Priyanka Chopra Jonas (left) with Whitney Wolfe Herd, who founded Bumble in 2014 Priyanka Chopra Jonas
Image: Mexy Xavier
Actor & Entrepreneur
When Priyanka Chopra Jonas got on board as an investor in dating and social media app Bumble, she did a little more than just sign a cheque—she became its face when she brought it to India in December, becoming the company’s brand ambassador, working on the creatives for the ads, and starring in them.It was the same with her first investment, at coding education school Holberton School of Software Engineering, where she was part of a $8.2 million funding round that closed last April. Singer and Grammy Award-winning artist NE-YO has been instrumental in inspiring African-Americans to apply at Holberton, and Chopra Jonas is partnering with the school to similarly inspire women.
Eight years after she started her move Westwards, first with a singing career and then acting in Hollywood, Chopra Jonas, 36, is now taking baby steps into the world of investing, bringing her celebritydom and her skills to her newest endeavours.
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After launching her and managing her career in the West, it is entrepreneur-turned-investor Anjula Acharia who seems to have got Chopra Jonas interested in these as well. “I had probably invested in about 20 women-founded consumer companies and Priyanka and I would be talking on the phone and she would ask about things. Once I had some creatives of a direct-to-consumer cosmetics company and she gave me feedback... I asked if she wanted to look at companies with me,” recalls Acharia, who solely manages Chopra Jonas’s career internationally.
She adds that Chopra Jonas’s feedback, from marketing and opportunities they could take advantage of for the product, was insightful. “That’s what could work for a founder. When you are taking money from someone, you’re not just taking money, you’re taking insights, experience, knowledge and contacts,” Acharia tells Forbes India
from Silicon Valley. The two are looking at other investing as well as entrepreneurial opportunities.
Chopra Jonas, who says her focus is on tech companies for now, approaches investing in two ways. “First, I like to find out the sentiment around the company. Second, I like to see if the product or service is something I would use… if it could bridge a market gap or if it could disrupt something which already exists,” she says, adding that she takes advice from different people for this. “I definitely confer with Anjula, my manager, because she is also a venture capitalist (VC). I also like to discuss it with my friends and the people that I know who are in tech.”
Chopra Jonas belongs to a rare breed of celebrities, particularly women, to have backed tech companies. Globally, actors Leonardo DiCaprio (MindMaze and Qloo) and Ashton Kutcher (Airbnb and Spotify) have strong portfolios, Beyonce has invested in a tech startup that allows you to pre-order concert merchandise and Tyra Banks has invesments in The Muse and ShopTap Industries. In India, the numbers are even lower.
“ When you are taking money from someone... you’re also taking insights, experience, contacts.”
Anjula Acharia, entrepreneur-turned-investor
Explaining the marginal presence of celebrities as tech investors, Rutvik Doshi, managing director of Inventus Capital Partners, a venture capital fund in Silicon Valley and India, says: “Celebrities invest in spaces or businesses they understand or are passionate about. There are very few tech companies that take on celebrities as investors. They do so only if they feel that they can leverage on the celebrity for brand building.” This is what Bumble and Holberton are banking on.
“When you are a public person and attach yourself to a business, you have the ability to take it to so many more consumers because you can leverage the platform you have and give it a face that will travel,” says Chopra Jonas.
Chopra Jonas is well versed with the promotion and marketing of brands: She has been a brand ambassador for select products of Garnier (from the L’Oreal stable) and, since December 2016, has been a global ambassador for P&G’s Pantene. And she seems to be bringing the value-add to her investing—she is a global advisor for Bumble and on the board of trustees at Holberton.
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“NE-YO has been instrumental in inspiring black/African-Americans to pursue careers in software engineering at Holberton. We wanted to find a talent who could similarly inspire women. It just so happens that a very good friend of the school, Anjula Acharia, was also Priyanka’s manager. Both Anjula and Priyanka have long championed women and girls, and so our school mission and their personal missions aligned perfectly. Priyanka was eager to sign on with Holberton immediately upon learning about the school, and has been a terrific partner,” writes Sylvain Kalache, co-founder of Holberton School, in an email. Kalache and his co-founder Julien Barbier started the school to promote diversity in tech education as well as make it financially accessible. They did this by making the programme tuition-free until after students start working in a well-paying job.
“I’m a big fan of technology, of new ideas,” says Chopra Jonas, who aspired to become an aeronautical engineer before she became Miss World in 2000.
Data shows that, in the US alone, only 14 percent of software engineers are women. Like at Holberton, where she chipped in to help democratise technology education, it was Bumble’s women-centric focus that got her involved in the app as well. “Bumble is an accessory for Indian women who want to have a say, or a choice, in their lives. Most of them don’t have a choice in the matter,” says Chopra Jonas of the social media app that lets women make the first move. “This was one of those breakthrough things that I thought can have potential in India.”
US entrepreneur Whitney Wolfe Herd founded Bumble in December 2014 months after quitting Tinder, claiming sexual harassment by co-founder Justin Mateen. Herd and Tinder settled the case out of court for an undisclosed sum, without admitting guilt.
Following her exit from Tinder she faced a lot of online abuse. “In 2014, I was at my lowest and enduring seemingly endless online abuse from strangers. I didn’t want anyone to feel what I was feeling and knew there needed to be a safe place online for women to connect,” says Herd, 28, who met Chopra Jonas at a Bumble Bizz dinner along with Acharia. Chopra Jonas instantly said she wanted to bring the app to India, she recalls.
Besides the option of looking for romantic partners, Bumble also has features like Bumble Bizz to facilitate business communications and networking, and a BFF mode to look for friends. It has over 1 million first movers (users) in India and, as of December 2018, notched up $220 million in revenues worldwide.
But Bumble’s good start does not necessarily spell success in a market like India, where Tinder is the leader. “Most VCs don’t look at the No 2,” says Doshi. The Indian market is unique, with dating apps such as Tinder and matrimonial apps like BharatMatrimony and Shaadi.com among others. “There is no room for something in between,” says Doshi.
Chopra Jonas was at the peak of her career in India and Hollywood was nowhere on her radar when Acharia signed her on in 2010. “I don’t think she had really thought about it. She was based in India and she was like why go to a new country where you don’t know anyone and start all over again,” says Acharia, recalling that it took convincing and a lot of time just to pin her down. “I felt like it took a year just to have a real conversation with her,” she says.
Even when she did manage to convince her, the time she got from Priyanka was barely 20 days in a year. “To break into Hollywood, you need to be here 24/7,” she says.
Chopra Jonas’s journey in the US started with American record producer Jimmy Iovine, the co-founder of Interscope Records, which produced Chopra’s first US single ‘In My City’, featuring rapper will.i.am. Another single ‘Exotic’ featuring Pitbull followed in 2013. She was also the brand ambassador for Guess before finally landing a role on prime time TV for Quantico
. She has also acted in three Hollywood movies.
In the midst of all this, Chopra Jonas started her production house Purple Pebble Pictures (PPP) in 2013. The difference with her Bollywood peers—like Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan, Akshay Kumar, Aamir Khan, who also had production houses—was that she decided to focus on regional cinema. “When I set up the company, there was minimal involvement from Bollywood in the regional cinema space. To me it was charting a new path in this space. There is so much untapped potential in regional cinema… from the stories to the technicians and actors. Purple Pebble was my way of bridging the gap,” says Chopra Jonas, who vets stories/scripts. “When it comes to the choice of films we make or even the font being used on a poster, I am involved hands-on,” she adds.
While her mother, Dr Madhu Chopra is the business head, they also have Sandeep Bhargava as CEO, who handles the logistics and operations. Bhargava, who was earlier chief operating officer at UTV and had launched Studio 18 (a division of Viacom18, part of the Network 18 Group, to which Forbes India belongs
), is also an advisor to actor Sanjay Dutt for his production house. “Though Chopra wanted to promote regional cinema, she also understood that a production house has to be financially viable,” says Bhargava, adding that she is highly involved in the making of a movie. “She reads the scripts and takes a call on casting. When the film goes on floor, we make it a point to send her the rushes on a weekly basis, and she gives her point of view.”
PPP has nine films going on floor this year. “The plan is to make it a mini studio and establish it in regional cinema before taking on Bollywood,” says Bhargava. In 2019, PPP will also expand beyond movies to make web series for platforms such as Netflix. Bhargava claims at least 80 percent of the movies produced by them have been profitable.
A successful entrepreneur needs to be ambitious, aggressive and a risk-taker. And if it’s the content business, the risk is higher, says Bhargava. “That is the only way to take some big bets and Priyanka has all of these qualities,” he says.
As an actor, Chopra Jonas is no stranger to taking risks. Whether it was Aitraaz
(2004), playing an autistic girl in Barfi!
(2012), or woman warrior Kashibai in Bajirao Mastani
(2015), she has shown her versatility on screen. “Look at the risks she took for the roles in Barfi!
in her early days. Actresses today would wish for such roles,” says Vajir Singh, editor of trade magazine BoxOfficeIndia
However, Inventus’s Doshi warns, “Celebrities who are already successful in their careers need to believe in the ventures they are investing in or working with. That is the only way they can give 100 percent time and effort to them.”
Chopra Jonas seems sorted on that front. “I came in as someone who is a believer more than anything else,” she says of Bumble. “Whether I was an investor or an advisor, all those things you can bifurcate as much as you want, but when I was sitting at that dinner, I was like wow, this is awesome, I wish I had had that when I was starting out, when I had just moved to Mumbai,” she says.
The actor-turned-investor is producing nine movies in 2019, writing a book, acting in two movies, investing in two companies, endorsing several brands and taking Unicef trips (she was appointed a Unicef National Ambassador in 2010). Her quest, she says, “is to do multiple things and be excellent at all of them”. Forbes India
It’s something that Acharia says she has seen Chopra Jonas do for her entire career. “When I met Priyanka initially in London… she had a Prada bag and was wearing a scarf from Zara. I said to her you are the only person I know who would be wearing something Prada and something Zara. And she said, ‘You’ve got to be able to mix your brand, you’ve got to play at every level, you have to be everywhere’.”
(This story appears in the 15 March, 2019 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)