ICONIC: Asha Rangappa on Refusing to Conform and Her Tips for Success

Images Courtesy of Yale and Zocalo Public Square

From Yale law school to Colombia to the FBI—Asha Rangappa, now a Senior Lecturer at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, can by any metric be considered successful. The most impressive aspect of her story, however, is that she managed to accomplish what she has as an Indian woman in America.

Published in The New York Times, The Atlantic, and The Washington Post, Rangappa boasts a number of achievements emblematic of the rest of her resume. She graduated cum laude from the Woodrow Wilson School of International and Public Affairs at Princeton University, studied in Colombia under the prestigious Fulbright scholarship, received a law degree at Yale, and clerked under Honorable Juan R. Torruella on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in Puerto Rico before choosing to join the FBI. While serving as a Special Agent in the New York Division, she specialized in counterintelligence investigations and national security. Now, along with her work at Yale, Rangappa is an editor for Just Security as well as a legal and national security analyst for CNN.

At one lecture, Rangappa noted that, growing up in Virginia, “there was a lot of messaging and pressure to stay inside the lines that other people had set.” However, she overcame these stereotypes and became the first person from her high school to attend Princeton University.

“The most important thing that you can do for your life,” she added later, “is to be self-directed. I think developing that idea of what you want to do instead of just a checklist of what you’re supposed to do is essential. You have to be willing to take risks and do what you want, even if it’s sometimes easier to conform.”

I recently had the privilege of interviewing Professor Rangappa about her upbringing, her struggles as a brown woman, and how she has overcome the obstacles she has confronted her entire life due to her gender and skin color.


As a child of immigrant parents, did your upbringing sometimes differ from your friends’, and how did that impact you in the larger scheme of things?

Yes, it definitely did. I grew up in Southern Virginia—in Hampton Roads—and I was the only Indian person in my school. It was not an area that, in the late 70s and early 80s, had a very large Indian community, so I definitely felt that my home experience was very different from that of my friends. We spoke a different language, ate different food, ate with our hands, etc. I was self conscious about it to some degree, but it was clear to me that my classmates just didn’t know a lot about my culture. So, I just took it as my own challenge to tell them more about it, and to also be as American as I could to fit in. I was definitely straddling two cultures, but I think that it actually enhanced my experience growing up.


Have your parents always supported your decisions, and if not how did you deal with balancing their opinions with your own wishes?

My parents definitely did not always agree with my decisions. You know, I have always had… you can call it a rebellious streak I guess. I always felt like if I knew what I wanted to do, then I would just kind of do it. Maybe it’s a credit to my parents, but I never felt like they were going to stop loving me or abandon me or anything like that, so I never had a lot of fear about doing what I wanted to do. And I think my parents kind of recognized that spirit in me and eventually got on board with everything. In a lot of ways, it was a good pattern for me—to go against the grain or against expectations—to set the stage for me to make a lot of other unconventional decisions later in my life, both professionally and personally.


How did you overcome challenges in your life or people doubting you, and do you recommend that other people in your position do the same?

I think the key is that I always focused on finding people that could help me. And once I had teachers or mentors in other ways—people who wanted to see me succeed, who I could trust, who I could bounce ideas off of, that gave me a lot of confidence, so I never really was impacted so much by the detractors, or the people who were negative, because I felt I had a support network.


What have you learned from first being an FBI agent and then a dean, and now a senior lecturer, and how do you think you’ll carry those lessons with you in the future?

I think definitely one thing is that I’ve learned to take risks. When I went to the FBI, I knew a bit about it, but it hadn’t been a career path I had been preparing for my whole life or anything. It was incredibly challenging but, at the same time, incredibly rewarding. And it was even the same with teaching—I had never intended to be a professor, but at some point I got an opportunity, and I was really nervous about it. I didn’t know if I could teach or if I could be a good professor. I really just jumped in feet first with all of these things, and along the way, made mistakes. I think a big thing is also that you cannot be afraid to make mistakes or be afraid to fail. That is a recipe to stay stuck for the rest of your life. Make mistakes, learn from them, and again, find people that can make you get better at things that you’re not at first sure of.


What advice do you have for women and girls of color about how to fight discrimination/become successful despite the challenges posed by our society’s standards?

You know, I think you just have to be very clear about what you want and where you’re going. The key to any of this is that you can’t internalize what people say or think or do. Obviously, if you’re in a physically bad situation, you should report it or try to get out of it, but unfortunately we are still in a place where there are detractors and obstacles. I guess what I’m saying is that you can’t have a victim mindset. You can’t go into things believing it will be too much for you to overcome.


This is a part of Redefy’s series, ICONIC, consisting of interviews with influential, successful women to empower the next generation of girls and girls of color.