Anjula Acharia wanted to be an actress while growing up in the nineties in Buckinghamshire, UK., but was dismayed to find little prospect for a brown girl in the field.
While she still had hope, she told her parents that one day she would be in America – in Los Angeles to be precise. She fulfilled her American dream, though she took a different route. Among other things, she is manager to actress Priyanka Chopra Jonas.
“I always dreamed of being in Hollywood, which is funny, but I did end up being in Hollywood,” she says on a late evening video call with SEEMA. “I lived in LA for a long time. But the actual reason that brought me here was destiny.”
She now lives in New York, having curtailed her travels after being infected with the coronavirus. When scheduling the interview, we had hoped to go beyond her association with Chopra Jonas, and focus on this trailblazer who is not just an entrepreneur, but has been behind many a successful women-led start-up. No matter how much you try to divorce her from Chopra Jonas, the superstar keeps popping back into our conversation. In fact, Acharia was chatting from the actress’s home in New York after attending a get-together celebrating the South Asian nominees to the Oscars the previous night.
For someone with no experience in tech or entertainment, Acharia seems to have had the right pitch every time, whether it be for music executive James Iovine, or Chopra Jonas, who was a stranger when she first met her.
“I don’t really have a pitch,” she says. “One thing I just know is that if you have a vision and an idea, which is groundbreaking, you have to inspire people to go along on your journey with you. The key for me is how can you inspire someone to want to go on a journey with you? Because ultimately, that’s what it is. They are investing their time and their energy and their money in going on a journey with you.”
Acharia describes her own journey.
“I went to drama school and grew up wanting to be an actress,” she says. “But back then in England, it was really difficult to get roles. Everyone kept telling me I was going to be a poor actress and never get any roles because there were no roles for brown people. So I guess I just kind of decided to be a rich businesswoman instead.”
The move to the US has indeed been a profitable one. Fresh off the boat, Acharia began her entrepreneurial journey through DesiHits.com, a company that paired South Asian artists with Hollywood producers and created a fusion world of music. What is less known is that one of the most life-changing moments for the entrepreneur was meeting Jimmy Iovine, the founder of Interscope Records. A meeting that was to last 15 minutes went on for over four hours.
“Meeting Jimmy, took me on a path which was very different to the one that I had planned for myself,” she says. “He introduced me to people like Lady Gaga, who then [let] me to expand her career across Asia. Then he convinced me to manage Priyanka. He encouraged me to invest in a company called ClassPass, which became a billion-dollar unicorn company… He opened up a whole world to me that I had not touched before.”
Acharia’s work with DesiHits and the connections Iovine provided saw her bringing about collaborations between the best in pop culture, such as the one between Lady Gaga and Bollywood composers Salim-Suleiman. Acharia singles out the House of Gucci star’s first Indian tour as her most satisfying DesiHits project.
She says, “I think the most amazing thing was watching [Lady Gaga] perform on a stage in Noida. She came offstage, she held my hands and asked, ‘How did I do?’ And I was just like, ‘Oh, my God!’ It was the moment that took my breath away.”
The discussion comes back to her work with Chopra Jonas.
“When I met Priyanka,” Acharia reminisces, “she was very famous, very successful in India. She didn’t have a plan to come to America. I changed the destination of our flights.” Acharia argues that success is based on a meritocracy.
Perhaps what Brian Epstien was for The Beatles and Peter Grant for Led Zeppelin, Acharia is to Chopra Jonas. Epstein and Grant helped make British bands popular across the pond here in the US, where they reached meteorical heights. Similarly, Acharia helped Chopra carve a niche for herself in Hollywood, and establish herself as no other Bollywood actor had done before.
Growing up in the UK was not easy, and Acharia faced discrimination based on the color of her skin. The lack of South Asians where she grew up was challenging, leaving her feel isolated. Being bullied and called awful names did not help, but it prepared her for what she does now: putting her might behind women who look like her and have the same fire in their belly.
Now, Acharia is not just a manager to Chopra Jonas; she seems more like family, which was why our scheduled call was pushed ahead by 15 minutes. The two were catching up at the star’s home in New York.
Acharia gushes when she speaks about Chopra Jonas: “I got to tell you, she’s just brilliant. I can put her in any room, and she will just be amazing. She’s just a multi-hyphenate. She’s a businesswoman, an artist, a creator; she’s just so many things. And I really spotted that in her when I first met her.”
However, it took a long time for her to get a meeting with Chopra Jonas. It took a lot of stalking to get the actress’s attention, and it must have been a serious pitch to convince a Bollywood actress on top of her game in India to move from movies to music – which was the proposal Acharia pitched.
“If you know her, you can press that button,” Acharia says. “I didn’t know to press that button when I met her. But I did – and it worked. Because she swims against the tide in everything that she does, and she had a genuine passion for music.”
It almost took a year for the deal to finally crystallize and, when it did, it was done at the Monkey Bar in New York. After establishing Chopra Jonas in Hollywood through musical collaborations with Will. I Am and Pitbull, and graduating to both tent-pole films and prime time TV shows, what are her next plans for Chopra Jonas?
Acharia admits she has not mapped that out yet.
“The sky’s the limit,” she says. “I think anything and everything’s next, I think there’s nothing she can’t do. You never know which opportunities gonna be in front of you. So I don’t know what’s next for Priy, any more than I know what’s next for me. I just know that when the opportunity arises, we’ll fix it.”
But she rattles off a list of projects that are in the pipeline. There’s Farhan Akhtar’s “Jee Le Zaraa” at the end of this year with Alia Bhatt and Katrina Kaif, the TV show “Citadel,” helmed by the Russo brothers, best known for the last two action adventure Avenger films, and an upcoming Hollywood romantic comedy, “Text For You.”
Other than her artistic pursuits, Chopra Jonas is following Acharia into entrepreneurial ventures as well.
“Obviously, we do some entrepreneurial things, too,” Acharia says. “She founded a company called Anomaly, which is a hair-care brand, and she’s also investing with me.”
While known for her work with Chopra Jonas, Acharia is a celebrity in her own right and a serial investor in Silicon Valley with an eye for ideas that make billion-dollar companies – as she did with Payal Kadakia’s unicorn, ClassPass. Other notable companies that she has been associated with are the dating app company Bumble, job search site TheMuse, gourmet meal company Gobble, and online shopping platform The Hunt.
Acharia is now on the list of every person looking for investment in their startup project through her company A – Series Management & Investments. She has been included on the Billboard’s ‘International Power Players’ list and has managed to successfully bring technology and entertainment together in her personal portfolio.
Like she did with ClassPass founder Kadakia, who was on our cover in February, the lady encourages other women to pursue their dreams.
“If you don’t bet on yourself, why would I or anyone else?” This is what Acharia asked Kadakia, who approached her for investment. She then helped get ClassPass to be valued at over a billion dollars.
This was one of her first investments, one which has surprised her most with its success. She explains why.
“Probably because I’ve been on the longest journey with them,” Acharia says. “I was the first check into that company. I incubated them in my office. Who knew that they would become a billion-dollar company, sell to Mindbody? Yeah, I think that’s probably the biggest surprise.”
As a limited partner in funds like Seedcamp and BBG Ventures, Acharia’s advice to entrepreneurs on raising capital is simple: “Don’t try and raise money. Just talk about the journey that you’re going on, and what you want to achieve and how you want to inspire. Just come at it as a passion and try and get people to come along on your journey.”
Acharia has also encouraged Chopra Jonas to make her own investments in the past couple of years. Chopra Jonas has invested in Bumble, Apartment List, coding education start-up Holberton School, etc.
“She’s getting heavily involved in different companies that we’re investing in together,” says Acharia, and points out that the actress has a penchant for business and is a great sounding board for her. “She would always have such incredibly smart feedback for me. She has instinct, insight – and that has evolved into her saying, ‘Can I invest in that company or can I do that?’”
The angel investor has been God sent for many startups but what does it take to get her attention? What should you include in your pitch deck to her?
She tells me what she looks for in the companies that seek investment.
“It is really about the founder first… the magic in the founder. When I think they have something special about them, then it’s very much about what problem they’re solving? They don’t have to have experience in that problem. It means they have a perspective. They’re just … disruptors and they just figure things out.”
So what is she? Investor, entrepreneur, business advisor or business manager?
“I think, ultimately, I’m an entrepreneur as I always want to build things and create things. I’m also a talent spotter, whether that means I spot an entrepreneur or spot someone like Priyanka or Lady Gaga or whoever. I just like to see talent and try and find the water to put on the seeds and help it grow. That’s also an entrepreneurial thing. Being an investor, you invest in early-stage businesses or people. Most of my investments have been in people first. I think what excites me is the ability to do lots of things and do them well.”
The project she is most excited about is her book, which she completed and handed over to her agent the day before we spoke. No, it’s not a memoir or a self-help book.
“It’s about two South Asian girls growing up in London in the nineties. It’s really a time when music was the backdrop for what was happening in England for South Asians. Where we were mixing bhangra with hip hop, R&B and reggae, where South Asians created a sub-culture which was a mashup of British and Indian cultures. So the book is set in the backdrop of the music of the time, a story about the fusion of cultures and then serves its own story within a wider story of what’s happening in England at that time.”
At SEEMA, through our various platforms, we often bring the topic of South Asian sisterhood, or its absence, in our community. Acharia experienced the dearth of it while growing up, and in her initial days as an entrepreneur.
“I didn’t have any female mentors and that was very disappointing to me,” she says. “I never found women wanting to help me; I felt that they just felt competitive. For me, I have this deep desire to see women succeed,” she says.
Indra Nooyi, the former chief of PepsiCo who was on our cover this January, was in fact the first mentor who reached out to Acharia, then a stranger to her. Nooyi had mentioned to us about the importance of South Asian women banding together and helping pull each other up. Acharia paid it forward by helping Kadakia and many other women-led companies that she has funded.
Acharia says she believes in creating more opportunities to make the community bigger, so that the impact is larger and more opportunities spring from it
Madeline Albright, the former secretary of state who passed away late last month, had once said, ‘There is a special place in hell for women who do not help other women.’
Acharia, through her investment portfolio that consists primarily of women-led companies has perhaps built herself a stairway to heaven.
What she does…..really well!
Investor, Advisor, Board member to a host of companies.
- ClassPass – Fitness
- Hooked – Storytelling
- Bumble (Blackstone) – Dating
- Bulletproof – Coffee
- The Muse – Job Search
- Health-ade – Kombucha
- Skinny Dipped – Snacks
- YUMI – Baby food
- FounderMade – Event management
- Gobble – Meal kits
- The Well – Wellness
- Joro App – Sustainability
- Pop & Bottle – Beverage
- Sprayology – Wellness
- LP for Seedcamp
- Clubhouse – Social media
- LP for BBG Ventures
- Olipop – Beverage
- Mayvenn – Beauty
A persisten client-
The moment Priyanka became a Guess girl
“Make me a Guess girl.” Priyanka Chopra Jonas had thrown the idea to Acharia while sitting in the Heathrow lounge flipping through a magazine that had the brand’s ad.
Sure enough, Chopra Jonas became the first brown model for Guess. Perhaps it was to do with her being a mega superstar in India, which aligned well with the brand’s strategy for a country where it had opened its first store in 2005.
Acharia laughs as she recalls the moment.
“I looked at her and asked, ‘You are joking?’ and she said, ‘No I [am] not.’ And I said to her, ‘Priy, you are not blond-haired with blue eyes.’ And apart from Noami Campbell, all other Guess girls (Claudia Schiffer, Anna Nicole Smith, Paris Hilton) have been blond. She just shrugged her shoulders and said, “I will be the first.”
“When she gives me a job like this, I take it very seriously, and we made it happen,” Acharia adds.
Excerpt from “Priyanka Chopra – The incredible story of a Bollywood star” – Aseem Chhabra