Look up “success” in the dictionary and you get Mindy Kaling. The actress/writer/producer/director/mother has been one of the driving creative forces behind such beloved TV shows as The Office, The Mindy Project, Champions (we loved you, Champions! Come back!) and Never Have I Ever—a show that will be coming back, with Netflix recently announcing its Season 3 renewal.
But how success feels on the inside isn’t the same as how it looks on the outside. That’s why Kaling has teamed up with TJ Maxx’s Maxx You Project, a women’s-empowerment initiative, to help launch The Change Exchange, a letter-writing program designed to help women connect with each other and feel supported as they navigate moments of change. (Yep; you get to have a pen pal again!) Kaling not only participates in the program; as someone who came up in showbiz as a writer and knows what it’s like to feel like you need more support, she’s also a fitting spokesperson.
Parade.com recently sat down with Kaling to talk about how all kinds of working women (including moms) need more support right now. Along the way, we also got the inside scoop on Kaling’s next project—which, no surprise, features another awesome female in the lead.
You’re partnering with TJ Maxx to launch a new women’s pen-pal network called The Change Exchange, so of course, the first question I have to ask you is, did you have a penpal growing up?
I have one right now! She’s a really extraordinary woman who I actually met through this program. But as a kid, I had many pen pals. I was a nerdy young kind and there’s just something about these kinds of relationships that really speaks to me. That’s why I was so excited to be part of The Change Exchange, because it’s designed to help women connect as they experience change. As a kid, it was really about overcoming shyness and making connections with other kids—and this was, coming out of the pandemic, a way for me to connect with other women going through similar things that I was.
With so many working women struggling to regain their professional footing amid the pandemic, can you talk about a time when this kind of one-on-one support proved most invaluable to your career?
When I was coming up in the industry, the truth is, there weren’t a lot of big comedy people who were there to be my mentor. When I think about it, most of my mentors were older, white men. It’s really important to me that younger women can have me as their mentor and change that cycle a bit. In terms of women who have supported me, there are so many producers and young executives that are around my same age—we were each other’s support network because we didn’t have a lot of role models older than us. It’s really cool to see a lot of women who were junior execs when I started on my show who are now running networks. It’s really exciting!
The Change Exchange is coming around the same time as Meghan Markle’s 40×40 Initiative, which likewise encourages peer-to-peer mentorship. Why do you think this kind of personal guidance is what people are searching for these days?
There’s something about the intimacy of these 1:1 relationships with other women that allow me to acknowledge my shortcomings as well as talk about my fears with change. I’ve gone through so many changes in the past couple of years that I’ve felt not equipped to handle by myself. I’m not married, I don’t have sisters, and I haven’t been able to see some of my close friends for years because of our circumstances, so I just need support. I think it’s so admirable Meghan Markle launched that (program) – I think that’s a great way to commemorate that milestone by helping other people. I think it’s great there are so many people who are trying to do things like this.
How has your circle of friends helped you weather the past year while parenting through a pandemic?
Being in a bubble, I started to feel like everyone was doing it better than me. Like, somehow, they’ve gotten their children to stay put on Zoom for longer, how did they figure out a way to do that while the only way I could trick my child into being on Zoom was by putting her food in front of her! What I think was great [for me] was, rather than hearing advice about successful things, was hearing people be real. That, to me, has been great—to help me feel less alone in everything I was doing.
One of your next big projects is executive-producing and voicing the title role in HBO Max’s Scooby-Doo prequel series, Velma. Growing up, would you have said you were a Velma or a Daphne?
I loved Daphne’s red hair and her fashion and I can say personally, I do not look nearly as good as Velma does in an orange turtleneck – it’s a really specific look! What I loved about [Velma] was, she’s so positive and sort of the smartest one of the group. She wasn’t sort of a traditional, cartoon-looking girl and she was so valued.
I’m picturing Velma as sort of an heir to the Daria throne—and also, as a female who’d be very down with this idea of women helping women. Can you share what fans can expect from Velma and what your inspiration behind the idea was?
It’s been fun trying to figure out her personality since we got little glimpses of it in the original. I think Daria has a little more world-weariness, although she’s such a fun character too. There’s something about how excited Velma is to solve mysteries that feels a little younger than Daria – she’s slightly less edgy and, like I said, less world-weary and cynical than Daria. But that’s great company to keep!
Devi, the lead character in Never Have I Ever, is another strong female role model. That term gets overused these days, but what does “strong female role model” mean to you? And how do you think that definition is changing?
I think the thing that has changed in the past 15 years or so is there was so little representation of women of color on screen, that they sort of had to be perfect because you didn’t want the first representations of women of color to be flawed or jaded. Before there could be Tony Soprano, you know, you had all of Jimmy Stewart’s characters who were perfect and as it evolved you have these more flawed characters. But that is sort of boring, and I think what is cool now is that there have been enough women on TV that we can show them as flawed and more nuanced because we’re not necessarily thinking that an Indian woman or Black woman or Asian woman has to represent everyone in their culture. That’s really great as a creator because it’s boring to create these really perfect female characters that don’t feel realistic to me or my life. That’s kind of nice now that you can have strong female characters on TV that are not perfect.