Parmesh Shahani had a two-fold epiphany in 2009. Having just quit a Ph.D. program, while still mourning the recent death of his best friend, he realized that he did not want to do anything in life that he did not feel like doing and that he wanted to be a “connector” between disciplines, people and ideas.
Shahani, a 2014 World Fellow, has followed through on his resolutions. In front of a small group of undergraduates and World Fellows, he shared anecdotes from his colorful life at a Timothy Dwight college Tuesday Master’s Tea. In the latest incarnation of his career, he is head of a culture lab for Godrej, one of India’s biggest corporations. On the side, he is editor-at-large for Verve, a fashion magazine, and an LGBT activist.
The culture lab Shahani runs is “format agnostic,” which means they host performances, debates, conferences and exhibitions that try to answer the question of what it means to be modern and Indian. His other responsibilities at Godrej include advertising, communications, product design and human capital.
“I’m trying to make [corporations] agents of change, knowing full well that my bosses are fixated on next quarter and the next annual earning cycle,” he said. “I want to change the way that companies think of themselves.”
He said he credits the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he earned a masters in media studies, for transforming his life. His time there, he said, was “all about possibility and openness.” His thesis was published as a book in 2008 under the title “Gay Bombay: Globalization, Love and (Be)longing in Contemporary India.”
Shahani said he continues to speak on LGBT issues to MBA students and corporations in India, despite a 2013 Indian Supreme Court ruling reaffirming the criminal status of homosexual activity. Shahani said Indian homophobia is a legacy of British imperialism, rather than Hindu tenants. The stigma around being gay, he added, is closely linked to the common notion of what it means to be a “good Indian,” which Shahani said he seeks to challenge in his work.
Wayne Zhang ’18 said he was impressed with Shahani’s insights.
“He gives off such an approachable demeanor,” Zhang said, “but when it comes down to being profound and saying things that are important, he just whips them out.”
Shahani’s reflections were especially poignant to some audience members. Nitika Khaitain ’16, who is from New Delhi, said the event was important to her because it gave her a new perspective on a country she thought she knew.
For Lucy Hui ’15, the talk served as a reminder to focus on the big picture.
“As undergrads, a lot of the time we’re so focused on a single exam, or about one little thing that we think will affect our lives or ruin us,” Hui said. “But then listening to him talk, it reminds you there’s so much out there, and we’re so young, and there’s so much possibility.”
Shahani also holds fellowships at TED, MIT, Utrecht University and the World Economic Forum. His past includes jobs at Mahindra, Sony, ELLE and Times of India. Between those stints he started India’s first youth website and worked in film. He quipped at one point that he never runs out of material for his monthly magazine column about his life.
Since the World Fellow program’s inception in 2002, there have been 257 fellows, representing 83 countries.