Archana Mahadevan Found Her Leading-Lady Self in Virginia (and Advertising)

'When I quit my job, I had absolutely no fallback option if things didn't work out my way'

Reinventions profiles people who've made big pivots. Archana Mahadevan started off in products at Google in India, but dreamed of working in advertising since she was a kid. Today she is strategy director at DDB Chicago and an industry advocate for DEI.

What were you before? 

I was working as a product expert at one of the biggest companies in the world (Google, India) but I wasn't happy. While it was comfortable in every way to me, I felt like something was missing. I'd always dreamt of working in advertising, but I didn't know how to begin the journey.

What triggered your reinvention(s)?

A quote from my favorite movie, The Holiday, goes, "In the movies we have leading ladies, and we have the best friend. You, I can tell, are a leading lady, but for some reason, you're behaving like the best friend." In my unfulfilling yet comfortable career trajectory, I didn't feel like the leading lady.

I moved 8,000 miles away to Richmond, Virginia, and finally felt like I arrived home. There I became the leading lady in my story. To most people around me, the decision to start over didn't make sense. To me, it felt crazy not to. 

On the surface it looked like a simple journey to an international graduate school. To me, it was a rebirth of sorts. It gave me a chance to start over and become the person I always wanted to be, professionally and personally. 

I chose VCU Brandcenter in Richmond because the school had a smart approach to break into all disciplines of advertising, not just creative. I quit an unfulfilling yet comfortable career trajectory and the comfort of home to claim my space in the world, and do what I love most. I know it's no longer fashionable to be obsessed with advertising, but I am unapologetically still in love and still as starry-eyed as I was 20 years ago.

What did the first steps look like?

The only way I could do something was to take a leap, without a plan B. When I quit my job, I had absolutely no fallback option if things didn't work out my way. However, that's the serendipitous thing about going after what you want with everything you've got: It always works out in the end.

What was one hard obstacle to overcome?

The weight of your own judgment and voice in your head. A huge part of the journey is unlearning the voice in your head and making room for a new language to speak to yourself in—one equal parts self-aware and self-assured.  

The voice in my head kept asking, "What if you fail?"

Guess what? It worked out just fine.

What was easier than you thought?

The transitions have been enjoyable: the shift from having a job to not having one. The change from living in India to moving to another country. They were easier than I imagined. Isn't it strange how we make something so big in our head, and then in reality, swat away our fears with so much ease?

What's something you learned along the way that other people, hoping to do something similar, should know?

That no matter how tough your journey feels, you will find your people. There will be friends, roommates, acquaintances, strangers on the train and in airplanes, mentors, guides, well-wishers, bosses and everyone else who'll come along and fit into your life as if they were always meant to be.

You just have to find your people.

Did anyone or anything inspire you along the way?

My parents. When I told them my plan to move away from the country to start over, they didn't question my conviction; they stood by me and financially supported me. Someone else's belief in your conviction is such a strength that I don't take for granted.

What has this fundamentally changed for you?

This journey towards my own becoming made me understand my own privilege. To start over, to reinvent, to pause and reflect and to reassess, is all great privilege. It's this awareness of privilege that pushes me to pay it forward.

Do you think you could go back/do you want to?

Absolutely not. I wouldn't trade this life for anything. If I had to do it all over again, I'd still like to end up here.

Tell us your reinvention song.

Whenever I question myself and my journey, I listen to this song. Loosely translated it says, "I fear nothing and I am inferior to no one." It's my affirmation on tough days.

How would you define yourself now?

I am a VP, strategy director at DDB Chicago, currently working on the U.S. Army account. I am a passionate advocate of DEI at DDB and in the industry. I am a feminist, mother of two adorable children, and a believer in leading with empathy.

Reinventions is a questionnaire series with people who are making pivots in their lives. If you're going through a reinvention and would like to be interviewed for the series, please get in touch.

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Angela Natividad
Angela Natividad is a founding contributor to Muse. She is also the co-founder of esports agency Hurrah.gg, and co-author of Generation Creation.

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