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.
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.
January 16, 2023January 16, 2023 6min readBy Sejal Sehmi
I was a mere 14-year old on the fateful night of 22 April 1993. The night that witnessed black teenager Stephen Lawrence brutally murdered in a racially motivated attack as he waited for a bus. The night that cemented my fear, that the colour of my skin does matter. The same night that confirmed my indifference as a British Asian in the United Kingdom — were we really united? Fast forward to May 25 2020, the murder of African-American George Floyd by a white policeman was the turning point for British Asian author and my lovely friend, Shweta Aggarwal to finally break her silence and narrate her story of colourism, in her new book, “The Black Rose.”
Aggarwal’s gripping memoir emits so many emotions; that of an awakening, a voice that has been suppressed for years, filled with anger, mistrust and guilt. But most importantly, “The Black Rose” successfully disrupts the narrative that consistently allows society to box someone as indifferent based on a visibility factor. For Shweta, this factor was the colour of her skin. The injustices she consistently endured via some family members and fellow South Asian peers throughout her life, was as a result of her skin tone failing to qualify as ‘acceptable’, or as she often quotes in her book, not ranking high enough on the ‘fairometer.’ Whether she was in India, Japan or London, the scale was never too far behind.
Within the first chapter, she recalls as a child in India, the distinct lack of subtlety displayed by certain family members through direct taunts of her duskier appearance in comparison to her parents. She realised that she wasn’t in complete isolation from this prejudice, as her maternal aunt and uncle were also harshly nicknamed on the basis of their skin colour — Kaali (black) and Savla (wheatish). Aggarwal was left mortified by what many South Asians sadly still continue to casually exercise. Echoing similar incidents within my social proximity, it’s infuriating witnessing the recipients of such remarks surrender to laughing at themselves too.
Except it isn’t funny. Born into a culture where conversations on religion, caste and hierarchy in India are still so prominent, the comparison of Aggarwal’s skin colour being as dark as that of the domestic help (often from poorer families), prematurely planted seeds in her mind that she simply didn’t belong with her family, especially when she was sent to boarding school. Her lack of self-worth coupled with these taunts, gave her a whole new vocabulary for the letter B, that grew in parallel with the ongoing prejudice and anxiety. B for blackie, beggar’s child, bedwetter! Not funny, but derogatory. Post her book launch that Brown Girl Magazine attended, she tells me,
I personally feel we are way behind when it comes to understanding the importance of mental health. Name-calling was normalised and if you objected, you were ridiculed further with remarks such as ‘So sensitive! Can’t you take a joke?’ Body and colour shaming can lead to a feeling of inadequacy in the victim, which can further lead to depression and much worse mental illnesses.
During the 1984 Hindu Sikh riots in India, where over 3000 Sikhs lost their lives, Aggarwal recollects the frightening moment when she and her classmates fled into hiding to escape the violence during a school trip. As a means to save all the students from harm, the Sikh boys were forced to remove their turbans and long hair — their visible identities stripped to keep them alive. Yet, ironically, even in this horrifying situation, Aggarwal felt least at risk, attributing this self-assurance to her darker appearance.
The crux of her self-loathe was the love-hate relationship she formed with skin whitening creams. The birth of Fair and Lovely, India’s most renown brand (now known as Glow and Lovely following a backlash) was notorious for selling the damaging message that fairer skin equated to a happier and fulfilling life. For it was fairer skin women that would qualify for marriage — clearly their only sole purpose!
Tactfully using famous fair-skinned Bollywood actresses in television ads and posters, their so-called perfection would scream out to vulnerable young girls. (Men were targeted much later on, but the importance seemed less). Akin to the wretched beach body posters plastered on every corner in January — because apparently bikinis only look good on a certain body type — the damaging message remains the same. Social acceptance comes at a cost, and that cost is to look a certain way.
It’s an extension of the dated methods imposed on women from the womb, where mothers are lectured on drinking milk with saffron to ensure the baby is fair, traditional matrimonial sites asking women to specify skin colour, and women being told to stay out of the sun. These socially ingrained views are eventually developed into modern day methods in the form of cleverly marketed consumables. Aggarwal admits,
Most people only use the cream on their face just as I did. At that time, I didn’t even think about the rest of the body. I felt that if the face becomes fairer, that will be enough for acceptance. My mum noticed the difference for sure and I was lighter by the time I met my husband, Amit. I must admit the addiction is a combination of three factors: the justification in your own head, the strong marketing message that ONLY fair is beautiful, and the ‘compliments’ from those around you.
I admired Shweta’s honesty on admitting what essentially was a dangerous obsession that she remained faithful to throughout her teenage and adult life. A ritual that, whilst prompted gradual results in her appearance, was never going to eliminate the insecurities she felt within herself. Moments of joy with her husband and children on holidays abroad, would be broken up by the need to ‘fix’ any damage the sun may have inflicted i.e. reverse her tan. The booming tanning industry in U.K., her now home, and admiration of her ‘sun-kissed’ look by Brits initially surprised Aggarwal — as if her colour had now gained acceptance.
But who are we seeking acceptance from? A society that is still deep rooted in patriarchy forcing women even now to adhere to dated rites of passage that holds no relevance? Or a society that seeks to point out one’s indifference because of how they look — their skin, their religious attire, their weight? Or a society that passes judgement on a woman’s self-worth, and continues to abuse that same woman behind closed doors under the eyes of Goddess Kali? Aggarwarl goes on to explain,
The more damaging perceptions of colourism, are that ‘fair is rich’, ‘fair is successful’ and ‘fair is better educated’. Essentially, ‘fair is supreme’ in every sense. And if that’s the case, where does that leave dark-skinned people? In Ukraine, for example black and brown people were discriminated against and not given a fair chance to save their lives. Is it fair to be denied a basic human right — survival — based on your colour?
I personally was curious to know from my family what the definition of prejudice in the Hindi vocabulary is and how it is/was applied to in India. “Pakshappat” (taking sides) or “poorva dhaarna”, were the closest pure Hindi definitions known to my cousin, yet rarely used. However, my dad stated that “hum bedh bhau nahin hai” was the common term used to state amongst family and friends when someone was not biased and believed in equality. Somehow, colourism never really came under that category. A sentiment echoed by some of my Chinese and black friends . Even in parts of China and Africa, the belief that darker skin is perceived as inferior, is accredited to stereotyping certain groups of people as manual labourers working under the sun, and therefore of a lower class or caste. Does Shweta believe we can change this attitude?
A couple of my aunts are still reluctant to help me with my mission. One even said ‘it’s pointless fighting it’, while one said, ‘everyone has the right to define beauty for themselves and being fairer is what beauty is for some.’ The problem with this is that people then start to look down on people who aren’t. Colourism, casteism and classism divide people, creating more unrest in society. If we continue to aspire to be fairer, we’re still encouraging white skin privilege, and encouraging colonial values. The more we allow ourselves to succumb to these social constructs, the more enslaved we feel internally. Melanin is crucial for protecting our skin against the harmful radiation of the sun. Feel blessed that you have it and wear it with pride!
I wonder how we can dare to walk shoulder to shoulder with our black friends in the Black Lives Matter movement, if we refuse to face up to our own biases against colour? We seek equality in the U.K., but deny our deep-rooted prejudice, whilst a white privileged man lectures the world on the difference between racism and unconscious bias (yes Prince Harry, I’m looking at you!). “The Black Rose” has paved a way for many more voices to speak out against the damaging impact of colourism, and in my view, rightly belongs under the definition of prejudice in the collective South Asian vocabulary.
“The Black Rose” is available to purchase on Amazon.
Indian-American commercial real estate and land consultant Anita Verma-Lallian launched Camelback Productions at an event held in Paradise Valley, Arizona, Jan. 7. Billed as the state’s first women-and South Asian-owned film production and entertainment company, it will focus on South Asian representation and storytelling, according to a press statement issued by Verma-Lallian. The announcement follows “Arizona Governor Doug Ducey’s $125 million film tax credit for film and TV production that was introduced in July 2022, “ the statement added.
The Jan. 7 private launch party and meet and greet introduced investors and supporters to what’s ahead for Camelback Productions.
Noting the “major push to see minority groups represented in the media over the past few years,” Verma-Lallian said she wants to see more South Asians represented. “I want my children to see themselves when they watch TV. I want my daughter’s dream to become an actress to become a reality. Skin color shouldn’t be a barrier to that.”
The event opened with remarks from Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego, who has served as the city’s 62nd mayor since 2019. She welcomes the company to “the greater Phoenix community.” She expressed confidence that “the team will attract some of the country’s top talent to the Valley.”
Guests at the event included actor and comedian Lilly Singh, actor Nik Dodani, Aparna of Netflix’s “Indian Matchmaking,” Bali Chainani and Anisha Ramakrishna of Bravo’s “Family Karma” fame, and Paramount+ executive P. Sean Gupta, to name a few.
The company is Verma-Lallian’s first venture into the film industry. She is known for providing full concierge services for land seekers and developers of all types of sites and assists investors in discovering viable properties in the Phoenix area through her company, Arizona Land Consulting, the statement added.
Named in honor of the iconic Camelback Mountain in the Valley, Verma-Lallian says she wants her production company to have the same indestructible foundation. Camelback Productions plans to begin its first project later this summer.
Weddings, huh? Talk about a stress fest. And for the bride, it’s like a 24/7 walk on eggshells. However, add in a paranoid and overprotective sister, and you’ve got a recipe for a completely different degree of drama. In “Polite Society,” Ria Khan (Priya Kansara) and her gang of clumsy pals take the phrase “till death do us part” to a whole new level as they plot to “steal” the bride — aka Ria’s own sister, Lena (Ritu Arya), during her shaadi reception. But with a wedding hall packed with guests, a mother-in-law from hell, and a groom with more shades of fraud than a rainbow, this heist is anything but smooth sailing.
It goes without saying but “Polite Society” comes with a cast of wacky characters, gut-busting one-liners, and an action-packed heist sequence, making it a must-watch for anyone who loves a good comedy. I mean who hasn’t dealt with some serious wedding drama, am I right?
Lead actress Kansara agrees wholeheartedly. “I definitely have!” she chuckles, as I catch up with her at Soho Hotel in London. Despite the rubbish weather outside, Kansara is a ray of sunshine with her infectious enthusiasm.
The minute I read the script, I thought to myself…wow, playing Ria is going to be one wild ride!
And wild is definitely the right word to describe her character. Ria is a British-Pakistani martial artist-in-training from London, determined to become a professional stuntwoman. Her sister, Lena, who dropped out of uni, often ends up being the guinea pig for filming Ria’s stunts for YouTube, including one lovingly dubbed “the fury.” She reveals
I’d never done martial arts before this film. The stunt training started from the day I got the role, and it was three to four times a week all the way until we finished filming. It was a seven-week period in total, and boy, was it physically demanding. Oh my God, I think I can add a whole new skills section to my CV! But on a serious note, it was so much fun and we had an amazing stunt team. They, including my stunt double, taught me so much. It was important to me to do my own stunts as much as possible, but also strike a healthy balance.
For South Asian women, who are often expected to be quiet and agreeable, all that punching and kicking on set must have been cathartic, right?
Honestly, it was like anger management at work! I got to kick and throw things around — it was the perfect balance.
What sets Kansara apart from other actors starting out in the industry is her ability to draw from her own life experiences to bring authenticity to her characters on screen. Her career began with a degree from UCL and a communications job at a pharmaceutical company. But today, her versatile range and unwavering commitment to her craft have propelled her to the forefront of British comedy, portraying defiant South Asian women we’d love to see in real life.
From my own experience as a South Asian woman, I’ve always been told to do what’s ‘proper’ and think twice before speaking up. Playing a character like Ria and putting myself in her shoes, I felt like I was doing and saying things that I wish I had done at her age. It was almost like living through her and speaking my mind about things I never did.
Without a doubt, every South Asian woman on this planet wishes she cared more about herself and less about what other people think.
Ria totally inspired me. If only I had her mindset when I was younger, my career path would have taken off way sooner instead of worrying about other people’s opinions.
The chemistry between the cast members on and off-screen is so apparent, especially the sisterhood between Ria and Lena. The wild adventures of a bride, and her paranoid maid of honour navigating through family drama, are bound to create some unforgettable moments on set.
We both confess our love and admiration for Nimra Bucha’s portrayal of Raheela, Lena’s evil mother-in-law and share a teenage fangirling moment:
I’m obsessed with that woman. There’s something terrifying yet ultra sexy about her character in “Polite Society” that’s mesmerising. I absolutely loved the dance sequence. As South Asians, we’ve all grown up watching Bollywood films and idolising Madhuri Dixit’s iconic dance moves. “Polite Society” gave me my Bollywood heroine moment, and it was a dream come true with the costumes and jewellery.
It’s definitely a unique experience for Kansara, considering her former career was worlds apart from entertainment. So, what advice does she have for aspiring actors who may secretly wish to pursue the same path, but are unsure of the next steps? Kansara advises, drawing from her character’s heist-planning skills.
I believe starting small and honing your craft is an underrated superpower. If you’re passionate about acting, make short-form videos, and build your portfolio. You never know who might be watching.
So, grab your popcorn and your sense of humour, and get ready for “Polite Society” — the film that proves that sometimes, the most polite thing to do is kick some butt and save the day. It released in cinemas on April 28th, and I highly recommend it.