When Meghna Rao ’13 graduated from Stony Brook with a degree in English, she went “Far Beyond” — literally.
A lifelong New Yorker who grew up in Queens, Rao left home for India the summer after she graduated, spending four years writing about technology, first for the investment firm Unitus Ventures and then for Tech in Asia. It was a bold leap, inspired by her work as a student employee at the Charles B. Wang Center, and even after returning home four years later, she continues to push boundaries.
Rao is the managing editor of The Juggernaut, a New York-based premium website focused on South Asia and South Asians around the world. She recently took time out from her work on the site to discuss her career, the perils of launching a subscription-based website, and the influence that Stony Brook has had on her life and professional ambitions.
Being part of a new venture like The Juggernaut, what would you say is the dominant emotion when you come to work every day? Excitement? Fear? It’s an interesting time for journalism, and you’re starting something new, with a paywall.
At first, it was an immense amount of pressure, because there’s a lot riding on it. A lot of people are looking at it, a lot of investors, a lot of people asking questions. It’s very scary at first. There’s been a big shift from print to digital, and we’ve all seen it happen. Plenty of people have tried to launch on the Internet and make something happen, and it’s not been easy. I think we’ve seen a lot of mistakes in that realm.
I did feel that pressure at first, and that was scary. I didn’t really know how to deal with it, so in the beginning, I was overworking. I’d work 18 hour days, just to make up for that pressure. Over time, though, it’s become a bit of a cadence, and when I detect that pressure coming — that fear, that stress — I’m able to deal with it a bit better. Now, when I walk in every morning, it’s really energizing. Once you tackle a challenge five, six, or 10 times, by the 11th time, it becomes easier, and you can believe in yourself a bit more. I’m really starting to enjoy the daily challenge and see what it means to power through it.
You mention the pressure; what made you want to do this initially, and take on that pressure?
I think I was having a fairly comfortable time. I was working in a job that was paying well, and I knew my next steps and all that. It was in the tech industry. At the same time, I didn’t really feel like my skills were being put to use. I love informal situations and learning from them. I find them really exciting, and I work really well in situations like that. Knowing that about myself, and knowing that I don’t always thrive when things are set up for me, I wanted to put myself in a situation like this again.
And, I knew the subject matter. Before this, I’d reported out of India for four years, so I knew what was going on in this world. So, going into it, I felt confident because I was coming in with a bit of background knowledge, so I wasn’t a complete novice to this world. At the same time, I’m just able to be challenged, so I really like it.
Reporting out of India: let’s talk more about that experience. What brought you to do it in the first place? What made you realize it was time to come back to the U.S.?
Well, I’d been at Stony Brook, and my senior year, I’d started working at the Wang Center. There were a lot of events going on, and my job was to coordinate these events and talk to a lot of people, and I kept meeting these really standout Asian-Americans. Once, I met this didgeridoo player from Nepal who was performing at the Wang Center. Afterwards, we went out and had a bite, and he was talking about his experiences in Asia. At the same time, I felt like academically, I was learning about that, so there was a mixture of those two elements, and seeing how people were working, and I thought it would be interesting to go out there.
My parents weren’t too happy; they said, “Are you sure you want to do that?” I said, “Yeah, I think it’ll be really interesting.” I ended up in Bangalore, which is the tech capital of India, and I saw the country changing right there. I got there at the boom of smartphones, when there were all these cheap smartphones launching in India. Within the time I was there, I saw people go from really small feature phones to smartphones. Then, they’re paying with smartphones instead of using cash, you got e-commerce come in, and people could go online instead of having to haggle.
The Indian community on Long Island has been very supportive of Stony Brook over the years, including support for programming at the Wang Center. Was that part of how you came to Stony Brook in the first place?
Yes. A lot of my family members went to Stony Brook; it’s kind of been in the family since the ’70s. I knew some of the professors through family connections, and in the Indian Studies department, some of the professors were friends of my parents. It felt very familial, comfortable, and close. It felt like a place I could thrive and learn new things while also knowing my home base. It was really cool.
So then, what was your experience like when you got here? What would you say has had the biggest influence on your career?
Well, when I came to Stony Brook, I was actually pre-med. The pre-med program at Stony Brook is very competitive. It sort of weeds people out if that’s not what you want to do. Within the first year, I was struggling, and I switched my major to what I really wanted to do, which was English. I wanted to read books and write and all of that.
When I switched over, I really was worried, because I’d selected the school for the high quality STEM education, and I didn’t know much about the English department. I hadn’t done any research into it. But when I moved over, I think that that was one of the formative moments of my life, because I just got in touch with all of these professors who were so caring, so kind, and standouts in each of their fields. Stony Brook curates a really diverse English department. I got to learn about Indo-Caribbean literature, and work with a professor on “the Problem of Evil.” We got so in depth on such a diverse range of topics, and I felt like the professors really cared, which was really nice. I developed good friendships with a lot of them, meeting after class and going to their offices. They always had really open environments. They made me understand what the campus was about. I learned a lot of interesting things about the history of Stony Brook. I remember that when I switched over to the humanities, I was worried that I wasn’t going to be able to have a good time there, and in that first semester, I didn’t do so well on my first essay. I went and talked to the professor afterwards, and I was telling him what I felt, and he said, “The point of the humanities is to be humane, after all.” He worked with me on making it better. There were a lot of moments of kindness that I didn’t expect. That really helped me learn a lot about community, and reaching out when you need people.
Who were some of the biggest influences on you here at Stony Brook?
Rowan Phillips was teaching poetry, and I took two classes with him. I took his Intro to Poetry class, and I didn’t know if I would take poetry again when I got into it, but he was just so inspirational. He never told us, but when we Googled him, we saw he’d won all these awards. He led us in this way that was so self-exploratory, and opened up a lot of room for us to figure out how we wanted our pieces to look. He was a big inspiration for me, and he also inspired me to take more African-American Studies classes.
Coming back to what you’re doing now, the Juggernaut specializes in long-form content, and has been a paid site from launch. Obviously, there are ways to do that — the Athletic is probably the best-known current example — but tell me a bit about what the experience of launching the site has been like, and the challenge of finding an audience that is not only willing to come to a site and read the content, but also willing to pay for it.
Like the Athletic, we started with known writers. What’s been really interesting about the South Asian community is that informally — on Twitter, on Instagram — there are a lot of writers with big followings, who write for the New York Times and the New Yorker and all these other mainstream publications, and their followers are South Asians who have read their stuff and crave more. So, they follow these writers and look at the content they post all the time. Our founding writers have been people like that, who have these big followings, who had organically created this South Asian group of people who were watching. I think South Asian content is more informal than sports, so it’s harder to envision a site that specializes in it. ESPN has been around for years and people have been watching sports forever, so it’s a kind of tried and tested model that they have worked on and turned into a subscription model. That was kind of a challenge for us, to prove to South Asians why they needed to read this stuff, but I don’t think it was the most difficult thing. After we got those known writers going and started getting the word out about it, it got easier.
When you talk about the “South Asian community” and “South Asian content,” it’s interesting to hear it described as one group. For a lot of people who don’t hear about that part of the world, they tend to associate it with conflict, particularly between India and Pakistan. Do you find that the audience that you write for is really a South Asian audience, and not an Indian audience and a Pakistani audience and a Bangladeshi audience?
I think what’s interesting to remember is that often, South Asians are fractured while they’re in South Asia, but once they leave that region, you come to a place like New York, which is obviously diverse, but you’re still considered by the “outside eye” as South Asian or “brown,” and actually, everyone who’s from South Asia is really clumped under “Indian,” which is even more interesting, whether you’re Bangladeshi or Pakistani or Afghan. If you have brown hair and brown skin, you just get clumped under “Indian,” and I think that’s a really important aspect of the American diaspora, how we’ve all been labeled the same even though we’re not. I think that the kind of stories that we try to unearth both add nuance to that conversation and also try to celebrate our shared struggles, which I think we have a lot of, especially in the U.S., and especially when people look at us as a monolith from the outside.
What are some of your favorite pieces of content that you’ve worked on at the Juggernaut, either written yourself or published by others?
Most of the time, I edit other people’s pieces. I’ve also written a bunch, but I don’t always have time to put in a lot of effort into writing my own stuff. I think my favorite piece — it’s a little older — is on the myth of the “model minority.” It discusses how, for years, South Asians have been held up as really successful; most of them are doctors, engineers, law-abiding; they’re not violent. That myth has been used to perpetrate a lot of other racism in America. At the same time, it’s also held a lot of South Asians back who aren’t those “model minorities,” who actually do need help, especially if you look at Bhutanese-American communities, whom I believe have a 35 percent poverty rate. They’re just not talked about or helped because of this pervasive myth of the model minority is that other people pulled themselves up by their bootstraps; they came to this country and became doctors, they became engineers, why can’t you? One of our best writers did a great job of unearthing that and talking about its complications. Even editing that, I learned a whole bunch.
For a long time, the only thing anyone could be was just one type of South Asian. They could only look one way. Our job isn’t to say that that’s not a good way of looking. I think it’s important to remember that there are plenty of types of people, and that we shouldn’t erase others. How do we reach out an olive branch and include all these different types of people in our community? How do we make it so that there’s not only just one or two types of South Asians shown on TV or celebrated with awards. It’s adding diversity to this monolith that’s been created, because we’re not a monolith.
When you changed your major to English, did you have a sense that it was going to lead you toward journalism, or did you have something else in mind when you made the move?
I wanted to apply my writing skills in the real world, which is why I turned to journalism. It’s kind of a natural fit. You learn to be analytical as an English major. You learn to read books and poems and figure out why the author thinks the way they do, and to get inside the brains of the characters that you’re reading about. In journalism, it’s more or less the same thing, except with real people instead of those characters.