Nava Kavelin – CEO and Producer at a Media Production Company, California
For Nava Kavelin, service to her faith and to wider society has been at the core of her life’s pursuits and her family’s foundation. She was born in California to a pair of dedicated Bahá’í parents who instilled the importance of service in her and her sister early on. Vacations were not solely dedicated to relaxing; when she and her sister were young, the whole family would volunteer with the local Bahá’í community wherever they visited. “From a very young age, the notion of having a spiritual practice that is the center of how your family makes decisions, and centering service, in particular, practicing those values through acts of service, was imprinted on me…it’s just part of who I am.”
At the age of three, her family picked up and moved to Puerto Rico. Both her parents were fluent in Spanish, and her father worked as an interpreter for the US Federal Courts. The island presented a professional opportunity and was a place where her family could contribute to the growth of the local Bahá’í communities. Nava’s mother was a teacher and, upon their move, transitioned to working full-time raising her daughters and volunteering within the Faith.
Nava attended the Episcopal Cathedral School for all of K-12, which she fondly remembers referring to as the “Little Yellow School” for its vibrant shell of paint. School was socially challenging at first. She was self-conscious of how she differed from her peers, both in looks and language, with her Persian background and flawed Spanish. “I was really consumed by the feeling that I was different…that I didn’t belong.” Grade 7 was a turning point for her when she formed close bonds with a group of boys from her class. Strong male friendships were a critical part of her adolescence, as she felt more comfortable in who she was when around them. She’s uncertain why that was exactly, and today, she finds greater strength in her female friendships.
Outside of school, Nava pursued her interest in acting and performed in civic theatre productions and talent shows. Her focus later shifted to broadcast journalism, but after reading up on the career and a conversation with her guidance counselor, she realized that such a path did not suit her. She eventually decided to pursue a career in teaching, influenced by her family’s long history in the profession. This perhaps, she thought, was her destiny.
Nava was encouraged by her father to go stateside for college, and she landed at Trinity University in Texas, swayed by their strong education program and generous financial aid package. Nava had never been to Texas before and found herself alone on campus, which to her was exciting. “I’m still this way. I’m very independent. I think I have a strong sense of adventure and am a little bit fearless about things.” Here, she grew closer to her cousins in Dallas, whom she could rely on during the holidays when flights home to Puerto Rico were too expensive.
At Trinity, Nava pursued a five-year track, receiving her undergraduate degree in English, and her master’s in education during the final year. The program incorporated a guaranteed internship, and Nava was placed at a magnet school, The International School of the Americas. She found this to be an enriching opportunity and appreciated how the school’s values of diversity and inclusion reflected her own and were woven into the curriculum. Students were encouraged to explore and understand the world around them, to think critically on a global scale, and return that knowledge back to their local community.
As a Bahá’í, Nava was eligible to go on pilgrimage to Faith’s holy sites in Israel, so she ventured there not long before graduation. Nava felt pulled by a need to serve in a way that would be more significant than she ever had before and to do so before the responsibilities of adulthood took greater hold. After receiving her degree, Nava soon returned to Israel, where she served at the Bahá’í World Centre, working in a research capacity. For two and a half years, she served in the secretariat for the organization the Universal House of Justice. The term was limited, but they offered her extended employment to transfer to another department, the Institute for Studies in Global Prosperity, where she worked for another year and a half. These roles provided the opportunity to engage her English and educational backgrounds through research and the construction of seminars for university students. Nava loved this job, as it enabled her to travel around the world to help establish university seminars with curriculum that centered on leading a coherent, balanced life. “I met incredible young people who were so service oriented. And I remember thinking that any job I got after this was going to be a big letdown.”
After four years, Nava’s time in Israel expired. She entered the US workforce with her master’s from the highly regarded Trinity program yet found difficulty securing a job amidst the financial crisis in 2011. Education budgets were being cut, and school districts did not want to have to spend more on a candidate with an advanced degree but without teaching experience. She cast a wide, unsuccessful net and internalized the rejection.
After the lengthy search, one of Nava’s cousins from Dallas threw out the suggestion that she apply to English language positions at schools in China. This idea turned into a strategy: gain the teaching experience she was lacking and return to the US in a year or two with a deeper resume. What Nava still finds hard to believe today is that she landed a job at one of the top colleges in China, Tsinghua University, at a time when not a single US school would take her. Starting anew in Beijing, she felt the echoes of her move to Puerto Rico. Not knowing the language, she struggled through her first year, feeling alienated by her inability to communicate effortlessly. As she adapted, she grew to love the culture and people, and above all, her students.
In 2013, Nava returned to the US to pursue teaching positions once again. She received an offer from the charter school BASIS at their Flagstaff, AZ campus. It was one of the top chains of charter schools at the time, but the location was not her first choice. At her mother’s advice, she still accepted the role, but with her sights set on a transfer in a year’s time to their Phoenix location, which was more desirable to Nava for its stronger Bahá’í presence.
A year later, as hoped, the opportunity to move to Phoenix presented itself. BASIS held a preference for internal hires at the administrative level, and Nava was offered the position as the director of the Phoenix Middle School campus. This promotion, Nava admits, was not one she was ready for. She had never studied school administration, and the timing was horrible. Her mother passed suddenly, one week before the start of school. The entire year was rocky, filled with circulating grief, self-doubt, and loneliness. “To enter a new school and be someone who just lost a parent, and nobody wants to talk to you about it. Nobody knows you, so nobody’s comforting you, nobody’s asking you how you are.”
At that moment, Nava determined the school culture to be the primary problem for its dehumanizing, competitive nature. Upon accepting the role of vice principal at a new school, which better aligned with her educational philosophy, she quickly learned that the true problem for her was the job itself. The field of administration did not appeal to her, as her primary function was as a disciplinarian; she deeply missed teaching.
Nava considered returning to her roots, but the idea was in discordance with her mindset. “I think I still have this mentality that whatever you’re doing in life. You should be moving forward and learning new things. And I felt like, for whatever reason, I got off that teaching path, and to go back to it would feel like I was going backward in my life.”
Several situations arose at the school which solidified for Nava that it was not where she was meant to be. And while she knew neither teaching nor administration was her way forward, she didn’t have clarity beyond that. Nava began praying to God intensely, seeking guidance, seeking an answer as to what and where her place was. She felt despair, crying to God, “I’m in hell. I really made the wrong choice. I’ve made some bad decisions. Please just pluck me out of the school and put me anywhere you want me.”
Two days later, Nava received an email from a representative at the Bahá’í International Community (BIC), an organization that represents the Bahá’í Faith at the United Nations (UN). There was an opening for a senior researcher, and an old colleague of Nava’s from her time in Israel had referred her. The position had not been vacant for ten years. For Nava, this was fate, she was certain she would land the job. “I was like, I know this is an answer to my prayer. Every other candidate that they interviewed had a PhD.… I was the only one who didn’t. I had no doubt because of that prayer.”
Nava was right. In 2016, she packed up and moved to New York. She held the role of senior researcher for four years, and it became “the dream job that I never knew was my dream.” The BIC holds consultative status at the UN, which granted Nava access to the main headquarters, where she met prolific thinkers, journalists, and world leaders. In her research, she would explore a given societal theme, like the impact of technology on youth, and cross-evaluate the perspectives from Bahá’í scripture, UN policies, and works of academics and scientists.
Her position at the UN was also a fixed term, and Nava left in early March 2020, right at the start of the COVID-19 Pandemic. At the time, she wished the opportunity lasted longer, but now she is grateful for its ending, as she feels certain her life’s direction unfolded as it was meant to.
During her last year at the UN, her research heavily focused on the damaging impact of media on girls and women. She resonated with what she uncovered, and was eager to learn and do more, and began attending conferences with various representatives in the media. In her final project with BIC, she pitched a documentary on gender equality. This venture allowed her to travel the world once again and learn about gender dynamics from an array of communities. The film took a year to create, and for six months of that, Nava wasn’t receiving a salary.
Nava supported herself with funds she received from a television pilot she sold to Warner Bros Entertainment. Through the conferences she attended, she met various producers and eventually connected with the actor, and fellow Bahá’í, Penn Badgley. The two discovered their mutual interest in creating ethical, meaningful media content. Penn was floating around the idea of starting his own production company. Penn was starting his own production company, and on a whim, Nava asked if he would like to start it with her. She had no experience, but he welcomed the partnership, and Ninth Mode Media was formed. Here, she developed her pilot. She made enough from that sale to live off for exactly six months while she completed her documentary for the UN.
When production on the documentary wrapped, Nava went full-time at Ninth Mode, which she and Penn co-own and run, along with their third partner, Chelsea Rowhani. Right now, they are a small, young company that solely creates original content, everything from series to films and
podcasts. The company’s ethos is grounded in awareness of the media’s inevitable influence on public discourse, and in response, they seek to produce thoughtful content. The team is still learning the balance between achieving that goal and remaining commercially viable.
Nava plans to stay with Ninth Mode for at least ten years. She loves the creativity and flexibility it offers, along with its alignment with her broader commitment to service, reflected in the company’s mission. She is excited by the plethora of projects and opportunities for collaboration. And she is excited by the process. Ninth Mode doesn’t have many final products – yet. They continue to do what they can, develop and pitch. She is not deterred by the unknown of this, as she is certain of her place. What Nava has learned is that not every decision in her life had a clear purpose at that given moment; she draws on her medley of experience to inform each new step forward. This is what Nava has often done best: continue to move forward. “So for now, the process. But maybe one day I’ll love the outcome as well.”