The Single Desi – Joya DassBy Monica Marwah • Aug 2nd, 2012 • Category: 24/7 Talk is Cheap - The Blog
The Single Desi Experience
14 Questions for Joya Dass
Keep your life in a positive perspective. We are not defined by our pasts.
Three words come to mind when I think of Joya Dass – Strong, independent, and inspirational. Joya has an amazing story that can really inspire and lead a generation of hardworking, fiery, and single women who have dreams but are unsure of how to pursue those dreams. By weekday, Joya Dass assumes her business news avatar and delivers reports every hour from the New York Stock Exchange and the Nasdaq for NY1 and CNN. By weekend, she’s talking entertainment as host of the popular Saturday morning show AVS.
She is also co founder and principal of Avenue Media, a production company dedicated to creating video with a cause. Joya and partner Greta Knutzen are currently producing a series of mini documentaries for the Rockefeller Foundation, as it approaches its centennial year.
As a first generation immigrant, what was your childhood like?
My parents moved to America from Calcutta and Myanmar in the late 60’s when the immigration laws changed. In body, they inhabited Anytown USA. In mind, they were perpetually frozen in 1969 India. Both were simply unable to grasp the concept of raising “American” children. I liken it to the pilgrims’ quandary when they arrived on our shores. I recall telling my mother about women in India having children out of wedlock. She was like “NO. That does not happen.”
Pick up a newspaper dude. It does.
Age 11 was a big year for me. I morphed from girl to woman– precocious in both body and mind. “NO”s were regularly leveled at me, mainly because I was a girl.
“No you can’t go to the movies with your friends.”
“No you can’t join chorus. ”
“No you can’t be a cheerleader. ”
“No you can’t date boys.”
Over time, I became a very defiant child, pledging to leave my home the minute I turned 18. To some parents, that is an idle teenage threat. My parents didn’t know what they were dealing with. I meant business. I yearned desperately for a shot at being ‘normal.’ Whatever that was. It was going to the Dairy Queen for ice cream, and talking about the latest in the series of Francine Pascal’s “Sweet Valley High” books.
At 11, I also knew I wanted to be a journalist. Daily, I would sit in front of the TV when the evening news came on. I’d sit with a wad of papers, mimicking Tom Brokaw’s scripts and move my jaw in unison with his words, judicious in his pronunciation of every syllable. At 11, I also knew something wasn’t right in my house. Women had no voice and no say over much, whether it be friendships, money, bills, or even how they were treated.
We were objects to be controlled, in many instances, with physical violence.
What was the best day of your life?
I remember hosting a huge fashion show fundraiser in April 2010. All proceeds would go towards the editing of my first social justice documentary.
4 sustainable designers were in the lineup.
36 models. Half male. Half female.
8 hair and makeup artists.
Dressers. Interns. 3 PR people.
All carefully handpicked and curated by me.
I had spent day and night, working tirelessly on this event for months. There was a staff of countless. Stuffing gift bags, minding food, drinks. The silent auctions. All the wheels were in motion. All the models were done and ready to go.
Rows of chairs were set up, with writers from Vogue and Forbes Women. A riser full of photographers and cameramen waited at the end. The show was about to get under way. 300 people jammed the room.
The eerie calm before the storm had set in.
My best friend Jane turned and said to me, “Do you know any of the people in this room?” I shrugged, and responded “No.”
In my mind, I secretly mused at the power of good PR and all the months of working around the clock that led up to this moment.
The evidence was in front of me in this room full of people, stacked to the nines. If I could do this, I could pull off something even bigger someday. Just you wait.
For now —I’ll revel in this moment.
Who is the person that most influenced you and how did they impact you?
In the last few years, I was in a less than ideal-relationship. In some ways, I was playing out the only blueprint between a man and a woman; I had gleaned while growing up.
I was in a lot of pain. My girlfriend suggested I take a women’s empowerment class, taught by someone named Jennifer Macaluso-Gilmore. This girlfriend had taken the class, and swore it changed her life.
The phrase “women’s’ empowerment’ is a tricky one. It normally conjures up images of lesbian couples pushing baby carriages or groups of women waxing at length about all the injustices men have done unto them.
Gilmore’s class was different. It taught the 16 women to take responsibility for the reasons their own relationships didn’t work. As the saying goes, “It takes two to tango.”
“Sweep your own side of the street,” Gilmore would preach. She talked at length about the history of woman-kind. Once upon a time, women were revered as goddesses and powerful. That was until a confluence of church and state decided to subjugate our status in the world. If the AMC show “Madmen” teaches us anything, we as women have spent the last 40 years digging out from underneath this pile of shit.
All of the women who matriculated from Gilmore’s program emerged saying the same thing. “It changed my life.”
I’d say my life has changed 2 years after I took the class. It took some time for all the thinking to settle in. For anybody who has been reaching for some direction, this is a dedicated three hours a week, devoted to understanding all self-defeatist patterns and how to be comfortable in one’s own skin. I now understand the importance of putting myself first. I now understand the importance of severing relationships that no longer serve me. I now grasp the real possibility of children, a good partner, and a rewarding career as a documentary filmmaker.
One of the three things has already transpired.
What was the worst thing that ever happened to you?
When I arrived to register for classes at my private college. Second-semester sophomore year, I was dismayed to learn that my parents had not paid for the previous semester. And they failed to pay for the current one. (Bucknell University cost a heady $16K when I started, and skyrocketed to $23K by the time I left.) Still bubbling from the elation of having left home, I bucked at the registrar’s mere suggestion of ‘going home’ till I sorted it out. They didn’t know the unstable cast of characters I was dealing with.
All the scholarships I had gotten to go to lesser schools (University of Pittsburgh and Penn State) had already been forsaken freshman year. As a family unit, we didn’t sit down and have critical conversations about money and affordability. I was packed off to a brand-name that earned people bragging rights at cocktail and dinner parties. Whether there was money in the kitty to comfortably afford it wasn’t anybody’s problem.
Emboldened by a need to stay as far away from home as possible, I began writing appeals for scholarships and financial aid. I was indefatigable in my letter writing campaign. Eventually, my plea was answered. One day, during sorority rush, I got a letter from an alumnus who established a fund for aspiring journalists. He pledged to fund 1/2 of my tuition. Financial aid from the state and government would cover a portion. I signed a contract with the devil, promising to defray the rest the second I graduated. My parents were effectively cut out of my life. I told them, they were never allowed to tell me to do anything every again.
I don’t have a problem with the concept of paying for my own education. I have a problem with folks who live beyond their means and lie about it.
I also think being first generation comes at a cost.
My parents made a quantum leap by immigrating to another country. But, I might say they gave up after this gargantuan maneuver. My father and I haven’t spoken since 1999. My mother and I no longer speak either.
Do you find it hard getting dates as an educated, successful desi woman? Are people intimidated by your beauty and success?
There is a two part answer to that question. I don’t have a problem getting dates. I take good care of myself. I am well-traveled and cultured. As a journalist, I’m trained to find common ground with anybody. I’m just as comfortable having beers at a dive bar, as I am having a $1000 a plate fundraiser dinner. I will say, it’s been hard to find the caliber of man I want.
In the last while, I’ve become very clear on what I want. There have been men keen to marry me that I have turned down because they didn’t fit that bill. There have been men, who I thought were perfect for me, who rejected me. That being said, I’m also not the traditional Indian girl. I’m very much a risk-taker. I’m aggressive. I’m curious about my environment and world I live in.
Some Indian men, who prefer the milk toast brand of woman, have had problems with me. Heck! Some traditional white men, who want the 50’s model of housewife, have been at odds with me.
Either way, I’m pretty sure, I’m on the verge of meeting the right one. I know I’m making better choices, and gravitating to kinder, gentler men.
As an adult, how would you describe your identity?
As I turn 40 this year, I’m more comfortable in my skin professionally and personally, than ever. I embrace every single one of my scars. They have made me who I am today. A few years ago, I was in an utterly heartbreaking relationship with a man who I thought was “It.” Thank goodness he wasn’t. I retreated for a long long time from dating. Re-galvanized. Healed up. And am dating again. I’m a firm believer in the fact that a lot of transformation comes from a lot of ruin.
Today I’m very strong. I’m confident. I’m beautiful. I speak my mind. I believe in asking for what I want, rather than secretly hope a partner will read my mind. If I wanted to go to the opera, and he got me tickets to a comedy club, I kinda set him up for failure, by not saying anything first. Right?
I have reconnected with my heritage and love being Indian. I still have my gripes with Indians being chronically late. Being in TV, I don’t’ understand it. But OK.
How has your past tumultuous family life influenced how you feel about family and relationships?
I think children are so beautiful. They are not accessories to trot out with the crumpets when guests are over for tea.
Kids need a lot of love. A lot of conversation. And a lot of time. If a person is not prepared to give any or all of it, it’s a shitty deal for all parties involved. I’m learning by observing my friends who are older parents. I elect to babysit their kids, so I can learn how to be around and care for children.
I also think family is where you make it. In place of my nuclear family, I’ve built an incredibly strong base of friends, who I talk to daily and hold me accountable. I check in with them when I get off or board a plane. If I was in trouble, I know who would get on the next plane to come rescue me. I rely on them. It’s from them I glean strength.
Would you like a family of your own?
Absolutely. But I don’t need the traditional model. I want a partner who is committed to the union. And dedicated to the idea of having a home, a kid, a dog, a brownstone on 76th and Central Park West, a summer home on the Costa del Sol In Spain. Otherwise, I’m flexible. (smiles)
No seriously. I am undoubtedly going to be an older parent. I hope for healthy children and a supportive partner to raise them.
If I have a girl, I’ll teach her to be strong, independent, and tell her that she can and deserves to have everything she wants. Just as much as a man. But just like anything else, she will have to work hard for things that are worth it in life.
If I have a boy, I’ll teach all of the above. And I’ll tell him to be kind to everything. The elderly….. The clerk at Home Depot…….Girls. ……Bugs.
I hope I will hold my tongue when either expresses the desire to go to the Congo and help the underprivileged. I’ll silently siphon more money into their emergency accounts. And make sure my passport is current.
Your biggest fear?
A life of mediocrity, devoid of travel and challenging work.
Tell us a little bit about your work with Sankara Eye Foundation
In the past few years, I shot and directed my first social justice documentary. “First Sight” is a 50 minute story following three children as they undergo critical and life-changing eye surgeries at a Sankara Eye Foundation Hospital in South India. It was surreal bringing 3 American guys and 1 Argentinian to Tamil Nadu. I was the only girl. I don’t think I ate dosa for a good year after our trip. But I loved the challenge. IT was the first I got to combine my work with a desire to be in India and travel.
The film made its grand debut in Tribeca in March, to all the friends and family who helped make it happen. It just screened at the Disney Theater in June. Now the foundation is organizing screenings in the UK, India and the Bay Area. The intention for “First Sight” was always to bring awareness to the issue of curable blindness in India, and the foundation’s pledge to eradicate the problem in the country by the year 2020. It’s also intended to be a fundraising vehicle, so Sankara can put one hospital in every single state of India.
Why did you choose that charity as opposed to others?
As with anything in India, it’s important to ally with the right people. I’m a very efficient person, both with my time and my resources. But getting things done in India in an efficient and timely manner has its challenges. We had 6 weeks of funding to get this movie done. I liked that Sankara was a well-oiled machine that had been in existence for a long long time. Founder Dr. Ramani was very responsive to any requests we made. Whether it was transportation, translators, a generator. With his and his team’s help, we were able to focus on the reason we came to India—to make a film.
How do you like living in New York City as opposed to Pennsylvania?
Judgey Indians and judgey people make my blood boil. And judgey people are everywhere. But I find comfort in the fact that I live in a city where anything goes. Black. White. Purple. (And I’m just talking about hair color.) All ethnicities. All types. If you want to get married 8 times or 2 times, you can. If you are 60 and want to date someone who is 20, you can. I love that I can have a conversation with someone about the merits of drinking a 2007 cabernet sauvignon or something banal such as the overload of traffic once the stadium goes up in Brooklyn.
What are some future projects that you are now getting involved with?
In the last few months, I’ve started my own production company Avenue Media (www.ave-media.com) with my partner Greta Knutzen. She brings to the table, a long history of producing Emmy-award winning documentaries for HBO, Discovery Channel and Nat Geo. Together we have formed this company with a view to keep creating video with a cause. Our intention is to do a women’s empowerment film, benefiting women in either Africa or India. Over time, it’s been such an important part of my own personal story. I really believe in it. If you’re reading this, and you are a mover and shaker in either of the spheres above, please contact me!
However, “It’s not enough to just create a pretty video,” as Greta would say, if she were sitting here answering your questions. We’re also partnering with analytics companies and organizations who study social behavior to place these videos smartly. Something like a KONY 2012 or Waiting for Superman became viral phenomenons for a reason. We’re putting this level of analysis and intention into each piece at the outset, so the embedded message is always transmitted.
What is the best advice you would give to your younger self who was struggling to make it at home, in school and in the world?
Julia Roberts, when she alights upon Florence in the movie EAT PRAY LOVE tells this anecdote.
“A man once pled with God, saying ‘Please God. Please God. Please God. Let me win the lottery. Finally God, exasperated with the repeated requests, replies ‘Please Son. Please Son. Please. Buy yourself a lottery ticket.”
Don’t ever wait for someone else to LET you do something. Or rely on them to make it happen. If you want something bad enough, go out and make it happen on your own. Always always always believe in yourself. IF you aren’t your biggest most ardent supporter, nobody else is buyin.’
And, just decide one day, JUST DECIDE—– that you are BEAUTIFUL!
Thank you Joya for this amazing, inspiring interview. I loved speaking with you and learning about what made you the strong, independent woman you are today.
(Monica Marwah is a 30 something single school psychologist who enjoys living life to the fullest. She is taking her experience and showing others how to believe in themselves and love themselves completely. After years of dating and meeting people, she has come into her own. Spirituality has been a foundation for self improvement for her and she is hoping to encourage people to embark upon a spiritual journey at this age.)