Find people to be accountable to — At least I personally find it really, really hard to be accountable to just myself. Having the team there keeps me on track. Suddenly, I am not responsible for my own success and failure but also to those who believe in me and trust me. This increases the stakes substantially and pushes me a lot further despite what anybody else might say.
As a part of our series about “dreamers who ignored the naysayers and did what others said was impossible”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Anahita Dalmia.
Anahita Dalmia is a Narrative Studies major at the University of Southern California, a two-time published author and co-founder of the company Alterea (Yes, it’s a play on an Alternate Reality.) Alterea creates large scale experiences at the intersection of immersive theatre and interactive gaming that allows participants to enter a different world in which the can have agency and impact within an unfolding story. (www.altereainc.com) In her ‘free’ time, you are equally likely to find Anahita at a Forbes conference or exploring some secret underground tunnels.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know you’ a bit better. Can you tell us your ‘backstory’?
That’s a difficult question to answer, but I suppose I can start with the basics. I was born and raised in New Delhi, India with both my parents and two younger siblings who I adore. I moved to the States at 18 for college and I’ve been at the University of Southern California as a Narrative Studies Major (I literally study stories!) since. I have to admit, I’ve always been a little pre-occupied with fantasy. I was the kind of child who would read a book a day; I was glued to the television or some kind of gaming device; and later, I took theatre for 4 years in high school. My favorite pastime was imagining how things would play out if I was in those incredible situations myself, and I think that has been a large factor in how I live my life. I mean, firstly my business is all about removing that “what if” and putting people in the middle of an unfolding story. And secondly, I told my teacher when I was 12 years old that I wanted my life to be a “story worth telling” and I still find myself committing to that. I want anybody who opens the metaphorical “book” of my life to find value no matter what page they turn to. Whether it is because of a short but entertaining story like the time I crashed a wedding in my pajamas (It was a social experiment on bystanderism! I wanted to see if someone would have the guts to kick me out. They didn’t.) or the overarching journey of my life, which is an upward trajectory of establishing a new form of a story and building a company.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I’m working on several new and exciting projects right now! Unfortunately, Non-Disclosure Agreements are what we live and die by in this industry. So I can’t say much, as much as that pains me as a storyteller. However, I am really excited about the way that they will help people. Each experience we design really digs into the history, background, and values of our partners. Every one of them wants to make some kind of change to their guests and I’m really thrilled about the variety of issues we can tackle through different experiences: sustainability, inclusivity and eradicating world hunger are just some of the themes our partners are passionate about. And we get to design an experience in which hopefully all the participants will come out with new insight on these issues and the role they play in solving them, enabling them to act.
In your opinion, what do you think makes your company or organization stand out from the crowd?
I think there are two things that really make our company stand out. One is obviously our services. We create site-specific largescale experiences that combine immersive theatre and interactive gaming in a way that each participant can have a unique journey, the agency in an unfolding story and an impact on the conclusion. It takes a very special skill set to create personalized live experiences for large audiences that are different every time you participate based on your decisions. Furthermore, we customize the narrative and experience goals to align with the takeaways our partners want.
Two I would say is the company culture. We’re a very young company, with the majority of our teammates still in college or recent grads. We’re very willing to take risks, be open and clearly understand what a younger generation wants. We’re also a very collaborative and positive work-space that emphasizes communication and mutual benefit. We actually have included clauses like “respond within 48hrs” and “let people know when you appreciate them or their work.” in our behavioral handbook. We encourage our teammates to wear multiple hats and contribute to the best of their ability to make the entire project the best it can be despite their official roles and responsibilities. We emphasize that we collectively fail and succeed with the project. As we all started out unpaid college students, we stayed in this for the vision and the people so our culture reflects that. This is also true as we work with our clients — it is not “us” and “them” — they become a part of the team as we’re working on something together and we like to believe we’re a pleasure to work with.
Ok, thank you for that. I’d like to jump to the main focus of this interview. Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway? Can you share the story with us? What was your idea? What was the reaction of the naysayers? And how did you overcome that?
One of the most formative experiences was a time that many people told me something was impossible and I did it anyway. Inspired by a cartoon, a dream and my recent exploration of immersive theatre (Augusto Boal specifically) I came up with an idea of having an immersive, themed Halloween Maze with characters hosting games that participants needed to win to “advance in the story.” We had never celebrated Halloween in India and the idea was that we can enter a different world where our friends, skillsets, knowledge, and interest determined how we would fare. My mom was an architect and told me how to accomplish that logistically, and told me to propose it to the school as a fundraising carnival. The school told us that we needed to have a proposal with all the logistics figured out — from the prices of the cloth to the people playing the actors. I then embarked on an adventure that very much felt like starting a company… when I was 16. I needed to figure out all the people I would need to accomplish the task, set up an organizational structure, recruit for very specific positions such as costume design and engineering even though we had no experience in high school and then figure out the logistics and plan of action to accomplish our goal. The month we spent putting that together was incredibly intense but despite our efforts and plan, the school rejected our idea by saying that we wouldn’t be able to implement it.
After going home and crying for two days, my mother encouraged me to submit the proposal to the Rotary that she was a part of. Considering the amount of work we had put in already, I was willing to try. And then began an even longer journey of calling up the President every two days to get an audience while working simultaneously to meet our timeline, even though we didn’t even have a guarantee that our work would be approved. The Halloween Maze turned into a Winter Maze which on the Rotary’s request finally turned into a full-fledged carnival with stalls, competitions, music performances, even art auctions. Finally, we had “Bizarre: Where The Impossible Happens.” This was the place where you could get your dream internship, your favorite actor’s autograph and show off your unique talents no matter what they were. There was something and someplace for everybody. We incentivized 200 students from across the city to work with us on this by convincing them it would look good on college applications even though we had no budget and even no venue confirmed. Finally, by being very, very resourceful we convinced the owner of the biggest mall in town who happened to be a Rotarian to give us the venue for free and finally, after a year’s work, blood, sweat, and tears, we had our event.
At the end, how we’re all the naysayers proven wrong? 🙂
We did it even though they said we couldn’t. In fact, our event became a lot bigger because they said we couldn’t. And then they celebrated our victory and took credit for it by posting about it on their website. Once success is achieved, everyone wants to ride on it despite how little they contributed to it — or even actively came in the way of it.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Obviously, I’m very grateful to my mother who actively made efforts to remove any roadblocks we encountered. But I would also like to call out to my friend and teammate Lillianne John. I had spoken to her only once before when she encountered me sitting on the field and trying to draw a maze by eyeballing dimensions of the venue. She then helped me draw the space and sent me 3 computer-generated plans that evening with the games marked.
Lillianne took full ownership of the project even when it seemed like it was on the brink of failure — and she played an enormous part in making it happen. She took control of operations, staying with me till 3 am to make pitch decks for the Rotary, figuring out how to make a website, sending emails, and even writing affidavits. If I was the heart of Bizarre, she was the brain. I absolutely could not have done it without her. She taught me so much about operations which have allowed me to accomplish every single project I have after Bizarre. And her investment in the project held me accountable for delivering what I had initially attempted to — it was her involvement that made the matter bigger than me. Made it worth fighting for. And she armored me, supported me and accompanied me for every battle.
It must not have been easy to ignore all the naysayers. Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share the story with us?
As hard as it is to believe, I was very quiet when I was younger and heavily bullied for it in middle-school. That allowed me to separate my self-worth from the naysayer’s perception of me. I placed a lot more importance on my opinion of myself and gave a lot more value to people who liked me and supported me while learning to ignore those who didn’t — especially if they couldn’t offer constructive feedback, only unsolicited and unreasonable hatred. I am in no way an advocate for bullying, but that experience made me who I am and I’m happy where I am. I wouldn’t change a thing.
Based on your experience, can you share 5 strategies that people can use to harness the sense of tenacity and do what naysayers think is impossible? (Please share a story or an example for each)
- Log great successes — If you’ve overcome a hard situation, make note of it. Put in a list, a journal entry, a letter. Whatever. Just have something to refer to when you remember feeling hopeless and save the proof that you overcame it. I always look back upon Bizarre and no matter how difficult a situation gets, I remind myself I have a lot more now. I have my experience. A team. Typically, even a budget. I think about the most difficult decision I have had to make — when we got offered the mall as a venue the only available dates were right after my trip to New York and in the middle of my teammate’s exams. I had to choose whether I would take the venue and risk losing half the team or refuse it with the risk that we wouldn’t get another venue. I chose to take that mall, it wasn’t easy but the event happened. Nobody can take my past successes away from me, they didn’t come easy and neither will the future successes. But I’ve made it this far, and it’s an uphill journey from here.
- “The War Isn’t Over Until I’ve Won” philosophy — No matter what, I find if you broaden your goal then your failure doesn’t seem like a full stop. The Halloween Maze turned into Bizarre, but we needed to reconsider what was important to us and reevaluate how to achieve that with a different approach. Even as we approach clients and teammates now when things don’t work out, we just shift our goal which makes the defeat softer.
- Find people to be accountable to — At least I personally find it really, really hard to be accountable to just myself. Having the team there keeps me on track. Suddenly, I am not responsible for my own success and failure but also to those who believe in me and trust me. This increases the stakes substantially and pushes me a lot further despite what anybody else might say.
- Chart the map — Make a plan of action. This is incredibly intimidating when you don’t know the ocean, but start sailing and building the map as you do. You can only see the next flight of stairs once you start climbing, so don’t be intimidated if the end is not in sight. But as long as you see the beginning and hopefully the step after that, it’s a great point to start building. Please also don’t be afraid of how long things will take — that time will pass anyway. The only difference will be what you have to show for it at the end. I might not have had the courage to start Bizarre if I thought it was a yearlong endeavor, but I only saw the beginning and I’m so glad I did it. I learned so much on the way.
- Capitalize on failures -every time you fail you have time that you intended to spend on something. Spend it on something else. Also, ask yourself what you learned, why you fell short and if it was a shortcoming of your own then fix it for the next time. One of the times I felt like I “failed” was when I received the position of “Assistant Director of Special Events” instead of “Director.” However, that free time allowed me to take an internship that I learned a lot more from and focus on the one event I was doing instead of spreading myself too thin.
What is your favorite quote or personal philosophy that relates to the concept of resilience?
One quote I find particularly motivating is “The War Isn’t Over Until I’ve Won — everything lost is just a battle.” It sounds slightly harsh and arrogant, but it really does represent the idea of broadening your goal. It also ties into the idea that it is giving up that makes defeat permanent, but that quote does not capture the idea of changing goals as well. It makes it sound like you’re trying the same thing over and over — you shouldn’t be. You should be re-strategizing and re-prioritizing and re-evaluating your goals at every step in order to achieve them.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Sounds super cheesy, but please pursue what calls to you and pursue it relentlessly. Each person truly is unique with values, skills, interests, and personalities. There is a place that they will be useful and I would encourage people not to compromise on doing things in which they find value.
Can our readers follow you on social media?
If they want to. The company social media is as follows:
And my personal social media:
Thank you for these great stories. We wish you only continued success!