Monica Bhide: “Be the best version of yourself that you can be”

Be the best version of yourself that you can be. Take inspiration from other people, read about and listen to stories of people who inspire you, but at the end of the day, always be yourself because that’s what the world needs. And don’t be afraid to be vulnerable. Being yourself involves both your strengths […]

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Be the best version of yourself that you can be. Take inspiration from other people, read about and listen to stories of people who inspire you, but at the end of the day, always be yourself because that’s what the world needs. And don’t be afraid to be vulnerable. Being yourself involves both your strengths and your vulnerabilities, and that is what makes you authentic. By being authentic, you can show people that surviving difficult things makes them stronger, and it gives people hope where they didn’t have it before.

As a part of our series about Inspirational Women of the Speaking Circuit, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Monica Bhide.

Equal parts storyteller and globe-trotter, Monica Bhide, an award-winning author, accomplished literary coach, and educator with over 15 years of experience, transcends countless borders — chronological, geographical, religious, and economical — to inspire her readers. Born in New Delhi, raised in the Middle East, and now residing outside Washington, D.C., she currently serves as a corporate storyteller for one of the world’s leading professional services companies. Her prolific portfolio, enriched by the many places she calls home, channels a distinctly cosmopolitan worldview.

Monica’s words, which have appeared on renowned platforms including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, Bon Appétit, Food & Wine, and Town & Country, among others, are a collection of culture-driven articles that approach the world food first. Her books, all infused with a signature lyricism, consist of acclaimed cooking compendiums, like 2009’s Modern Spice, brimming with contemporary versions of traditional Indian recipes. Her debut short story collection, The Devil in Us, a clutch of spellbinding tales centered on fate and fortune, earned a spot on Amazon’s bestseller list in 2015, while her more recent novel, Karma and the Art of Butter Chicken, which explores the healing power of food, led NPR’s café in Washington, D.C., to serve up creations inspired by her protagonist chef.

Her work has garnered numerous accolades and has been included in four Best Food Writing anthologies (2005, 2009, 2010, and 2014). Her memoir, A Life of Spice, was picked by Eat Your Books as one of the top five food memoirs of 2015. Top Chef’s Padma Lakshmi picked Bhide’s Modern Spice (Simon & Schuster, 2009), as one of the “Best Books Ever” for Newsweek in 2009. The Chicago Tribune named Monica “one of the seven food writers to watch in 2012.”

In addition to her various storytelling endeavors, Monica appears as a regular voice on radio programs like NPR’s “Kitchen Window,” and recently launched “Powered by Hope,” a podcast centered on life during a pandemic, and what it means to be physically distant yet connected to our very core. She also speaks about the intersection of food, culture, and writing for prestigious conferences and organizations such as the Smithsonian Institution, Sackler Gallery, Les Dames d’Escoffier, and Yale University. In 2013, she was appointed as Writing Coach in Residence for the Association of Food Journalists’ annual conference, where she counseled writers on establishing their social media brands, underscoring her ultimate strengths as an eloquent, ever-evolving, and outstanding writer.

Monica is a graduate of the George Washington University (Washington, D.C.), and holds a master’s degree from Lynchburg College (Lynchburg, VA) and a Bachelor’s degree from Bangalore University (Bangalore, India). She feels fortunate for her rich, multicultural education and enjoys giving back to the global community by serving on committees and volunteering for Les Dames d’Escoffier, The International Association of Culinary Professionals, and at her children’s schools in Northern Virginia.

Monica lives in Virginia with her two sons.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?

I was born in Delhi, India into a family of minstrels, food lovers, and storytellers. For as long as I can remember, my earliest childhood memories have been flooded with stories of love, life, and food. I remember curling up next to my grandma, listening to extravagant tales of fairies and demons. I remember cooking by my mother’s side, watching her gracefully and effortlessly season every meal to perfection. I remember listening to my father reciting poetry, in awe of every magical word he recited. I remember losing myself in his words as he told me of his marvelous travels: from wandering the lush gardens of Paris and conversing with the intellectuals of Beirut, to indulging in the divine cuisine of Tehran. My childhood instilled in me a love of stories, and I just knew, even as a young child, that my purpose in life is to share my stories with the world. When I entered my teenage years, my family moved to Bahrain, the gem of the Middle East. During my time in Bahrain, I went to school and truly began to get my first real taste of international experience and culture. In school, I participated in debate teams and became a staple of public speaking activities that continued throughout my academic career. I won an award in a debate competition where I had to present an opinion opposite to my own: I spoke about the sword being mightier than the pen.

Today, I am a digital storyteller at an amazing multinational tech company by day and a writer by night. I have frequently spoken at events for the Smithsonian Institution, at colleges, libraries, the National Press Club, blogging conferences, writers’ conferences — large-scale events — and on NPR. However, my public speaking engagements came an abrupt halt end when the pandemic hit. I felt disconnected from my audience, and I was getting a lot of emails from readers because they were feeling isolated. I realized that even though I couldn’t physically connect with people in person, my readers wanted guidance on how to remain hopeful and positive, even during times of adversity. So I started a series of podcasts to help inspire the creative spirit in all of us. It is called Powered By Hope, and can be heard here:

Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?

My earliest project, for a local women’s club, was a presentation about the brides of India, their jewels and their clothes. I was barely seventeen at the time. I’ll never forget the response to that presentation. Even though people enjoyed the visual aspect, the feedback was that they “fell in love with listening” to my stories about the brides. In fact, one of the attendees even said, “I came for the fashion show but stayed for the stories.” That led me to start sharing my stories publicly — especially those about passion, empowerment, and everything that unites us in our common humanity. A few years ago my career came full circle when I told the same story about Indian weddings at the Smithsonian Institution.

My first job when I came to the U.S. was with Ernst & Young. My manager quickly noticed I was good at engaging with crowds and encouraged me to start public speaking. His guidance encouraged me, and I began to speak to larger groups of people both at work and outside. My topics have always been very diverse. I love to learn and speak about whatever is inspiring me the moment. I have spoken about leadership, project management, food, and culture, all with the same level of ease. I love the way that communication can be used to inspire and bring people together, so that is always my first priority, regardless of topic.

One of the things I’ve learned in my 30 years of public speaking is that what unites us is our basic human emotions. People want to be seen and be heard; they want to relate to familiar emotions. When I speak to large crowds, I try to start with things that are familiar to them so that I can bring them into my world. Then I try to show them new perspectives on the topic that I am speaking about. Building familiarity gives them a sense of comfort with me. As I build this comfort, I hope people trust me enough to listen to the rest of my talk. I use this technique regularly as I speak in front of very diverse audiences.

Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

I am not sure it is that interesting but it is definitely Murphy’s law! I was invited to give a special presentation at a major institution. We had a sold-out crowd. I had a panel of other speakers. Everything was set. I thought, for sure, this would be the event that would rock my speaking career. Well, two nights before the event, I developed severe laryngitis. I have never, ever had it. We had to cancel everything, and I felt terrible as people had to cancel their flights and hotels. It taught me to be flexible and accepting: Man plans, God laughs! Luckily, the institution was very understanding and rescheduled the event. The coordinator checked with me every fifteen minutes for a week prior to the event, to make sure I had my voice!

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting?

There was a time I did a very large event and the main screen wouldn’t work, so I couldn’t use the PowerPoint, and the video and images couldn’t be loaded. Just to make life more difficult, even the microphone died. The presentation was about the sacred foods of India, on behalf of Les Dames d’Escoffier, with 100 people attending. In the end, I had to talk without a mic and without a screen. I literally took the laptop around to all of the guests so that they could get glimpses of all the amazing dishes I was talking about. Flexibility is the key when speaking in public — who knows what adversity could strike at any given moment!

Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

From that experience, I really learned how important flexibility is in public speaking, and the importance of truly knowing what you are talking about, inside and out. After that, I felt confident in being able to speak without notes or slides if needed. I’ve learned to improvise and be prepared. Prior to presentations, I always make some “Plan B” notes in case something goes wrong. Then, when I am in front of a crowd, I can tell from their attitudes and energy what kind of improvisation strategy may work.

I speak to so many types of people about so many different topics, it is important that I do research beforehand to make sure that they will appreciate my presentation. If I know who the attendees are, I look through their profiles on LinkedIn. I talk to the organizers about what they know about the audience and, when time permits, I send out questionnaires first, asking prospective attendees what they hope to learn.

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?

Yes. Behind every successful person is someone who is really strong, who understands them, and who encourages them. For me, it has been my friend Amy Riolo who has helped me not only improve my presentation skills but also reminds me to look people in the eye during presentations.

She also helped me with image consulting, helping me get more polished in my appearance, and feel confident. She is always a cheerleader behind the scenes. I don’t think we talk enough about that. There are always teachers and bosses who help us in the beginning. But what matters most is that there are certain people who help you through the good events and the bad ones. I am fortunate to have a friend who always helps me get back up from the bad ones.

You have been blessed with great success in a career path that can be challenging and intimidating. Do you have any words of advice for others who may want to embark on this career path, but seem daunted by the prospect of failure?

The first step is the why. They have to identify why they want to speak and what are they trying to do. Do they want to build a platform? Do they have a particular message or mission? Once they determine the reason that they want to be a public speaker, then they should figure out what their topics are. They can do this by figuring out what excites them, what makes them curious, what makes them want to jump out of bed in the morning! Then comes the difference that makes the difference: preparation. Potential speakers need to prepare themselves and build expertise by taking classes, reading books, apprenticing if needed. Once all of this is done, they have to put the pedal to the metal and actually go up in front of a group and speak. I think this step is hard for many people — getting up in front of a live audience to talk. But it is critical. Public speaking is like riding a bike: There is only so much you will learn from reading books about it. At some point, you actually have to get on the bike and ride. You will fall, you will tumble, you will falter. But in the end you will learn how to ride, and then you will have many glorious rides!

What drives you to get up everyday and give your talks?

My audience. I once received an email from a 90-year old woman from Brazil. She had started listening to my podcast. She mentioned she lived alone as all her loved ones were gone, and that my voice and my stories were the only thing that comforted her. I often think of her and remind myself that even if I have an audience of just one — her — my voice and my words matter. And then I get to work: writing, speaking, telling stories.

What is the main empowering message that you aim to share with the world?

Be the best version of yourself that you can be. Take inspiration from other people, read about and listen to stories of people who inspire you, but at the end of the day, always be yourself because that’s what the world needs. And don’t be afraid to be vulnerable. Being yourself involves both your strengths and your vulnerabilities, and that is what makes you authentic. By being authentic, you can show people that surviving difficult things makes them stronger, and it gives people hope where they didn’t have it before.

Can you share with our readers a few of your most important tips about how to be an effective and empowering speaker?

There is an old saying, “Being who you are is the privilege of a lifetime.” So whatever you choose to do or to be, do so with grace.

Tip 1: Take the chance and start. If you mess up during a talk or a speech, it is okay! Learn to laugh at yourself.

Tip 2: If someone in the audience asks you something that you don’t know, don’t try to make up an answer. I can guarantee you there will be someone in the audience who will know the real answer! Just say that you will get back to them.

Tip 3: Be prepared for inappropriate and weird questions. Have standard answers ready: Thank you for your question/ How interesting/ I never thought of it that way.

Tip 4: Always be gracious and respectful in answering questions, but hold your ground. If there happen to be people in the audience looking for an argument, just don’t engage with them.

Can you please share some examples or stories?

I was getting ready to speak at a journalists’ conference. My topic was how to enhance their social media branding for their respective publications. Right before the talk, four writers came up to me and said that they had just been laid off the previous day. I had to modify what I was going to say to people who just lost their jobs, and I immediately made a change to incorporate information for them so that they felt included. I engaged those four people by teaching them how to use their social media accounts to leverage the freelance work that they were looking for.

As you know, many people are terrified of speaking in public. Can you give some of your advice about how to overcome this fear?

Yes. We all have the same fears when it comes to speaking in public. It is scary to see all of these eyeballs looking at us. We are afraid that we are going to say or do something wrong. My advice is to prepare, to know all aspects of your topic because if you know your topic you will have confidence. By the same token, accept the fact that someone in the audience might know (or think they know!) more than you. Prepare, practice, and persevere.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. No matter how prepared you are, you are going to mess something up. I was once giving a speech on empowerment, and for the life of me, I couldn’t recall Albert Einstein’s name on stage. I just called him “that famous scientist” over and over again.
  2. Equipment will break, no matter how prepared you are. Be prepared to deliver your presentation without it. As I mentioned earlier, the projector failed, the screen failed, and the mic failed. And I still managed to give my talk.
  3. You may have wardrobe malfunctions. Once I was going on stage to speak and the heel of my shoe broke off. So I had to make the speech barefoot, and I made a joke about it.
  4. Be prepared for all types of responses. There will always be people who love you, and there will always be people who don’t. One time I was speaking at an embassy and a woman attacked me verbally because I talked about putting garlic in a recipe that she felt didn’t call for garlic. In the end, all I could do was smile.
  5. At the end of your talk, try to mingle with the audience and talk to the attendees. That is how I get most of my speaking business.

You have such impressive work. What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? Where do you see yourself heading from here?

One of the most interesting projects that I am working on is continuing my Powered by Hope podcasts. In addition, I have a new book on magical realism, hope, and love releasing in spring 2021, and I am building a large-scale speaking campaign around the release. I am also offering a free promotion of my book of poetry called Telltales on my website.

Can you share with our readers any self care routines, practices or treatments that you do to help your body, mind or heart to thrive? Please share a story for each one if you can.

The most important thing I do is quiet my mind on a daily basis. A chaotic mind makes it hard to function in a chaotic world. A quiet mind can help you not only navigate chaos but thrive!

You can practice this in any way that you like: through meditation, prayer, running, dancing, or listening to music — doesn’t matter. Even if you only have 15 minutes to do it, please do. This is the most priceless advice I was given and it has served me well.

Take care of yourself by feeding your brain nourishing topics. It’s not enough to listen to something inspiring just once. You have to listen to it over and over again. Read widely and keep giving your brain positive stories and messages to inspire your mind, body, and heart.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“The wound is the place where the light gets in.” Rumi (a 13th-century Persian poet)

I have been in many situations in my life that I did not think I would make it through, and I kept reading this quote over and over again. I always knew that it was happening for a higher reason, even if I did not know why I was suffering. I learned that the only way forward was to transcend the question. And then the light was able to it in and I was free.

You are a person of huge influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

I would start a movement to spread empathy as if it were a superpower! To me, empathy is a superpower because that’s what brings us together and helps us to heal each other and move each other forward. We often speak about love and hate, but to me it is empathy that makes the difference. Imagine a world where everyone cared about the well-being of each other.

Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have lunch with, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens!

George Clooney! I find his work very inspiring. He showcases empathy with all of his social and community work.

Are you on social media? How can our readers follow you online?

Twitter: @mbhide

Insta: @monicabhide

Facebook: @monica.bhide1

Linked In: Monica Bhide

This was so informative, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!

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