Get to know: Jonaki Mehta, Creative Lead

Joined Job Portraits: November 2016 | Based in: San Francisco

What do you do at Job Portraits?

Essentially, I see the projects I lead from A to Z. I make sure everyone knows their roles and timelines, and I also interpret conversations with clients so they’re reflected in the final product. That might mean talking with a writer about the goals of a story, working with a photographer to make sure they capture the themes we want to highlight, or reviewing a draft with our strategy in mind. I sometimes write stories or do photo-related tasks myself, too.

I think the work I enjoy most is preparing for and conducting interviews, especially when it’s one on one. Interviewing a group is a different kind of challenge — you’re thinking about the dynamics of the team, and how to make room for everyone to speak to their own experience. With an individual, I can focus more on the path of the conversation and how to put them at ease, so they’re excited about sharing their story. Most people love getting to talk about themselves and their work.

What were you doing before Job Portraits, and why did you join?

I studied journalism in college, and after graduation I went abroad on a scholarship to produce a multimedia journalism project. Then I did an internship for NPR’s National Desk and freelanced for them, which was great. I was interested in education reporting, but I didn’t have experience in that field — so I decided I should actually teach, and learn about the education system first hand. I did Teach for America. That was a fruitful experience that taught me a lot about life, but I also missed writing and some of my other creative work.

I literally found Job Portraits through a Google search; I think I searched for something like “creative writing Bay Area” and they were the second result. They didn’t have any openings, but I sent them a message anyway, and Miki replied. To be honest, I don’t think I totally understood what Job Portraits did until the day I met with Miki and Jackson in person, because I didn’t know anything about the tech world at the time beyond my own assumptions. But I was excited to learn and challenge those assumptions, and to keep practicing my interviewing skills. I joined the team a few weeks later.

What’s collaboration like on the team?

My role is very collaborative, because I work with pretty much everyone on the team in the process of producing a story. I love collaborating, but I also like to work on my own for long stretches of time, especially when I’m writing. Being at home two days a week, I get a nice mix.

Miki and Jackson and I are also talking about ways I can collaborate on the more creative parts of the production process. I’ve done a couple of “live edits” with Sandra, where we get on a call and workshop a piece I’m writing, and those sessions are really satisfying. It’s such a tangible way to learn and grow, and it ties in with the work I’m doing on my own. I’ve been reading about writing — I just finished On Writing by Stephen King and Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. Pairing that with our live edits reminds me of college, where all the things you’re learning and discussing in class start to fit together, like pieces of a puzzle.

What’s different about the Job Portraits culture?

The word “flexibility” comes to mind. Not just working remotely, but how our roles allow us to dabble in a number of things. We’re encouraged to explore areas that interest us, and there’s a level of honesty I didn’t necessarily expect. When Miki and Jackson say you can be honest, they mean it, whether it’s the reason you’re running late, or the reason you do or don’t want to be part of a project. They truly want to know which parts of your work you find fulfilling, and they try their best to accommodate that.

They’re also very transparent as business owners, and they give the rest of us a lot of room to share our opinions and influence company decisions. We often talk through decisions as a team, which isn’t something I was used to before. There’s a very high level of trust Miki and Jackson have with the team, and I think the whole team has with one another.

Lightning Round!

What’s your morning routine?

I usually give myself 15 minutes to stay cozy in bed. Lately I’ve been reading a few pages of a book to kind of get my brain going. Then I turn on my heater, so when I get back from the shower my room is nice and warm. I make a quick breakfast and walk 10 minutes — 7 if I’m speedy — to BART. My ride is about 20 minutes; I usually read or listen to music. Then I take a 15-minute walk to Job Portraits HQ down 24th Street, which is this iconic street in the Mission and definitely one of my favorites in San Francisco.

What’s your superpower?

Facial recognition! I’ve seen the same people in San Francisco and Oakland so many times now, on BART and on the street, and I always know exactly where I’ve seen them before.

What’s the worst advice you ever followed?

You hear “respect your elders” a lot, and I think that’s great to keep in mind. But if I’d followed that advice my entire life, it would have prevented me from challenging conventions and asking questions. I was actually given a lot of freedom as a child, but I remember very clearly the first time I questioned my dad’s judgement, and he responded surprisingly well. It was a small moment, but it taught me the power of respectfully challenging people’s ideas.

What’s your spirit animal?

I’ve always hated this question! I’ll say I probably identify most with moths, because they’re drawn to good lighting. I’m really big on good lighting.

Tell us about a book that had a big impact on you.

The first thing I read that really changed the way I think about the world isn’t actually a book. It’s called Maintenance Art Manifesto 1969!, and it was written by Mierle Laderman Ukeles, who’s a feminist activist and artist. It was originally the proposal for one of her exhibitions, where she did domestic work as performance art. She’s actually been listed as an employee with the New York City Department of Sanitation for 39 years — their longest-held position. I love that. She wrote the manifesto before the term “invisible labor” was widely used, but she talks about how, historically, women are put in positions where they do work that goes unseen.

If you could interview one person, living or dead, who would it be?

I think I’d pick Vivian Maier. She was a nanny and secretly took these incredible photographs. The negatives were discovered at an auction years later. There’s very little known about her, and I just love the idea of this nanny who had an incredible talent she never told anyone about. I’ve nannied myself, and I’m generally fascinated by domestic workers. I’d love to learn more about her and find out how she learned about photography.

What unpopular opinion do you hold?

I love heavy pulp, in all my juices. Honestly, I don’t understand how most people don’t. It’s the closest thing to eating the actual fruit!

What’s your next adventure?

I’m going to India in a couple of months. I’ve always gone back to visit with family, and I’ve been there for work, but this time I get to see parts of the country I’ve never been to. We’re going on a little safari, and a river cruise close to where my mom grew up, near the Himalayas. It’ll be fun.

Video music credit: Tony Boardman

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