I am a brown, introverted, female, immigrant. I should not have succeeded in newspaper publishing. The biggest takeaway from my story is: it’s okay to dream for yourself and to dream big. This is the best country for those who think outside the box. I could never have dreamed of launching and running a successful newspaper without any corporate backing in any other country. If you are passionate about what you do, you will find reserves within you to go after your dreams.
As a part of our series about immigrant success stories, I had the pleasure of interviewing Veena Rao, founder, publisher and editor-in-chief of NRI Pulse, an Atlanta based Indian-American newspaper. She has been recognized by the Limca Book of Records (the Indian version of the Guinness Book of Records) as the first Indian woman to edit and publish a newspaper outside India. Purple Lotus, her debut novel, is the winner of the She Writes Press and SparkPress Toward Equality in Publishing (STEP) contest, and is scheduled for a September 2020 release.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
Igrew up invisible in Mangalore, a small coastal Indian town. We didn’t lack for material comforts or love, but our community was patriarchal, and we blended in perfectly. We didn’t question beliefs.
My spirit was nonconformist, but I was afraid to speak. And I don’t mean speaking up, but just getting my mouth to form words. So, my childhood, adolescence and a big chunk of my adulthood was spent in silence.
There are some perks to speaking little. I became a good listener. I became a writer. Then, because I was a good listener and a writer, I became a journalist, and more recently, a novelist.
And one thing I’ve learned along the way is that it is possible to turn your weakness into your strength.
Perhaps, the trajectory of my life has made me a lifelong champion of the ‘everyday’, ‘average’ hero and heroine — both in my day job as newspaper editor, and as an author. Tara, the protagonist of my debut novel, Purple Lotus, is too ‘average’ to be a heroine. But her character is complex, nuanced, and deep. Her story is uniquely compelling. She shows extraordinary strength of character when life demands it out of her. It’s the same for each one of us. We are all ordinary until we are extraordinary.
Was there a particular trigger point that made you emigrate to the US? Can you tell a story?
To me, The American dream meant the freedom to take control of my life. To get away from the whispers of nosey neighbors; to get away from being tagged with names; to not have to worry about what people will say. But it was also a way to give my son more opportunities in life, to further ourselves economically.
Can you tell us the story of how you came to the USA? What was that experience like?
My family moved to the USA in 2001. I did not feel the sense of alienation that many new immigrants experience. I was fortunate to meet some wonderful people early on, who made my transition from Indian to American easier.
I came to the US on an H4 dependent spouse visa, so I stayed home for the first nine months, and took care of my son. In 2002, I got my work permit, and subsequently, in 2004, my green card, the ticket to the American dream. The green card limbo wasn’t what is today. Back then, it didn’t take decades to become a permanent resident of this country.
I worked at community publications as a reporter and editor. Then, in 2006, on a whim, I decided that I would launch a newspaper to serve the needs and interests of the South Asian communities of Georgia. I had no business plan, no financial backing. It was pure impulse. My story is an example of how this country makes it possible for out-of-the-box ideas to succeed, as long as you work hard and persevere.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped make the move more manageable? Can you share a story?
A few years into my life in Atlanta, I had to start over from scratch. My son was 12 then. That was in several ways, the beginning of my personal growth. My closest family lived on the West Coast, 2,000 miles away. I was fortunate to meet two wonderful women — Frances West and Nancy Haden, who encouraged me to cast aside my fears, stand up for myself and rediscover my potential.
I was terrified of driving. For the first five years in this country, I relied on others to take me from point A to B. But when I chose to start over, I was left with no option but to learn to drive. Life had decided to teach me a lesson in persistence; in facing fears. I failed the driving test six times. Every time, even as a part of me died, another voice said: You have no option but to try again.
When I finally got my driver’s license, my friend Frances helped me find a beat-up Mitsubishi Lancer at a pawn shop. I took it home for $650. My little car helped me hone my driving skills in the backroads of Atlanta, with Frances and Nancy, my driving instructors, in tow. I got on the busy interstate for the first time to get to the printing press; to load up my car with crisp copies of the new publication I had just founded. It was like driving to the top of Mount Everest.
I relate my ‘driving story’, and even included it in my novel, because it’s a good metaphor for a new immigrant’s life of starting fresh, struggling, failing, adapting, learning and winning.
So how are things going today?
This is my year, and even the pandemic cannot change that. My debut novel, Purple Lotus, which I have spent ten years writing, is slated for a September release. The newspaper that I founded with zero funds, has today grown into a popular newspaper in the region. For a brown woman, from a small town in India, who was afraid of making her voice heard, to come this far is pretty exciting.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
You don’t need deep pockets to do some good every day. What you need is a compassionate core. It could be something as little as using my contacts in the community to help people get the help or service they need. Or it could be something as wonderful as the opportunity to save a stranger’s life by donating my stem cells through the National Marrow Donors Program.
Through my newspaper, I support Atlanta organizations that work with survivors of domestic abuse. Earlier this year, we organized a successful fundraiser for Saris to Suits’ legal fund for victims of domestic and sexual abuse.
You have first-hand experience with the US immigration system. If you had the power, which three things would you change to improve the system?
If I had a magic wand, I would use it to break the political gridlock that keeps our immigration system broken.
1. I would make it easier for victims of domestic and gender-based violence to seek asylum in the USA. Victims in patriarchal communities receive no protection from authorities, or are too afraid to seek help. Turning them away amounts to pushing them back into the hands of their abuser to face a lifetime of trauma or even death. Domestic violence is a human rights crime, and seeking asylum is a human right.
2. I would put an end to all family separation, which goes against the values this country was built upon.
3. I would do away with the 7 percent per-country cap that keeps high-skilled green card applicants from countries like India and Mexico in a limbo for decades. According to statistics, the wait for a green card, for some legal immigrants, is longer than their lifetimes!
This excerpt from former President Obama’s White House archives speaks to me: “Our country is stronger when everyone has a stake, everyone pays their taxes and fulfills their responsibilities, and everyone is equally invested in our common future. It makes no sense to tell a major and sizable group of people who are willing to work hard, learn English, pay taxes, and raise American children that they can never have access to full citizenship in this country. Indeed, this would undercut the very values that make our country strong.”
Can you share “5 keys to achieving the American dream” that others can learn from you? Please share a story or example for each.
1. I am a brown, introverted, female, immigrant. I should not have succeeded in newspaper publishing. The biggest takeaway from my story is: it’s okay to dream for yourself and to dream big. This is the best country for those who think outside the box. I could never have dreamed of launching and running a successful newspaper without any corporate backing in any other country. If you are passionate about what you do, you will find reserves within you to go after your dreams.
2. You can listen more than you speak, and still succeed. Your ears learn more than your mouth. Listening with an open mind has served me well as a journalist and author. I listen to my team and empower them to succeed. I listen to our readers and help in community building. I listen to my detractors because they help strengthen my core. Listening has made me compassionate, to focus on giving rather than receiving.
3. Strength comes in different forms. You can be soft-spoken and have a strong moral compass. Increasingly, I have people (mostly men in positions of power) try to intimidate me for publishing an editorial that does not fit their world view or pressure me into taking their side of the great American political chasm. Quickly, they learn that while I am usually polite, I cannot be persuaded to toe their line.
4. You will fail and fail often. It’s okay to have a good cry, but always pick yourself up and get back on the road. It took me ten years, tons of rejection letters from literary agents, and multiple drafts before I won the She Writes Press and SparkPress Toward Equality in Publishing (STEP) contest for my debut novel, Purple Lotus. Starting a new draft of a manuscript, which has been rejected by multiple literary agents, is never easy. Being told that your protagonist is ‘frustrating’, feels like a personal insult. Often, it felt easier to just give up. But, by the next morning, a little voice reminded me of my big dream. Not trying again was not an option for me. I believe with all my heart that dreams ultimately manifest if you are persistent and patient enough.
5. The world is changing every minute. Learn to change with it. When I launched NRI Pulse fourteen years ago, it was a different world. A print-only model worked for us. It’d never work now. In today’s world, being the pulse of the community means getting the news out there in real-time on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Whatsapp. It means staying up-to-date with technology and exploring new business avenues.
We know that the US needs improvement. But are there 3 things that make you optimistic about the US’s future?
1. America continues to be the land of opportunity. The world’s brightest minds, the innovators, educators and artists want to be here.
2. I feel encouraged by the BIPOC Lives Matter Movement. I look forward to seeing more diversity and inclusion in all spheres of life.
3. America is not made up of its political leadership. It’s made up of people — decent, hardworking, giving people, who believe in doing the right thing. These are extraordinarily challenging times, but we shall overcome them. I am eternally grateful to be a citizen of this country.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂
I’d love to meet Mindy Kaling, get inside her mind. I’d be sure to carry a long list of questions and a recorder for our lunch date. I love Mindy for charting her own path as an actress, producer, and author. I love her for owning herself, for breaking stereotypes, for making it easier for others like her to dream of making it big in popular media.
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!