New to Seattle: A Q&A with Varsha Raghavan, an actor, singer and Amazon employee who recently moved to Seattle from Chicago. So far, what does she think?
Varsha Raghavan is an actor, singer, MIT graduate and research engineer for Amazon.com who moved to Seattle in the summer of 2015. Before she even started packing for the move, Raghavan was trying to enmesh herself with the local theater scene. This July, she performed in the musical “Twister Beach” at Café Nordo, a goofy and satirical riff on 1960s beach movies, playing a bored Seattleite looking for sun and sexual liberation during a Hawaiian vacation.
How she got here and where she came from:
“I moved here in August of 2015 and grew up in Chicago, on the South Side near Hyde Park. My mom was a doctor on the South Side and my dad was an investment banker, but he’s retired now. My parents moved to this country from India in the 1980s to get higher education — which, I guess, worked!
“My parents fostered a love of math and science in me — not that they wanted me to follow in their footsteps, but they wanted me to find something I wanted to do. I guess that’s typical of Asian households. They sent me to science camps where they show you how dissolving works with sugar and water or how to make a battery out of a pickle or whatever. That’s essentially what led me to MIT (the Massachusetts Institute of Technology).”
The few things she’s allowed to say about her new work at Amazon.com:
New to Seattle
The city is undergoing great change and is welcoming a wide variety of new faces. Who are these people and what have their experiences been like? This is the first in an occasional Q&A series with Seattle’s newcomers.
“I can’t talk a lot about the job, but I’m a research engineer at Amazon for developing the delivery drones — it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work on something so groundbreaking. My team has got a very start-up-y feeling within a larger corporation. My boss is great, and that’s a large part of why it’s fun to show up to work every day.”
How she got involved in theater:
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“I was very shy as a child, having trouble making friends. So my parents put me in a theater camp. It was a whirlwind of improv games and teaching us ways to sing, different dances … I came back and said: ‘Mom, the only true happiness in my life is when I’m onstage. The only time I can be myself is when I can be somebody else.’ I could shed the ‘me’ I’d come to know and be somebody else. The script wasn’t my words, but I could take somebody else’s words and take that character wherever I wanted.”
Her parents’ reaction to her artistic aspirations:
“My mom said: ‘One percent of people make it the way you want to make it. You need backup options. We didn’t come all this way across the world for you to be a starving artist!’ And math and science — I didn’t want to throw away that part of me. So I ended up at MIT.”
On getting tangled up in Seattle’s theater world, where she was cast in the immersive production “Twister Beach” at Café Nordo this summer:
“The first thing I did after getting my Amazon offer was look up the Seattle theater scene. Before I told my mom or anyone about the offer, I hung up the phone and did a Google search — and there are so many tons of hits … I saw the “Twister Beach” audition listing on the Theatre Puget Sound website. I went, and he (Mark Siano, co-director and producer of “Twister Beach”) seemed to like me and asked if I was available for day rehearsals. I said: ‘I work at Amazon.’ And he was like: ‘Oh, no! They’re not going to be flexible, they’re not going to let you do anything.’ But my team is pretty flexible about having a life as well as a job.
“My employers are very supportive of this dual life — they’ve shown up to my shows, they’re super-supportive.”
On stereotypes about Amazon employees:
“The influx of tech employees actually has a diverse set of interests — I have a co-worker who’s a sailing instructor and a co-worker who’s a DJ. We’re artists, we’re athletes … I understand where the negative stereotypes are coming from: ‘The tech bros are coming, they only care about themselves, they’re going to destroy our culture.’ But, as cheesy as it sounds, Amazon employees are individuals, too.
“I understand the concerns — the community getting broken up and gentrified. I empathize with that but, at the same time, it’s important to recognize that Amazon employees, regardless of whether we’re native Seattleites or not, want to contribute to our community.
“Sadly, Amazon can be the bearer of bad gentrification. But I don’t think there’s any animosity from our side about people stereotyping native Seattleites. I do live in a nice building on Capitol Hill and am paying a lot for it. Did this building push people out of more affordable housing? Probably. I’m trying to convince myself that that’s not my fault, individually — but maybe that’s just the way cities grow.
“It’s a tricky place to know that the company giving you your living wage has significantly altered the lives of other people.
“But, for the time that I’m here, I want to contribute.”