As a director and producer of social justice documentaries, Joya brings to light the ways in which individuals and organizations can improve our world. After years of working as a T.V. anchor, she began producing documentaries in 2009 and eventually became a principal in the company Avenue Media. Her first feature length documentary, First Sight, follows three sight-challenged children, ages 3, 14 and 15, as they undergo life changing surgeries at a foundation hospital in South India. Joya continues to work as a business anchor with NY1 News and CNN and is currently producing a series of mini-documentaries on the good works of the Rockefeller Foundation in celebration of their Centennial.
Q: Please share with us the story of how your professional journey began and has brought you to where you are today.
A: Much to my parents’ chagrin, I was one of those precocious children who knew at eleven that I wanted to be a TV anchor. My mother and father, from India and Myanmar respectively, had other plans for me. Given the quantum leap they had made in immigrating to another country, the least I could do was stay behind, become a doctor and eventual care-taker of the family. I made the unpopular decision… I broke from my family at 18. By 2004, I had achieved it. I was a Business News Anchor for ABC. My face appeared every morning, large on the jumbotron in Times Square. That steep climb came with such sacrifice and hard work that I wanted to do something bigger. I wanted to give back.
Anyone who has travelled “home” for the first time has a number of adjectives to describe India: Overwhelming. Overpopulated. Exotic. Dirty. Inefficient. Loud. For me, the word was: Home. Thousands of miles from my pre-war brownstone on Central Park West, I felt an overwhelming sense of belonging when I went for the first time in 2002. And this was where the idea for the second leg of my career would germinate.
December 2009, I took a team of 5 guys to Tamil Nadu, India, to shoot my first social justice documentary. The subject was curable blindness in children in the developing world and one foundation’s fight to eradicate the problem in the world by the year 2020. First Sight just premiered at the Tribeca Screening Room in New York City, March 22, 2012.
Today, I am still on the air with CNN and NY1, delivering the latest in stock market news from the hustle and flow of the New York Stock Exchange. However, I’m also principal in a production company that creates video content for cause-based organizations. We are currently engaged by the Rockefeller Foundation to create a mini-film series on their goodwill work around the globe. Here is a clip about bringing virtual education to the far reaches of India:
Q: It’s hard to focus on the “big picture” sometimes because we can get caught in the weeds of work and life. When does visioning come clearest or easiest for you? Or what inspires your vision?
A: My morning routine includes a 40-minute speed walk in Central Park. It’s my meditation and time when I do my critical thinking around the big picture. Before I go to bed, I take 5 or 10 minutes to review the day and re-envision events the way it would have gone, if all the stars had aligned perfectly. This way, the good thoughts marinate in my brain as I sleep, as opposed all the things that didn’t go right. I’m also a big believer in creating vision boards and keeping them where you can see them every day.
I remember reading about Deepa Mehta producing Midnight’s Children for Salman Rushie. THAT inspires me. Or Mira Nair, getting an Academy Award for her movie Salaam Bombay about slumdweller children, and subsequently raising money to help those children. Art with a cause! inspires me. She used the proceeds of the film to establish an organization for street children, called the Salaam Baalak Trust in India. I want to use my and my partner’s combined 25 years of filmmaking to make THAT kind of palpable difference in someone’s life.
Q: What are your top 3 tips for networking?
A: Go to things in the right frame of mind. Even if you’re feeling off (and everyone has off days), remind yourself of WHY you’re going. Always remember, whether it’s a date, the gym, etc., showing up is 50% of the battle. SHOW UP! Keep true to the commitment you made to yourself to further whatever goal you have.
Be fearless about talking to everyone. I’m amazed when I look at back at tenuous moments, where I had a fragment of a conversation with a person, and that turned into a project or entire film. Don’t judge by first impressions only. And be yourself! It’s the most unique thing you bring to the table.
Go to things that interest YOU. If it’s opera. If it’s art. If it’s restaurants. You’d be surprised where you meet people. Don’t’ feel like you have to only go to events that relate to your profession.
Always follow up with a personalized email or even a hand written note. You would be surprised how much purchase there is in person to person contact, versus a mass email.
Q: A great negotiation can be game changing for one’s business or life. Studies have shown that men are much more comfortable negotiating and asking for what they want compared to women. What’s your advice to women who are uncomfortable negotiating?
A: Know your worth. Do research on career websites that list the average salary for the position you are applying to. Don’t be afraid to say “Let me think about it” and buy time if something doesn’t feel right. In 2004, I was being considered for an anchor position. I was filling in for the regular person, and the network decided to put me in permanently. My phone was ringing off the hook. The employer. The middleman. The head honchos in another state. My agent. When it came down to salary, I became so overwhelmed, that I didn’t ask for what I was worth. Be clear. Be concise. Be true to yourself. And when being asked the same question in a number of ways, by a number of sources, don’t be afraid to say the same thing over and over. “I am worth X,” or “I need to think about it.” Just because someone is demanding an answer, you deserve the time and the space to determine that answer.
ON Career Transitions
Q: Many people become discontent with their current career yet are too afraid or reluctant to make a change. What’s your best advice for women in this situation?
A: Make a one page business plan for your new idea, WHILE you still have your job that pays the bills. Nothing is worse than the financial concerns that come with doing something on your own. Dedicate one hour or one afternoon every week to cultivating this idea. And be disciplined about it. Hold yourself accountable for this time FOR YOU. Show the business plan to those who are already running their own successful businesses in the same arena. Ask the hard questions. Does the business plan make sense? Is it viable? Partner up with someone who is dedicated to making the business a success. I was lucky to find a good partner for my film. We didn’t stay together throughout the duration of First Sight, but as a space shuttle burns through 70% of its jet fuel upon takeoff, I will always credit him with being the jet fuel.
Making that drastic life change is similar to getting married and having children.
NO time is ever going to be the perfect time. You just gotta throw caution to the wind (within reason) and just go for it. Make sure you saved up some money in the bank.
Q: If you had the opportunity to give advice to your younger self at say the age 13, what would you say?
A: Dear Joya:
I so admire your ability to buck all the blocks that were in your way and be ruthless in getting to your goal of paying for college and graduate school yourself. I know you started working at 18, but start earlier. There is so much power in being a woman and having your own money. It buys you a voice. It buys you independence. It teaches accountability and team building. That little savings kitty affords you the ability to tell people to go F&*@ themselves if you don’t like the current program. Learn about maintaining a budget, credit cards and investing early. You spent a lot of time modeling your parents’ spending habits and I would have preferred you undid them earlier.
Q: Is there an example in your life of a time when others were against you or your dream, yet you persevered?
A: YES. When I started at Bloomberg, I was hired as a producer understudy. Business news came with a whole vocabulary and phrasing that needed learning. All the reports were also ad libbed. No scripts. This time would be my ‘on the job MBA.’ Daily, 7 am to 7 pm, I produced reports for the anchors who delivered hourly from the stock exchange floor. The manager who brought me on board left for London. At each review, the interim manager shook his head, “I’m unsure about your future as a reporter.” I heard it so much, I started to believe it. One of the cameraman really believed in me and pushed me to persevere. Each day, he’d push me, after the regular reporter left her post, to get in front of the camera and tape a practice report. He taught me to believe in myself, and hang in there, even when the headwinds are facing you. Eventually the door flung open, and boy did it fling open wide. I got hired away to a new higher profile job. Even as I was leaving, the managers were still shaking their heads, saying “I’m unsure about that Joya.” I went to become a business reporter at CNN, and eventually network TV at ABC.
Q: Life is full of setbacks. Can you share an experience of one, and how you were able to bounce back?
A: The biggest low was the break with my original producer and partner on the film. As most working relationships go, ours wasn’t strong enough to sustain the pressures of a big project like this. We split months into post production, and I thought my heart would never recover. But it did. With the help of my post production producer Daniella Kahane, my excellent editor Juan Leguizamon, and my motion effects editor Rodrigo Fiallega, the film is done. First Sight just premiered at the Tribeca Screening Room March 22nd, 2012 and will be screening in several locations in New York and India later this year. Pick something you really believe in, and never ever give up. Always keep the end goal in sight. Life is gonna throw some serious concrete blocks at you.
ON Taking Risk
Q: Usually reaching something great or grand in life requires taking a risk. What has been your greatest risk so far and how was it rewarding?
A: Man, if I never ask somebody for money or a donation again, I would be a happy girl. All of the $262,000 that went into making my first documentary First Sight came from a series of fundraisers with friends and family in attendance. Beer was sponsored by a distributor of Indian beer. Food was sponsored by a local Indian restaurant. Silent auctions were comprised of donated lasik surgeries, vacations to sustainable resorts in Mexico, Botox… Eventually, I had enough of a film edited that I hit the road and hosted screenings across the country with prominent members of Indian society or prominent eye surgeons. Then asked folks from their networks to please donate money. It was a lot of knocking on doors. A lot of asking. A lot of rejection. But for every 13 rejections, there was one overwhelming YES! And when the YES came, it was the sweetest thing on earth. One of the biggest highs was listening to the music that Sivamani, who is a regular performer with Oscar winning composer A. R. Rahman, had composed for the film. Or Falu’s “Alaap” for the trailer… The music had a big orchestral, real feel sound that gave me goose bumps when I thought about the mere shekels I had in my pocket to pay for it.
ON Time Management
Q: Online calendars, emailing ourselves, post-it notes… I’m still struggling to find the best way to manage my time and to do list? What’s your method?
A: I’m a compulsive list maker. At the beginning of each day, I make a list of things that “MUST GET DONE” and “THINGS THAT HAVE TO GET DONE” and I number them in the order of priority. I carry these around in a book. Each list item has a hand drawn box next to it. I find great satisfaction in crossing that box off each time something is completed.