On Closure, Moving Forward and Memoir: An interview with Joya Dass

Joya Dass is the CEO of LadyDrinks, a networking platform for South Asian women executives and entrepreneurs, and a well known TV personality. But much more than that, she is a woman who has risen stronger from a childhood spent in the shadow of domestic abuse. As she finishes her memoir, she took time out for a candid interview with Pooja Garg, Founder Editor of The Woman Inc.

PG: I want to start with asking about your memoir. Tell us more about that.

JD: Women today are redefining what it means to be powerful. Some of the most successful women in the world are powerful because they either survived extreme trauma or violence and/or risen up against extreme partriarchal abuse and power.

My story is both.

I grew up in an immigrant home, where my father used to beat my mother mercilessly. My brother is a five time federal felon.  We lived on credit cards and fumes. Cars were towed away in the middle of the night. College bills went unchecked and unpaid. Our saving grace was an aging great uncle who gave up his life to live with us. The Perfect Indian Daughter is a memoir. It shares how I went from a broken home to becoming a news anchor in New York City.

This book isn’t a ‘how-to’ to finding influence, success, and power. I am simply sharing my personal story.

The book begins on September 11th, 2001. It was my first week at CNN. I was going to be on national TV. Becoming an anchor was my dream since I was four years old.   Each chapter will begin with a moment from this day, but flash back to a seminal moment in my life. How did I get here? 

 The epilogue shares the station I occupy today. I have left my television life to helm a global network of South Asian women executives. I lead with my own value system. I built a support system in the absence of family. Now my hope is to build one for my women peers –and get them there faster.

PG: Why do you think this is a good time for you to write a memoir? 

JD: I gave a TedxTalk in November 2013 on the topic of “Re-thinking Failure.” The beats of the talk were how I faced failure at several turns in life, and how I persisted in realized my dream of becoming a TV anchor. A literary agent was in the audience, and she approached me afterwards. “You should write a book” she said. She walked me through the memoris that were current best sellers to see what the market was demanding. I sat on it and did nothing. I didn’t think anyone wanted to hear my story. Plus, what would I say that would fill an entire book? 

In 2017, my television agent approached me and said “You should write a book.”  He drafted up a contract and connected me to someone who would walk me through writing the book proposal. I sat on it and did nothing. I still didn’t think I had anything to say that anybody would read.

Now that I am eight years into running my women’s movement, I DO have something to say. I wouldn’t be standing here today without having installed strong men and women who believed in me as my support systems in the absence of family.  I wish to build those for other South Asian executive women. By hosting events, I’m putting women in the same room with people who already get the cultural hurdles we are up against. Can we get to the deeper and professional conversations quicker? Can we be support systems for one another. Writing this book is important now becuase it informs why I do the work I do today.

PG: Memoir writing would mean one has moved away from those moments / parts in one’s life. Enough to now be able to look back and reflect on them. Have you been able to look back? Have you been able to let go? 

JD: What I learned from my journey is that so much trauma is recorded in the subconscious mind. Left unchecked, life continues on autopilot. The themes that plagued my childhood” I’m not worth investing in” or “I’m not worthy of being treated well”–would have continued to play out in my life unless I made a drastic and intentional change.  Today, I say affirmations daily that are the polar opposite of statements like this. And I’m reaping the benefits of that practice.

PG: Letting go or closure also means one is ready for new beginnings. Are there any new beginnings? Things you didn’t feel ready for earlier but feel ready now? 

JD: I’m a big fan of “The Law of Attraction.” Our job in life is to feel good. To feel joy. When we feel depressed, angry, sad, we are blocking all the good things we want from coming into our lives. Those things just can’t manifest. 

I left my childhood home because I wanted better for me, even though I didn’t know what better was. I was too young at 18 years old to understand. I just knew I had to leave and not meaningfully return. 

Today, I understand that if I didn’t feel good or happy on a daily basis, none of the things I wanted could ever manifest. 

PG: I read that you were raised in a house where you witnessed domestic violence. How did it impact you? Do you still sense that impact on you? 

JD: I won the spelling bee in eighth grade and went to the Scripps Howard Nationals in Washington DC.  The whole experience was a blur. I remember getting up for the third round. “Myrhhed. The adjectival form of the word Frankincense and Myrrh.”I didn’t know the word and my panic rose in my throat. “To be myrhhed is to be tainted with a perfume the three wise men brought to the baby Jesus.” I’m a Hindu. I had no idea what that meant. 

“M-U-R-D,”I said, my voice quivering. 

“Incorrect!”the judge yelled.

I clambered off the stage and searched for my parents in the crowd. When I finally found them, they reeked of disappointment. I meekly sat down next to them.  

Later, my mom would tell me that my dad was filming my loss with his video camera. When I misspelled “myrhhed,”he put his camera down in his lap. Later, he played that video of me failing over and over on the big screen TV in the basement. He would turn the volume up loud enough so that I could hear it from the second level of the house, nestled with my Barbies in my pink room. “M-U-R-D” I would hear my little voice say. “Incorrect!”the judge bellowed. Then nothing. Over and over. I pleaded with my mother to make him stop. But she was as much a rag doll in his hands as I was.

Today, one of my favorite books is by a scientist named Trevor Blake. He was born into poverty in Wales. His father was an alcoholic. His mother died of cancer when he was young. As an adult, Trevor went on to build several $100 million dollar companies. He wrote a book called “Three Simple Steps.” Step 1 was that he built a mental shield around him to insulate himself from his father and the pain of his mother dying. I realized that I had become a master at doing this as well. My mantra was always to keep moving forward. Insulate. Protect. Keep moving forward.

PG: If this had not happened, who do you think you would have been?

JD: If I had not built a strong impenetrable mental shield around myself, I would have never realized my goals. I wouldn’t have created the space for them to manifest.

I would have forever been reacting to my world from a place of anger.

PG: Witnessing this at such close quarters, how did it affect your adult relationships?

JD: For a long time I was replicating the dynamic between my mother and father. I didn’t date men who hit me. But I made decisions to be with men who treated me ‘less than.’ My friends were growing weary of seeing me toggle in and out of these relationships and seeing me the pain. 

In 2010, my friend suggested I enroll in a womens’ empowerment class taught by Jennifer Macaluso Gilmore. It was the first time I learned a blueprint for a relationship. I learned how  important it is to always put our own care and well being first. It’s important to fill up our cups daily. This is not our partner’s responsibility. We should ask for what we want in a relationship and not set up the other party for failure. That class was an inflection point. I remember taking a good long break from dating. I learned to love my own company. And I learned to always love myself.

PG: What is your advice for women in domestic violence relationships? 

JD: Ask for help. Having the courage to ask for help is an important first step. 

PG: Other than getting out of it, what would you say is the best thing a mother facing domestic violence could do for her children?

JD: Talk to them. See beyond what they want and anticipate what they need. Ask them how they are feeling. Are they uncomfortable. Spend time. Create space for important conversation to come up. 

PG: What is the most common reason you think women decide to stay on these relationships? 

JD: Visas. Money. Children. 

PG: What do you think can have the biggest or the quickest impact in these women’s lives?

JD: When you are on the other side, tell your story. You never know when your story may provide a ray of hope to someone who is listening and give them the courage to ask for help/make a change.

PG: You have been very open about talking about the situation at home. Was there ever a time you did not talk about it? How has talking it out helped you?

JD: I have always talked about it. I gave a TedxTalk on it. I have given magazine interviews on it. I have talked my way through therapy for years. I do not believe in bottling this much dysfunction up. 

PG: You are a TV host, a community leader, an entrepreneur who founded LadyDrinks. Tell us about your journey so far.

JD: LadyDrinks was a by product of a production company I had launched in 2012. My business partner Greta had started LadyDrinks in Toronto as a means for women in film and television to network and get jobs. When she moved to New York and we formed Avenue Media, we began hosting LadyDrinks events as a business development exercise. 40, 50, 300 women were showing up to the events. I was overwhelmed. But I also recognized that I was in a place of responsibility. I didn’t want women to come together and just have drinks. I wanted to create programming and teaching moments. I wanted to anchor each event in a shared experience, so even the most timid of networkers would have something to talk about.

PG: How has LadyDrinks evolved over the years? What is the big difference you note from when you started it to now?  

JD: In the early days, LadyDrinks was an experiment. The events were free. We arranged to have space at a bar and folks turned up. When I saw the response to the events began toggling to 300 women, I thought, why not create programming? Why not start to interview some of the business leaders I’ve interviewed in my television career in front of this audience, eager to learn? 

The most important thing for a woman to do is to put value on her time. That’s when I started charging for the events, to cover on costs such as venue, photography, food, drinks.   Today, LadyDrinks is 8 years old. There is a formal membership with over 1800 women on the listserv. I host events four or five times a month. I’m hosting events in different cities and different countries. The five year goal is to host an event in every major city.  The network only grows in depth and breadth by expanding beyond New York City. 

PG: Which of these roles do you like the best and why?

JD: I’m always dreaming up events. The more ‘out of the box’ it is, the better. I loved producing the skydiving retreat with a female pro sky diver. I was curious to see who would show up. I was curious to see what else became possible for the women after doing something so outside their comfort zones.

I enjoy connecting women where I see synergies and hearing later about their runaway successes. 

I enjoy telling stories. Whether its a Misty Copeland and her journey to becoming the first African American principal dancer for the American Ballet Theater or an attendee’s climb to becoming a cosmetic dentist in a country she had only dreamed of. I really enjoy having the license to tell these stories and tell them well. 

PG: Which is your latest read and how did you like it? 

JD: I recently read Michael Walker’s book ‘Why We Sleep’ for my female leadership book club. It revolutionized my thinking about sleep. I also shudder to think about how much learning and processing I shorted myself by NOT sleeping for all those years of doing the early morning news and getting by on 4 hours of sleep.

PG: If there were three lessons that you could pick from these roles, what would they be?

JD: Before green-lighting an event, have a marketing strategy. Lay important ground work and do critical thinking about how you will fill the room. Put aside a budget for it.

Be intentional about your own networking. It’s easy to going to networking events everyday. But are the folks in the room going to move the needle forward on your top 2 goals?

In the marketing collateral, I always publish an event timeline, outlining the run of show for the evening. I want to manage my speaker’s expectations. I want to manage my audience’s expectations. In the marketing, I delineate what the takeaways will be. Tell your audience why they should be spending time at your event versus another?

PG: What is the one question you get asked the most and what is your answer for it? 

JD: How can I get on TV? The industry has changed so much since I started in 1997. All the tools you need to build a Youtube Channel, or a blog are at your fingertips.  What are you an expert on? Commit to generating content about that everyday. If you can demonstrate that you have a substantial following, the press will come find you.

PG: If there was one thing you would like people to know about you, what would that be?

JD: I am always on time, if not early. I believe in respecting other people’s time, my customers’ time by creating a timeline and sticking to it. 

PG: What are the three pieces of leadership/ entrepreneurship advice you would give to women? 

JD: When cold emailing connections, sponsors and mentors, be specific about your ask and what you would like to do with their time?  I get requests for coffee, without this level of specificity.

Enlist allies from the very first day you take a seat at a job. Don’t be afraid to establish win-win relationships. 

Learn to tell your own story. We have three brains. Each serves a different function. When you tell a compelling story, it engages all three brains. 

Find out more about Joya Dass and LadyDrinks.

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