“In the pursuit of acceptance, you lose what’s interesting about yourself.”

Puja was born in Bombay, a very traditional society, where parents push their kids into 1 of 3 professions: Science, math or engineering. Puja always knew that she wanted to pursue a creative career, but most of her family thought it wouldn’t amount to much of a career. She comes from a family of doctors, accountants and engineers, but was lucky that her dad wasn’t such a traditional thinker. He encouraged Puja to do something that she was excited about. She gives credit to her dad for supporting her dream, and her mom for building the safety net around it. An avid saver, her mom made sure the rest of us could dream big.

When Puja was in high school, a professor introduced her to advertising. Even though she had her eye on fine arts, his advice was that she was better suited in recognizing different styles, storytelling and composition. A fine artist would master one style and he encouraged Puja follow the path of a creative director so she could use more of her strengths. 

After high school, she attended Sir J.J. School of Applied Arts (part of the University of Mumbai) for her BFA. It’s common in India to bribe schools in the form of donations as a way to get in, but J.J. was one of the few based on entrance exams. She could have paid her way into school, but they didn’t allow it, so she was accepted on merit, which is something to be proud of.

She graduated early at age 19 and started working at Leo Burnett in Mumbai. One day, she found the D&AD book and while flipping the pages, discovered a bigger world with such different work, it inspired a desire to travel and work outside of India. She found a scholarship opportunity for women pursuing higher education in the Arts. The scholarship was offered by TATA, an industrialist in India (his company now owns Jaguar). She applied (and won) that scholarship, took a loan from her parents so she could follow her dream and move the the U.S.

Her first stop was at VCU (Virginia Commonwealth University) to earn her Master’s in Communication. She thought if she didn’t make it in advertising, should would be a teacher. Moving to the U.S. was quite a culture shock. She went from being the majority, to being the minority. She had to figure out all the nuances that exist within that change. “Do they understand my accent?” “Do they get my jokes?” “Is brown skin also considered beautiful?” Everything that a non-caucasian child learns to deal with as a kid Puja was learning at 19. People expected her to have mastered being a minority. It was difficult at first and created a lot of self-doubt. She was ok with that and worked hard at catching up on everything American. Her goal was to grow, and the only way forward for her was through the discomfort.

After a few years of college and working at different ad agencies in NY, LA and Chicago, she aced the blending in. One day she saw a commercial she helped make air on TV where the father taught his son to pitch a tent. Puja thought to herself: “Why did I not cast a mother in that role?” In her pursuit of acceptance, she was losing what was interesting about herself. She was a woman, a woman of color, the only female creative in the room who had a seat at the table. The world couldn’t afford for her not to not point out things only she saw. When asked, she often says that “the only way to make space for different ideas is to embrace the awkward meetings and discussions. If you want to expand your world keep coming back to the table. It won’t be love at first sight and that’s ok.”

Pujas creative spirit, which gets restless if in one place too long, has not only taken her to multiple cities like LA, NYC, Minneapolis and Chicago but she has also jumped 3 countries including Switzerland, USA and India. This was exciting because she was now working with many people whose work was featured in that D&AD book that originally inspired her to move to the U.S.

When Puja and her husband were in LA they got pregnant and were ready to call someplace home. They had always loved Minneapolis, the lakes, the seasons and the people. So, their final move was to the Twin Cities where they had their daughter and bought a house near a lake.

Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?
It wouldn’t be a celebrity because I don’t follow celebrities so I don’t about many of them. Susan Credle, the Global CCO at FSB Global. I want to know her secrets. The other person I’d invite would be my mom because we don’t get enough 1-on-1 time.

Would you like to be famous? In what way?
I don’t want to be famous, but I want to leave a mark. I want my life to mean something, and if it does, that means I’ll be remembered. And, it’s ok if it’s only my family that remembers.

Before making a telephone call, do you ever rehearse what you are going to say?
I don’t, but I should because it would help me think things through more thoroughly. I’m an in-the-moment person and it doesn’t always work out.

When did you last sing to yourself? 
Last night, to my daughter when I put her to bed.

If you were able to live to the age of 90 and retain either the mind or body of a 30-year-old for the last 60 years of your life, which would you want?
Wait, does it have to be an immature mind of a 30 year old? This is a hard question. I kind of want them both. I’ll go with mind.

Do you have a secret hunch about how you will die?
I don’t have a hunch, but a preference. I hope it’s a heart attack.
To me, that is better than drowning, burning or crashing in an airplane

For what in your life do you feel most grateful?
For people, like my dad, who believed in me. My dad believed in dreams over being rational about life. I also think luck played a huge role. My job was to reach for my stars, which was to be a Creative Director in the U.S. If you did a pros and cons exercise on that dream, the cons would definitely kill it! Being persistent and at the right place at the right time had impact on my life. 

If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be?
Being born a woman, in a third world country and middle class has created an adversity to risk for me. To succeed, you have to believe you are right. Even if I have all the proof that I’m right, society has taught me that as a woman I must question myself. I wish I could be more of who I am versus who I’ve been trained to be. 

I challenged her answer and pointed out that from my perspective, her whole story is about taking risks. From her career choice, moving around the world and settling in MN. Puja replied that risk is subjective. She wanted to rule the world, but she is settling for ruling her world.

Is there something that you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?
I don’t know if I’ve necessarily had dreams that I’ve not set a timeline to. If a dream doesn’t transition to a goal, it seems like a failure. I don’t give myself space to dream. I dream about a Creative Department having 50/50 gender equity, but that’s not in my control. My life has been about achieving, it’s just how I’m wired.  

What is the greatest accomplishment of your life?
It’s really simple. It’s that I identified what I wanted in life. There were two doors to choose, with pros and cons behind each. I picked my door without questioning my choice. Of course, I’ve thought: “I’m good at math, I should have been a trader.” Sure, I’d have money, but it wouldn’t make me happy.