Women with GRITT
December 22, 2020
by Rose Garnett

WOMEN WITH GRITT: Priya Serrao On The Migrant Experience, The Importance Of Rejection And Why She Entered The Miss Universe Australia Competition On A Whim

by Rose Garnett

“Coming from a developing country like India and then coming to a much wealthier country full of opportunities like Australia, the stark contrast of experience has always been very apparent to me. It has definitely shaped what I have prioritised in my life.”

Welcome to Women With GRITT: a series where we interview the resilient, hardworking women who have kicked in the glass ceiling and inspire us to do the same.

Whilst the saying “beauty and brains” may not describe anyone quite as perfectly as it does Priya Serrao, what is most striking about the Melbournian is her warmth, confidence and undeniable knack for making everyone around her feel comfortable. PSA: we observed all this in the first 15 seconds of our Zoom call. Appearing on our screen promptly at 1pm, in minimal makeup and bundled in a creamy knitted jumper, chatting to Serrao felt more like old friends catching up than it did an interview. 

First and foremost a law school graduate and now policy adviser for the Government of Victoria, Serrao is a woman for the people. Migrating to Australia from Dubai at just 10 years old, the 28-year-old’s drive for helping others comes from her first hand experiences growing up in rural India – where wealth was limited and opportunities scarce. Her acknowledgement of the privilege she has as a result of her immigration is refreshing and undoubtedly one of the reasons why so many young women look up to her. 

With her passion for law and policy in mind, it might be surprising to learn that in 2019 Serrao was also crowned Miss Universe Australia. Entering the competition on a whim, it wasn’t until she won that the reality of her position set in; a passionate political activist with the opportunity to expand her personal platform and use it for important public discussion. Now oscillating between her full-time role as a policy adviser and her brand commitments as Miss Universe Australia 2019 (recently working with L’Oréal Paris to launch their True Match campaign), Serrao is busier than ever.

In this interview, Serrao speaks to Gritty Pretty about her love of moving, the migrant experience, how she’s grown to appreciate rejection and why, on a random Tuesday in January 2019, she decided to enter the Miss Universe Australia competition.

 

Priya! Thank you so much for chatting with us today. We’d love to know, first and foremost, a bit more about your childhood. Where did you grow up?

I grew up in a little place called Hyderabad, which is in the centre of India. I spent the first few years of my childhood there and then moved to Oman, which is in the Middle East. We lived in the capital of Muscat for a couple of years and we did a bit of back and forth between the two places because my dad worked for an airline. After that, we moved to Dubai and then eventually ended up in Australia when I was 10 years old.

 

That is certainly a lot of places to have lived within the first decade of your life. How do you think moving around so much has shaped who you are today?

I know some people hate moving but if I’m being completely honest, I loved it. Moving countries that many times might be a little extreme but even when I stayed put I was moving schools or houses, so a part of me always felt like I could reinvent myself everywhere I went. So, it was actually quite fun, especially when I was younger. I was quite a creative little kid so I would come up with all sorts of narratives in my head and almost perform a new character everywhere I went. 

 

How has your Indian heritage influenced who you are today?

I find this question quite hard to answer sometimes because it can be hard for me to separate my Indian heritage from the migrant experience. I think a large part of who I am for sure comes from the values my parents have instilled in my and my rural Indian heritage but at the same time, that’s mixed with the whole migrant experience. Things like working hard and making the most of opportunities that a country like Australia has to provide are traits that have been instilled in me because of the migrant experience. I will never let an opportunity go to waste and have always valued my education very highly because I understand how fortunate I am to receive it. I think that’s the kind of value that comes along with the migrant experience, so as much as it was challenging at first, I am now very grateful for it. 

 

Speaking of making the most of opportunities, after you graduated from The Mac.Robertsons’ High School in Melbourne, you went on to study law at Melbourne Law School. Why did law appeal to you at such a young age?

I think I’ve always had this idea that I wanted to work to create some sort of social impact or change. That’s always been in the back of my mind, even if I didn’t spell it out like that. In undergrad, for example, I was always really interested in international development and underlying that was the idea that I could really assist the world’s most impoverished people. If I had to ask myself why I made that decision it will always come back to me wanting to make sure that people all around the world who are experiencing acute disadvantage or marginalisation are being assisted. I always just think at the end of my life, I want to be able to look back and be proud of what I’ve done to help others.

I think this philosophy also stems from my upbringing. Coming from a developing country like India and then coming to a much wealthier country full of opportunities like Australia, the stark contrast of experience has always been very apparent to me. It has definitely shaped what I prioritise going forward. And, I am also super aware of the fact that one split second decision from my parents could have meant I had a completely different life. Knowing that first hand has always been a driving force because I want as many people as possible to get the same opportunities to succeed as I did.

 

That is such an incredible way of thinking. At this present moment you are actually a policy adviser for the Government of Victoria, not a practising lawyer. What made you make the switch to policy advising?

Towards the end of my degree, I realised that being a practicing lawyer was a pretty slow way of doing what I was passionate about. Law develops very slowly and the work can be quite dry and technical and not as fast-paced as I would have liked it to be. So, that’s the reason why policy suits me so well. Particularly, in the last nine months with the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been a lot of opportunities to create great projects and policies and funnel money into things that will reach people who really need it. So, that’s been my silver lining this year.

 

From policy advising to pageantry, it’s quite a big leap. Why did you decide to enter Miss Universe Australia 2019?

It was on a complete and utter whim. It was early January and work is always very slow at the beginning of the year and we’d just finished the state election. So, there were a whole bunch of new ministers being introduced to new portfolios so everything was very quiet. At that time, I remember stumbling across a video on Instagram asking people to apply and I decided to just go for it. I had nothing to lose. To me, it just sounded very different to anything else I’d ever done so it was a great opportunity to learn and meet new people and wear pretty clothes and expand my skill set. Initially, I just threw my hat in the ring with no expectations of it going anywhere and then I made it into the first round. That was when I had to sit back and consider whether it was something I really wanted to do and put resources towards. To me, it was and it was that decision that led me to win it, which is still insane to think about.

 

That’s such a great attitude to have because, oftentimes, women are afraid of rejection and of hearing the word “no”. How did you overcome that fear to take that leap of faith?

Gosh, I certainly learned this the hard way. In the past, I’ve definitely been very cautious about not putting myself in situations where people might say no to me or where I could fail or be rejected. It took me so long to realise that the only time I can actually learn is when I fail. You don’t learn when you get everything right all the time. So, realising that was a massive turning point for me. So much so that I’m even in the habit now of, say I don’t get a job that I’ve applied for, I will call the interviewer and ask them why. And funnily enough, people are more than happy to chat to you about the things you need to improve on or the things that other applicants may have done better than you. I think it’s also important to separate you as a person from your missteps. Particularly failures in school or at work because, although they may feel like it sometimes, they’re never a reflection of your character or who you are as a person. 

 

Clearly, your risk taking paid off! Since winning Miss Universe Australia in 2019, you have been balancing full-time work and your branded commitments and ambassadorships. How do you juggle both?

I love how multi-dimensional my life is now. I love that I have a small platform on social media where I can advocate for things I care about and use it as an opportunity to find my own voice within the space. But I also love the problem solving aspect of my nine to five job. I love that I have the opportunity to apply different lenses to different problems and I also just really enjoy it. Whilst it is difficult sometimes to find enough hours in the day, the juxtaposition between my normal job and the social media world makes me appreciate each that little bit more because I know what the other alternatives are. 

 

One of the biggest wins of your new platform is your L’Oréal Paris True Match campaign. Congratulations! Being a beauty platform, we have to ask – what are 3 beauty products that make your life easier?

What a question! It’s so hard to choose just three but I would say my number one is definitely the L’Oréal Paris Paradise Mascara ($24.95). A couple of swipes of mascara in the morning is an absolute game changer so I can’t go without this. Then it’s my L’Oréal Paris True Match Liquid Foundation ($29.95). I don’t use too much on my skin but I like to use it to cover any blemishes or prominent veins that I have. It’s super lightweight and light to the touch which means you can still see your skin underneath it. I usually just go around my mouth and under my eyes with it and blend it out using my fingers. Can you tell I’m low-key? My last product would have to be for my lips. I love the L’Oréal Paris Rouge Signature Lip Ink ($24.95) because it just gives me that lift. Even on days when I do nothing else to my face, I will pop on some lipstick to make myself feel a little more put together.

Whilst the saying “beauty and brains” may not describe anyone quite as perfectly as it does Priya Serrao, what is most striking about the Melbournian is her warmth, confidence and undeniable knack for making everyone around her feel comfortable. PSA: we observed all this in the first 15 seconds of our Zoom call. Appearing on our screen promptly at 1pm, in minimal makeup and bundled in a creamy knitted jumper, chatting to Serrao felt more like old friends catching up than it did an interview. 

First and foremost a law school graduate and now policy adviser for the Government of Victoria, Serrao is a woman for the people. Migrating to Australia from Dubai at just 10 years old, the 28-year-old’s drive for helping others comes from her first hand experiences growing up in rural India – where wealth was limited and opportunities scarce. Her acknowledgement of the privilege she has as a result of her immigration is refreshing and undoubtedly one of the reasons why so many young women look up to her. 

With her passion for law and policy in mind, it might be surprising to learn that in 2019 Serrao was also crowned Miss Universe Australia. Entering the competition on a whim, it wasn’t until she won that the reality of her position set in; a passionate political activist with the opportunity to expand her personal platform and use it for important public discussion. Now oscillating between her full-time role as a policy adviser and her brand commitments as Miss Universe Australia 2019 (recently working with L’Oréal Paris to launch their True Match campaign), Serrao is busier than ever.

In this interview, Serrao speaks to Gritty Pretty about her love of moving, the migrant experience, how she’s grown to appreciate rejection and why, on a random Tuesday in January 2019, she decided to enter the Miss Universe Australia competition.

 

Priya! Thank you so much for chatting with us today. We’d love to know, first and foremost, a bit more about your childhood. Where did you grow up?

I grew up in a little place called Hyderabad, which is in the centre of India. I spent the first few years of my childhood there and then moved to Oman, which is in the Middle East. We lived in the capital of Muscat for a couple of years and we did a bit of back and forth between the two places because my dad worked for an airline. After that, we moved to Dubai and then eventually ended up in Australia when I was 10 years old.

 

That is certainly a lot of places to have lived within the first decade of your life. How do you think moving around so much has shaped who you are today?

I know some people hate moving but if I’m being completely honest, I loved it. Moving countries that many times might be a little extreme but even when I stayed put I was moving schools or houses, so a part of me always felt like I could reinvent myself everywhere I went. So, it was actually quite fun, especially when I was younger. I was quite a creative little kid so I would come up with all sorts of narratives in my head and almost perform a new character everywhere I went. 

 

How has your Indian heritage influenced who you are today?

I find this question quite hard to answer sometimes because it can be hard for me to separate my Indian heritage from the migrant experience. I think a large part of who I am for sure comes from the values my parents have instilled in my and my rural Indian heritage but at the same time, that’s mixed with the whole migrant experience. Things like working hard and making the most of opportunities that a country like Australia has to provide are traits that have been instilled in me because of the migrant experience. I will never let an opportunity go to waste and have always valued my education very highly because I understand how fortunate I am to receive it. I think that’s the kind of value that comes along with the migrant experience, so as much as it was challenging at first, I am now very grateful for it. 

 

Speaking of making the most of opportunities, after you graduated from The Mac.Robertsons’ High School in Melbourne, you went on to study law at Melbourne Law School. Why did law appeal to you at such a young age?

I think I’ve always had this idea that I wanted to work to create some sort of social impact or change. That’s always been in the back of my mind, even if I didn’t spell it out like that. In undergrad, for example, I was always really interested in international development and underlying that was the idea that I could really assist the world’s most impoverished people. If I had to ask myself why I made that decision it will always come back to me wanting to make sure that people all around the world who are experiencing acute disadvantage or marginalisation are being assisted. I always just think at the end of my life, I want to be able to look back and be proud of what I’ve done to help others.

I think this philosophy also stems from my upbringing. Coming from a developing country like India and then coming to a much wealthier country full of opportunities like Australia, the stark contrast of experience has always been very apparent to me. It has definitely shaped what I prioritise going forward. And, I am also super aware of the fact that one split second decision from my parents could have meant I had a completely different life. Knowing that first hand has always been a driving force because I want as many people as possible to get the same opportunities to succeed as I did.

 

That is such an incredible way of thinking. At this present moment you are actually a policy adviser for the Government of Victoria, not a practising lawyer. What made you make the switch to policy advising?

Towards the end of my degree, I realised that being a practicing lawyer was a pretty slow way of doing what I was passionate about. Law develops very slowly and the work can be quite dry and technical and not as fast-paced as I would have liked it to be. So, that’s the reason why policy suits me so well. Particularly, in the last nine months with the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been a lot of opportunities to create great projects and policies and funnel money into things that will reach people who really need it. So, that’s been my silver lining this year.

 

From policy advising to pageantry, it’s quite a big leap. Why did you decide to enter Miss Universe Australia 2019?

It was on a complete and utter whim. It was early January and work is always very slow at the beginning of the year and we’d just finished the state election. So, there were a whole bunch of new ministers being introduced to new portfolios so everything was very quiet. At that time, I remember stumbling across a video on Instagram asking people to apply and I decided to just go for it. I had nothing to lose. To me, it just sounded very different to anything else I’d ever done so it was a great opportunity to learn and meet new people and wear pretty clothes and expand my skill set. Initially, I just threw my hat in the ring with no expectations of it going anywhere and then I made it into the first round. That was when I had to sit back and consider whether it was something I really wanted to do and put resources towards. To me, it was and it was that decision that led me to win it, which is still insane to think about.

 

That’s such a great attitude to have because, oftentimes, women are afraid of rejection and of hearing the word “no”. How did you overcome that fear to take that leap of faith?

Gosh, I certainly learned this the hard way. In the past, I’ve definitely been very cautious about not putting myself in situations where people might say no to me or where I could fail or be rejected. It took me so long to realise that the only time I can actually learn is when I fail. You don’t learn when you get everything right all the time. So, realising that was a massive turning point for me. So much so that I’m even in the habit now of, say I don’t get a job that I’ve applied for, I will call the interviewer and ask them why. And funnily enough, people are more than happy to chat to you about the things you need to improve on or the things that other applicants may have done better than you. I think it’s also important to separate you as a person from your missteps. Particularly failures in school or at work because, although they may feel like it sometimes, they’re never a reflection of your character or who you are as a person. 

 

Clearly, your risk taking paid off! Since winning Miss Universe Australia in 2019, you have been balancing full-time work and your branded commitments and ambassadorships. How do you juggle both?

I love how multi-dimensional my life is now. I love that I have a small platform on social media where I can advocate for things I care about and use it as an opportunity to find my own voice within the space. But I also love the problem solving aspect of my nine to five job. I love that I have the opportunity to apply different lenses to different problems and I also just really enjoy it. Whilst it is difficult sometimes to find enough hours in the day, the juxtaposition between my normal job and the social media world makes me appreciate each that little bit more because I know what the other alternatives are. 

 

One of the biggest wins of your new platform is your L’Oréal Paris True Match campaign. Congratulations! Being a beauty platform, we have to ask – what are 3 beauty products that make your life easier?

What a question! It’s so hard to choose just three but I would say my number one is definitely the L’Oréal Paris Paradise Mascara ($24.95). A couple of swipes of mascara in the morning is an absolute game changer so I can’t go without this. Then it’s my L’Oréal Paris True Match Liquid Foundation ($29.95). I don’t use too much on my skin but I like to use it to cover any blemishes or prominent veins that I have. It’s super lightweight and light to the touch which means you can still see your skin underneath it. I usually just go around my mouth and under my eyes with it and blend it out using my fingers. Can you tell I’m low-key? My last product would have to be for my lips. I love the L’Oréal Paris Rouge Signature Lip Ink ($24.95) because it just gives me that lift. Even on days when I do nothing else to my face, I will pop on some lipstick to make myself feel a little more put together.

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