What is your name, age, and location?
Anna Akbari, 32 years old, New York, NY.
What is your profession?
This is a tough question (though one that should seem easy to answer!): I have what I like to refer to as “career MPD,” so I usually start to answer the “what do you do” question by saying I’m a sociologist, as I feel like sociology is the foundation for the rest of my careers: I founded Closet Catharsis, my fashion consulting company that takes a holistic approach to personal styling and image management; I’m the CEO and co-founder of Splice, a social media startup that aims to mobilize social media users in an effort to create deeper, more meaningful relationships; and I’m the co-founder of Bricoler Social Interaction Design, which uses social software and social interaction strategies to make organizations more collaborative, innovative, and – ultimately – happier. I also teach in the Media, Culture, Communication department at NYU, where I design classes like Fashion and Power, Beauty and the Body in an Image Society, and Media and Identity – all of which require my students to perform sociological fieldwork that tests their sense of identity and methods for group formation.
What did you study in school and what degrees do you have?
I took a very winding path toward sociology: I attended Interlochen Arts Academy, a performing arts boarding school, where I majored in theater; I then changed course and earned my undergraduate degree in Religious Studies and Middle Eastern Studies at NYU; then, after serving in the Peace Corps, I returned to school and completed an M.A. in Liberal Studies and finally earned a PhD in Sociology (with an emphasis on Visual Sociology) from the New School for Social Research. Ironically, I’d been writing and researching all of my thesis projects as a sociologist, before I ever actually found my way to the sociology department. So, when I did finally land there, it definitely felt like home.
What was your first job?
My first job out of high school was working as an America Reads literacy tutor for a first grade class at P.S. 15 on Avenue D in New York City. I was 18 and very eager and idealistic, and I remember returning home from the school 2 days per week and just sitting on my bed in exhaustion, sometimes in tears. The teacher would scream most of the day – in an effort to merely gain control of the classroom – and very little time was actually dedicated to learning. I recognized how far behind many of the students already were at age 6 and couldn’t imagine how they would ever catch up later in life. Sometimes the teacher would be absent and the substitute wouldn’t show up, so I would teach the class. It was a humbling and maturing experience, to say the least.
Who or what inspired you to break into your current line of work?
I think sociological fieldwork is something I grew up doing, unofficially. As a half-Persian child who grew up with her Irish-Catholic mother in Iowa, I always looked different and never felt at home, so the examination of the “other” and the study of how to “fit in” was a lifelong pursuit. My mom said they called me “Bright Eyes” in the hospital after I was born, because I never slept and just wanted to watch everything. I guess you can say I’ve been “looking” and studying people since birth. Unconsciously, I think I knew that was my ticket out of my immediate surroundings. If I could understand the game and its players, I could be a contender. I always had this sense I could conquer any domain if I could just understand how it worked.
Name/describe what has been your most rewarding project so far?
I guess my most rewarding project – from a singular project perspective – would be the non-profit music foundation I started in the Dominican Republic, while serving in the Peace Corps.
When I was assigned to my town of Mao, I found that the work the Peace Corps intended for me to do (essentially, to encourage farmers to take out loans) was slow-moving and something I didn’t completely support. So, when I saw that Mao had a thriving musical community (and by “thriving,” I mean a zinc-roofed shack with a collection of dented instruments, 2 dedicated, underpaid teachers, and a group of astonishingly promising musicians), I immediately wanted to be a part of it.
Someone had donated an old piano, so I agreed to take on a few students for private piano lessons. Those few grew to 20+, and from there we acquired another piano, along with keyboards for the students to practice on. We hosted community-wide recitals and the project culminated in the establishment of a scholarship program that sent 2 students per year to a nearby music conservatory, asking that they become teachers back in Mao as repayment. I managed and solicited money for the program for 5 years, and the piano program still exists in Mao.
Name/describe one incident when being a woman has helped your career?
Name/describe one incident when being a woman has hindered your career?
I think these questions go hand-in-hand. What sticks out for me is not so much an isolated incident, as it is a perpetual challenge (and potential asset) for all professional women: the demand that we self-present as beautiful, feminine, perpetually youthful objects, while still exercising our intellectual prowess and experience (which is, of course, a contradiction, as experience and knowledge take time to accumulate, and yet we are asked to look forever 25 – making “success,” by those standards, a nearly impossible task).
Balancing sexuality and professionalism is a very delicate balance. Women can be ostracized for coming across as overly masculine and harsh, and yet we’re not taken seriously if we veer too far into the realm of frilly femininity or exude too much sexiness. It can be an exhausting balancing act. And yet, for those women who do manage to find the right formula for their personalities/body types/professions/audience, it can be supremely empowering and advantageous to be an attractive, physically impressive woman who is also an intellectual knock-out. That’s a formidable combination, when expertly executed.
Who is your role model or mentor (alive or dead)?
I’ve been fortunate to have many amazing mentors throughout my life. These are just a few: Marjorie Mixdorf, my pre-school teacher at Head Start (an early education program for low-income children – that is perpetually at risk of losing its funding), who encouraged me to lead and facilitate students who didn’t come from nurturing households like mine; Gary Schnieders, my high school world history teacher, whose passion and dedication to the subject and to teaching was infectious and continues to inspire my own teaching; Tom Ballmer, the theater director at my local children’s theater, who gave me countless opportunities to play, perform, escape, and explore – and who ultimately paved the foundation for my life’s passion of examining identity as perpetual role-playing; and Bob Pollack, the fashion guru who gave me my start in the industry and allowed me the space and creative freedom to work with him while I questioned the social significance of style, while also making me part of his family. From a very Durkheimian perspective, I think of the self as a social entity, and thus like to imagine myself as the collective embodiment of all of these invaluable influences.
If you could give one piece of advice to a woman starting out in your field, what would it be?
Think outside of your field and operate between the lines. You define (and erase) the parameters, and that boundary is limitless and in a constant state of flux. Don’t be pigeon-holed into a singular career/discipline/path/life goal. Find the connections – amongst people, ideas, and even the most seemingly disparate threads – because connections are what make life worth living.
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– Photo by Amy Fletcher/A.E. Fletcher Photography
– Interview by Elena Rossini