After many of our interviews, we walk away having learnt something about young Pacific people who are doing amazing work in their communities and with their lives. After this interview with Dr Vanisha Mishra-Vakaoti, I learnt something about myself. I realised just how much I believe in perseverance, determination, the importance of pursuing a work that is meaningful (even when it doesn’t make sense to anyone else), and the true definition of diversity, of family, and what it means to be a Pacific Islander. I hope Vanisha’s story inspires, educates and motivates you to be a better person, and to follow your dreams, just as it did for me. (Story covered by Arieta Tora).
Tell us a bit about yourself, the work that you do, and how you came to follow that path?
I’m 29 years old and come from a mixed parentage. My father is Indo-Fijian and my mother is part Chinese with a fairly mixed heritage of her own. Fiji is home. I was born and educated there except for the four years I spent undertaking my PhD at the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra, Australia. I’ve always loved school, or more correctly, I love learning. Many people think this is expected because I’m Indo-Fijian and our whole upbringing is centred on education. I think my childhood was a great mix of school, travel, sport, and community work which started through Brownies, then Girl Guides and Rangers. There are only two Queens Guides in Fiji, and there was a forty year stretch between the first recipient and me in my early teens. The Queens Guide Award is the highest award you can receive in the Girl Guide and Girl Scout movement. There was a great balance but a focus on doing well at school. Don’t get me wrong I failed math all through school and my parents, I feel, made peace with that – we can’t be good at everything. There wasn’t pressure to be the best, but an expectation that you would do your best and then some. The eventual choice to pursue a PhD was the result of my interest in learning and in social issues. There was nothing, in my mind, that suited me or what I wanted to do better.
You went on to complete your PhD much earlier than expected. What did life look like after achieving such a huge goal? And what did you learn about yourself and the vision for your career?
I completed my PhD well before my goal (to do it before my 30th birthday) but things changed once I finished. By this point I had experience working and teaching in various university settings. First at the University of the South Pacific and later at the ANU. Academia really wasn’t for me. I preferred engaging directly with communities and developing a lifestyle and a work routine that allowed me the flexibility to pursue other interests like blogging, which I had been doing alongside my PhD. I’ve now been blogging for about six years on the areas of life, style, travel and social good. It wasn’t until a few weeks ago, just before turning 29, that I finally said out loud to myself and my husband that academia wasn’t something that I was ever going to love the way once did. My interests had changed, and so had I. I’m now focused on building our research consultancy firm Making Connections (Fiji) and developing my blog and online brand A Life Un-Styled. Interwoven amongst all of that is the freelance writing that I do and all the philanthropy projects that come under both Making Connections and A Life Un-Styled. I’m busy but I’m insanely happy! It wasn’t the path I set out on. I arrived at those goals and destinations earlier than expected, and then wanted more – this is my more.
Do you feel that growing up in Fiji has had an impact on who and where you are today?
I think path ways are interesting, don’t you? I was born in 1986 and was aware of what was happening during the coups that followed. I had an iTaukei friend in primary school, we were quite close. We ended up at the same high school and during the coup we had a de-brief session in class, she stood up and said she really believed Indians should go back to India. I was stunned. While I understood that older people may have held these views, it was unfathomable to me that it would be present among my contemporaries. I guess I’m telling you this because fast forward a few years and I met and fell in love with an intelligent and kind human, Dr Patrick Vakaoti, who happens to be iTaukei. His ethnicity isn’t a reason we’re together and it’s not a reason that would have kept us a part. There are more important elements than ethnicity to consider when deciding who to let into your life. And while we’re not unique in that relationships between iTaukei and Indo-Fijians are becoming more prevalent it doesn’t stop extended family members, acquaintances and sometimes even friends associating differences they can’t understand to ethnicity – instead of say personality or individual experience and preference. That’s been the hardest for me.
How do did you develop such a wholesome and positive view on the differences between ethnicity and individual traits, experience and preference? And how do you deal with the challenges of those types of negative associations?
Growing up I spoke Hindi at home, we had Indian food, we had Hinduism as a religion but we also spoke English, ate pasta and Asian food and had Christian, particularly Catholic, influences too. As a child and teenager I had people tell me I didn’t look Indian, or ‘act’ Indian but no one taught me how an Indian girl should act. I was taught how a human being should act. Ethnicity wasn’t the first explanation we reached for to explain differences. As an adult now in this cross-cultural relationship I find that any difference is almost automatically linked to ethnicity. Patrick and I have consciously chosen to distance ourselves from people who are negative or draining. It sounds harsh but it extends to family as well. We’re so excited about our work and our lives that we just don’t need that kind of energy. Together we have created a life and a family with philosophies and a culture that’s unique to us and what we want. Our little family is truly blended. A few years ago Patrick and I found out what we couldn’t have children, coincidentally around the same time our niece, now Miss 11, made the decision that she really wanted to live with us. I think that’s a whole other conversation but now our family includes her and we do what works for the three of us. I know we have people look at our lives and think it’s ‘wrong’ or ‘inappropriate’ but ultimately each of us (including Miss 11) are successful and happy so it works. Putting ethnicity aside and culture and preconceptions I think we just need to be confident in who we are as individuals and acknowledge that just because we were brought up a certain way or have lived a certain way doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s the best way. You, whoever you are, have the ability and freedom to define your life going forward.
How do you incorporate your cultural experiences into your work and your life today?
One of the best things about growing up as an Indo-Fijian in Fiji with all of these cultural influences in my life and now in my marriage is the fluidity it allows. I can draw on my Indo-Fijian heritage, Patrick and I both draw on our Chinese heritage. Recently I was in Papua New Guinea walking through the markets – I felt safe and at home because I was Melanesian! That’s crazy isn’t it? I don’t look Melanesian. I’m not really Melanesian. But Fiji is Melanesian, it’s my home. So the whole time I had the wantok mentally. I love and acknowledge who I am and all the parts that make me, me but I am not solely defined by any single element.
What have been the biggest challenges in your line of work?
Other people’s perceptions of what I’m doing and what I should be doing. We all say it doesn’t matter, and it doesn’t but whether it matters or not, those opinions still affect us. Especially in the beginning. No one understands the blogging and writing aspects of my work – or why someone who has studied so hard and done so well would want to write about clothes and shoes! This irks me. A large part of this response again is based around the Indo-Fijian values of education and success. It’s been a real challenge to redefine what success looks like for me but also help people in my community, family and social circles understand that terms like success can be redefined. When I covered Fiji Fashion Week I received many comments, questions and puzzling looks about why I was doing it. It’s difficult to get society to reconcile passions and professions, and that some of us are lucky enough, and have worked hard, to find a way to meld the two.
How do the challenges differ when it comes to your work with Making Connections?
The research consultancy work is pretty straight forward, people understand that – it’s a real job and they can see the link to my academic qualifications. That part of my work I don’t need to justify though it has challenges specific to it. For instance, I’m a strong advocate of insider research which basically means we research our own. I believe this allows for a more genuine research processes and outcomes. There’s a greater sense of accountability on the part of the researchers to the community to actually feedback outcomes and reports. In places like Fiji and the rest of the Pacific, communities are constantly being used to collect data but very little information, if any, ever makes its way back to these communities. I’m all about processes and using local talent but we seem to not value local academics and consultants as highly as we do expatriate ones. This even extends to how much expatriate and local consultants get paid, even if our locals hold higher qualifications and have more hands on experience. Obviously I’m speaking from experience – both my own and Patrick’s. We’re addressing these issues head on by having these conversations with organisations but there’s still a long way to go.
What motivates you to push forward with all that you do?
I’m by no means a trail blazer or anything but I have had opportunities offered to me that have been typically reserved for older people. The AusAID Australian Leadership Award I received – I was the youngest recipient to be offered the award to pursue a PhD. There was a question about your work history over the past 5-10 years – I gulped, during that time frame I was in primary and high school! I took that on with such an immense sense of responsibility and that was motivating. I knew I had to complete my PhD and demonstrate that a 22 year old could be given an opportunity like that and actually deliver. I kept thinking if I don’t do this exceptionally well perhaps it would mar the possibility of other young people being offered similar opportunities. That was a huge motivating factor.
How do you manage to constantly give your best with two completely different businesses?
With the blogging I think I’m motivated by the fact that I don’t know if I’ll still be able to make a living off of it in 10 years. The industry moves and develops so quickly that I’m sure something to replace blogging and bloggers is already in the pipeline. This realisation means that I’m working the hardest I can to enjoy the opportunities that come my way and to actively seek out opportunities – or create them where they don’t already exist.
The research and consulting work I do is something I know that will allow me to steadily earn a living long term but it’s also the type of work you need to constantly be engaged with. Much like the blogging, consultancies are offered according to funding and funding cycles. Both my ‘jobs’ force me to be a go-getter and to find creative ways to get the work I want to do done. And finally, the motivation to keep failing better helps me grow. I’m doing so many new and exciting things, many for the first time; of course not all of them are going to go my way. I’m a firm believer of failing but failing quickly. Don’t drag out your losses. Fail, learn from it, try again and fail better the next time. If you knew you’d win all the time there wouldn’t be much of a challenge to life. The possibility of failing really gives you that additional drive to do the work.
Does competition play a factor in your motivation? And what about success? What’s your measure for success?
But in all honesty, I’m in constant competition. With myself. I don’t really compare myself to other people – not because I’m arrogant but because I don’t know their stories, their standards, and their challenges. It just seems unreasonable. Instead I compete with myself every single day. Currently I’m working on getting my driver’s license! I managed a PhD and a successful business but I don’t know how drive! Oh, let me tell you this hilarious story. My mother and I sometimes go to the same hair dresser in Suva. My mum had an appointment in the morning and I had one in the afternoon on the same day. My mum goes to pay for her appointment and then bless her pays for mine. If only it ended there – she proceeds to tell the hair dresser and the rest of the salon, “oh I better pay for Vanisha’s, she’s not working and has no money.” I go later on and get told this and I am livid! Short of calling and having a go and my well-meaning mother. But I understand this. My mum has worked with the same employer for over 30 years. She has a 9-5 job at an office. Here I am, well-educated, no formal office, it seems I’m always traveling or always blogging. How can that be work, right? Plus I don’t have any of the traditional markers of success: I don’t own a home (we rent, and we’ve bought land on a beautiful island but that doesn’t count), neither of us drive (by choice and lifestyle, plus if you knew me I think you’d agree that people are safer with me not driving!) so we don’t have a car and I don’t have a traditional job. By these standards I’m definitely not successful. I’m not too hard on others, and my mum, for thinking this way. I’ve come to terms with it. I don’t need you to think I’m successful; I just need to be successful and accomplish what I need to, to sustain myself and family creatively and financially.
What advice do you have for young Pacific people who might be thinking of doing the same thing?
Ask yourself if it’s sustainable to be doing what you’re doing now, or want to be doing, over the next five or ten years? Think about how your life will change. You might not be interested in buying a home now, but perhaps that might become a priority down the line – will you have the skills and resources that will allow you to achieve those goals? I believe that many skills are transferable, you just need to find a balance between what you love doing and what will help you deal with the realities of life – like bills! I use my academic and creative skills together every day in both my businesses. Education is important, but you can get an education in a variety of ways. Be honest with yourself about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. But ultimately trust yourself and the advice that you have for yourself.
We’d like to thank Vanisha for taking time to share her story with us. We encourage you to have a look at her websites, get in touch via email and follow her on social media… you won’t be disappointed! We’re so excited to be following her on her journey towards pursuing her dreams. If you’re interested in working with Vanisha, head to her website to find out about her mentoring program through A Life Un-Styled. Initial mentoring sessions are $75 but Vanisha has kindly offered a discounted price of $50 just for you – all you need to do is mention this interview when you request your booking. Aside from the fact that she’s qualified, experienced, and a wonderful human being to know and work with, this discount is the perfect excuse to jump on board and take part in a program that will push you towards achieving your goals of growth and success.