Dhaya Lakshminarayanan
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Dhaya Lakshminarayanan

San Francisco, California, United States

San Francisco, California, United States
Band Comedy Progressive




"VC ditches tech to invest in stand-up"

Dhaya Lakshminarayanan had two degrees from MIT and a job as a venture capitalist at eBay (EBAY) founder Pierre Omidyar's investment firm.

But what she really wanted to do was stand-up comedy. So the San Franciscan chucked the world of tech investing and started hitting open-mic nights.

Take my term sheets, please!

Four years later, Lakshminarayanan is increasingly reaping the fruits of that decision. She'll appear this month in New York's She-Devil Comedy Festival. And she recently was the last comic standing in a nationwide competition run by webcasting provider ON24; for her trouble, she took home $10,000.

Still, people ask, what do her parents think? Lakshminarayanan has gotten the question so often that she's worked it into her routine.

"Of course my parents know," she tells audiences. "It's not like I'm doing anything wrong -- like dating a white guy."

In an interview, Lakshminarayanan expresses frustration with "the misconception that Indian parents want their kids to all be doctors and engineers."

Then again, her father is a retired physics professor, and her mom's a software engineer. Her brother just finished a Ph.D. in neuroscience at Yale.

Not even a teensy bit of parental pressure?

"They've been 100 percent supportive," she said. "Because I've found a way to make my life, and my form of comedy really reflects who I am."

By that, she means she works plenty of business jargon and nerd-speak into her act. Like her take on the heavenly reward that supposedly awaited the Sept. 11 hijackers: "72 virgins? That sounds like orientation week at Google (GOOG)."

And Lakshminarayanan has plenty of experience defying people's expectations.

Her father's career took the family to Birmingham, Ala., where she did most of her growing up -- and where, she says, puzzled folks sometimes would ask if she was black. ("Yes," she'd answer, "Lakshminarayanan is an old plantation name.")

After graduation from MIT, she headed to the Bay Area, working first as a management consultant, then landing at Omidyar Network. There, she made investments in microfinance lenders and other companies that could provide both a financial and a social return.

"It was a place that really allowed me to feel that I was making a difference," she said. "But I wanted to do something creative and express myself. I didn't want to have any regrets."

So, one night in spring 2008, she stepped to the mic in a cramped, now-defunct club in San Francisco's Tenderloin district. At the time, she didn't think of it as a career move.

But, she says now, being a stand-up comedian is a lot like being an entrepreneur. "It's pretty bare-bones -- just you and the microphone. And if you fail, you've got nobody to blame but yourself."

Her admirers say it's all the more remarkable that she's succeeding in a male-dominated field. Of course, after MIT and the world of finance, Lakshminarayanan is used to it.

"For a long time, people didn't think women were funny, so they felt like they had to do demeaning 'These are my boobs' jokes," said Heather Barbieri, owner of Sunnyvale's Rooster T. Feathers comedy club, where Lakshminarayanan appears several times a year.

"I love that Dhaya doesn't fall back on any crutch like that," Barbieri added. "She's writing smart stuff that's really relatable."

Lakshminarayanan, for the record, does more than stand-up, calling herself a "comedian and storyteller." She's hosted an Emmy-winning quiz show on Boston's flagship PBS station. She also has a recurring gig on NPR's "Snap Judgment," a storytelling showcase produced in Oakland and syndicated nationally.

"It's very difficult to make a narrative work onstage -- to be funny, poignant and sad all in the space of seven minutes," said the show's producer and host, Glynn Washington. "She makes it work, and it's a rare skill."

Washington also likes how Lakshminarayanan weaves her family's immigrant experience into her art -- like the story of how her notoriously cheap father inadvertently joined a cult for the free vegetarian food. Depending on the audience, she occasionally busts out a few jokes in Tamil, and she laces her landscape with characters like a gangsta-rap yogi.

To help pay the bills, Lakshminarayanan runs a one-woman consulting practice aimed at helping companies and political candidates shape their communications. One such gig is working with a startup that's developing a "virtual assistant" akin to Apple's (AAPL) Siri.

"They said, 'We want you to make this device sassy and sarcastic,' " Lakshminarayanan said.

The dual jobs reflects a performer's reality. "Stand-up as an art form has been suffering because of the business model," she said. People are often wary about committing to a two-drink minimum for a comic they've never heard of.

Too, she said, incidents like "Seinfeld" actor Michael Richards' onstage, slur-filled meltdown turn off potential clubgoers. "People are starting to brace themselves when they go into a comedy club, wondering, 'Is somebody going to pick on me?' "

Lakshminarayanan believes that's why her brand of sunny, quirky -- and, doggone it, nerdy -- comedy has "the potential for opening a huge market. Anybody who knows venture capitalists know we like to take risks and do things differently."

Contact Peter Delevett at 408-271-3638. Follow him at Twitter.com/mercwiretap.

Dhaya Lakshminarayanan

Lives: San FranciscoGrew up: Birmingham, Ala.
Age: Thirtysomething
Single?: Yes
First name pronounced: "Dye-yah"
Last name pronounced: "Lock-shmee-nara-yannan''
Billing: "Short. Female. Funny. Brown." - San Jose Mercury

"Standing Up for Academics"

A few weeks ago, WGBH announced the creation of a new show for smart kids, a sort of game show for geeks. Called “High School Quiz Show,’’ the weekly program will feature students from 24 Bay State schools, a fast-paced Q&A format, and a host with both brains and a sense of humor. Chosen from among 25 candidates for the .... - Boston Globe

"A 10-story high at Moth's S.F GrandSLAM"

Dhaya Lakshminarayanan, who told a story about teaching her mother math so she could go back to college, said that revealing painful secrets to a room full of strangers helps create a sense of community.

"It's fun to tell embarrassing things about yourself - who wants to be around someone who's like, 'everything's perfect, my life is good'?" Lakshminarayanan said. "Sharing embarrassing stories can be bonding." - San Francisco Chronicle


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