From the Periphery to the Core: How Raj Girn Redefined South Asian Culture

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In spite of stereotypes and misrepresentations of South Asian culture that were running rampant, in 1992 there was an emerging fascination in the mainstream with all things South Asian. Recognizing the opportunity to create a platform that addressed the crossover appeal of South Asian culture, Raj Girn founded the Anokhi Media Corporation and the Anokhi multimedia brand.

“It’s not the periphery that makes you successful. It has to start from within.”

Today Anokhi is a globally recognized media powerhouse that offers many platforms through which representations of South Asian culture, in all its diversity, are celebrated.

TC recently had the opportunity to connect with Raj and learn about her path to the milestone of celebrating Anokhi’s 10th anniversary and the challenges she overcame to achieve this.

TamilCulture: What were the challenges you faced in launching Anokhi, given that the South Asian community wasn’t very visible at the time?

Raj Girn: Media at that time was either completely mainstream or completely ethnic. So when Anokhi came around we were that bridge, that crossover type of media. We talked about South Asian culture and even presented our media in a typically mainstream manner but the purpose of our media was really something that a lot of people in the beginning couldn’t understand.

At the same time, a lot of people were talking about this duality in our culture that caused a lot of confusion, not only within our own community but also in people’s interpretation of who we were. This factored into making it very difficult to be able to create an identity for what this media was, and present it to corporations as we tried to garner advertising support.

For the first few years of the company, we didn’t bring in any paid advertising at all. It was really giving away freebies to the big corporate companies just to show them what the power of our media was and what our community was all about. And we were also trying to figure out who we were as South Asians in Canada.

TC:  What has your experience of being a female South Asian entrepreneur been like?

RG: I come from a family where we are four sisters, and the youngest is a boy. My father was very cognizant of the fact that his daughters were entering this world where things weren’t very favourable when it came to women. So he taught us not to consider ourselves restricted because we are women. There was never this gender bias in a really strong way in terms of stopping us from being able to feel like we could accomplish anything we set our mind to doing.

Now having said that of course, having these four girls being brought up in England my parents were also very cognizant of the fact that they had to ensure that their girls were protected, restricted us from being part of the mainstream culture and encouraged us to enter into professional fields that were “respectable”. And me being a creative being there’s always been an element of creativity in everything I’ve embarked on, which my parents weren’t so supportive of.

I really fought hard to be able to stand my ground against my parents all those years ago to be able to enter the creative fields. The way I looked at it was that if I could stand my ground with my parents, standing my ground with everyone else was a piece of cake. The most difficult people to stand up against as a child are your parents because they’ve sacrificed everything for you. How do you disappoint them? But when you can stand your ground with people that have done that much for you, you can face the rest of the world quite easily.

Something else that factored into my experience was that I went through a divorce. When I got divorced I felt like I myself didn’t have an identity at that time because I had gone from being a daughter to a wife. Now here I was, this woman on her own who didn’t really know what her identity was, and yet I had better figure that out quick because I had a child I needed to raise—fundamentally the most valuable job anyone will ever do.

I took some time to figure out why I was at that juncture in my life and where I was meant to go from that point forward. And these were the things that took me on that journey of Anokhi which has really been quite the challenge, but a magnificent ride as well.

TC: What are the distinct challenges you have faced as an entrepreneur in the media industry?

RG: At the time that I started Anokhi, very much now as well, a lot of the power players and the people that really were decision makers within our community were men and they were older. So they had a certain perspective on what a woman’s role was. And I say this, not to be a generalized statement but more so it was my experience with these people that I’m telling you about.

In addition to that, in media, and any kind of corporate entity, when you’re the woman that’s running a company and you’re meeting with men who are typically in those senior positions, at least 10 years ago that was more so the case, they really don’t take you seriously. The first thing they see is not the CEO of a company walking in the door, but they see a woman and then they see a coloured woman, an ethnic woman. So when you compound all of these elements together, and the fact that we’re facing them parallel in the initial stages of Anokhi’s journey you can well imagine what a massive mountain that was for us to climb.

TC: Did you have much experience working in media before launching Anokhi?

RG: A lot of people don’t take a step in life until they feel like they know everything. Until they’re an expert, or a PhD or they’ve read a million books and they’ve googled everything. With me it’s been the opposite. I don’t want the restrictions of people’s preconceived ideas of what something should be, because then I feel that you’re not allowing yourself to be fully open to every opportunity that comes your way. It’s not the periphery that makes you successful. It has to start from within.

So I kind of went forth into this arena of media with not an incredible amount of knowledge per se, even if I had knowledge of business. I kind of went into it with a leap of faith, that somehow I’d find my way. I believe that a lot of the decisions that I’ve made have been hinged on that leap of faith. This has opened a lot of doors for our company because I never walked into those initiatives or ideas thinking that they can’t be done because they haven’t been.

I don’t just take it for granted that something is factual. If you tell me I can’t do something, that’s your perspective. Why should it be mine? Maybe I can do it. And if I “fail”, what have I failed at? I’ve failed at the acquisition which is the end of the road, but I haven’t failed at everything I’ve learned on the journey. It’s the journey that teaches you, not the destination.

TC: How has Anokhi produced content with universal appeal without oversimplifying the culture?

RG: It has a lot to do with the fact that the people that I brought on board to actually put together the content have really been meticulously chosen. We go through a lot of very intense processes to make sure that the people that we bring on board are incredibly like minded people when it comes to our vision but very extensively different in terms of their perspective on our culture and the many ways that our culture is progressing and moving forward.

TC: Have you faced a lot of pushback from readers regarding their interpretations of what South Asian culture is in relation to how Anokhi depicts it?

RG:  In the early days our single biggest challenge was with the more traditional faction of our community because they felt that we were trying to put in the younger generation’s mindsets an idea of our culture that didn’t fit in with the thousands of years of history that our community has been following.

If you look back though, really going back hundreds of years and you look at the things that were written, constructed or portrayed, a lot of the traditional factions within  our community today would  look at them and think they were too sexual or too forward thinking.

For me the longevity of our culture doesn’t really fit with what people think traditional culture is. Indian culture is not restrictive and has been incredibly expansive in its exploration of human nature. With all of that historical knowledge that we have and that rich diversity that we carry with us, we have so much to pull from in order to make our lives and those of other backgrounds tremendously better.

TC: What do you hope to achieve in the next ten years?

RG: If you look at the analogy of a tree, we have placed our roots firmly in the ground of the media industry in North America and within our community. And really to be very honest, that’s the biggest accomplishment we’ve achieved.

In the next ten years, I want to see the leaves, and the flowers, and the fruit that this tree will bear. I’m looking at the elevation of the brand next; to really and truly take it across every platform where communication exists and to make it truly global.

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Nivethika Thambithurai

Nivethika Thambithurai

Born in Montreal and raised in Toronto, Nive is a dreamer and writer who loves exploring how Tamil culture varies around the world in fashion, food, films and music.

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