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Sonya Gavankar on the Reality of Being Miss District of Columbia

The Truly Amazing Women TV Spotlight is on Sonya Gavankar
TV reporter, “The Face of the Newseum,” and
Miss District of Columbia 1997

Miss District of Columbia! That’s the first claim to fame for broadcast journalist Sonya Gavankar, who was crowned in 1997. In the years since, she’s become a TV reporter in Washington, DC. She is also the official “Face of the Newseum,” and anyone who has had the opportunity to check out that grand building on Pennsylvania Avenue has seen her descriptive videos.

We recently had the opportunity to interview Gavankar at American University, when she invited us to judge the preliminary 2014 pageant where 33 women were auditioning for the title of Miss District of Columbia.

After the judging was over, we sat down in the building where her pageant career began.

Scroll down for our Q&A.

Be Inkandescent: Tell us about the Miss District of Columbia pageant. You were a contestant when you were in college at American University. What made you want to participate?

Sonya Gavankar: I saw an ad in the campus newspaper and was more curious than anything. So I responded. It was a great opportunity to try something completely out of my wheelhouse. What I did not realize was that I had all the skills that made for being a good Miss America contestant. I was an opera singer, loved to ham it up, and learned the rest on the fly. The experience has paid off in ways I could have never imagined. I am still involved with the pageant, and the main reason is that it’s such a great experience for young women. I want to help guide them.

Be Inkandescent: As Miss District of Columbia, you had the opportunity to go to the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City. What was that like?

Sonya Gavankar: Surreal. But it is also an experience where you make incredibly strong connections with so many like-minded women. Like any experience where you bring together a group of people—there are bound to be some people you like, and some people you don’t. You very quickly find your perfect fit and you stay lifelong friends. In fact, some of the women I met at the Miss America pageant were in my wedding.

Be Inkandescent: You mentioned that you remain active with the young women running for Miss DC. What role do you play, and what keeps you engaged?

Sonya Gavankar: I have been active for years, but took a step back last year when I had my son, Peter. I missed being a big part of it, so this year I stepped it up and am the prep coordinator for the contestants—both at Miss DC and for the woman who makes it to Miss America.

Be Inkandescent: Your work with Miss DC is on the side. Your day job is working as a reporter and also at the Newseum. Tell us about the work you do in the broadcast world.

Sonya Gavankar: I am living my dream, actually. When I was crowned Miss DC, I said that I wanted to have a career in broadcasting, and I do! What’s even better is that at the Newseum I have the opportunity to produce stories that live beyond the news cycle. Since we focus on journalists and the field of journalism, the stories I tell are those of reporters at their best. When I first came to work at the Newseum I was still young, so learning from all the historical greats in my field was like getting a master’s degree in journalism.

Be Inkandescent: The Newseum moved from Rosslyn, in Northern VA, to its current prime-real-estate location at 555 Pennsylvania Avenue in downtown DC. But you started with the organization back when it was located in a smaller building in Rosslyn, VA. How has the Newseum changed over the years?

Sonya Gavankar: The biggest change is that we have so much more space to tell stories. Our approach to being a museum is so different than others. Almost all the employees are former journalists, which means we know how to tell stories in compelling ways. We did that in our old location, of course, but now being between the White House and the Capitol—with the First Amendment emblazoned on the front of our building—has given us an even bigger platform to be the champion of free speech.

Be Inkandescent: So you work at the Newseum, freelance as a TV reporter, are involved in the Miss DC pageant, are an MC and host for local charity events—and you have a son who is less than a year old. How do you juggle your career and motherhood?

Sonya Gavankar: Like most women, I am very good at compartmentalizing and multitasking. Now that I am back to work full-time, I have had to learn how to focus and do one thing at a time. I got really good at carrying around my boy, who felt like a heavy sack of potatoes, while mixing a bottle—and mentally writing an outline for a story I was working on. Now I get to sit at a desk uninterrupted and do my work. When I go home I can focus just on the baby, so everyone wins and everyone gets my 100 percent attention. Also, voice recognition on my phone saves a lot of time typing while I’m driving.

Be Inkandescent: What do you love most about being a woman in the business world?

Sonya Gavankar: For my generation of professional women, we have the opportunity of deciding what a perfect world looks like for us. We decide what the perfect work-life balance is, because we have the opportunity to achieve our dreams in a greater way than the women who came before us. This is an exciting time to make a large impact. I hope more women in their 30s and 40s realize that—and go for it.

Be Inkandescent: Looking back, what advice would you have for your 25-year-old self?

Sonya Gavankar: My advice would be to know that I am able to sustain intense work. I’d tell myself to never slow down, and never look away from the big goals that I set for myself. In fact, I’d encourage myself to set new higher, larger ones every three years. Complacency and laziness are too easy a trap to fall into. It’s just as easy being a high achiever if you put your mind to it.

Hope Katz Gibbs: What do you hate about being a woman in the business world—and what would you change if you could?

Sonya Gavankar: I hate that there is still an expectation that the perfect life for a woman is a synthetic balance between family and professionalism. We don’t have to look to anybody else; we just have to look inside and decide for ourselves.

Be Inkandescent: What’s your top leadership lesson for other women? And, do you live by that lesson?

Sonya Gavankar: I think the sooner a woman knows to trust her gut instincts, the more powerful she can be. Knowing how, and why, you make decisions and good decisions will save you time and effort.

Be Inkandescent: You are clearly at the top of your career—what have you not yet accomplished?

Sonya Gavankar: I need to take my own advice and come up with my next three-year plan. I’ll get on that right now.

Parting Thought

In each episode of the “Truly Amazing Women TV Show,” we look for a quote that embodies the personality and mission of our featured guest. For Sonya, the ideal quote came to me in a fortune cookie that I opened last night. It read:

“We learn most while teaching others.”

That’s certainly true for Sonya Gavankar. We look forward to keeping an eye on her career.

About Sonya Gavankar

Sonya Gavankar is an award-winning television personality who can be seen hosting programs on PBS, BGTV, and MHz Networks. Her career has spanned a wide range of shows—from international food to hard news.

She serves as The Face of the Newseum, hosting live interview programs, and appearing in video installations, video blogs, and game shows. It’s her job to bring a cohesive voice to the Newseum’s 250,000 square feet of exhibit and interactive programming.

In her free time, Gavankar goes behind the camera. Her photography has been shown in several Washington area galleries, and she is a casting director for independent films.

In 2013, she joined the Inkandescent team as the supervising producer for the growing list of TV shows on InkandescentTV.com.

Learn more about Gavankar at sonyagavankar.com.