Desi aunties take the stage at SXSW

At a panel last month, I had the rare chance to get real about what it's been like building a media career as a South Asian woman

I have a close group of female friends who, like me, grew up in traditional, immigrant South Asian homes. Over the years, we have spent countless hours connecting and commiserating about our shared experiences and challenges, whether that is in our personal lives, our careers, or the messy ways that the two intersect.

Having grown up in highly patriarchal structures where women are raised to serve men, we have struggled to carve out space for professions while getting married, having kids and meeting cultural expectations. At the same time, we are often in uncharted territory at work, without the role models or connections that can be so helpful in advancing careers.

It's only recently that some of us have started to wonder whether this is a conversation that needs to happen more publicly. Last year, my longtime friend Safiya, a very accomplished political consultant who recently made partner at her firm, suggested we pitch a panel to SXSW on what it's like being South Asian women rising in the ranks of careers that are unconventional for our community. She roped in our mutual friend Zabina, who left medicine to launch a business focused on diversity education, In Kidz.

This inkling of an idea involved into the panel, "Not Your Typical Aunty: The Brown Womxn Revolution," which we presented in Austin last month.


Ambreen and Safiya, excited to be at SXSW!

Before we took the stage, we were sitting in a green room with speakers from another panel. They asked about our topic, and I began to explain that, as Desi women, we face unique challenges in the workplace and are often unable to bring our full selves to work. One of them narrowed her eyes, asking, "How exactly are you not allowed to bring your diversity to work?"

My co-panelists and I launched into a defensive song-and-dance that she listened to halfheartedly before excusing herself from our conversation. It was just the kind of undermining I had encountered over and over in my career, an outright dismissal or disregard for my lived experience, as if I was a toddler throwing a tantrum rather than a grown adult trying to help others better understand what it feels like to be in my shoes.

In the end, our session went wonderfully. We talked about being raised to become doctors, lawyers and engineers, and why we pivoted into careers in media, politics and entrepreneurship. We discussed being the only people of color in newsrooms and board rooms, and feeling insecure about whether we belonged. We shared how we overcome those challenges, why building a network of supporters has been so important to each of us. The audience was very engaged with our conversation, and a long line of mostly Desi women queued up to share the similar challenges they have faced and seek our advice.

"I've never been to a panel like this at a conference before, and I want a panel like this every conference I attend from here on out. It's fantastic," one of them said, before asking a question about "well-intentioned allies" and how much work we as South Asian women should do in trying to help others understand us.

Later, I thought about that woman in the green room, and I realized that she is not my audience. This is not a conversation for her, or for everyone. It's for people who have sat on the margins a long time, waiting for their turn to speak. It's time.

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The lonely road for South Asian women in leadership

SXSW panel

On March 11, I spoke on a panel at SXSW about being a South Asian woman in media. My co-panelists, Safiya Ghori-Ahmad, senior managing partner at McLarty Associates, and Dr. Zabina Bhasin, CEO and founder of In Kidz, shared their perspectives from building careers in politics and entrepreneurship. Here are a few highlights of what we discussed:

On breaking away from traditional careers

Safiya: Growing up, my parents were like, "Doctor, lawyer, engineer: choose one." So I went to law school. I had no idea what I was doing. It was a post-9/11 world, and for those of us who are Muslim, that was a real formidable experience. I wanted to understand the Constitution, support the community, be a civil rights lawyer. Law school did not train me to be a civil rights lawyer, so I really struggled. After I came out, I moved to DC, and I worked in government for almost 10 years. I worked on policy, and then I kind of stumbled into this career that I have right now. I had no idea that consulting and what I do, which is to help companies grow and expand overseas in new markets, even existed. I took the job and thought, I’ll do it for a couple years. I'm not gonna be good at it. I'll just see how it plays out. And I really loved it.

On being the brown girl in the newsroom

Ambreen: When I started as a political reporter in DC, my editor was a white man who reported to a white man who reported to a white man who reported to the Economist in London, which is a newsroom full of white people. I share that because, when I was young, I didn't really think that I fit in as a journalist. English was my second language. I had this imposter syndrome. I didn't grow up in a house full of bookshelves, and I wasn't reading the Bible and Greek mythology or whatever it is that writers do in America. Every day, I'd walk into that newsroom feeling like I didn't belong there. And so I never really showed my true colors. I never showed people who I was and all the perspectives that I could bring. It took me 15 years of doing this job before I was like, “Well, why? We need to tell our stories. Our stories are part of the American fabric too.” I think what's exciting is, in this current moment, you see that starting to happen, you see the space opening, and the stories are exciting and more people have more things to say about what it feels like to be American.

On competing with one another

Zabina: We need to have more collaboration over competition, because we're only going to uplift one another if we do that. If we're still competing against one another, we're never going to move to the next level. There's still this feeling of, “What are you going to give me if I do this for you?” Well, I don't need to do anything for you. I will still give it to you. My success will come from my giving. We still have this mentality of jealousy, and, "Look at her getting there" and, "How come she got to do that and I didn't get to do that." Well, work hard. You'll get there. Or talk to her and say, “Hey, how can I help you and you help me and we do this together?"

On the value of authenticity

Safiya: What I would tell my younger self is to just be authentic. I wish I had been more authentic throughout different phases of my career. I wish I had done it sooner. It's okay to be vulnerable. It's okay to sort of share our stories. It's okay to be honest. I think I hid so much of it to try to fit in: I spoke a certain way, I dressed a certain way, I tried to look a certain way because I thought that would make me successful. And I realized success really comes when you are completely honest with who you are and you're authentic.

I'll share a story: I was in Davos with the CEO of one of our companies, a poultry company. We were talking, so I mentioned, “You know, when my dad first came to America, his first job was collecting eggs with other laborers and he was a veterinarian. At the time, as an immigrant, he didn't have money. He came to America, he was collecting eggs out of the coop.” And he looked at me, and everybody was just like, “Oh my god, she said that?” But he said, “My first job out of school was deboning chickens. And now I'm the CEO of the company.” Immediately, there was a bond. We connected, and every time we see each other, he asks about my parents.

On Central Desi

Ambreen: One of the things that I'm really excited about is the number of people who are breaking out on their own as entrepreneurial journalists. When it's your business, you get to do it the way that you know it should be and there's so much power in that. I have a newsletter in New Jersey, where I write about the South Asian community and it came out of me as a freelancer trying to write about this community and coming up constantly against editors who are like, “Oh, we already did that story because they like wrote about the community once,” or, “You know, like, does anybody really want to hear that again?” And I thought, maybe a story needs to be told about our community every day. I don't think you get to do it once and then decide you're done covering the South Asian community in New Jersey, right? And I think that opportunity to do it your own way and then getting that seat where people have to listen is so powerful.

On the end game

Ambreen: This is where the aunty piece of it comes in for me: I get so excited when a young person wants my advice. I met all these people over years and years and years of knocking on that door and being like, “Could you let me in?” If I can just crack that door open for you, so it's a little bit easier, we are all going to win, right? The end game here is for our voices to be louder. The end game is for us all as a community to be more visible. It's not a competition. We're out there trying to lift our people, and we have to do it together.

These comments were edited and condensed. Share your thoughts on this discussion by replying to this email or commenting on Instagram.

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