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South Asian Women in STEM to Walk the Ramp in New York City

5 min read

In a field where South Asian role models are lacking, pioneers like Joya Dass are bridging the gap between aspiring STEM students and seasoned professionals. With the first of its kind fashion show, Dass and her team add a twist to women working in STEM by giving them a ramp to showcase their beauty and talents outside of the laboratory.

We are a proud sponsor of the Stars of STEM fashion show—taking place on Thursday, June 25 at Rogue Space Gallery in New York City. Be sure to purchase a ticket and support the many role models shaping the future. A portion of the proceeds will go towards a scholarship to benefit a young woman aspiring to work in a STEM field.

(Side Note: BG Editor Kamini Ramdeen’s mom is one of the models walking the ramp. Read Zalini Bhagroo’s story here.)

Joya, you are, among many things, a journalist. A filmmaker. And the founder of this intriguing women’s networking group called LadyDrinks. What is LadyDrinks?

LadyDrinks is a women’s networking initiative based in New York City, where I work and have lived for the last 17 years. If I were to separate my brand of networking group from the sea of networking groups in the city, I would tell you that LadyDrinks works to champion the South Asian female entrepreneur or woman in corporate management. Many many other ethnicities come to our monthly events. But I couldn’t be everything to everyone. So, the South Asian female professional who is interested in her own self development and meeting other like-minded women is my target audience.

I Googled LadyDrinks. It looks like there is a chapter in Toronto, right?

In its original avatar in Toronto, my former business partner founded LadyDrinks as a means for women in film and TV to get jobs. In its New York iteration, it occupies a very different space in the world. I’m South Asian and have been on television for many many years. When I’m speaking at events, South Asian women come up to me and say ‘I grew up watching you!’ And now, they come to share that they too are doing something ‘outside the box’ or outside the traditional roles expected of Indian women.

How does it work? What’s happening as LadyDrinks turns three?

The business model is such that I host events each month. In its third year, we are ramping up to 2–3 events a month. Instead of standard drinks and chat, I’m hosting intimate 15 women dinners with a favorite author of mine, including Laura Vanderkam, who has written a series of books on time management including her latest ‘I Know How She Does It.‘ I’m also bringing ladies and supporters to film and theater engagements helmed by women directors, producers and actresses. Come July, I’ve teamed up with Bollywood choreographer Shiamak Davar to host a dance fitness class with one of his stateside instructors. I’m creating different modalities for networking, but the goal is always the same: To bring like-minded women together.

What’s been the most surprising thing you have learned?

We, as South Asian women lack accessible role models on how to run small businesses successfully. Accessible is the operative word there.

Don’t get me wrong. That is changing. My daily struggle is how can I get the people who need that business acumen in the same room with those who are making it happen. People are busy.

BUT — look I’m about to host an amazing fashion show on June 25th, with 16 South Asian women employed in STEM fields. I was inspired by my colleague Carrie Hammer, who annually hosts a runway show populated by role models versus traditional runway models.

As I learn each woman’s story, I’m finding that many had trailblazing mothers and grandmothers as role models, with PhDs and a different vision for their daughters. It was these women (and many fathers too) who spurred their daughters to become NASA Research Scientists. Electrical Engineers. Brain Coaches. Inventors. Creators.

[Purchase a ticket for the Stars of Stem Fashion Show on Thursday, June 25 here]
Oh! Tell us more about this fashion show?

For years, my friend and fellow lady entrepreneur Mitan Ghosh has asked me to host a fashion show. I didn’t have the bandwidth for it. Suggestions have also been made to host an event with women in STEM. Nothing came to mind.

After I attended Carrie Hammer’s last show in the summer, the idea gelled: Host a fashion show with 16 South Asian women, who are working in STEM fields and have them wear Mitan’s designs. They don’t work in traditionally glamorous fields. Jyoti Bali Sharma who is a systems engineer with Alcatel-Lucent said the other day, “The best part of being an engineer or being in a STEM field is you never have to wear makeup to work!”

So why not dedicate a day? An event? An evening to celebrating, illuminating, glamifying these women who already occupy the jobs of the future. Some 8 million jobs in STEM fields are expected to transpire by the year 2018. Let’s make a statement here, that young South Asian girls CAN and will occupy some of those jobs. And with grace. And aplomb.

How did you choose the 16 who are walking?

I didn’t want to be accused of playing favorites. So I created a process. I created an application process with exhaustive questions on Google forms and distributed it across social media, encouraging women to apply to walk. I set a deadline for when those applications had to be turned in. I asked around and assembled an independent board of women who didn’t know my friend base or the women who traditionally attend LadyDrinks to adjudicate over the applications. As a group, we came up with the final list of 16.

And I’m so so proud of the list. I’m so proud of this event. As I edit and rollout the bios of each of the women daily, I’m in awe of what they have overcome to stand where they are today. My parents didn’t stand by me as I was architecting the dream of becoming a journalist. On balance, I’m in awe of the mothers, fathers, grandparents who stood by these women — stood up and for their dreams.

As a leader, how do you assemble a team and keep the team focused on the company’s mission?

I am always clear about my mission from the outset and I hopefully relay that to my team. I am clear about the mission of every meeting. I set an agenda. I stick to the timeframe we expected to be together. I’m clear. I’m direct. I always keep the bigger picture and endgame in mind. I’m mindful to keep the needle moving forward with what I ask of each team member. I don’t like to waste anybody’s time.

What is your biggest fear?

We have been preparing for months. As a team, we’ve anticipated every scenario. Accounted for every detail.

I guess I worry that people won’t come, or a role model may drop out last minute. Will I have enough money to pay for everything? Or we aren’t ready in time.

I dunno. I don’t want to put that energy out there.

Who is your role model?

I get asked that question alot. And I honestly don’t have an answer. I glean tips on efficiency, time management, being a better boss from men and women around me everyday. I learned how to be a better listener from the chat help line for Sprint the other day. I learned how to be a better time manager from reading books by author Laura Vanderkam. I learned that the answers to the tough questions are all inside me, if I just take the time to investigate it as Trevor Blake advises me to do in his book Three Simple Steps.

[To learn more about the 16 models being featured at the show next week, read Joya Dass’ Storify post!]
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