Juie Shah—From Bonsais in India to DDB on U.S. Army Account

'Confidence is an outcome of not just who you are, but also the larger context that you exist in'

Reinventions profiles people who've made big pivots. Meet Juie Shah, who went from working with her Bonsai artist parents in India to leading strategy efforts for the U.S. Army at DDB Chicago.

Juie, tell us...

What were you before?

I am originally from Mumbai, India, and spent a lot of my childhood on a farm in the outskirts of the city. My parents are both bonsai artists who've spent 35+ years promoting the green revolution, so I had a pretty unconventional upbringing: watering, weeding, reading and writing out in the open.

After I graduated with a degree in advertising (and frankly no aspiration to join the industry), I joined my parents as their inaugural marketing hire and spent the first few years of my career setting up an actual brand for what used to be a passion-led pursuit. While it was a challenge to convince my purist parents of the need for the spotlight, their trust in me inspired exciting work at the very beginning of my career.

Our humble farm happens to have the largest collection of Bonsai in South Asia, and my parents were living their brand values out loud—what a white canvas of untapped opportunity for a 21-year-old! Back then I played graphic designer, website creator, product manager, curator—you name it.

What triggered your reinvention(s)?

About four years later, I hit a ceiling and needed to learn more. To continue the Bonsai metaphor, I needed to be repotted so I could bloom. I was incredibly passionate but naïve, lacked real-world exposure and had developed a deeper interest in the craft that I wanted to hone. I applied to Northwestern University for their Integrated marketing communications program. My initial plan was to return promptly after graduation to steer our family business. A decade in, I'm still here, completely swept in by the advertising industry.

What did the first steps look like?

When I set foot in America, I wanted it to be my playground. One where I could find myself, outside of what I knew, who I knew and what I perceived the world to be. My sheltered brain didn't know that finding myself meant accepting that the ground beneath my feet was about to be taken away. I was utterly anxious. My roots didn't instantly take hold of the new soil. I struggled with small talk, didn't relate to college football and was absolutely unprepared for Chicago winters. To find yourself you first have to forego who you think you are. 

What was one hard obstacle to overcome?

What I know now, but didn’t know then, was that confidence is an outcome of not just who you are, but also the larger context that you exist in. I was an extremely confident person, but my reinvention came with a huge loss of confidence because I thought I had to reinvent the wheel. Now, when I find myself talking to immigrants trying to break into America, I tell them to lean into the gifts of their culture and their upbringing even as they reinvent.

What was easier than you thought?

To belong. My discomfort with small talk gave me only one choice: vulnerable big talk. I have found some of my closest friends, allies and confidantes in my time here. I was surprised by how easily people show up, help, make the intro and open the door if you ask.

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

To avoid putting yourself in a box. I spent several years of my career assuming that I was more equipped for some opportunities than others. Until one day, I was thrown into the U.S. Army business. I never imagined that as an immigrant-woman/person of color who knew so little about America or its culture, I would be presenting to 3-star generals or working on campaigns that were approved by the Pentagon. You never know if you're capable until you try.

Did anyone or anything inspire you along the way?

My parents for planting the creative seed in me, my husband for consistently supporting my growth through its many seasons, my managers and mentors—Kevin Richey, Archana Mahadevan, Jesse Bayer, Bob Scarpelli—for providing the garden for me to grow and repotting me when necessary. 

What has this fundamentally changed for you?

My identity has expanded in ways I could never imagine. I give myself the freedom to be what the moment at hand demands. It has been a fundamentally freeing experience.  

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

I have started feeling more established and I am truly enjoying every bit of working in this industry. But our lives are full of reinventions, and maybe a decade from now I hope to go back to the sweet spot between art, sustainability and branding. We'll find out only when the tree outgrows its pot.

Tell us your reinvention song.

"Hand in My Pocket" by Alanis Morissette:

I'm broke, but I'm happy
I'm poor, but I'm kind
I'm short, but I'm healthy, yeah
I'm high, but I'm grounded
I'm sane, but I'm overwhelmed
I'm lost, but I'm hopeful, baby
And what it all comes down to
Is that everything's gonna be fine, fine, fine
'Cause I've got one hand in my pocket
And the other one is givin' a high five

How would you define yourself now?

A human being with one hand on my heart and one hand on my head. A strategist who earnestly believes in the power of brands to create a better world. A woman who is just coming into her own.  

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