How is this for a movie pitch?
Picture a teenager who is mesmerized by Bollywood films. Holed up in her room, the Indian-American girl plays out scenes and choreographs her own dance routines. Despite being a musical prodigy, her gifts don’t extend to the stage. But fast-forward to a few years later. She wins a national beauty pageant and is flooded with opportunities, including the chance to become an actress in India. She puts college on hold to cross the ocean and pursue her dream.
Two years later, against all odds, the girl practicing dance routines in her room has emerged as one of India’s most bankable stars, an award-winning actress with 595,000 Twitter followers and a seemingly limitless future. So what does she do? She quits and goes back to school, of course — and then gets accepted into a top MBA program!
Sound like a rags-to-riches drama in the tradition of The Princess Diaries? No doubt — but it’s also the true story of Richa Gangopadhyay, an MBA candidate slated to graduate this spring from the Olin School of Business at Washington University.
DIVA? TRY WORKAHOLIC!
You could label Gangopadhyay an accidental star, a dreamer who craved adventure, a lost soul wrestling with what she wanted from life. She is also far from your cliché starlet. In her celebrity days, you wouldn’t find her guzzling champagne in swanky clubs or weaving through Mumbai in a Porsche. Instead, she stayed true to her roots: the down-to-earth Richa, a Michigan native who treasures her loved ones — and the Detroit Red Wings.
“People find it very strange that I’m an actress when people close to me know that I am neither a girly-girl nor a drama queen,” she tells Poets&Quants. “I’m not the typical diva actress that most people expect when they meet me.”
Forget the glitz and glamour of cinema. In India, Gangopadhyay didn’t spend her days living in a mansion. Instead, she lived in a nondescript apartment, first with a cousin and later with a close friend. In fact, you would’ve been hard-pressed to even find Gangopadhyay at home. Her job entailed draining 17-hour workdays, and that didn’t include promotional appearances or traveling for modeling gigs. With projects often short on time, she was required to learn intricate dance sequences on the spot (occasionally on forbidding, terrain-like cliffs). Of course, there were always script changes and reshoots to pack on the pressure.
LEARNING THE BUSINESS SIDE OF BEING A STAR
“Looking back, I honestly don’t know how I did it,” she admits. “When you’re riding high at the time, it’s really difficult to say no. Then, you just end up taking on a lot more than you can handle. As it happens, it starts to negatively impact your routine: your schedule, diet, exercise — everything! That was Leadership 101 for me: Don’t spread yourself too thin.”
Indeed, Gangopadhyay’s acting career was almost an MBA boot camp, where she took a big swig from the proverbial fire hose every day. Beyond the creative element, she also had to learn how to promote her films, balance competing demands, and even manage a staff of six. Despite coming from an artistic background, her cinematic experiences prepared her for the rigors of business school.
“While I was on a shoot, I was constantly thinking about how to leverage new business opportunities for my next film, reviewing scripts and negotiating contracts,” she explains. “One thing I needed to keep a keen eye on was not being taken advantage of. These are all of the things that we are actually learning in business school. For me, in retrospect, it has been about learning by doing and validating it with an MBA degree.”
LEAVING IT ALL BEHIND … TO PURSUE AN MBA
Moving to India wasn’t the only leap of faith that Gangopadhyay has taken in her career. At the peak of her fame (and earning power), she retired from acting to return to Michigan. The reason? She had an epiphany: She wanted to finish her undergraduate degree so she could pursue an MBA.
For her, acting was never about the money or fame. Instead, she treated her time in India like a sabbatical, a time to take risks and grow. “It was the break that I’d needed to figure out my long-term plan.”
That plan eventually led to Washington University in St. Louis, which appealed to Gangopadhyay’s desire for a small community that embraced diverse backgrounds. During her time as a full-time MBA, she has resurrected the Olin Sports, Media and Entertainment Club (OSMEC), turning it into one of the most popular organizations on campus. At the same time, she has prepared herself for a career in marketing, where she hopes to work in a position that leverages her passions for education, public speaking, and writing.
Her affable manner and inventive slants positioned her to succeed in a cutthroat field like acting. In the end, she believes more fundamental virtues put her over the top when it comes to B-school. “What differentiated me from other actresses was that I never tried to change myself to fit into some stereotype, which is often what people expect out of you, especially in this public-figure kind of role. I am and always have been this suburban girl from Michigan who cherishes the simple things in life. I think that fame and fortune, generally, are byproducts of hard work. Never lose sight of your goals and just focus on working hard, first and foremost. I think that worked out well for me.”
How did Richa catch her first big break? What were some of the perks and downsides of fame? How did her classmates react when they learned that they had a celebrity in their midst? Find out in Richa’s own words.
I was born in New Delhi and came to the United States when I was three years old. My parents were pursuing higher studies in Pittsburgh at the time. When I was seven, I moved to Michigan and lived there for 14 years. I would consider myself a hard-core Michigander. Michigan is known for its cold climate, warm people, and natural beauty. I get very, very emotional whenever I hear those “PureMichigan” ads on the radio; they are always a tear-jerker for me. I’m also a huge fan of the Red Wings, Pistons, and, of course, Eminem.
I was a graduate of Okemos High School and was involved in lots of extracurricular activities. I played on the varsity tennis team for four years. In addition, I founded and ran my own youth tutoring program for at-risk students in urban school districts for four years. Giving back to the community and making a difference has always been a huge passion of mine.