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The world is a crazy place right now. Between the global pandemic gripping everyone’s attention and worldwide protests following the tragic death of George Floyd, we’re in the midst of what feels like a massive, revolutionary sea change when it comes to diversity and equality. Jia Wertz, filmmaker and founder of Studio 15, a fashion-forward women’s brand that specializes in South Asian inspired collections, was a recent guest on my podcast (episode to air soon). And she specifically raised the need for more prominent representation of South Asian culture in the U.S. through business and fashion.
As she explained to me, “Even though the South Asian (also known as desi) population –– consisting of individuals with ancestry from Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the Maldives –– in the U.S. is 5.4 million, you wouldn’t know it by watching your favorite TV shows or shopping at your favorite stores. Historically, South Asian people have rarely been represented on television, in marketing campaigns or even in the business world. With the U.S. population being approximately 331 million people, the South Asian community only represents about 1.6 percent of the country’s population, but even still, the portrayal of the South Asian people in film, television and business doesn’t even meet this low threshold.”
To her point, the most famous South Asian person on television in the 1980s and ’90s was Apu from The Simpsons, and his voice was performed by Hank Azaria, a white male actor, which only reinforced racial stereotypes. But in recent years, we have finally begun to see a shift in this area, as comedians and actors such as Mindy Kaling, Riz Ahmed, Kumail Nanjiani and Hasan Minhaj have risen to fame and become household names. Minhaj even headlined the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner and delivered a bold 30-minute speech that got people talking.
This increased visibility of South Asian Americans in pop culture was far overdue. One of the factors that could have led to the culture being more widely seen across business and media is that the community grew roughly 40 percent between 2010 and 2017.
“As a first-generation immigrant raised in Canada and living in the U.S. since my 20s, I rarely saw anyone that represented myself or my culture on television or as the face of my favorite brands,” said Wertz, who is of Pakistani descent and immigrated to Canada with her parents at a young age. “I’m happy to finally start seeing some South Asian actors and models being represented in the industry recently.”She continued, “As it relates to business, I saw a gap in the market and a demand for fashion that was different, unique, and represented a large group of people who were in between two worlds — first-generation immigrants who relate to both North American culture and their ancestral roots — which is where the inspiration for our Desi Collection came from. We make a concerted effort to work with South Asian models as much as possible, it’s important to keep this momentum we are finally seeing moving forward.”
The fashion industry hasn’t historically been very representative of the South Asian population and has received criticism for not leveraging its visual power to help change perceptions around the world. According to a Fashion Spot report, which tallied Spring 2017’s 299 shows and 8,832 model appearances in New York, London, Milan and Paris, Asian models only represented 7 percent of all who walked the shows.
Inclusivity is critical for business growth across the board, no matter what industry. When the end consumer feels represented and can identify with the people they are seeing in ads, on television or running the companies they do business with, they are more likely to engage.
More pointedly, inclusion is a true growth opportunity for businesses — equally important as personalization in today’s business landscape. Embracing diversity allows people to voice different perspectives and new innovative ideas to be generated, all of which can only lead to a better end result.
To that end, Kuldeep Sah Gangola, a documentary filmmaker and instructor at New York Film Academy, comments that, “As the South Asians find their place in the nation’s ever-changing tapestry, the second-generation south Asians are building on the success of their parents and hence becoming a significant part of the western culture itself. This indeed has provided a very special blend of South Asian values and traditions which have given rise to the portrayal of this culture in the media as well.”
Blending the experiences and talents of different individuals can be very powerful. Businesses that make consumers feel included on an individual level will have a major advantage. The great news is that diversity is getting far more attention than ever before, but there is still a long way to go, and hopefully, the industries will keep moving in the right direction. And I, for one, am excited to see what the future holds.