Parmesh Shahani SM ’05 is a prolific author, culture curator, and LGBTQ+ activist. Breaking boundaries is his brand, and it began at MIT.
When Shahani arrived in 2003 for his master’s in comparative media studies, he was already well-known as the founder of the website Fresh Lime Soda, an online haven for the youth in his home country of India during the web’s halcyon days.
The dot-com bubble had recently burst, and Shahani found his own haven at MIT. “I was drawn to the intensity, the excitement, and the fact that it was a humanities program in the middle of a technology institute,” he says, laughing. “Plus, everyone was so weird! And I’ve always considered myself to be weird.”
He’s also fearless: Long before MIT, he landed his first job—at the Bombay Times—by knocking on an editor’s door and delivering a scathing critique. (“Security was lax in those days,” he jokes.) Shahani was promptly offered oversight of the youth section, which led to his work with Fresh Lime Soda.
At MIT, he worked to amplify marginalized voices. Upon arrival, he organized Between the Lines: Negotiating South Asian LGBT Identity, a first-of-its-kind film festival and symposium. “I had no idea how to go about it. I was asked, ‘Isn’t it a bit ambitious to plan a huge South Asian Film Festival the month that you got here?’” he recalls.
He made his case, and MIT officials gave him support and funding—providing a lesson in empowerment that has stuck with him. After graduation, he became vice president of the consumer-goods conglomerate Godrej Industries, where he reimagined the company’s diversity and inclusion agenda and ran fellowship programs that enabled an array of young people to progress into positions of power.
In that role, he also ran the Godrej India Culture Lab, convening leaders in academia, the arts, and business to debate “what it means to be both modern and Indian,” he says. “We would discuss anything from migration to LGBTQ issues and changing cultural norms in the country.”
During this time, Shahani was also writing his first book, Gay Bombay: Globalization, Love and (Be)longing in Contemporary India, which sprang from his MIT thesis. It explored the intersection of technology and sexuality in the country from the late ’90s to the mid-2000s, revealing a vivid queer ethnography.
His new book, Queeristan: LGBTQ Inclusion in the Indian Workplace, traces this exploration of belonging into a corporate setting. “Gay Bombay was about people in India trying to get a sense of their identity. Queeristan says: ‘What about getting jobs? What about family and acceptance? What about other kinds of rights?’ It combines deeply personal, autoethnographic writing with extensive, research-based scholarship,” he says.
When not writing, Shahani is often speaking about diversity, inclusion, and activism. The recipient of several prestigious fellowships (he was a TED Senior Fellow, a Yale World Fellow, and a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader), he has spoken to numerous academic audiences about the benefits of an inclusive culture. For example, he points to Deloitte research that has shown that organizations with inclusive cultures are eight times more likely to achieve better business outcomes than those that don’t.
“I believe that my purpose is very much amplification and acceleration of inclusion,” he says. “I really think that the next two decades are going to be key. There is a clear business case, a clear innovation case, and a clear human capital case for inclusion. There’s zero downside.”
Next, he’s planning a new book about the intersection of queerness and family. He’s also embarking on a museum project that magnifies queer histories. He hopes his wide-ranging career is a model all young people can use to chart their own paths.
“You don’t have to choose. You can edit a fashion magazine, run a cultural institution, be vice president of a major corporation, write books. You don’t have to silo yourself. And MIT is where I learned all of this. Everyone at MIT empowered me. Nobody said, ‘No.’ That spirit is something I’ll always take with me,” he says.
Photo: Gurunath Dhamal