By her own admission, Mindy Kaling is an unlikely celebrity.
She’s even more of an unlikely leader. The daughter of first-generation Indian immigrants with an Ivy-league education in (gasp) playwriting, Mindy is the antithesis of just about every Hollywood stereotype there is.
Still, the creator, producer, writer and star of FOX’s The Mindy Project doesn’t shy away from the responsibility her entrepreneurial fame entails.
What can the world-dominating success of an unlikely entrepreneur teach us?
1. Be passionate
As trite as it might sound, nothing trumps passion. Carmine Gallo, in his insightful book Talk Like TED, lays it out plain:
“In any language, on any continent, in every country, those speakers who genuinely express their passion and enthusiasm for the topic are the ones who stand apart as inspiring leaders.”
Gallo’s point is that while mastery of a particular skill gives people a “platform,” it’s the passion that undergirds that mastery that makes them “connect.” Why? Because passion is contagious. People love it.
So, what inspires Mindy? The answer (as unlikely as it sounds) is tragedy.
Two years ago, on the very day The Mindy Project was green lit by FOX, Mindy’s mother — an obstetrician — passed away from pancreatic cancer.
However, far from undoing her, her mother’s death became fuel for the fire. As Mindy explained, “My dream is to be able to become so famous that I can actually make a difference in pancreatic cancer research.”
In other words, rarely will our skills be coterminous with our passion. Mindy is a master at comedy. And yet it’s what lies behind her mastery — the dream to make a difference — that really set her apart.
2. Be everywhere
You’ve heard the old adage: “Jack of all trades. Master of none.”
Now, I’m not one to buck tradition, but in Mindy’s case, the proof’s in the pudding.
In a recent Elle Magazine cover story, Bela Bajaria, executive vice president of Universal Television, described the staggering extent of Mindy’s on and off-set omnipresence:
“She’s in the writer’s room, she’s on set, she’s in postproduction, she’s e-mailing studio and network executives at two in the morning. … She’s so creative, but she has an appreciation and understanding of the business part, too.”
Getting your hands dirty lies at the core of all genuine success, especially entrepreneurial successful. Such ethos is risky because it means going “out there” into the real world — into the lives, workplaces, and trenches of the people you work with and for.
The classic example of getting out there was Richard Anderson’s miraculous turnaround of Delta Airlines. Anderson, who took over as CEO in 2007 just two years after Delta filed for bankruptcy, credits a major portion of his success to his monthly cockpit rides with Delta’s pilots and a single two-day event in which he solicited suggestions from over 2,000 employees.
Sure being everywhere is scary. But don’t let that fear hold you back.
3. Be a gangster
This wonderful nugget comes from B. J. Novak, Mindy’s one-time squeeze and current co-collaborator. “She’s a gangster,” Novak explains, “This is not a girl who waits by the phone. This is a girl who picks up the phone and calls whoever she wants.”
Case in point, when Mindy wanted long-time friend James Franco to guest star but his schedule wouldn’t allow it, no wasn’t an option. According to Franco, “She just made it happen.”
In other words, to be successful you gotta know what you want and gotta go after it.
It’s absolutely insane how few people can actually articulate what they want. And yet, having a clear, impassioned vision for where you want to go is the very first step in getting there. In fact, as author and consultant Warren Bennis famously wrote, “Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality.” Without vision, the people perish.
But being a gangster means more than just knowing what you want. It also mean getting it.
4. Be voracious
Alongside her aforementioned omnipresence, Mindy is also a voracious learner.
As Novak tells Elle, “She has a big me-too-ism in her. She always wants to know what everyone else is doing and if that’s more fun.”
The discipline of lifelong learning is a constant refrain among the world’s most successful people. Steve Jobs’ famous two-part takeaway from his 2005 Stanford Commencement Address captured this principle perfectly: “Stay hungry. Stay foolish.”
The problem with being successful is just that: “being.”
As soon as you get full or get smart — as soon as you arrive — you’ve lost it. The key is to cultivate your hunger … and your foolishness. Always be willing to learn, to grow, to make mistakes, to admit limitations, to embrace other people’s ideas, to do what’s new and uncomfortable and to pursue humility as an end in itself.
5. Be noble
A lot can be said about Mindy’s nobility. In fact, a lot is said.
There was her epic commencement speech at Harvard Law School earlier this year: “Please, just try to be the kind of people that give advice to celebrities, not the other way around.”
There was the controversy surrounding the Elle magazine cover story: “What, Elle, you can’t put her big, fat body on the magazine?”
But, perhaps the best example came a few days ago when she stopped by HuffPost Live and revealed that her character’s on-screen love interest Danny and her wouldn’t be splitting up for the sake of ratings. As Mindy explained:
“A lot of shows I think break characters up for no reason because the show has to last for seven or eight years. We thought, no. People can still be interesting when they are together.”
While it might not seem like a big deal — certainly not as big a deal as beauty and body image — Mindy’s bravery to stick to her guns, to be an “artist” (even when her art is a weekly sitcom) speaks volumes about what it takes to succeed as an entrepreneur.
As Mindy told Lena Dunham in a Rolling Stone interview:
“I love women who are bosses and who don’t constantly worry about what their employees think of them. I love women who don’t ask, “Is that OK?” after everything they say. I love when women are courageous in the face of unthinkable circumstances.”
Call it credibility. Call it courage. Call it ethics. Call it a backbone. Heck call it whatever you want …Success by any other name — unlikely or not — would certainly smell as sweet.