To mark the start of south Asian heritage month, director of communications Angela Balakrishnan shares her experience of navigating the world of communications as a south Asian woman.
“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”
Juliet’s infamous balcony quote from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet tends to be used as a reference to say that things are what they are, no matter what name you give them.
It’s a lovely sentiment but I’m not sure it’s one I’ve always agreed with.
Who am I?
My colleagues know me as Angela Balakrishnan.
I’m certainly no rose, in fact officially, I’m Luckshi Angela Balakrishnan House.
A little potted background - I was born and raised in London, my parents are originally from Sri Lanka. My mum is Christian, my dad is Hindu (hence having Tamil and English names).
Six years ago I got married and added a new surname to the long list.
I kept my maiden name for work purposes. I felt I had built my career up with it. But I’m often asked why I don’t go by my first name - Luckshi. For as long as I can remember I’ve always chosen Angela. But it’s only recently I can really say why. I wanted to fit in.
There’s a scene in the film My Big Fat Greek Wedding (random reference, but bear with me) that always sticks with me. Toula - the protagonist - recalls her school days, yearning to sit at the lunch table with the blonde-haired girls and their neatly cut crustless cheese sandwiches. To not be the girl with the frizzy hair, the hard to pronounce name, with the lunchbox of strange smelling food. To be ‘normal’.
I definitely related to that.
The concept of fitting in was always a part of my career - consciously or sub-consciously.
I remember in my first job at the Guardian being acutely aware that I was one of the few people of colour in the newsroom, one of the few by-lines with a ‘foreign’ surname. My family are not super traditional, but I quickly realised my background was different. We didn’t get our news from Radio 4 Today, we hadn’t purchased anything from Boden and I had never eaten sushi for lunch.
Nearly everyone there knew someone who knew someone, they had ins. I was treading new ground in my family seeking a career in media, hoping that my passion and skill would see me through. That’s what had been drilled into me - head down, work hard, don’t make a fuss, do a good job. I knew no one and quickly realised the value of having a network. Years later, I have built one up and I’m always conscious of sharing it with those who need it.
Later in one of my first comms jobs, a colleague confronting their racial prejudices admitted: ‘when it was announced you were joining us, I definitely had preconceived notions of what I thought you would be like based on your surname. You are totally different to what I expected!’
In a way I got it. You’ll find many south-Asian girls on that well-trodden path to being accountants, doctors and lawyers. My family is laden with them. When I started out, there weren’t many of us in comms or media jobs. My family nervously supported my freedom to choose my own path, but also didn’t really get it. Even after securing my first job at a national newspaper I was asked - ‘Journalism is a great hobby, but what’s your real career going to be?’ - a comment borne both out of fear of the unknown and what is viewed as ‘traditional’ professions.
Yet at the same time, being one of few south-Asians in the comms space didn’t necessarily make me unique, I often got mistaken for other colleagues from an ethnic background.
Fitting in can be hard when you are switching between cultures. Like many of us, I don’t neatly fit into a category.
I love indie music, I cry at Bollywood films. I have tattoos and love the wild abandon of a music festival. I can still play a bit of the Carnatic violin I learnt growing up and wear a nose piercing. I really, really love sushi, I cook a great curry.
In my last job, a conversation about race articulated something that I had felt throughout my career but had never consciously considered. In south-Asian culture - as in some others - women are expected to be respectful of their elders and of men. Challenging or talking back are seen as bad qualities. We shouldn’t be too feisty, too vocal, too forward. But this can sit counter to some of the qualities, often subconsciously, that are looked for in the workplace and in leadership roles. Being assertive, being heard, being visible.
In that discussion about race, junior colleagues of Asian descent talked about how it didn’t feel natural for them to be these things. Their culture had conditioned them otherwise. But they were worried as a result they came across as not being hungry for progression or able at their jobs. They feared they were being overlooked.
It made me realise I had conditioned myself to adopt the characteristics I thought I needed to succeed. My family would probably describe me as quiet, serious and reserved (although they’ll tell you there are flashes of fire when I am passionate about something). I am quite shy. I found it difficult to share a view in a work meeting. I would speak up to make a point, but then trail off before I finished. I would find the seat in a meeting where I could hide and make myself smaller.
I trained myself to overcome these things. I prepped for meetings (three key bullet points at the top of my page), I rehearsed what I was going to say and - it sounds frivolous - I practiced my power pose, I had a theme song in my head. I observed how other female leaders behaved and interacted - having the confidence to take time articulating my point in a busy meeting (if it’s a point worth making - always finish, don’t rush), sitting up straight, looking someone in the eye. These things felt alien to me. It took me a long time to work out what was my natural style.
Thankfully things are changing.
For me personally, the representation across sectors of brilliant, striking south-Asian women is helping me embrace everything that makes me me. Kamala Harris, Kate and Edwina - the leads in the latest series of Bridgerton, singers MIA and Priya Ragu.
What do they have in common?
Tamil heritage - gone onto doing things not expected of them.
Occasionally I feel sad that I kept so many parts of my culture and identity under wraps. I wish the role models now present had been there to give me confidence back then to embrace my heritage. To know that it was ok to forge a different path than what was expected of me.
But I look to the future. My husband is white-Zimbabwean. My two boys are a wonderful melting pot of cultures and influences. I love helping them water their roots (as my late mother-in-law brilliantly put it) and revel in their uniqueness. Home is melee of English, Tamil, Shona. If you ask my eldest son what his favourite food is he’ll proudly tell you it’s a Sri-Lankan dish - pittu and egg.
It’s good to talk
In the workplace, in the media and in society as a whole, diversity and inclusion are being discussed more openly. We are surfacing different feelings and viewpoints. It takes guts, trust and honesty from the person sharing their story and a willingness to not judge and engage constructively from those listening.
I feel supported in sharing my experiences by those who have already spoken up. In talking you hear that some experiences are very much shared, you find out the hidden advice and tips behind what may seemingly be someone’s breezy leadership journey. You build that invaluable network of support and connections.
Role models and leaders
Leaders and managers also play a pivotal role and I’ve been lucky to have some great ones. When I began my journey into leadership roles, I fretted I couldn’t do it. I wasn’t those polished, poised, articulate female leaders I saw around me. There weren’t many female leaders that looked like me. Growing up, English wasn’t even my first language at home. Could I really be a communications leader?
Building that network is invaluable. It’s not just about a contacts book. It’s about peers, friends, colleagues, managers who champion and support you. Who give you the confidence to back yourself and push for new opportunities (key learning - you are your best advocate, but it takes courage to do that). With my support network, I was encouraged to focus on what I was. To nurture my own leadership style, have the confidence to do it my way and be me. I’m delighted that I continue to feel that way each time I come to work in my current role at the ICO.
Written by Angela Balakrishnan, director of communications at Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO)
If you enjoyed this article, you can subscribe for free to our twice weekly event and subscriber alerts.
Currently, every new subscriber will receive three of our favourite reports about the public relations sector.