We are continuing our Career Interviews today with one of our favorite humans, Anjali Kumar. You might remember her from this piece she wrote for us on Curiosity. Well, that persistent sense of curiosity has informed her career in many ways. While lawyer by schooling and trade, she has also been known to dabble as a handbag designer and author (her book, Stalking God, is a must read!). And we are all secretly rooting for her to start a podcast or talk show of her own, where her curiosity can truly flourish. Emily sat down with Anjali a few weeks ago to chat all things career and curiosity…
Emily: Where did you grow up?
Anjali: I was born in Brooklyn, but then I moved to the Chicago area when I was about 2 or 3 years old. I was raised outside of Chicago in a town called Flossmoor, IL. Yes, that’s a real place.
What did your parents do?
My father was a biochemist and an entrepreneur, and my mom is a painter. She’s an artist and homemaker.
When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I think there was a moment where I thought I wanted to be a newscaster.
I can see that now!
Yeah I wish I had done it, I don’t think I was a journalist through. I think I abandoned those dreams really early when I heard what was involved in doing radio. But when I was little I thought I wanted to be a newscaster, or on the radio–not actually playing music, probably doing the news on the radio.
Did your parents have an impact on what you wanted to do in any capacity? Did you look to them for guidance in starting to figure out what career you would have for yourself?
Absolutely. I actually was pre-med all through college because my parents had an impact on what I was studying. I was very much that cliche Indian of a certain generation that was taught that if you went to medical school you were set and safe in this country; you would always have a job there would always be sick people, people don’t discriminate against their doctors. So, at that point I just thought I’d become a doctor. I was good at math and science, and so that was the career path I just assumed I’d do.
Where did you go to school?
Brown, and the only reason I’m not still failing out of med school is because I went to Brown. I was exposed to all of this other stuff and I was like “oh, wait I don’t have to be a doctor?” It’s where I decided to find my rebellious streak, and I thought, “I’ll show them. I’m not going to be a doctor, I’m going to become a lawyer.” It was the saddest rebellion. Shows you what a nerd I was when I was growing up, I was like, “I don’t play but anyone else’s rules, I’m going to go to law school.”
Once you go to law school did you feel more engaged in what you were studying?
Yeah, for sure. I really really enjoyed law school actually, as much as one can enjoy that kind of rigorous curriculum. But I did enjoy it, I really enjoyed the dialogue in our classes, I enjoyed the way we were taught to think about problems and issue spotting. All those sorts of basic skills of a lawyer I really enjoyed. And I liked all the reading in a way that I was surprised by.
I had taken a year off in between undergrad and law school, so I think I got used to working every single day. So going to law school, I had that discipline of having to do my reading every single day, which was not the discipline I had in college–college was a bit more loosey goosey for me. Going into law school I was ready to commit to studying every single day and getting through whatever was assigned to me and keeping up, so it wasn’t overwhelming the way I think it could have been if I had gone straight through.
What type of law were you doing at Sherman & Sterling, your first firm after college?
I was a corporate lawyer. The two years I worked in London I was working on internet 2.0 on IPOs of these companies, so kind of this first wave of internet companies, any thing with a “.com” at the time. We were taking a lot of those companies public, and I was a very junior associate doing all the diligence and reading contracts and proofreading things, having to stay at the office until all hours of the night printing and photocopying, calling taxis to send out documents all across London. It was a really shitty job, but I really learned how to be a very diligent lawyer because of my time there.
Can you talk about different specialties within the corporate law space?
There are really different areas of law, so it depends on what kinds of deals you are working on. I was working on “deals” but not mergers and acquisitions, people tend to specialize in different things. The team I was working with was called corporate finance and it was getting financing for these corporations– one of the ways they can do that now is through VCs–but what we were doing was taking these companies public, to the public markets, and that’s how they would get this big infusion of cash to keep their operations going.
When I moved to New York I switched departments and started working on Project Finance. I thought it was going to be more development work, because I actually went to the law firm thinking I was going to do this for a few years, pay off all my loans, and then go into non profit, that was my game plan. I actually had a professor in law school who recommended that I do that. If you get job offers from places like Shearman & Sterling, take it and show everybody you can cut it with the big boys and then quit.
I did a ton of pro-bono work when I was at Shearman which was really amazing. So, when I came to New York I was doing project development and finance, which I thought was infrastructure projects in developing countries and it was going to be like changing the world through these big projects. Instead, we were basically getting financing for like oil companies and it was literally building oil rigs and getting the financial documents in place. It was really not for me, so I ended up starting to do a lot of pro-bono work because I found myself so not inspired by the work that I was doing. I started representing an art space in New York called The Kitchen, I started working with an asylum case… anyone who needed pro-bono I was always the one to raise my hand because I loved doing it.
What pulled you towards that type of work do you think?
I was raised with a real sense of fairness and justice. My father continues to be a really liberal democrat, which I have since found out is very unusual in the Indian community. I didn’t realize until the past couple elections that that is not entirely true. I was just raised that way, thinking we had this duty to give back and to do something with what we have been given. Especially coming as first generation citizens to this country you really feel that sense of responsibility and gratitude for having this experience.
How long did you stay at that firm?
I was there for 4 years, and then 9/11 happened, and 9/11 to me was a huge wake up call. There were actually two events that came in close succession, one is the asylum case that I mentioned. I was assigned a pro-bono case of this young Pakistani woman who was escaping the threat of an honor killing. She was escaping an abusive marriage, a forced marriage, and she was coming back from Pakistan to go back into this abusive relationship as her family forced her back or threatened to kill her. She managed to escape at JFK airport through the help of some amazing flight attendants who helped shepard her to safety and moved her into a safe house. Then through that she ended up coming to my work and I was her pro-bono attorney. We worked on her case, and it turned out there was all this crazy stuff over the course of her case including one of her uncles showed up in my office. At the office I had to start being escorted by security every night because he showed and was calling and threatening, calling up to my office from the lobby of our building and threatening me and demanding I come down since security wouldn’t let him up. That went on for a while. We met them at the courthouse downtown and we had to escort her out and go into a waiting car. This was all super dramatic especially as a 27 year old lawyer at the time it was terrifying, more terrifying for her obviously.
9/10 was supposed to be my moving day, we used to live downtown just a few blocks from the World Trade Center. My husband and I were going to be moving uptown and I got notice that this young woman’s hearing was scheduled for 9/10, her immigration hearing in Queens. We moved our moving day to 9/11 which is also our anniversary, and then I went to her hearing and she was ultimately granted asylum, which frankly she never would have gotten I think had her hearing been pushed to 9/12.
9/11 happened, we were moving that morning, so we were home, we lived just a few blocks away from the World Trade Center, we saw the whole thing go down, and had to escape this area because there were FBI and SWAT teams all around they were clearing the area, and everything changed in New York. That to me, like for so many New Yorkers, was such a big wakeup call. For me professionally, I came into this whole thing wanting to have an impact on the world, but what am I waiting for? What else do I need to have happen? I was ready to make a move, and within the next few months I ended up taking a job at the Robinhood Foundation. They had raised a lot of money in the aftermath of 9/11 helping the poorest of the poor New Yorkers with mental health issues and other sorts of other critical services that the city needed, and I worked at Robinhood for three years.
In there somewhere I started my handbag business too. I have a small handbag line, it was on Sex and the City twice. And the reason I started that was because I was getting bored. The economy was starting to go down pre 9/11, work was getting very quiet, I was busy on some pro-bono cases, I didn’t have a ton of other work and had a ton of time on my hands and was creatively itchy.
How did you even know how to make a handbag?
I really didn’t and that’s the comedy of it all, is how I had the chutzpah to think that I could do this having no background in the fashion industry, no connections, no idea what I was doing. I found a garment manufacturer in the garment district to help me sew these bags, when I look back at them they are hilarious. They are so janky, but they sold and someone actually placed an order. So that was my creative outlet, and then I was doing other stuff, 9/11 happens, the world goes completely upside down and changes, and I realize I need to do something else.
To me, going to Robinhood was that first step, and I was still designing handbags. I designed for quite some years, and I worked at Robinhood and to me it was incredibly fulfilling. I don’t know if it felt fulfilling at the time because it was such a crazy time in the city, it was a very difficult time, the whole city was on edge. But, as a city we really came together in the aftermath of 9/11 in a way that I’ve never experienced before or since. It was really an incredible time and I’m actually really bonded with that group of people to this day, we have a connection that I don’t think I share with any other group of people, certainly not in my professional career, than I do from that time.
Did you find your work at Robinhood to be impactful?
I did feel like I was making an impact, but what was interesting to see how you could use your skills to make an impact. I was working in what was called the managers assistance team, which was basically an in-house consultant team that worked with all the grant recipients to help them with strategic planning or development, board development, board recruiting, whatever challenges they might be facing not even necessarily tied to their grant fundings. I helped with legal stuff or connecting them to pro-bono legal services was also part of my job. I think just realizing that I could use my skills in that different way was a really eye opening moment for me.
So you leave Robinhood after three years, you stop doing the bags at some point. Was that around a similar time?
No, that was after I started at Acumen Fund. So I moved from Robinhood to Acumen, and then by the time I got a good way into Acumen, I was the general counsel there and we were so busy and I was working so much that I couldn’t do both.
What prompted you to take that position?
I missed the law, which I never thought I’d say, because I wasn’t practicing law at Robinhood. I realized that I actually missed practicing law and how I could use that tool to have an impact. So through an introduction of somebody I knew at Robinhood, I met one of the executives over at Acumen and we were talking and I offered to do volunteer work because I was planning on taking a sabbatical from Robinhood because I was super burnt out. It was just an emotionally charged time for all of us, so I was planning on taking a one month sabbatical and was looking for a project to do and they were basically like, “look, instead of doing that, would you consider being our general counsel? Why don’t you just come on full time?” So, instead I did a one month sabbatical in Italy working in a restaurant and living above a kitchen and then I came back, finished up my time at Robinhood for another six months and then I moved over to Acumen.
How long were you there?
I was there for two years and then got recruited there to Google.
When you were at Google, you were still practicing law, but you also started some other fun projects while you were there. Which is how we met because you had Garance come and talk.
Google was a really amazing experience. That was a job I never would have applied for on my own. I didn’t have any background in the internet, there weren’t tech lawyers at the time, people were all kind of stumbling into it. Because it was all so new, there weren’t really rules and you could dig your teeth into what was interesting to you because it all needed to get done and there was so much to do. I think Google really fostered that and gave me permission to do it, and was actually rewarded for it because the ability to jump from thing to thing was needed because the business was growing so fast and whatever new product would come out nobody knew how to do it and I didn’t feel the need to be the expert. I think that is what I really enjoyed about my time at Google and I didn’t realize that was working a muscle that has become a big thread in my career, or being able to not know things and being able to figure it out, to actually see patterns and give good advice based on that.
Then, the stuff that we did together, while I was at Google I was tapped to host an internal chef competition that was our version of top chef but we called it Google Chef. Our guest judge that year was Padma Lakshmi, and then she brought along her friends Daniel Boulud and Eric Ripert, so I was like what have I gotten myself into. So I prepped and not gonna lie, I kinda killed it, I had so much fun doing it and it went really well, then that turned into the Authors at Google team, which was an all volunteer team at Google who would just invite people in to speak. People like Tina Fey to whoever has the next best seller would come through Google as a stop on their book tour, and they emailed me, “you seem to know a lot about food, do you want to curate all the chef talks that we do?” And I was like, “Seriously? Yeah, of course I do. That’s amazing” So that is how that started, I began curating chef talks and basically inviting in all the chefs that either had cookbooks coming out or just had restaurants I really wanted to eat at some day. It was like my own secret hustle, and then that became me hosting them only because the chefs were actually quite shy. So I discovered my inner Oprah, and I loved it, it was so fun and ended up just doing it. Then from that, I ended up meeting at a tech conference the manager of the band The Roots, Rich Nichols, who has since passed away, and he and I became friendly, and he had said to me after knowing me for a while he had watched my talks back and that I was actually really good and should consider pursuing this. So that was how Lunchtime at Google came up, and I ended up doing three episodes. The first was with Questlove, he was my first guest, then Jacques Pépin, then Garance was my third guest. And I think I hit my stride with Garance, I really loved doing it, but then I quit Google to go to Warby Parker so that’s the end of my blossoming road talk show at Google.
So you left and went to Warby.
I was general counsel and head of social innovation at Warby, so I brought back all the non-profit I worked I had been doing and all the do-goodery but in this setting of a direct to consumer eyewear brand.
And then at some point you also wrote your book, Stalking God…
Yeah, that was in between. So I had this idea for my book when I just had my daughter Zia who is now nine and a half,
I had her when I was at Google, good place to have a baby (note to self), and when she was about a year old I had this idea for a project which ultimately turned into the book. So I was researching really for myself over the course of that seven year period, then after I left Warby, literally the day I decided this chapter has come to a close literally and figuratively, the next week my agent called me and said, “I think we have a deal.” It was weird how once I really made the decision then suddenly this came into my lap.
You took time to actually write the book before you went back to work.
I took a year plus off to write, to finish the research because I had a bit of research to do, and I started advising companies at that time for both nonprofits and for-profits because I liked being busy and doing a lot of things. Then wrote the book, and then the day after I turned it in, maybe the week after my final draft was due at the end of the summer, I then started at Cheddar.
Did the book come out before you did your TED talk, or did the TED talk come out first?
I did the TED talk before the book came out. I did it at TEDwomen in November 2017, my book came out mid January 2018, and then the talk was posted on the homepage two weeks later. So it seems like they all happened in rapid succession.
And you had started to work at Cheddar.
I had turned in the book, I went to work at Cheddar and I worked there for about a year through the launch of the book. I was the chief people officer and general council at Cheddar, and then we just sold back in the spring. Being there I realized I’m really the “untangle the spaghetti” person and help you figure out what you need then advise you through that, and then I’m happy to have someone else to take the ball and run with it.
So that leads you into what you are doing now, right?
Yes! The book came out, and we are now developing it for television. I feel so lucky to have some amazingly talented people working on the scripted version with me. I still do a lot of public speaking on everything from start-up culture and strategy to mindful motherhood. I also recently co-founded this company called The Justice Dept. The idea is pretty simple — JJ and I sat back and asked ourselves, how can we take all the expertise, strategy and savvy we have been offering men our whole lives , and do it for women who don’t otherwise have access to us? I was already advising a good range of companies with a focus on founders who are doing good in the world, but this felt like a way to put a particular focus on bolstering the power and progress of women.
So now that you’ve had such a multi-hyphenate kind of experience:idea acupuncturist, advisor, lawyer, handbag designer, all of these things, when you think about all of that, there have to be other people out there like you that are not necessarily suited to one thing. What has allowed you to be okay with the fact that it wasn’t just going to be one thing?
It has taken me a long time to get comfortable with that, because we live in a society that really celebrates singular passion. You know, there is all this language, “you have to find your passion, your purpose” which I think works for a lot of people. I’m married to an interventional cardiologist, if I get sick and something happens to me I want somebody like him taking care of me, I don’t want someone like me taking care of me, I want somebody who is only doing that and studies that to the exclusion of everything else. But I think what that ends up doing is, you know like the renaissance was the most enlightened periods of our time and Da Vinci wasn’t doing just one thing. I’m certainly not comparing myself to Da Vinci, but I feel like if there was a time that celebrated being a true interdisciplinarian, why can’t we bring some of that back? And I think generalists are undervalued sometimes, but I think in these times where industries are becoming obsolete overnight and certain jobs are going away because of technology, the ability to move from thing to thing is actually a really big strength, and the willingness to not be the expert out of the gate and the willingness to explore new things and be nimble will end up being one of the biggest strengths and will hopefully keep me relevant for a long time.
What advice would you give to people who also feel similarly, think they are maybe not just suited to do one thing but they are interested in exploring lots of different things.
Try to do one thing at a time. I’m not a great example because I do tend to take on a lot and do a bunch of different things at the same time. But, I think if they are feeling scattered that is always a tough thing, so maybe focus in on at least one main thing at a time before you move onto the next thing. And if you are moving onto something be clear about why, because if you are moving on because you are bored or frustrated with your boss, that is going to be the case everywhere you go. So try to figure out what it is and why are you shifting gears, because you don’t want to just jump around where you feel scattered or like you are not able to complete things. But, I think having a lot of interests is actually a really good thing and hopefully will make you more valuable to future employers.
What do you find most rewarding about all the work that you do?
I find it most rewarding when I get other people to see their own potential.
What do you find to be the most challenging?
Explaining to myself and other people what I do, hahaha!
What is your dream for your future?
Oh God, can you help me figure it out? My dream is to keep surprising myself. Oh, and one of my other favorite quotes, not a piece of advice, David Bowie: “I don’t know where I’m going from here, but I promise it won’t be boring.” I never would have predicted where my career would have ended up at this point and the thing I’d be doing and the people I’d be interacting with and the experiences I would be having, but it’s so much fun. I hope that I continue to challenge myself and be surprised by where I end up. I hope my book gets optioned and turned into TV, that would be super fun. Maybe my talk show dreams will come back to me, I don’t know.
I love how open you are to anything and everything.
It’s the only way to be. Especially in these times.