Anna Balkrishna, Editorial Director, started her career during the dot com boom in San Francisco. After work dried up she found herself producing tours for a successful string quartet. Her love of music eventually lead her to New York and back to her writing roots.
How did you get to where you are today?
I moved to New York eight years ago. Before that, I had lived in San Francisco since graduating college. So I caught the latter part of the original Bay Area dot-com boom in the late ‘90s.
I was an English major at UC Berkeley, which I loved, but I worried that my degree fell into the “useless liberal arts” category. I didn’t know what I wanted to do professionally, but I didn’t find teaching to be a satisfactory answer and I didn’t really consider journalism, either. At the time, the rise of websites seemed like a way to get into writing on a whole new medium.
To get my start, I sort of faked my way into a job as copy editor at a website. I didn’t know how to proofread or line edit at all. But I studied a borrowed copy of The Chicago Manual of Style, took an editing test and got the job.
I loved the way that Internet startups were fluid; you didn’t have to start your career at the bottom fetching coffee for an editor. You could just start working and make things up as you went along, which is important to me even now 15 years later.
But it also meant there were a lot of ups and downs. When the investors dried up for most of these startups in the early 2000s, there really wasn’t much else going on in San Francisco media. In fact, if you got your start as a web editor, it was very hard to get a job at a print newspaper or magazine.
In those days, the print world looked down on people who worked in web publishing; there was the perception that dot-coms would just hire anyone with a pulse.
I actually got so frustrated by the job market that I stopped working in media entirely. I decided that it wasn’t a lucrative career path. So I switched things up and started producing tours for a string quartet.
Yeah! [Laughs] I worked for the Kronos Quartet for a few years. Even if people aren’t familiar with classical music, they might know Kronos from their collaborations with the director Darren Aronofsky—they recorded the scores for Requiem for a Dream, Noah, movies like that. They’ve won a few Grammys, and they tour very aggressively.
It just seemed like an interesting thing to do, and I have always been a music buff. I learned how to write press releases, book travel, secure foreign visas. That job presented some crazy opportunities for creative problem solving! When your sound guy is stuck at the Helsinki airport because his Russian visa has the wrong date stamped on it, what do you do? Or when you have a guest artist from Mumbai in town to perform at Carnegie Hall, and there’s a freak snowstorm in April, how do you get her a warm coat?
Working for Kronos was a once-in-a-lifetime job, and gave me some of the toughest challenges I’ve ever tackled. But after a while I wanted new challenges. San Francisco was still pretty small in terms of media and the arts, so when I was 28 I decided to move to the city that’s the place to be for those things: New York.
Did you know people in New York?
I did. I knew people who had moved from San Francisco, but I also had a lot of connections in the arts. I actually thought I was moving to New York to stay in arts management. But by that time Silicon Alley was a real force in New York.
There were so many digital media companies, it just felt like that was the more energetic and fun place to be. Definitely more sexy than planning concerts for the Baltimore symphony orchestra! So I figured I’d give my editorial career another shot.
I started working for the arts and culture website Flavorpill.com, first as a copy and production editor. Eventually I became the senior editor managing the editorial department.
At first, we produced weekly e-newsletters—which seems so quaint today, but people loved their “weekly dose of culture” in 2007! Then we moved to a daily publishing schedule, and then started to produce custom content for brands… You can see how quickly the definition of “content” has evolved, and how the way people consume content has also evolved.
So tell us what you’re currently doing?
I work at the digital ad agency Huge, as an Associate Editorial Director. That is a position that didn’t exist at Huge before, so I’m a bit of a prototype. The role is sort of a hybrid between a creative director and a content strategist.
I’ve never worked at an advertising agency before. But I come from the mindset that all content can be good, no matter the forum. That could be marketing content, or media content, or some mix between those two things.
I’ve always really loved building and launching websites, it’s what I’ve done for 15 years. So joining a cutting-edge digital agency made total sense to me.
What made you cross over into an advertising agency?
I’d been thinking about it for a while, but it wasn’t clear to me immediately where I might fit in. I considered applying for content strategist positions before. There’s a technical side of content strategy that I thought I’d be pretty good at—setting up taxonomies, metadata schemas—but ultimately I didn’t go that route because I really like being an editor and a writer, and I didn’t want to lose that creative side. I guess I just didn’t want to choose.
When you come from smaller startup companies, you end up wearing a lot of hats, so I was used to leaving my role somewhat undefined; instead I would learn how to do things depending on the problem we needed to solve at the time. Luckily, Huge as an agency is really open to that. They take chances on people, and figure out how they can use them.
Right now at Huge, we’re trying to figure out how content creation can be part of the solutions we offer to clients. So many brands want to build cool digital destinations that look amazing, but they also have to tell a story. If you build a beautiful website and fill it with garbage, then it’s not really doing its job.
I think a lot of brands are realizing how compelling the right content can be if it’s smart and engaging. But they don’t necessarily know how to create it or even think of it as something that needs to be created. But that content has to come from somewhere! How do you identify your audience, how do you want them to feel, and what do you want them to do? How do you set up the right structure and people to produce it, whether it’s articles, or product descriptions, or social media? How do you maintain everything once it’s published?
So that’s why it’s been a great time for me to come in at Huge, because we’re still trying to crack that nut. How can we jump in and help companies tell a story that makes sense for them.
It sounds like a bit of a roller coaster of things you’ve done. It sounds like you’ve kind of gone with the flow since you finished school…
Yes. I actually say this to people who are just graduating, when they ask for advice about how to approach their career. Choose something that challenges you and incorporates things that you like to do. But other than that, be very open to how you define a career path. There’s no single way to build an interesting career. Who knows, I may not even work at an ad agency in five years. I could do anything and that’s ok with me.
Of course, there’s a fear you’ll have to start from scratch.
Well, starting from scratch is certainly possible. A friend who used to work at Flavorpill as an editor—he was an English major, too—recently decided to go back to school for graphic design and just graduated from Parsons. He’s starting all over again. But he’s already impressed everyone at his new job because he’s a visual designer who is also a fantastic copywriter, which is a rare and valuable asset. So I think he’ll climb the ranks very quickly and make up for lost time.
That said, you don’t have to start completely from scratch. I’ve never personally made a transition that resulted in me starting from square one. Even when I decided to change careers and produce tours for Kronos, I was able to use communication and organizational skills that I already had as an editor.
Likewise, that production job helped me take more leadership roles when I went back to editorial. Instead of just writing or proofreading, I knew I could run an editorial department because I’d managed multiple people and deadlines on tour.
There is usually a way to interpret your previous experience through the lens of the job you want to do next. No experience is wasted.
Just to change the subject a little bit, I wanted to ask about where you grew up and your family.
Oh that’s a story! I grew up in Southern California, in Orange County before it was The OC. I’m the product of a green card marriage!
My dad is from India, and my mother’s side of the family is Swedish. When my father was 26, he had just graduated from the University of New Delhi. He didn’t see a lot of job opportunities in India for someone with an advanced history degree, so he decided to try his luck elsewhere.
He had befriended a British couple that were on holiday in New Delhi, and when it was time for them to return to England he decided to go with them.
What? How long had they known him for?
Probably about a month. My father is a pretty charismatic guy, and they just became fast friends. Mr. and Mrs. Miller turned out to be mentors for him. They flew to Europe, and they spent the summer traveling by RV across the continent.
When they finished their trip in England, my dad said, “Ok, I think I want to go to the US.” So the Millers bought him a one-way plane ticket, and he landed in California with almost no money and enrolled in California State University at Fullerton. He convinced the dean that the college should accept him, even though he was so broke that he had to set up a special installment plan to pay his tuition!
My parents got married as he was nearing graduation. My dad was working on an MBA and he knew when he finished his degree that his student visa would expire. He wanted to stay in the country, so he put an ad in the student newspaper seeking an “intelligent, responsible” woman—his words, very romantic!—to get hitched immediately.
This was the ‘70s, so immigration laws were much more relaxed and you could get away with advertising for a green card marriage in the newspaper!
My mother was a 21-year-old undergrad at Cal State Fullerton, and thought the ad was so intriguing. By crazy coincidence, her Swedish grandparents had also met through an ad in the newspaper. When you’re a Swedish immigrant in Kansas, you don’t meet a lot of other single Swedish people, I guess.
My mother thought that this was the greatest story, so she answered my father’s ad and they got married three weeks later.
What? Holy shit! In Vegas?
No, they got married in California.
Are they still together?
They’re not, but they were married for 22 years and have two kids, me and my sister.
They’re still pretty cordial, though. They were married as long as any couple who might have met and married the traditional “romantic” way.
Obviously they fell in love at some point?
They did! They were really into each other when they got married. They were both students, they were super poor, and the marriage was a great adventure.
And what did your mother’s parents think about it?
They thought it was bizarre at first. But then my dad became really close with my mom’s father… my grandfather, i.e. the guy whose Swedish parents had also met through an ad.
They were very similar in a lot of ways, and they were tight up until my grandfather passed away. Even after my parents split up, we would spend Christmas together with her side of the family, so my dad and my grandfather could hang out. It’s just like any other family… with a twist!
Is your dad at all connected to India any more?
Yeah, somewhat. I think he still holds a candle for retiring back in India, but I actually don’t think he will. He’s too Americanized at this point, and I think he would miss his conveniences. But he visits frequently.
He still keeps up with his university friends from New Delhi—the four of them have been friends for 50 years. So when he goes back, it’s like this big party with them.
Do you feel connected to India?
You know, I wish I were more. I love visiting but it’s still a very different culture to me. My dad didn’t have anyone to speak Hindi with when I was growing up, so I never learned. I didn’t even taste the food until I visited India as an adult!
What are you impressions of India?
I think I have a very specific perspective, because when I go I’m with friends and family. Many travelers are seeking a spiritual journey in India, but I personally think of it as a very corporeal place.
It’s an overwhelmingly physical environment, a complete sensory overload. There are literally so many people, and it’s a very community-minded culture. It didn’t occur to me what it meant to be “American” until I went to India.
The American idea of being independent, of just quickly deciding what you want to do and then doing it, is not a given in India. In India, it’s 20 people arguing together over the most basic decisions—and I mean arguing in the most loving way.
It’s about expressing your affection by shouting at the top of your lungs, or bullying your guests into taking another helping of food. I think anyone who's grown up in a big ethnic family might recognize that “in your face” dynamic.
The first time I visited India, I was shocked by that solo versus group mentality. I’d do things that seemed normal to me, but would actually be off-putting to my family. For example, I remember putting my headphones on during a long road trip. The other kids were offended that I was ignoring them; they couldn’t imagine why I didn’t want to chat and sing with them for eight hours in the car. Quite a different experience than riding the subway in New York, right?
What about going there as a woman?
I think being a foreign woman in India is an inescapable challenge. My Aunty once sent me to her beauty parlor to get my hair done. It was the first place I’d gone by myself.
There was this young guy, he couldn’t have been more than 19, who washed and dried my hair. He was toweling my hair off and started giving me a shoulder rub. I’m thinking, “Wow, full service!” And then he just reached down and grabbed my boobs.
Oh my god!
He didn’t speak any English, he just smiled and nodded. I was like, “Ahhhh, no thanks.” I didn’t know what else to say! He was like “OK!” and cheerfully went back to blow-drying my hair. It was as if nothing had happened. Just a friendly boob grab.
It’s really hard to know what his intentions were. As a foreign woman, you’re an “other.” Maybe he thought, “Well, I’d never grab my neighbor’s boobs, but you’re clearly from out of town so....”
He gave it a shot!
He didn’t seem upset at all that I rejected him. In hindsight I don’t know why I didn’t get angry. I was so taken aback.
So, switching it up… How do you like living in New York?
I love it. I lived in San Francisco for seven years, and it’s so beautiful there, but I was ready to move on after seven years. By comparison, it’s been eight years in New York and the city still surprises me. There’s such an abundance of detail, there’s so much to take in. It fills me with a sense of gratitude every day. Gratitude is almost forced upon you every day, in fact.
You experience so many things that are a pain in the ass, and yet that sense of wonderment and grandeur remains.
Unfortunately, living here is so expensive that my commitment to New York precludes my commitment to other life decisions. I just got married this year, and the question is what next? The traditional next steps, like buying a house or having a child, seem almost unreachable here. It starts to force the question of whether we can stay. But New York is so compelling that it also calls into question whether we even want to reach those traditional next steps.
When I was younger, I thought, “I’ll really be an adult when I have my own house and, of course, kids eventually.” Then you get to 37, and life is awesome but there’s a nagging feeling like, “Well, I better really get on those things soon.”
Those big life decisions take a lot of compromise, though, and right now my husband and I are struggling to figure out what feels authentic to us. Does moving out of the city to have kids seem like something we actually want? We really like where we are in life, so it’s hard to imagine something else.
Any New York projects you want to tell us about?
Sure! I mentioned I’ve always been really into music. I started out years ago writing for music magazines, and I got so immersed into that world that I also started producing my own events. Again, no experience goes wasted!
My best friend Joe and I wanted to do an event that incorporated music in a way that felt more intimate and personal. So we came up with a dinner party concept called The Chowdown. We started in a very low-key way in San Francisco: We would cook dinner at Joe’s house, and we would invite DJs to come and play in his living room. It was very DIY. We would have maybe 15 people in Joe’s apartment, balancing plates of lasagna on our knees.
When Joe and I moved to New York around the same time, we resuscitated The Chowdown in New York at a venue called APT. This was New York, so we had to take it up a notch: We actually booked and paid the DJs properly, and invited up-and-coming chefs to cook four-course meals for 50 people.
We had Joey Campanaro from The Little Owl, Ratha Chau from Num Pang, Ben and Craig from The Smoke Joint… really stellar chefs. We paired the soundtrack to the theme of the cuisine—so for example, we did a classic French menu with French house, or barbeque with Southern hip-hop and soul.
The food was always impressive. We could barely pay the chefs enough to cover the cost of food, but they loved it because it was their chance to do something different, to show off their best stuff for new people.
Unfortunately APT shut down a few years ago, so The Chowdown stopped, too. It’s really hard to find the right location, because you need to have a working kitchen but also a good sound system. I’ve always wanted to do it again. If you know anybody with a great space, I want to hear from them!
Can you also tell us about your blog?
Yes! So The Chowdown left me with a hole in my heart for a side project. My latest project is called Ladies Mixed Tape Club. My friend Julie suggested we start this Tumblr together, because she knew I was a music nerd and we both know so many cool women in the music industry.
The music industry is still quite male dominated, and even music fandom is very male oriented. I think there’s a perception that women don’t care about music in the same way men do. We know that’s not true, and the Ladies Mixtape Club is our way of addressing that.
We thought it would be rad to reach out to our female friends to share music we hadn’t heard before. The Mixtape Club turned out to be a discovery engine for both the music and the women. Hearing new music has been awesome, but we also have such a hunger to meet new women who are bad-asses and have strong points of view, musically or otherwise.
It makes you think about what to put on a mix, but mine would be super embarrassing! I’ve been listening to Janet Jackson for the past three days straight, and that would be so shameful to put up there.
Have no shame in your game! You’ve got to own the mix. Some ladies were intimidated, thinking they’d be judged on their taste. The last time you probably put together a mixtape was for a boyfriend in high school, and that was a nerve-racking process. It had to be perfect, it had to say just the right thing about you. So it’s great to see what people have up with.
What are some of your favorite places?
Dang, that’s a tough one! Our neighborhood in Brooklyn, Prospect Heights, is so lovely. Our favorite spot is a little Italian restaurant called Bar Corvo.
Right now, the new favorites I would say are Samurai Mama in Williamsburg, it’s really good for udon noodles. Then across the street is a Malaysian place called Pasar Malam, it’s delicious. I live for their Singapore chili crab.
For go-to date spots, I would choose Locanda Vini e Olli in Clinton Hill. It’s another Italian gem, located in a renovated old pharmacy. Order the saffron pasta with sardines and raisins, that's all I'll say. Or if you're feeling fancy, head uptown to the Upper East Side for Sushi of Gari. It’s a totally unassuming place, the kind of run-of-the-mill Japanese restaurant that’s decorated with plastic cherry blossom branches. But sit at the counter and order the omakase, and your mind will be blown. Each piece of sushi looks like edible jewelry, it’s so beautiful. I once blew $150 there in 45 minutes, but it was worth it.
I hate to cut this to an end, but final question. What do you think of when you think of New York?
I think of it as home for people who didn’t always know where home was.