Introduced by

Have you met Ramya Mahalingam?

“Funny, cheeky, fearless—she’s an innovator, not by choice, but by definition.”

Ramya and I have been friends since January. I THINK I’ve mastered the pronunciation of her name. It’s “RAHM-yuh mah-HA-ling-gum”.

I met Ramya the day Charlotte Storytellers was conceived. My first surprise was that someone could be a foreigner and have a perfect American accent. Over the past 8 months, I’ve watched Ramya continue to effortlessly shatter all the categories I, and everyone else, bring into interactions with each other. This is Ramya’s strength. She doesn’t hold much regard for status quo and pays no mind to category. Funny, cheeky, fearless—she’s an innovator, not by choice, but by definition.

Ramya catches more pop culture references than I do. She’s more well-versed in design thinking than I, a former graphic designer. And she can rattle on for hours about Ideo’s impact on how people work, or about her future husband Elon Musk.

“I’m an industrial designer and I build commercial lawnmowers” is Ramya’s go-to what-do-you-do response. It’s a true thing about her, sure, but on Monday, I heard Ramya tell a 5-minute story that went so much deeper. It was a glib, funny take on the cultural aspects of growing up with brown skin.

During feedback I said, “I feel like I’ve come to know you as much through your stories as I have in the countless hours we’ve hung out and worked together.” And at Storytellers, Ramya really does have a knack for painting self-portraits through her stories: how she merged East and West in fashion, albeit with wrinkles and imperfections. Or how she experienced vegetarian culture shock in the US and the American South, where you can be vegetarian and eat chicken. Or of how she feels both fondness and disgust for her hometown of Dubai—a place of childhood nostalgia as well as racist opulence.

Buy Ramya a glass of beer, cider, wine or gin and get her to tell you a story. But be warned—her penchant for corny humor is second-to-pun.

I asked her six questions. Her answers are below her picture.

What is your passion?

My passion has jumped around a lot but I think at the core of what I really want to do is solve problems on a very personal level. There’s a lot of things we deal with in our lives, a lot of products and physical things that inform our opinions, inform our days, the things we do and the things we say in really subtle ways and we don’t realize that this is happening. More than the product it’s really that experience that we are having that’s important. I think that we have a lot of stuff around us that isn’t well thought out or designed for us. All of that stuff tells a story. When you put two things that were independently designed together you create something that is more than the sum of those powers and it can either tell amazing stories or really really bad stories. It needs to be about storytelling and how our lives are connecting or disconnecting with things. That’s what I’m passionate about.

What frustrates you?

Well I hate sitting in traffic. I guess the real question is why am I sitting in traffic? If we really drill down into why things are really happening why do we have to go to work from 8-5 every day? Why are we wasting time doing things like sitting in traffic? All the things that we do are done for reasons that are not core values. Really we’re just wasting a lot of time doing these other things because these values have been created out of something but in the process that thing that actually created the value has been lost. That frustrates me.

What is your least favorite trait about yourself?

It changes a lot. Right now I’m going through a phase in my life. So to things. I’m really klutzy. Over the past few weeks I’ve hurt my finger. I hurt my right knee. I bruised the top of my head in dance class. The only part of my body that is not hurt is my right elbow so I’ve been guarding it really carefully. I really want to be a more together person and stop breaking stuff.

Also, I feel like I’ve been babbling a lot. My train of thought has been really scattered recently. I’m not if it’s the heat or whatever but I go through phases of being very eloquent and being able to express myself in a way that I appreciate. I hear the words coming out of my mouth and I’m like stop, why are you still talking. I just feel babbley.

If you could ask anyone one question what would it be?

This is somewhat involved but there’s two sort of approaches to trying to create and experience. One is a very constructed like Exit Strategy where you go inside and you’re supposed to do this at this time. It’s intended that everyone has a similar experience. Then there’s the other strategy that’s like Bohemian Grove which is more in the realm of experience design where you put the pieces out there and let the people engage how they’d like to. So for my question I think I just wouldn’t say anything and see how they engage me. What happens when you put something out there that most people aren’t used to?

If someone came to visit you and you had two hours to take them around Charlotte where would you go?

It depends on the day of the week. Let’s say it’s Saturday. I’d go to Not Just Coffee at 7th street. Chill there for the while. Have you ever seen the things on the side of the building at 7th street? The three hands and when you touch them they make a “da da da da da” sounds. It’s crazy. It’s this hilarious thing that surrounds the building any only kids play with it. Most adults don’t even know it’s there. I’d show them that. Then maybe walk uptown a bit. Probably stop at Bodega for a sandwich. Then get them to the airport.

If you could transform into a food item what would you be and why?

I would be chocolate mouse. You can eat it all at once. Each taste is really awesome and rich.

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