Looking at Trina DasGupta’s resume you would think she has already done it all.
Her career has spanned the television, non-profit, political, and mobile industries. In television, she has worked across the Viacom brands, including MTV Networks, as well as with brands such as Coca-Cola and AT&T. In mobile, Trina ran the global public-private partnership, mWomen, an international movement designed to increase women’s access to technology, raising $11 million in one year for the initiative, which was launched by then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Trina has also advised the U.S., Australian, British governments on the use of technology in emerging markets, created the world’s first mobile social network dedicated to HIV prevention, and produced original content in 12 languages for South Africa’s largest non-profit, loveLife – no big deal.
But then she decided to try something different. Trina began to change the narrative about women and people of color by writing her own stories, her way. In addition to being an award-winning producer, director, and entrepreneur, in 2013 Trina DasGupta became Founder & CEO of Single Palm Tree Productions (SPT), a media company that creates content that changes culture, for the better.
In addition to this work, Trina is a frequent public speaker at prestigious events such as the Clinton Global Initiative, SXSW, the Paley Center for Media, Advertising Week, the Council for Foreign Relations, and the United Nations.
However, she didn’t land her dream job over night. It took time, traveling, new challenges, and change – to finally feel she was doing what she was always supposed to be doing all along.
To find out what else is on Trina DasGupta’s agenda, in addition to some major inspiration, keep reading to see what she shared with us at Her Agenda below.
Her Agenda: Sometimes if we’re not on a set path, it can be hard to feel confident. You’re a great example of someone who has already done so many amazing things in their career. You’ve been able to use media and skills in different industries in terms of the non-profit, political, and corporate world – something not done enough. How were you able to do that?
Trina DasGupta: I’ve known from a young age I wanted to use media for cultural change. My parents were immigrants and I honestly learned to be an American from watching television. In the 80s I knew the TV Guide backwards and forward. TV had a huge impact on my life and so I knew I wanted to be apart of the industry. My father was an entrepreneur, so I also knew in order to make significant change, it had to make business sense.
I went to college with this idea that I would study communications and business, but I didn’t know that the program I joined at the University of Pennsylvania wouldn’t be super creative or even that I was creative at the time. The first ten years of my career I tried every angle to figure out what feels right, to achieve this mission to change diversity in media, and what types of stories are told.
The industry was also changing while I was changing. I started in media right before YouTube came out. I got into MTV through a fellowship program, where I learned how to network, and met people that I would have never otherwise have met and used those opportunities to build relationships with senior executives. I learned a lot from them, but I still didn’t feel like I had found that thing that was my full truth. I also didn’t know what didn’t feel right, I just knew something didn’t feel right. I was 25 [years old], I was living in New York, and it was really overwhelming. There was a lot of people who wanted a lot of things from me and so I just made this decision that I needed to take a break. I went to South Africa with a one way ticket but a plan to stay for three months and sincerely be of service and ended up staying for 3 years!
Her Agenda: Wow.
Trina DasGupta: The types of things I’ve been working at throughout my career – especially in media and tech – have always been a little bit ahead of their time and it took me a long time to be okay with that.
When I looked at my career, I realized that in all this time, I often kept trying to change the system at large whether in a corporation or with governments and NGOS, and I had never thought about actually trying to create change by just writing the stories I wanted to see myself. It took time for me to build the knowledge and awareness in myself that that I could do that. To be an artist, for me, was a journey and it was a different identity. I always knew I was smart, but being an artist is not about just being smart.
I started this production company with my original mission in mind – to create cultural change through telling diverse stories. Now, I feel for the first time, I’m doing what I was actually supposed to be doing. I say that as someone who is 35 years old. I’m not that much older than many of Her Agenda’s readers, but I am also still on that journey. I’m still in it. In a way that’s really exciting because unlike my early 20s when I was trying to do the things I was supposed to do, I now have the ability, the confidence, the resources, and the knowledge to do things on my own terms. To me, that’s success on any given day. But, it’s not easy. I made the choice that was right for me. I understood what those sacrifices were and I was really okay with that. For each person it’s weighing those choices, being in touch with yourself and your gut in what feels right.
Her Agenda: When someone gives you an amazing opportunity to build something new, and gives you the resources you need, to do what has not been done before – what emotions were you feeling? Did you always have a sense fearlessness?
Trina DasGupta: I don’t think I was afraid. I think when I get to be creative, when I get to do things I’ve never done before – that’s my flow. But I think it was a hard lesson for me to learn to go with that flow. Society says there are “these” things you’re supposed to do. You’re supposed to manage people, become a VP, and get these credentials. If I’m honest with myself, in my first ten years, I thought about those things a lot.
But now, I don’t worry about that stuff. I create the best work when I’m in my happiest place, and I’m able to do the most good for the most people when I don’t worry about that stuff. Having said that, it is a different thing to exist in the world without a big brand or platform behind me. It took me a long time to be okay with that. But now I feel a sense of freedom.
I now spend my time creating and selling my work, but I don’t spend time worrying about someone taking my job or being down sized–there’s no corporate politics in my life. I work with the people I want to work with, and I work with people who are amazing and inspiring. I spend my days doing the things that I want to do, and I feel in life that is an enormous gift and very rare.
Her Agenda: What’s one thing you wish you could tell your 21-year-old self?
Trina DasGupta: That it’s going to be okay. I hear a lot of anxiety in the voices of young women. I think that is part of the journey, but what I would say is, do whatever you need to do to take care of yourself. Remember whatever decision you make is the right one. We learn this as we get older, but people you love are what really matter, and that includes your family and your loved ones and your friends. I prioritize that more than I did in the past. Sometimes I still have a hard time, but I’ve made a conscious choice to spend more time with my family and spend more time with my friends.
Her Agenda: Right after college many people get stuck on, “I want this experience, but I can’t get it because I don’t have the experience.” Within producing and directing, did you have a lot of opportunities to learn on the job?
Trina DasGupta: I believe firmly in the fake it until you make it model. I tell women, men do it all the time. I learn the best through doing. Part of it is believing in yourself and knowing you can figure it out. Part of it is asking lots of questions.
Every time I started a new journey I began by meeting people in the field, with a list of questions that I wanted to learn more about – what to read, who I need to talk to, and what trade magazines I need to follow. Trades are a huge part of learning because if you can speak the right lingo and know what’s happening in the business, people will have an enormous amount of confidence in you. Find people that will help you. The most important thing is to really believe in yourself. Because you really can, you can do anything.
[Editor’s note: This interview published on July 31, 2017. It has been edited for length and clarity.]