Simi Shah dives deep into trailblazing South Asians’ journeys

Simi Shah, host of the podcast Trailblazers

With reach in 94 countries, Trailblazers provides all South Asians  insight into leaders who look like them.

Growing up in a robust South Asian community in Atlanta, Georgia, Simi Shah was immersed in the subcontinent’s culture every day — from speaking Gujarati, Kutchi and English at home, to Bollywood dance classes, and cultural summer camps.

No wonder looking for ways to maintain a connection with her culture as she approached graduation at Harvard, Shah hit upon the idea of Trailblazers — a podcast that dives deep into the journeys of trailblazing South Asians.

So in 2020, Shah officially launched Trailblazers to provide all South Asians “a meaningful line of sight to leaders who look like them,” as the founder and host tells the American Bazaar in an interview.

Read: Trailblazer venture capitalist Purvi Gandhi paves way for women (July 24, 2021)

Broadway stars like Arianna Afsar, politicians like Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi, and unicorn entrepreneurs like ClassPass founder Payal Kadakia have appeared on Shah’s podcast, which has a reach in 94 countries.

“The only requisite I have is that every trailblazer we welcome has a compelling story — a journey that is inspirational and aspirational,” says Shah, who also works for Indian American trailblazer Indra Nooyi, the former Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo.

“Subvert(ing) South Asian stereotypes related to career and success,” as Shah puts it, not only does the podcast “highlight trailblazers from a diverse array of career spheres, but we also underscore their non-linear paths to getting there.”

Once considered “fringe,” today, South Asian buying power is estimated to be around $1.3 trillion and “Our community is integral to the socioeconomic and cultural fabric of many countries,” she points out.

“Yet so little is built for our community or catered to us,” Shah says noting, “Only in recent years have we gradually started to see ourselves considered and represented — on screen, in business and policy decisions, and more.”

“I believe that the work we do at Trailblazers not only contributes to this consideration and representation, but we’re a part of the movement specifically building for South Asians, by South Asians,” she asserts.

Shah says she chose the podcast platform for telling the success story of South Asians because audio seemed like a perfect start to make it easy for the ambitious, career-oriented South Asians — people who are often on the go — to engage with trailblazers.

The daughter of South Asian small business owners has also launched ‘Shop South Asian,’ a platform that connects consumers to South Asian owned and operated businesses, which often lack commensurate access to resources and opportunities to accelerate their growth.

“We’re also building a community and resource network for the entrepreneurs behind them,” she says. With 100 entrepreneurs already on board, it has “big plans for the journey ahead.”

Asked what next, Shah had a simple mantra: To keep building.

“Entrepreneurship runs in my veins. I love building — it energizes me in unprecedented ways,” she says noting that Trailblazers is now welcoming small South Asian businesses as brand partners and sponsors.

Simi Shah tells the story of her own journey in this interview with the American Bazaar:

AB: What is Trailblazers? Tell us about how, when and why was it launched?

SS: Trailblazers is a podcast and platform where I dive deep into the journeys of trailblazing South Asians. Across our four seasons, I’ve interviewed prominent South Asian leaders — from Coinbase’s Chief Legal Officer Paul Grewal to ClassPass Founder Payal Kadakia.

While I was at Harvard, I fell in love with the art of podcasting while working on a similar project with a friend. After graduating, I found myself missing the ability to flex my creative muscles. I also wanted to continue forging a connection to my culture. The idea of Trailblazers started brewing in my mind.

Being a new entrant in the workforce, I was acutely aware of the prevalence of South Asians in leadership. I’d see them everywhere: in movie credits, in senior positions at major companies, and elsewhere.

But despite the fact that South Asians were leading across industries, their stories were rarely captured with respect to their identities. They were also never aggregated in a single forum.

So in 2020, I officially launched Trailblazers to provide all South Asians a meaningful line of sight to leaders who look like them.

It became a way for me to not only highlight stories of South Asian success, but also to connect with my culture in this new, professional context of my life. (And to help others do the same!).

AB: What are the key concerns of South Asians in America and how does your podcast address them?

SS: For one, I think we subvert South Asian stereotypes related to career and success. Not only do we highlight trailblazers from a diverse array of career spheres, but we also underscore their non-linear paths to getting there. It’s very real, and our guests get candid.

We also address the issue of representation in a future-forward way. South Asians have often been considered “fringe,” largely because of our smaller population size, particularly in the US.

But today, South Asian buying power is estimated to be around $1.3 trillion. We’re set to become a key political constituency. And today, there are 12 South Asian origin CEOs, and more are on their way. Our community is integral to the socioeconomic and cultural fabric of many countries.

Yet so little is built for our community or catered to us. Only in recent years have we gradually started to see ourselves considered and represented — on screen, in business and policy decisions, and more.

I believe that the work we do at Trailblazers not only contributes to this consideration and representation, but we’re a part of the movement specifically building for South Asians, by South Asians.

AB: Why did you choose the podcast platform for telling the success story of South Asians?

SS: Audio and video are powerful tools for storytelling. It’s the future of media. I’m a lifelong writer, so I always knew I could stretch these conversations into other formats, but I wanted to start with a medium that I knew would draw people in.

To that end, we have a newsletter that captures episode excerpts in print format, as well as a Youtube channel. I never want the medium to be a blocker for individuals who want to access these stories.

Not to mention, a major part of my target audience includes the ambitious, career-oriented South Asian — people who are often on the go. Audio seemed like a perfect start to make it easy for them to engage with these stories, to engage with Trailblazers.

AB: Tell us about some of the leading ‘Trailblazers’ on your podcasts? How do you choose them?

SS: Where do I begin? When I first started, people often asked me if there were even enough trailblazers to push past one season. Now that I’m in the thick of building Trailblazers, I can tell you how wrong of a presumption that was.

I’ve welcomed Broadway stars like Arianna Afsar, politicians like Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi, and unicorn entrepreneurs like ClassPass founder Payal Kadakia. We are trailblazing everywhere.

Some of our most popular episodes include that with Pernod Ricard Chairman and CEO Ann Mukherjee, Geetha Murali, CEO of Room to Read, and 49ers President Paraag Marathe, among myriad others.

The only requisite I have is that every trailblazer we welcome has a compelling story — a journey that is inspirational and aspirational.

My goal is to ensure we have range: we’ll show you artists and TV producers; we’ll also show you the doctors and engineers. The sky is the limit. I want people to dream.

AB: Who is your primary audience? South Asians or the world beyond the Diaspora?

SS: Currently, our podcast has reach in 94 countries, which I consider a huge win. South Asians are of course our primary audience — young, old, near, and far. Given that we’re US based, a lot of our content inherently attracts South Asians in the Diaspora.

In all of our episodes, I always ask guests about how their South Asian roots have impacted them, but it’s never the centerpiece of the conversation. I truly believe Trailblazers is for anyone even mildly curious about these trailblazers’ paths to success — and that’s not limited to the South Asian contingent.

AB: Tell us about yourself. How was it like growing up in America as an Indian American woman and your work — professional and beyond?

SS: I grew up in a robust South Asian community in Atlanta, Georgia. Culture was a part of my every day. Gujarati, Kutchi, and English at home. Bollywood dance classes. Cultural Summer camps.

As I got older, it truly became of my own volition.

I have a deep love for our culture and all that comes with it. I’ve always sought out ways to integrate my two identities, and Trailblazers is a manifestation of that at this stage in my life.

Today, I also work for Indra Nooyi, the former Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo. And it’s a really special thing to work with a South Asian trailblazer, and to bring my identity into my work in ways I’ve never been able to before.

I’ve always been proud of my heritage, and grow prouder of our community’s presence with every passing day.

AB: How does your other platform ‘Shop South Asian’ work?

SS: In building Trailblazers, I started to come across lots of South Asian entrepreneurs. Truly inspired founders, builders, and innovators. I quickly saw a pattern.

Often, though these South Asian entrepreneurs are building scalable, high-growth businesses, they don’t always have commensurate access to resources and opportunities to accelerate their growth.

As the daughter of South Asian small business owners, I wanted to bridge that gap. So I launched Shop South Asian — a platform that connects consumers to South Asian owned and operated businesses.

We’re also building a community and resource network for the entrepreneurs behind them. To date, we’ve welcomed over 100 entrepreneurs into this space, and have big plans for the journey ahead.

AB: What next, what are your plans for the future?

SS: To keep building. Entrepreneurship runs in my veins. I love building — it energizes me in unprecedented ways.

I’m really looking forward to diving deeper into these two platforms, and finding additional ways to exercise this muscle. I’ve spent time in finance, media, and in content and strategy, so I imagine taking on more in these spaces in the future.

For the first time ever, we are welcoming brand partners and sponsors to Trailblazers — most of which have been small South Asian businesses.

It’s a really exciting time, and certainly is keeping me busy, alongside my full-time job. I look forward to continue building this vision and recruiting more people to our mission!

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