TWI Woman of Substance – Neha Mahajan

As immigrants to the United States, many of us can identify with the difficulties to assimilate into a new country. In addition, spouses on an H4 visa with work restrictions feel the pinch even more as they struggle to come to terms with their new identity and their diminished sense of purpose. We need spokespersons to highlight this and many other issues faced by the South Asian population, and who better than a TV producer/anchor? Let’s meet one such journalist who has come up the hard way, no shortcuts involved. In conversation with Neha Mahajan.

AM: Hi Neha, and welcome to the TWI Woman of Substance series! Let’s start with your background, where you’re from and your educational qualifications.

NM: Thank you for this opportunity! As far as my background, I’m originally from Delhi, but am now a Jersey girl for the past several years. I have a Masters in English Literature from Delhi University and also hold a certificate in Public relations from NYU-SCPS.

AM: Did you always want to be involved in media? How did you get into television as your chosen form?

NM: As a matter of fact, no one in my entire family till date is even remotely related to media. Ours is a family of accountants and my father retired as a General Manager of a big trading corporation under the Central Government of India and my mom is a homemaker. There weren’t many female role models for me, who were handling both home and career.

Media always fascinated me. I wanted to be out there, but was very shy and didn’t know who to ask for guidance. In fact, there weren’t many media schools back then and media as such, had just started to boom in India. As luck would have it, I chose to continue my education in English Literature after having failed the entrance exams in the newly introduced Bachelor’s degree in Mass Communication at the University of Delhi.

It wasn’t until a conversation with a friend in a local DTC (Delhi Transport Corporation) bus that I got the idea of interning at a newspaper. Although internships weren’t allowed by our college and my request was turned down by the Principal back then, I still pursued it out of college hours. Soon, I was writing for The Pioneer and The Statesman, writing front page articles for Sunday magazine sections of The Statesman, on drag queens, on Sikhs from Afghanistan who settled in New Delhi etc. They were very well received.

The idea of working in television tickled my imagination when I met a television reporter at one of my reporting gigs and was intrigued by the whole idea of television reporting. My internship with The Statesman was over and soon I started to pursue television companies that would consider hiring someone like me.

AM: You have a diverse set of experiences that are very interesting. Tell us more about BAG Films. What were your responsibilities like and what part did you enjoy most of all?

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NM: I remember my first interview with BAG films and how I was grilled. Now, I was not technically trained as a television journalist, but I was a journalist nonetheless. I showed my prowess and was hired! I couldn’t believe it. Coming from a conservative Punjabi family where the only books that were read were religious ones, here I was making my mark in the field of journalism!

Soon I was traveling all over North India, covering feature stories, covering the International Film Festival of India, Fashion Weeks, general reporting and anchoring a show. I was doing it all. To my utter surprise my parents were absolutely appreciative and proud of the fact that I had made my mark! And I was excited for the life I had created for myself! The thrilling part was to get Press access to areas that were off bounds for general public. I even got away with a traffic ticket because of that press ID! The perks!

I remember spending hours on researching for my stories, working really hard day and night, spending close to 16 hours a day at work on most days. I had then transitioned into TV Today network which till date, is one of the most prestigious television networks in India. I was hired for their weekend programming team and was getting trained to be an anchor there, when life took a different turn. I got married and tried for a less challenging job, but I couldn’t do it because my heart was always into journalism!

AM: How did you then transition over into marketing? What would you say is your most salient achievement in that arena?

NM: When I came to the United States about 11 years ago, finding work in journalism especially with the local South Asian networks wasn’t easy, especially because I didn’t know how it all worked here. I soon found an opportunity to volunteer at a local film festival because of my understanding of how a film festival works. I had covered them in India for a few years in a row and would camp there for days. That experience came in handy. I soon started to work closely with their marketing team, and the director of the film festival, Late Sakti Sengupta was so happy with my work, he asked me to take over the entire marketing of the festival. Soon, I was traveling around the tristate area, wearing multiple hats; marketing and sales, raising funds, driving audience to the festival using social media campaigns and also being the sole point of contact for the press. I was featured in many a local newspaper, both South Asian and mainstream. It was during my time as a Marketing Lead at the festival that I studied at NYU SCPS to continue my education in the field of Public relations: strategy and execution.

I think the fact that I turned around the film festival that was almost on the brink of dying has been my biggest achievement.

AMSounds fascinating! Tell us more about this NJ South Asian CineFest.

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NM: The festival was one of it’s kind in the tristate area, especially because the intent behind the festival was purely the love of good cinema, and that’s why there wasn’t ever a mainstream ‘celebrity’ film that was featured at the festival. The programming team had the most grilling task of viewing 300+ entries from across the globe of works by and about South Asians, of unsung heroes and the underrepresented. It was because of the efforts of the festival director that one of the movies starting Farooq Sheikh and Shabana Azmi – Anjuman (1986) was revived from the archives and was brought to the festival! This movie was biting dust at FTII archives in India!

That was the kind of passion that we all shared about this festival. Sadly the festival was absolutely volunteer run and couldn’t be revived after the festival director was diagnosed with cancer.

AM: I notice that you then moved over into IT and HR. Why this change in scenery and what did you get out of it?

NM: I like to challenge myself.  The film festival went on a hiatus because the director of the festival passed away, and I was busy taking care of my two children, When the opportunity of becoming an account manager at a local IT firm came by, I decided to learn the tricks of the trade. The idea was to see how I could change the rhetoric around account management in an IT firm that is typically considered a boring job! With my experience, I was able to train their team to bring them up to speed.

AM: You are now into PR. How is it to be known as an opinion maker in some of the leading papers and media outlets in the country?

NM: I am Vice President for Skilled Immigrants in America and I help them with their media relations and also over all campaign strategy. So yes I do some PR for them.

It is important to have a voice and to be given a platform to share opinions. It’s also important to realize that representation matters, and that with voice comes great responsibility. I think immigration as such is such a big issue here in the US and people are typically divides on how they feel about it. So, it’s important to be able to show both sides of the same coin.

AM: Since I have met you, I have known that you are very passionate when it comes to immigration issues, especially those of Indian spouses who come on an H4 and cannot work. Why is it something you chose to focus on, and what changes have you been able to accomplish in this field?

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NM: I’ve experienced what it means to be on H4 visa first hand. It’s truly a golden cage for people who follow their spouses on a work visa to the United States. These spouses are equally or more qualified but the H1B visa is a lottery system and the strings are in the hands of the employer. Most often, either the employers don’t sponsor because of the cost associated with the visa processing or the luck doesn’t favor in the lottery. H4 visa holders don’t have work authorization in the US. It’s hard to imagine that in 21st century certain people – over 90% of whom are women, have to sit at home because US policies are against their work authorization. I often hear people ask why they can’t apply for work authorization, but there no simple answer to it. It’s a catch-22 situation. In my personal opinion work authorization must be a basic human right!

I was one of the folks who was instrumental in bringing awareness around this whole issue which resulted in the H4EAD. This work authorization came by after over a decade of advocacy by a lot of people and groups. It is given to only a handful of people who have already been approved for their Legal Permanent Residency by the Department of Homeland Security and USCIS. The problem is the Immigration system is not fair and that people who are invited to work in the US on the basis of their skills are allocated Legal Permanent Residency on the basis of their country of birth. Because of this the highly populated countries like India and China face the brunt. There is an estimated 150 year wait time for someone who gets approved for their Green Card today and was born in India, whereas most of the rest of the world gets their Green Card in an year, even though they came to US much later than others already in the queue. It’s unfair and wrong! In this wait, not all but only a few spouses are authorized to apply for H4EAD.

AM: What are the women’s issues that are closest to your heart? Especially those women who aren’t in a position to speak for themselves. What changes do you think you can effect in their lives?

NM: I think women are overly critical of themselves. Somewhere in the process of raising kids and handling family, especially here in the US where they may not have family support system in place, they tend to take a step back when it comes to raising their voices for issues that impact them directly. Like I mentioned earlier, work authorization should be a basic human right. Most often it’s the women who take a back seat in their careers or take up more flexible jobs, and this has an impact on their confidence and their ability to express themselves. The situation of immigrants in the US, especially for those who are on an H-4 visa is that they are devoid of a social security number and that they are dependent on their husband for something as basic as food, water and medicine even though they are equally or better qualified than their husbands. Until the time they realize what they’ve gotten themselves into (because US is still a land of opportunities to many!) it’s often too late to restart careers. Or else they are too unprepared to get back into the workforce. I’m very thankful that I’ve been able to express these struggles for many of these women out in mainstream media because mainstream America doesn’t know how archaic some of its laws are! On the one hand the US is a trend setter when it comes to women’s rights and gender equality, and on the other, it doesn’t treat its South Asian women immigrants very well.

AM: Tell us about your experiences at TV Asia and what programs you produce and host? What issues of the South Asian community in the US do you highlight?

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NM: I produce and host Center Stage on TV Asia. The show is an effort to debunk the stereotypes around topics that impact us all, but are ignored or shoved under the rug. There is a dire need for such conversation to start especially within the South Asian diaspora here in the US. We are changing and transitioning. The issues that affect mainstream America affect us too, differently.

One of the first topics that I covered was domestic abuse. The numbers of South Asians affected by domestic abuse is underreported, and like they say – see something say something. Some of the other topics I’ve covered are, Sikhs in Trump’s America, LGBTQ, consent, diet, racial divisiveness, career women and the support they get from families. The topics are regular topics that you may read or hear about but each topic is dealt with a South Asian angle. The idea is to create a debate, so that more conversations are brought about.

AM: Who would you say have been your greatest influences growing up and why?

NM: It’s not a who, but what – my experiences have been instrumental in making me the person I am today. I strongly believe that not one person can influence simply because everyone comes with both positive and negative attributes. I try to absorb all positive qualities from people. I’m always on the quest to learn and be a better person.

AM: Do you believe in stronger mentorship programs for women? Have you been a mentor or a mentee and how was the experience? What would you do to make these programs stronger?

NM: Yes! I definitely believe in stronger programs for women especially. I think women have to multitask much more. This is not to undermine the pressures that men have to face. In society, I think the nature of expectations from a women are entirely different. I often see supermoms around me trying to juggle it all, being the perfect wife, perfect mom, perfect daughter, perfect employee.. The whole notion of perfection needs a bit of change and I think that’s where mentor-mentee programs would help.

I personally haven’t been in any such program, but I can definitely see the kind of value it will bring, not just to the women involved but to everyone as a whole unit, when a woman is more focused and geared towards her goals.

I would love to share my experiences as an immigrant in this country with newer immigrant women who may be going through a tough time because of the change in demographics.

AM: Name 3 books/movies that have had the most impact on you.

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NM: Movies : Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron, Aandhi, The boy in the striped pajamas.
Books : Not without my daughter, A Thousand Splendid Suns, Becoming

AM: Tell us more about Radio Mirchi, and your involvement with it.

NM: Radio Mirchi is one of the biggest radio network for South Asians. There is a dearth of good radio channels here in the US. People typically listen to playlists on apps or YouTube. Since it entered the US market in Jan 2019, Radio Mirchi was a natural progression for me. Podcasts and radio are the way to reach the masses these days. It will definitely be a game changer for South Asian radio here. I cannot speak about my role just yet, but I’m sure many will resonate with the topics I choose and the way I present them. In a world of negative news that we see and hear all around us, this is a ray of sunshine is all I can mention at the moment. Stay tuned 🙂

AM: What are your future plans/dreams for yourself and for South Asian women living abroad?

NM: I want to write a book on my experiences as a girl from New Delhi, who landed in USA, and never stopped dreaming, It may sound cliched, but when life gives you lemons, please make a lemonade and drink it while on the beach, looking up at the sky. Things happen when you believe in them. I want more representation of South Asian women, and I want these women to help newer immigrants who may be confused and are trying to find their way around.

Neha, thank you very much for this interview and we at TWI wish you the best in all your endeavors!

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