Lahari Rao (’08) talks hosting a podcast and discovering her own cultural identity

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Carol Xu

Rao moonlights as the founder and host of popular podcast “Down to Brown.” Alongside guest speakers in each episode, Rao explores the different dimensions of the South Asian-American identity and seeks to answer this question: “what would life look like if we freed ourselves from the pressures of American assimilation and Indian stigma to be our best, most authentic selves?”

By Carol Xu, Amador Valley High School

Lahari Rao (‘08) lives an intriguing double life. By day, she’s the senior internal communications partner at Gusto, based in the Bay Area. She loves incredibly detailed parties. When people see her in the morning, they tend to wonder: “this is before coffee?” She spends her time making blueberry pancakes, avoiding uphill hikes, and playing with her rescue dog, Isla.

But by night, Rao whips out her microphone, and moonlights as the founder and host of popular podcast Down to Brown. Alongside guest speakers in each episode, Rao explores the different dimensions of the South Asian-American identity and seeks to answer this question: “what would life look like if we freed ourselves from the pressures of American assimilation and Indian stigma to be our best, most authentic selves?”

The idea for Down to Brown had already come to Rao in 2017, albeit in a more nebulous, uncertain form. But she had always assumed South-Asians could never “make it” in the entertainment space, so Down to Brown remained dormant, simmering in the back of her mind–that is, until a chance screen encounter with one of Rao’s former college acquaintances changed her mind.

Back when she attended UC Davis, Rao joined a Bollywood dance troupe. Her coach was Richa Moorjani. At Davis, it had been common knowledge that Moorjani wanted to pursue a career in acting and performance arts, at a time when South-Asians had little media representation. Rao remembered admiring Moorjani’s gusty passion and hoping Moorjani would make it.

Fast-forward more than a decade later, Moorjani appeared on Rao’s TV screen in the hit Netflix show Never Have I Ever. “Damn,” Rao mused to herself, “If I had [pursued] something for ten years like [Moorjani] did, who knows if it would’ve worked out?”

Witnessing Moorjani’s rise to success sparked a hint of “jealousy”–not in the envious way, but instead an inspiration that Moorjani fought for her own dream, and Rao wanted to fight for her own too.

At the same time back in June 2021, the murder of George Floyd had sent the nation into a deeper examination of existing racial prejudices and barriers. Believing that South-Asians were ready for a deeper identity and antiracist conversations, and the opportunity to be better allies to the black community, Rao started Down to Brown in August 2021 to shed light on the “brown” experience and challenge racial stereotypes surrounding the South-Asian culture.

In a way, the podcast served as a metaphor for her own journey: “figure your own shit out to help others and be more free in the American experience of being yourself.” Rao wanted to empower the brown community, tell them they didn’t have to try to pretend they’re white, or assimilate to Caucasian beauty standards–they can be proud of who they are.

In fact, Rao had always been on a journey to understand her own identity.

Throughout her childhood, her family moved around regularly, from Texas to India to Pleasanton, California. Each new relocation brought a familiar sinking dread and uncertainty: would she make new friends? How would she start over and reinvent herself?

By the time Rao landed in Pleasanton, she had become more adept at chameleoning to new environments. But moving to Pleasanton proved to be the most challenging, in many ways: Amador was much more Caucasian-heavy. Her parents, both first-generation immigrants, spoke with an accent. In a place where one was hard-pressed to find other South-Asians, Rao felt heavily self-conscious.

But Amador would also become a place of some of Rao’s dearest memories. It was there Rao met her best friends, some of whom stood as her maids-of-honor and bridesmaids at her wedding.

“The people you meet then, they know you at your worst, [when] you’re most sensitive and trying to figure it out,” said Rao. “It’s so special to have that growing up so [that] they know you from the beginning–your heart–and it’s a [great] time to make some of your most lasting friendships.”

At Amador, she also found in her favorite teacher Ms. Stacey Sklar a kindred spirit and confidant who saw in Rao potential she never knew she had.

Sklar remembers Rao as an “extraordinarily enthusiastic student” who always went above-and-beyond, and values the close bond they still share up to this day. The two are Facebook friends and, even now, continue to check-in occasionally.

“I can’t imagine that Lahari’s not going to continue to skyrocket and do nice things,” Sklar smiles. “She has a lot of grit and a spirit that’s really hard to keep under wraps. She really lives fully, and I think that is always going to serve her well.”

It certainly has served Rao well with Down to Brown. Rao also wanted to draw more attention to the racial microaggressions too often directed at the South-Asian community.

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She’s experienced the whole gamut, from the backhanded compliments (“You’re so pretty for an Indian woman, I thought you had some European in you!”) to the mocking mimics of her parents’ accents in Target. A driver in Pleasanton once yelled at her father to “go back to [his] country,” and substitutes often butchered her name at school.

Once, when she worked as a General Mills factory head, a male leader commented in the middle of a meeting: “Oh so you’re from India? I was watching this documentary about violence towards women in India, and it’s really crazy how they treat the women there right? Why do you think that is?”

Rao had reeled from his inappropriate question, feeling put on the spot as a spokesperson for women’s issues in India. Although she acknowledges that parts of South Asian culture and tradition can be steeped in misogyny, she believes India’s efforts to interrupt the patterns between men and women should also be more recognized.

In fact, there are serious issues and threats surrounding women’s and trans rights in the United States, too, and third-world countries are working through these in ways that America doesn’t, Rao points out.

What really irks Rao is the tendency of American society to place itself on a pedestal, while judging other developing countries as “backward” or “unprogressive.” When she hears other people make stereotypical or condescending remarks, Rao wishes she could tell them about the past imperialism in India and Africa, how these countries were among the last to gain independence, how they’re still struggling to catch up and “clean up the mess that’s left.”

Rao values having a global perspective–this includes recognizing that there isn’t one right way for everyone to live by. She credits her parents for offering her a wider and more nuanced view of the world through past family trips to nations like Singapore, UAE, and Malaysia.

Through taking a more balanced approach to looking at other countries, Rao found herself challenging the often Westernized focus in many aspects of life, from how history is taught in schools to standard beauty in interior design and make-up. She cherishes this privilege of having various perspectives and cultures to pull from, and has never wished otherwise.

“I’ve actually felt very lucky to have this–and I’m still learning! ’” Rao laughs.

I began to realize without acknowledging the dash in between my Indian-American identity, I’d never make progress in not only being my best self for me, but my best self for society.”

— Lahari Rao ('08)

So Rao has found comedy and comfort in the contradictions of her two cultures, discovering that humor proves a wonderful tool to make different stories more accessible. She never straddles the line between the two identities, but instead embraces both.

Today, she dances to Anderson.Paak and A.R. Rahman on the same Spotify playlist. She decorates her home with South Asian, American, and Russian (her husband’s culture) artifacts. And ask her to choose between a warm cinnamon roll and a syrupy gulab jamun, and she will cry soft tears.

There’s also been instances where Rao could appreciate what her Indian heritage has gifted her. When a water pipe burst in her Oakland neighborhood and the water supply cut off for a few hours, other residents complained. Rao remained unperturbed.

“Wow, this is so interesting,” Rao had thought. She was used to seeing similar situations back in India, where it wasn’t strange to see people rationing food or turning off all the electricity during a heat wave. Watching her neighbors agitate over a burst water pipe, Rao marveled at how “we [as Americans] get so upset over small things since we’re so used to conveniences we take for granted.”

Sometimes, she even finds herself guilty, feeling stressed at the thought of the power going out: “My ice cream’s gonna melt!”

Living in a pandemic has also led her to value the emphasis in Indian culture on having a strong family support system. While many of her friends felt guilty about moving back with their parents in the pandemic, Rao insisted that was “amazing.”

“[They’re] so lucky to spend the time with [their] family in [their] adulthood, and that’s something only being in India would have taught me–how special it is,” Rao says.

In her Down to Brown episodes, Rao underscores this cultural intersection, that the South Asian-American identity shouldn’t be a melting pot, assimilating to American society, but a salad bowl, upholding both two cultures.

“I began to realize without acknowledging the dash in between my Indian-American identity, I’d never make progress in not only being my best self for me, but my best self for society,” Rao says.

In editing and producing the podcast, Rao is a one-woman team. When planning a new episode, she first considers a topic she’s passionate about that has not been openly discussed in South Asian society–perhaps even taboo. Next, she looks for a guest speaker who can be both thoughtful and vulnerable to sharing the hard truths associated with the subject.

Once she’s found her speaker, Rao sends over a brief of the show’s context, past episodes, and prepared questions, then sets up a recording date. She prefers recording cold-turkey rather than holding a preparation session beforehand, loving the fresh perspective each guest offers her.

When working on Down to Brown, Rao borrows from the various skills she’s honed over the years at companies like Facebook and LendingClub, where she worked in communications and social media engagement.

She knows how to leverage Instagram content by drilling in the key points; she understands how to “pull nuggets” from interview recordings; she’s expert in growing Instagram engagement through fun and creative content releases.

In less than a year since she started Down to Brown, Rao has partnered with Rukus Avenue Radio/Dash Radio to broadcast her episodes to a larger audience. She now reaches an average of 22,000 listeners per month. And it keeps growing.

Of course, Rao gets a mixture of feedback. She recalls a controversial episode she hosted where she received some backlash for featuring a Caucasian woman. One comment accused her of “selling out” for collaborating with a white speaker. Rao responded politely, thanking the commenter for their review, and dropped it.

The podcast should highlight all people who are doing good allyship work, and that should include white people too, says Rao.

The woman she interviewed raises children with an Indian husband and took great care to model an example for her kids in getting to know and participate in their culture. So Rao stands by her decision.

“I have to really believe in what I’m doing so I don’t have regrets, and I believed in this one,” she says.

She’s also seen and read overwhelmingly positive reviews. One woman, after listening to an episode with her mother, said: “this was the first time I felt seen in this topic.”

The biggest compliment came from her father, after he listened to one episode. “I was like, ‘woah, dad, you never compliment me!’” Rao says. She enjoys the opportunity to touch a wide demographic of South Asians through her podcast and help others unpack their generational baggage.

Immigrant parents, in particular, have been on a long journey when they move to a foreign country, and Rao hopes she can encourage more parental interactions to challenge long-held beliefs with compassion for both sides.

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When Rao picks up a new book, she flips to the end of the book and reads that first, because she cares more about how the story happens–the character development, the plot progression.

What about her hopes for how her own story will turn out?

“Oh my god,” she grins in excitement. “Don’t I wonder this every single day!”

I can’t imagine that Lahari’s not going to continue to skyrocket and do nice things. She has a lot of grit and a spirit that’s really hard to keep under wraps. She really lives fully, and I think that is always going to serve her well. ”

— Ms. Stacey Sklar

When it comes to real life, she can’t skip to the final page or foresee the future, but, as she continues to open new chapters in her life, Rao aspires to fulfill this Maya Angelou quote: “People will always remember the way you make them feel.”

She hopes to have an impact on the people she meets–touch them in some way, like a ray of sunshine shining through a prism, from which billows out a colorful rainbow. Rao would love to leave people glad they had a chance to connect with her, whether directly or through a creative form.

More than anything, she wants to live without fear, without regret.

“I let fear and insecurity guide me a lot in my 20s, so now I’m making up for it with enthusiasm,” Rao declares.

For current high school students, she advises them to try what they’re interested in and dare to take risks, because “the stakes only get higher when you get older.”

“If it doesn’t work, it’s totally fine, life will move on,” Rao says. “Just literally fucking go for it.”

This story was originally published on Amador ValleyToday on March 29, 2022.