Soniya Gokhale (00:05):
Welcome back to another episode of A Desi Woman podcast. I’m your host, Soniya Gokhale. And the voices I am seeking may have never been heard before, but their stories deserve to be told. What is a Desi woman? She’s a dynamic, fearless, and strong woman. She’s your mother, your grandmother, your daughter, your sister. She is every one of us who is on an endless pursuit of self-empowerment and fulfillment. I am Soniya Gokhale, and I am a Desi woman.
Soniya Gokhale (00:40):
Hello, and welcome to another edition of a Desi woman podcast. I am your host, Soniya Gokhale, and today we are so excited to be joined by AJ Rao. AJ is a two-time traumatic brain injury survivor, turned warrior and advocate. She is also a trained social-personality psychologist, a certified professional executive, and leadership coach, a published author, a podcaster, and one of only 34 people around the world who are advanced certified practitioners of professional development tools will. As an award-winning diversity, equity, inclusion, belongingness and leadership strategist and one of the top 20 career coaches in the Metro Detroit area, AJ helps high performers with big dreams exponentially increase their leadership presence, income and social impact while permanently eliminating the misery of being overworked and underappreciated. AJ also helps businesses build DEI and B principles into the foundation of their cultures and all of their business development goals so they can cut cost and increase profit. She is the founder and CEO of AJ Rao, a boutique firm who’s motto is “Making the invisible visible for better equity and belongingness.” AJ, welcome to the show.
AJ Rao (02:11):
Thank you so much, Soniya. I’m so excited to have this conversation with you, and thank you for thinking of me.
Soniya Gokhale (02:17):
Oh, we are so excited to have you here. And, you know, AJ, I want to talk about your early years. And in your book, Transform Yourself… I’m going to have the link to your book in the podcast notes… um, you discuss how you were born in a small coastal town in South India and were raised in Hyderabad, a city you fondly describe as one of the most cosmopolitan, multi-cultural cities in the region. And you also talk about how in the midst of what was a mostly idyllic upbringing in India, for the first time in your 14-year on this planet, you had never seen or interacted with anyone who wasn’t Indian. And you had no knowledge of the lives of those who looked different than you. Can you tell me more about your childhood and memories from India?
AJ Rao (03:08):
Absolutely. So I think you a, you know, a great job of it in that it really was, you know, picture perfect kind of Bollywood, you know, with the villages and the green, green fields that are sometimes, you know, often too green in the sun and the coconut trees and the rice patties and the sugar cane and the mango groves. And that was the environment, right, with fresh air, fresh food and people who lived really simple lives, where at the core of it taking care of each other, serving each other and connecting on a human level, even through the petty dramas and conflicts that happen in the course of daily life, that was what was most important. And so those were the values that were instilled in me very, very early on.
AJ Rao (04:10):
And I’m not sure how much you are familiar with Hyderabad or how much your listeners are, um, but Hyderabad, you know, at that time, for… it’s… you know, for the time that I grew up in was one of the most cosmopolitan, um, cities in the region in that it was a place where there were Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Zoroastrians, you know, small pockets of Jewish populations all sort of co-mingling while at the same time… In retrospect what I realized is at the same time, they lived in their own somewhat segregated, insular neighborhoods within the city, but the intermingling of all of those and the co-elevation and the co-celebration of the various festivals and the various fairs and things that happened, it really kind of created a situation where even though I had not ever seen anybody that wasn’t Indian per se in, in the first 14 years of my life, I was practicing and understanding of embracing diversity because of our differences, not despite them.
Soniya Gokhale (05:27):
That sounds absolutely amazing. And the next huge phase in your life was when at the age of 14 you and your family moved from South India to the United States. And in the span of one week, you experienced your first international plane trip, moved to a brand new country. And I want to quote something you have in your book. There was “a level of diversity in its population that was unfathomable to my teenage mind.” Your family settled in Michigan, and you truly thrived and excelled academically at an all-girls high school. So I do want to talk to you about that to see what that was like. 14 is a challenging age for teenagers, but especially for teenage girls. And to have to embrace a new country, culture and community, I can only imagine what that must’ve been like, but would love to hear more from you on this.
AJ Rao (06:23):
Yes, so right before we moved here to the US, actually, one of my cousins, or my mom’s cousins, did get married in India. And she was born and raised in the United States. She married, uh, you know, uh, a South Asian man from within, you know, our community, but they came back to India to get married. And it was actually one of her friends… His name was Brad, and he was the first white, Caucasian person I’d ever seen in my life, and this was right before we moved to this country. And I was just… My first thought when I saw him was as, as, you know… Again, teenage mind, and as horrible as this may sound… was man, he’s going to get really dirty in India, just from like the dust and the, you know, like just the colors and the, the, the bindis that we put on, the kumkums and all of these other kind of extremely vivid colors that we paint ourselves with in India. It was this real concern of how is this person’s skin going to be able to handle it?
AJ Rao (07:31):
And I bring that up as sort of a precursor then to the thoughts that I had when I moved to this country and I experienced culture shock at the same time that I was going through puberty, and it was the first time that I had ever been called a minority in my life. And my first thought was I looked around, and I said, “Is it because I’m the shortest person in the room?” I, I, you know, I, I truly had no concept of that until… Then, you know, of course, I slowly started learning, but imagine going from that kind of a… Even though I grew up in such a cosmopolitan place, to grow from this mindset where I legitimately thought that somebody else’s skin tone was going to affect how these different colors and these different things that we do in India would af-, you know, would affect their, their skincare, would affect their like actual skin as an organ. To come here and to find an entire culture, entire country built on the needs of these people where I was then the outsider, it really blew my mind.
AJ Rao (08:47):
And I did go to an all-girl school because I went to an all-girl school in India as well. As you know, in India boys and girls are socialized differently, or were back in the day. And they still are to s-, a large extent, or to some extent. But b-, back, you know, when I was growing up, it was really something that wasn’t even questioned. So I went to an all-girl school there, and when we moved here, I did make a push to kind of try out public schools, but what actually happened was because of the difference in the Indian schooling system and the US schooling system, I’d finished my ninth grade in India, and I was coming here for 10th grade, but I was a whole year younger. And so the public schools that were in area weren’t allowing me to go directly into 10th grade, even with placements. They wanted me to repeat ninth grade, and of course, that’s where a little bit of my teenage angst and personality came in, where I was like, “Well, I’m not going to repeat a whole year just because of some, you know, criteria differences. Like that’s not fair to me, and you know, that’s, it’s not just.”
AJ Rao (09:56):
And so… And then of course, my parents felt that same way too, where they, you know, especially with such an education focus, they were very concerned that putting me back by a year would, I would just get bored, and that would obviously disrupt my educational patterns. And so the only solution at that point was to go to this small, all-girls school where they were willing to give me the placement exams and put me at the level where I was. And, you know, it was quite possibly the best thing that could’ve happened to me as a new immigrant because I did not have to deal with too many of the cross-gender, hormonal things that happen during teenage years with like crushes and dating, not that my parents would’ve allowed that, but even to have to deal with all of that, that whole, all of those layers got eliminated. And I was in many ways sort of allowed to figure out this new identity, even though it was still within the constrictions of an all-girls Catholic school that was predominantly white in a predominantly white area in a predominantly white nation.
AJ Rao (11:19):
So it was sort of like, you know, instead of dipping your toes in the pool, just getting right on that highest Olympic diving board and then dump-, you know, just diving straight in and having to figure it out, which would I recommend it to other people? Depending on their experiences, if they think they can do it, yeah. I think th-, I think that the immersion in that kind of deepest level is what got me eventually on the path that I now am on. It’s… I can’t… I wouldn’t change a thing about it.
Soniya Gokhale (11:52):
Well, that is so interesting. And there’s a few things I want to speak to. One is in, in reading your book and your story, this model minority disposition and the type A aspect to you, well, it’s so common in our communities. Being held back a grade, oh my goodness, never would happen. And I also went to an all-girls private school, and I agree with you that very, very intentional by my parents, especially my mother. And it certainly does set aside some of angst and issues. This was decades ago. I can’t even imagine how it is today for our teenagers. Um, but it’s interesting because I see this tug of war, and in your life… And we’re going to proceed with your absolutely compelling and just inspiring story. But you went ahead and so, “No, I am not skipping a grade,” and you were an excellent student, excelled academically. In fact, it was during your high schools years that you, I believe, were in the National Honor Society and pretty much checked every box that was possible in that regard.
Soniya Gokhale (13:04):
And also I have to offer for our listeners that I am in a neighboring state to Michigan, and there’s not a whole lot of diversity. So you sort of ended up smack dab in the middle of largely Caucasian population. And it’s certainly a way to assimilate, right? Baptism by fire is what some would call it, but what an interesting perspective at 14, that juxtaposition. And, and the work that you do now, it really sets it up in a beautiful way. And we’ll talk more about that as we go along. You know, so you did enter college, and it was during your sophomore year in college when you experienced the unthinkable, a traumatic brain injury. And I am so overwhelmed by this story. You sustained a concussion after being hit in the back of your head with a bottle. And as you mention in your book, the term traumatic brain injury didn’t exist when this occurred. And concussions were certainly not considered to be traumatic in any way at that time. Today, especially around the sport, very popular sport of American football, and a variety of other sports, there’s a lot of focus and better understanding of the seriousness of concussions and traumatic brain injury, but at that time there really wasn’t. And so it wouldn’t be unusual that you were sent home from the school’s clinic with some Tylenol and were told to rest for a few days.
Soniya Gokhale (14:33):
And shortly after that, something happened. Over the course of that semester, everything and everyone around you stopped making sense. You lost control over impulses and barely understood the words that were sometimes coming out of people’s mouths. You couldn’t follow basic instructions and was very exhausted. And you even indicate you began to perform poorly in class. And worst of all, when you need them the most, many of your friends ostracized you and even dropped you. And when you tried to ask for help, which I think is a hugely courageous thing to do, you were told that you were the problem and that you just needed to focus and put forth more effort. So if you could walk me through these traumatic events.
AJ Rao (15:21):
Yeah, um, absolutely. And I think, you know, I’ll start with the endpoint and go backwards. Through all of that… And this happened in retrospect, of course, not when I was going through it, but through all of that is… You brought up that point assimilation, right? And it was through this experience that I realized that it did not matter how much I assimilated and that assimilation wasn’t an ideal goal because in trying to assimilate and trying to fit in and trying to do everything right according to other people’s expectations, it created a situation where my own needs and expectations were either minimized or completely discounted and erased. And so that was overall, you know, the lesson that came out of that for me, again, in retrospect. But going through it at that time, I think the hardest part of it was not being able to understand what was happening around me and not being able to communicate it in a way, you know, that, that I could get other people to understand what was happening, you know, and especially coming from the perspective of somebody who highly excelled at anything and everything academically, to then go to a state where I started failing out, withdrew myself from school. You know, again, an unthinkable for Indian and South Asian communities, I dropped out of college for I think almost nine months.
AJ Rao (17:14):
And I just worked various jobs and, you know, things like waitressing, hostessing, some creative endeavors, uh, with some production companies and things like that, only because I had lost all sense of my identity. I had lost all sense of what I thought was my purpose in the sense of this purpose was given to me my whole life, right, by my parents and everyone around me of this is how you ought to be, this is how you’re going to be, this is what you’re going to do, and, you know, having my whole life mapped out for me that I felt was my purpose. And then in that moment, uh, you know, after that hit, it wasn’t even in that moment. So it was a very gradual, yet sudden deterioration over that following week where I started questioning everything in existence around me, but I could not even articulate or communicate any of that.
AJ Rao (18:25):
And so one of my saving graces at that time actually was finding psychology, which you know, of course, is now my field of study. But I was pre-med. I mean, I was, uh, I believe a biochem major with an e-con minor, or something like that. I don’t even remember at this point. But it was in that process of how do I let people know that it’s not… I mean, yes, I… Yes, this is happening to me, but I feel broken. I feel not right, and I don’t know how to get help. I c-, I couldn’t even articulate this to my parents. My parents knew I was struggling, and they couldn’t even figure out why, and I couldn’t tell them what was going on in my. And the migraines, the exhaustion, the fatigue, the, the sense of sort of learned helplessness that happens when you ke-, you get rejected over and over and over again, when things don’t make sense over and over and over again. It was such a negative spiral, and it kept spiraling and kept spiraling and kept spiraling.
AJ Rao (19:36):
And because of my lack of impulse control, I think… You know, I’m finally at a point where I hope my parents won’t, you know, be shocked when they hear me finally admitting this, that I did kind of engage in some problematic, self-destructive behaviors, like hanging out with the wrong crowd, partying quite a bit. And it was really, again, just trying to find that niche, trying to find spaces and people who let me be me without judging me and who still let me belong, who created spaces where I could belong, no matter what was happening with me. And I didn’t. I didn’t at that time. Most people I know in college… You know, and I think this might be the same for you, Soniya… like our college friends are people that we hang onto for many, many, many years, especially going through college and everything that kind of college, you know, or universities throw at us being South Asian, being Indian American, being a part of those Indian American associations, doing those cultural events and finding our partners within those events. I had none of those experiences because I was instantly marginalized because of all of this.
AJ Rao (20:55):
So I literally talked to, I think maybe… I talked to one person from college, uh, from that time. This was the only person who, even though they did not understand what I was going through, did not judge me for it and did not exclude me, that, you know. So they didn’t, they didn’t necessary advocate for me because they didn’t understand, but they didn’t shut the door in my face either, which at that time this person was a teenager was well. So I’m not saying that to judge this person, right? It… Th, th-
Soniya Gokhale (21:31):
AJ Rao (21:31):
This is just the reality of it. So in that lack of understanding, to still kind of hold at least that space… And this did happen to be one of my best friends at that time. This is the only person from that time that I still, s-, still talk to. Everyone else, I, I don’t talk to them because while we were all teenagers at that time and while we were all going through adolescence at that time, what I can tell… W-, what I can say, especially coming from our culture, while we have the whole what will people think and the keeping up with the, keeping up with the Patel’s and the Desi’s as opposed to the Jones’, that all of those kind of problematic behaviors are there, yet I still know that, you know, coming from a culture where those connections, those bonds and relationships are really modeled to us by our parents. I mean, we call our parents’ friends aunties and uncles for a reason.
AJ Rao (22:27):
You know, so to kind of shed all of that in the name of this assimilation, in the name of this fitting in, in the name of being with the cool crowd and then completely isolating, alienating and marginalizing somebody who deeply and desperately needs help, it’s unconscionable to me, even today. And I hope some of those people listen to this and understand that while I wasn’t judging them back then, I am making a statement about that now.
Soniya Gokhale (23:01):
I am so glad that you are, and I couldn’t agree with you more. And I, I think that, you know, even if you are going through challenges, you’re right. Our community is incredibly judgmental. And what I find is that we actually abandon those in their time of need, uh, when people need it the most. And what’s so fascinating in this country is I’m so sort of taken with the Christian concept of, of coming together and helping this in need and actually refraining from judgment when possible. I’m not saying it’s perfect, but I think it’s, there’s some lessons to be learned from the United States and what I’ve seen in the communities here. And so I, I couldn’t agree with you more. And I want to say that you did graduate, by the way, from undergrad with honors and high distinction. And you earned a psychology degree, and you moved on to gain admission to a highly-competitive MA PhD graduate program in psychology on a full scholarship. So you rallied. You’re the true model minority that has come back and said you know what? I am not giving up.
Soniya Gokhale (24:10):
And there is so much heart-wrenching narrative and life story in what I just described, but you actually lived it. And I was struck by the fact through no fault of your own, your life’s trajectory was hugely impacted by this concussion. And as a life coach, I have to ask you do you think this was some sort of diving intervention? There is much more about your life than circumstances that I’m about to dive into, but that question came up in my mind as I was reading your story. So many in our community, in South Asians and Indians, and of course due to immigrations laws, I will call out to this country, there’s such a hyper-focus on STEM careers, and whether it’s your parents’ influence or otherwise. And it seems that maybe your life experiences were actually better preparing you for that amazing field that you’re in now. And I would love to hear more from this, on this from you.
AJ Rao (25:06):
Yeah, that’s a great question. So at that time, I was religious, but not spiritual. So at that time, I would say, you know, if you’d asked me this question when I was going through this and as I’d gone through this, yes, I was praying a lot, but again, I think it was the nature of prayer that our parents and our communities teach us, right, or that we go through in our temples and stuff, which are more about the socializing and less about the divinity. And so at that time, I do think it was, you know, there was, you know, a little bit of a religious practice. Now I’m almost completely not religious, but I’m extremely spiritual. And I think those two often get conflated. And so for me, it was, it was actually separating that. So to answer your life coach question about was it diving intervention, you know, I think what makes sense to me now, given the journey that I’ve gone on, is two things. One is that whether you call it divinity, whether you call it science, or w-, whatever label that you want to put on it, we are infinitesimally small moving parts in the ecosystem of the universe.
AJ Rao (26:33):
And I even say that in my book, right? Th-, uh, sense, sense the big, you know, sense, if, if you believe in the big bang theory or if you believe in any aspect of the universe, one thing we do know is that the universe is still growing and expanding as it’s having all of these internal explosions, implosions, black holes, supernovas, dying stars and everything else. If your body, mind and soul are microcosms of this ecosystem of the universe, how can we think that something different is going to happen to us? How can we not think that we are a part of this larger whole in that there is and that we are the same stardust in different proportions that everything else in the universe is comprised of?
AJ Rao (27:29):
So in that sense, there was this… I do completely believe that… I’m not going to say everything that happens happens for a reason, because at the end of the day, there is no, again, conscionable reason for me getting hit in the head. There is no justifiable reason me getting marginalized and alienated, but the reason that I created to not react to the experience, but to then let the experience teach me and guide me to shape my purpose as I then wanted to determine it. That’s the reason. That’s where the thread comes in. So does everything happen for a reason? I’m not sure. But can we find a reason to grow from everything that happens to us? Absolutely.