seem to have the luxury of finding creative exits from the rat race without compromising their sense of self or their independence. Raising two daughters, I am always looking for unique role models for them and have been fortunate to interact with some stellar South Asian women who pursue careers outside the traditional, taking the path less trodden. They range in occupation from stand-up comedienne-business woman and musician-public health specialist, to a social entrepreneur, an art historian, and a tiger handler. These women have forged off-beat paths for their lives and display their talents in fields not normally associated with South Asians.

Dhaya Lakshminarayanan, Stand-up Comedian

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Be ready to fail and fail big … without that there is no success. And never trust someone who doesn’t love food!” advises Dhaya Lakshminarayanan, MIT graduate, venture capitalist, emcee and stand up comedian. “If you fail the first, second or even the third time, get up and try. It is through letting go of being constantly attached to success and what our community thinks of us that we will succeed.”

My introduction to Dhaya was at the Rooster-T-Feathers Comedy Club in Sunnyvale. My husband and I love stand-up comedy and she happened to open for the main act. I was so impressed that at the end of the show I handed her my card, starting a conversation leading to her headlining a major event, the American India Foundation Gala, where she performed, emceed, … and pretty much stole the show.

Dhaya’s parents are originally from South India, but Dhaya was born in Buffalo, NY. Dhaya means compassion. Lakshminarayanan means “father didn’t learn about abbreviation,” she jokes. She has lived in New York, Ohio, Alabama, Georgia, Massachusetts, and California. Her father was a physicist, she has to explain, or people think her family was running from the law.

Armed with a Bachelor of Science as well as Masters from MIT, Dhaya followed a familiar trajectory that is every South Asian’s dream come true. She has worked in Booz Allen Hamilton, and Omidyar Network, among other jobs in the private and non profit sectors, and has worked on political campaigns. She has even been a public speaking coach.

I asked Dhaya about her foray into stand-up comedy. Humor was always valued in her family and was considered empowering. Dhaya credits her propensity for humor to her mom who is innately funny. “I love finding humor in the world, people, technology, culture, manners, etiquette, and definitely public transportation,” she retorts. She loves comedy because she loves people—what makes them tick, what they laugh at, what they are willing to see about their lives and culture. The connectivity that total strangers can feel when they are in a club enjoying stand-up, laughing together, spurs her to stay in the field and hone her craft. She feels that what makes a comic good is what makes any artist good: seeing things in the world that others see, but cannot articulate.

“My comedy is clean. Not because I am trying to impress anyone with how much of a ‘good girl’ I am, but because it is harder to make an audience laugh with wit and intelligence and subtlety. Sure, when I have to perform for a nightclub audience or a bar, I’m edgier, than when performing for a school benefit, but that doesn’t mean I have to be vulgar. My family is 100% supportive and they love when I include them in my act.”

Dhaya has headlined several all-women shows including 5 Funny Femalesand Colorstruck. She found the women amazing, funny, and easy to work with. As for male comedians, Dhaya says, “I won’t lie, it can be hard. It is tough to put up with some of the comments and the unwanted attention. Male comics also have a hard time knowing how to classify you if you perform just as well as or even better than them. Rather than being impressed and wanting to work with you again, some will cower in fear and act socially awkward—which is not new to me; after all I went to MIT! That said, two of my biggest comedy mentors and proponents are men. Dan Nainan (India Currents, September 2009) and Joe Klocek have both reached out to me, given me advice, booked me on shows, taken an interest in my art, sent me useful information and treated me with the utmost respect and professionalism. I wish I had more female comedy mentors, but oddly enough I do not.”Asked about expectations of women in the comedy circuit Dhaya responds, “What we are seeing is more and more women who feel they have to be dirty and out-dirty the men in order to be heard. I don’t believe this. As with any joke, I try a joke with my friends, my comedy friends, at open mics, and then at a big event. Sometimes new jokes kill and sometimes they don’t. You just have to try.”

In the future, Dhaya wants to integrate her skills into television and radio. On the cards is a show on the Discovery Channel.

Qamar Adamjee, Art Historian

Live and let live. Learn and pass on. Each one of us enriches ourselves through what we learn from others through emulation and inspiration. These are the kernels of Qamar Adamjee’s philosophy of life. Born and raised in Karachi, Qamar got an MBA degree from Karachi University’s Institute of Business Administration. There were no career prospects with a humanities degree in Karachi, and thus her academic trajectory moved towards the corporate world.

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Qamar moved to New York  in 1994 after her marriage. While waiting for her U.S. work authorization, Qamar spent time in New York’s art museums and took classes in art history. This was her first opportunity to engage with the visual arts, and the beginning of a career in the field.

Today Qamar is Assistant Curator of South Asian Art at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, where she manages their collections of South and West Asian Art, creates thematic exhibitions, researches the South Asian paintings collection, enhances and develops the existing collection and is involved in training and education. She is a Member of the Branding Committee, a key initiative of the Museum’s strategic long-range plans.

When asked about what she most enjoys about her work, she says, “I see the field of art history and the role of museums as primarily one that connects human past with the present, by way of material culture. Art provides insights into the many different aspects of culture and ideas in a society, which informs where we are now and hints at possible directions we take in the future. The more one learns and sees, one realizes that differences between people, places, and culture notwithstanding, there are far more things that bind human society together over time and across geography than divide it.”

With a nearly 4-year old little girl around, the juggling act with work and home is a familiar one. Qamar has enjoyed the support of her husband who steps up to childcare duties and has been her Rock of Gibraltar. Next steps include completion of her Ph.D. dissertation, after which she would like to curate an exhibition that explores the tightly knit networks of trade and exchange in South Asia in the pre-modern period.

Namita Dalal, Program Analyst, Tiger Handler

“I have been passionate about animals ever since I was a child. I was a major source of annoyance to my family and friends as I was always saving critters and bringing them home.” That passion grew into a deeper interest in nature which eventually led to a life of deep involvement with wildlife conservation.

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Namita Dakal had been particlarly fascinated by predators in the animal world. An episode on TV about a tiger sanctuary in Fairfield, CA, galvanized her into doing something constructive with her passion. She spent over a year pursuing the sanctuary owner, trying to convince him to let her come and help. He was rightly concerned about her lack of experience with wildlife handling, besides the fact that the sanctuary was 110 miles from where she lived! He finally agreed and it has been a memorable 11 years since she became a part of the sanctuary.

A common misconception, shares Namita, is that a tiger in captivity is tame or that it can be friendly. Tigers are very beautiful animals, but they are also one of the most powerful and potentially dangerous. “My training has always emphasized that our definition of love is different from theirs. Working with big cats is a very spiritual experience for me but I make sure I never get careless around them. Like people, tigers  have their own unique personalities and it is important to respect these powerful and beautiful creatures.” She remembers a time when she was feeding a cub whose mother had distanced itself. At that moment, Namita recalls, she felt like she was one with the universe.

Namita’s day job also reflects her passion for the environment. She is a Program Information Analyst at Earthjustice—a non-profit public interest law firm dedicated to protecting the magnificent places, natural resources, and wildlife of this earth, and to defending the right of all people to a healthy environment. She also volunteers at Wildlife Conservation Network, dedicated to protecting endangered species and preserving their natural habitats. WCN supports innovative strategies for people and wildlife to co-exist and thrive. She assists with fundraising, events and program development. In addition she volunteers for the Snow Leopard Conservancy.

I asked Namita what her family’s reaction was to her working with tigers. “They do worry about me,” she says, “but are extremely supportive and they know that I would not be able to stop pursuing my interest.” She plans to follow her dream of doing actual field work with different conservationists.
Namita lives by the Gandhian edict of “be the change you want to see in the world.” Her advice for young people today re: non-traditional career paths? “Follow your passion, work hard, and have fun doing it. Do what you like rather than what is traditional and choose a career based on your abilities, aptitudes and interests; you will be happier for it.”

Farhana Huq, Social Entrepreneur

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Volunteering has been part of Farhana Huq’s life since she was 14. A graduate in Economics and Philosophy from Tufts University, she gave time during her student life to various non-profits, from transitional housing sites for homeless women to Oxfam America. Today she is the founder ofC.E.O.Women, a non-profit dedicated to creating economic opportunities for low-income immigrant and refugee women through teaching English, communications, and entrepreneurship skills. “We have one world, and only one life. I’m interested in making a difference with my life versus just trying to make it comfortable. I feel the need to live my life with a degree of consciousness that the world is not about us, and it needs to be our responsibility to maintain and protect it.”

Watching her divorced aunt, who helped raise her, struggle to be economically independent while raising three children impacted Farhana deeply. It has been a compelling part of why she does what she does. At 24, while struggling to raise funds for the non-profit Micro Enterprise in Action, Farhana met a mentor who offered to invest in Farhana’s idea to help underprivileged women, and C.E.O. Women was born. Since its inception, C.E.O. Women has served over 1,600 Bay Area immigrant women. In the early years, Farhana had to commit to doing contract jobs in fundraising, program design, and bookkeeping to make ends meet. She did this while working as an Executive Director with no pay, doing the books, running the board meetings, teaching the classes, putting up flyers on the streets of Oakland and doing these on a shoestring budget with an all volunteer organization.

Today with 20 staff and contractors to run training and support services, C.E.O. Women has expanded from Oakland into San Jose. The average C.E.O. Women graduate:

· Increases household income by $28,000
· 56 % of women start or grow businesses
· 87% of women increase their confidence speaking, writing and reading English

How’s that for results? The organization partners with community groups and in the spirit of innovation that has been the hallmark of the organization, has launched Grand Café, a soap opera based teaching tool. Grand Café imparts language, financial literacy and entrepreneurial training through the stories of four immigrant and refugee women by demonstrating their challenges and triumphs in starting their own businesses in the United States. The 18-episode series of DVDs and workbooks is used in conjunction with classroom-based training offered by C.E.O. Women. (http://www.youtube.com/user/CEOWOMEN).

Farhana feels that the idea of a safety net in careers is an illusion. The landscape of what’s possible for a career has never been more diverse. “The next generation is limited only by their ability to dream and try new challenges,” say Farhana. On the cards are plans to take C.E.O. Women national.

Roopa Mahadevan, Musician, Public Health Specialist

As has become typical for so many young Indian Americans in the Bay Area, San Jose native Roopa Mahadevan was enrolled in a multitude of classes from a young age. There was a time when Sunday meant classes in Tamil, Karnatik violin, Bala Vihar and bharathanatyam. While in high school, Roopa sang in the school choir. In college, she joined an a capella group called Everyday People—singing R&B, hip-hop, pop, motown, soul, etc—and she also recorded original singles with an urban music student label called Inphanyte Records. These opportunities helped Roopa develop a vocal style separate from Karnatik music.

At Stanford, Roopa studied biology as an undergrad and psychology/neuroscience for her Master’s. Feeling compelled to make art a larger part of her life, Roopa went to India on a Fulbright scholarship to study advanced Karnatik music performance.

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Roopa hopes to push the envelope on the scope of Karnatik music application by exploring how its classical vocabulary and aesthetic richness (in concert with allied art forms like theater and bharathanatyam) might be used by diasporic communities as a tool to address issues of contemporary and cultural relevance.

While in Chennai, Roopa got the opportunity to engage her academic side in a public health context, and joined the Madras Diabetes Research Foundation. She investigated cardio-metabolic clinical risk factors, diabetes-elated health behaviors, and the efficacy of hospital health systems in urban Chennai. Coming to understand how diabetes and cardiovascular disease are escalating in the developing world has motivated her to work on these issues in the American context, especially as issues of chronic disease management, health IT/quality, and cultural competency feature in the domestic health reform agenda.

“I have seen how the worlds of art, health, and community intersect and that drives my pursuit of these seemingly disparate worlds,” say Roopa. The balance between music and a career in healthcare is something Roopa views as fundamentally important to her worldview. “Many young desis have to juggle multiple identities, demands, and expectations and have found ways to do it. South Asians are in every field imaginable these days, so don’t let cultural pressures/stereotypes/norms stop you from doing what you want to do.”

Growing up in the Bay Area, Roopa came to appreciate the diversity that was around her. She seeks this kind of diversity wherever she goes—in friends, in mentors, in art, and in her approach to life.

What’s next on the cards for this multi-faceted young lady? “I would like to engage in art projects that have more of critical, political lens to them. I want to get better at writing original material and composing, eventually putting together a theatrical/dance/music production.”

Sujatha Suresh has also chosen the path less trodden. She has successfully started and run two companies while being a hands-on mom and wife. Sujatha is President and Founder of Xumri Group a global conduit between India and the United States and the CEO and Founder of Akaar Events, an event management and planning company.

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