SAN LEANDRO, Calif. — Twenty years ago, it was almost impossible to find diverse faces in the American television industry let alone any Indian American faces.
That didn’t stop former Miss India USA Bela Bajaria from forging a path for herself in show business, eventually working her way up to become the highest-ranking Indian American executive in the American television business.
After almost four years as the executive vice president of Universal Television, Bajaria was promoted to president of the studio in early June.
“People have asked me why I thought I could do it, because I’m an Indian girl,” Bajaria told India-West. “I never even thought about that, that it was even an issue. I thought it just made me a little more interesting with a more interesting frame of reference and point of view.”
The executive explained how most of her peers went into law and medicine, because many immigrant families who come to this country generally don’t encourage the first generation of kids to pursue something “that seems as risky and unstable as the entertainment business.”
Bajaria’s parents were different, she said, emphasizing that she could do and be anything she wanted. On top of that, she added, “I have the sort of personality that I was just going to go do whatever I wanted to.”
Though she was never really a movie or TV buff, Bajaria said she always knew she would end up working in entertainment, because she enjoys bringing different people, personalities and strengths together to make something interesting happen.
“I always liked putting a lot of pieces together, you know, helping something sort of come to life,” she explained. “I like where creative meets business.”
She began searching for an assistant job anywhere in the entertainment industry, landing her first job at CBS in 1996. Once she had her foot in the door, Bajaria said she wanted to learn everything she could about the business.
“I worked really late, and I really wanted to learn a lot in my time there,” she told India-West. “So I ended up staying at CBS, and then I got promoted and ended up running the department in 2001.”
After almost 16 years at CBS, Bajaria decided to head to NBCUniversal to reestablish the Universal Television studio as a stand-alone entity after its creative programming division was folded into the NBC network in 2008.
Bajaria oversees creative programming for the studio, which has been responsible for numerous primetime hits such as “Parks and Recreation,” “The Mindy Project,” “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” to name a few.
“We work on a lot of shows and each one is special in its own way,” she said.
Universal Television primarily produced shows for NBC before Bajaria was hired to “bring back the legacy of Universal Television as an independent studio that sells shows to other networks and out there in the marketplace.”
She explained how the job had the feel of a start-up while allowing her to have the financial backing of a large corporation.
“I got to hire everyone at the studio and really build the culture and the business plan from the ground up,” Bajaria explained.
Running the studio, she gets the opportunity to make sure every piece fits together, from attending casting sessions and production meetings to visiting sets and meeting with the writers.
“It’s not an exact science, which you know makes it fun,” she said. “It’s a very fluid process.”
One of the foremost challenges for studios today is that there are “so many different ways to consume television now … how do you launch something and get people’s attention and capture their imagination?”
The most important thing, Bajaria said, is to find writers with great stories, an authentic voice and a fresh outlook, regardless of what they look like.
Before deciding to work in television, Bajaria was active in the Indian American pageant circuit, winning three titles including Miss LA India, Miss India USA and Miss India Worldwide in 1991. She was also involved with the nonprofit world.
“I wanted to do something good with the title,” she told India-West. “I started a nonprofit for handicapped children in third-world countries. I did that for a few years and it was very rewarding.”
Even with her busy schedule, the mother of three hasn’t given up her philanthropy. In addition to doing food drives for the I Have a Dream Foundation, she serves on the board of the Los Angeles’s Saban Community Clinic, which provides healthcare to people without insurance.
She has also been active with SAHARA, a non-profit organization that helps victims of domestic violence, which her mother helped found and was the president.
Sheela Mehta, one of the founders of SAHARA, was all praises for Bajaria, describing how the young executive helped book Archie Panjabi of “The Good Wife” and Kunal Nayyar of “The Big Bang Theory” for past benefits.
“She’s a very community-oriented person and has helped a lot,” Mehta said.
Bajaria is also serving her second term as president of the Hollywood Radio & Television Society, a position she has held since September 2013.
She received the 2013 Dream Keeper Award from the I Have a Dream Foundation of Los Angeles the same year she received the Industry Leadership Award from the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles.