Natasha Verma slides into her workstation, where she monitors eight tabs worth of law enforcement sites, media organizations, email, Facebook. She glimpses regularly at additional screens to her right displaying feeds from Florida Department of Transportation cameras and showing traffic flow throughout Lee and Collier.
It’s 5 a.m., and you’ll find her here every weekday, the morning traffic reporter for NBC2.
A director cues her. She strides toward the set, the camera flips on and she breaks into a wide smile.
“Good morning,” she greets, brightly. “We are off to a fantastic start in Lee County.”
This is how most of Southwest Florida knows Verma—the voice who informs the routes they should take, the extra time they ought to allot when fender benders clog commutes. Viewers can see her other times of the day, too, when the station airs her news reports, which focus primarily on health care. For this doctor’s daughter, wellness is something of a passion.
If you didn’t know any better, you might imagine Verma as simply another young talent working her way though broadcast journalism’s ranks.
But landing a job at NBC a year ago is merely one line on a résumé packed with achievements. The others—well, they might make even the most accomplished among us feel a bit slacker-like.
- Founder—at age 11—of the Community Awareness Program, a peer-to-peer diabetes and obesity education and prevention campaign Verma delivered in person to at least 100 schools in South Texas and via a self-produced video to others she could not visit.
- Founder, former co-host and executive director of University of Texas at Austin’s student morning news show, Good Morning, Texas, which went on to win awards and air in 250,000 households, as well as in campus housing.
- The University of Texas’ youngest-ever graduate. At 17, she earned two undergraduate degrees—in broadcast journalism and biology/pre-med.
- The holder of a Columbia University master’s degree in journalism, earned at age 18.
- Director and producer of Hardy, an award-winning documentary about female boxer Heather Hardy.
- Founder, along with her family, of the nonprofit Global Health Foundation, which is supporting educational needs in Delhi, India.
Verma’s current age: 21. Barely.
While her accomplishments provoke exclamations of incredulity, Verma tells about her life in a tone that is entirely matter-of-fact and almost begs the question, “Why not do that?”
“I always had this thirst for knowledge growing up,” she explains. Her father, Omesh, is an internist; her mother, Shama, holds a master’s in computer engineering from the London School of Economics. The couple instilled in their three children a love of reading and indulged young Natasha’s insatiable curiosity. They took them to visit India regularly and to major cities around the world, believing in the educational value of travel. They enrolled Natasha in activities ranging from ballet to piano to skiing (she competed at the Junior Olympics level). Omesh Verma would take his daughter to work at times, piquing her interest in science and medicine.
A disclaimer, though, from dad: “A lot of people ask me or say to me, ‘You shouldn’t have pushed your daughter so hard.’ I did not. A lot of people assume maybe I am at home sitting there with a stick. … No, it’s nothing like that,” he says.
“Natasha has been very focused and very dedicated in whatever she does from a very young age,” her mother says. “She was always a perfectionist—that’s Natasha.”
Let’s not disregard her parents’ influence, though. From her mother, Verma says she learned independence. Her father preached the values of learning and humility. “I always tell my children, ‘A day that you have not learned something is a day wasted,’” Omesh Verma says. “You can even learn something from your gardener. You can learn something from the person who cleans your house. You just have to keep your eyes and ears and mind open.”
That household spawned a child of limitless “whys” and, more critically, a kid who would take action when an answer didn’t sit well.
In her Texas elementary school, Verma remembers discovering that some of her classmates had to test their blood sugar after lunch. They had diabetes.
“To me, it was, ‘Why?’ ‘Why would you have to do that?’ And then to find out (Type 2 diabetes) is completely preventable. A child shouldn’t have to go through all that pain and monitoring. They can live a better life.”
Verma worked with her parents to research the disease, its causes, warning signs and prevention. She created posters showing healthy habits and prepared a presentation, hoping that information would matter more if it came from another kid.
The American Diabetes Association named her a Youth Ambassador. Former Gov. Rick Perry and then-President George W. Bush presented her with a Prudential Spirit of Community Award. A mom in attendance later recognized that the dark patches on her son’s neck were a diabetes warning sign.
The program would prove important in other ways, too: It offered a young Verma her first public speaking opportunity and gave her first glimpses of broadcast journalism between producing her educational video and being interviewed by local reporters. She was enthralled.
Verma blew through high school, earning both her diploma and an associate’s degree by the time she was 15. She liked the challenge of the advanced classes and saw no reason age should dictate her course selections.
She entered the University of Texas at Austin as a double major and began interning at the student television station, which had an evening news show but no morning presence. So she created one.
She continued her journalism studies at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. That’s where she got a class assignment that would change her life.
Verma visited Gleason’s Gym, the training ground of fighters like Muhammad Ali and Jake LaMotta, to take photos for a slideshow. But when she got there, Verma’s eyes were drawn to a ponytailed woman in the corner.
“She was the only (woman) in this massive gym of men,” Verma says. She was Heather Hardy, a single mom in Brooklyn who’d stumbled into boxing and fallen in love with the sport. Verma asked permission to photograph her. Hardy agreed. And then the two started talking.
“I was just taken away by her story,” Verma remembers. Hardy wanted to go pro, seeing boxing as a way out of Brooklyn’s poverty and its limits.
“She’s just so raw, so Brooklyn, so honest,” Verma says. “She fights like, ‘You just stole my mother’s wallet and I have two minutes to get it back.’”
With Hardy’s consent, Verma started hanging out at Gleason’s whenever she could, camera rolling.
Now remember: Verma was just 18 at the time, and entering a testosterone-fueled world she knew nothing about. That’s what struck her current boss, Waterman Broadcasting General Manager Steve Pontius.
“Think about how much courage it took for her to shoot in the environment she did—for a teenager to approach these people and ask, ‘Do you mind if I stick a camera in your face for a year?’” Pontius muses. “It’s amazing.”
As Verma reported, she realized the storyline was more complex than “girl trying to make it in man’s world.” The fledgling reporter found herself immersed in a life that had included a rape, a complicated relationship with her trainer and a fight for gender equity.
The young filmmaker recruited help—and got it in a big way. Her executive producer: Lou DiBella, boxing promoter and television/film producer. Her producer: Jay Giannone, who has appeared in films such as The Departed and Gone Baby Gone. Her editor: Sarah Devorkin, the woman who edited Page One, the acclaimed documentary about The New York Times.
That, of course, begs the question: Why did Hollywood heavyweights throw themselves into an 18-year-old graduate student’s project?
“Honestly, she was inspiring to me,” Giannone says. He was wowed by Verma’s drive and focus (“I can’t get that out of 30-year-old guys I work with,” he says) and drawn to Hardy’s story.
Nothing about Verma belies her age—not her looks, nor her body language nor her demeanor.
“To be honest, I’ve never had a problem with people taking me seriously. I’m just very driven and direct. … I never gave them a reason to doubt me or not take me seriously,” Verma says.
Even with the experienced crew, the film is Verma’s, Giannone says. “She was the general.”
“We always knew she was a champion even before she had a belt around her waist,” Giannone says of Hardy. “You could see a strong woman, and Natasha is the same way.”
Hardy debuted at the Austin Film Festival and has been screened at Shadow Box Film Festival in New York; Irvine (California) International Film Festival, where she won best feature film director; Fort Myers Film Festival; Fort Myers Beach Film Festival; and DOC NYC.
Meanwhile, Verma, her parents, and her younger brother and sister started their Global Health Foundation, first to collect to-be-discarded Braille books and ship them to a blind orphanage for girls in New Delhi, and now to raise money to build a school for the poor.
“(Education) has been ingrained in us. We see how important reading is and how reading a book, any kind of book, can change the way you see things, can change your path,” Verma says.
Back at the NBC2 studios, the clock hits 7 a.m., and Verma enjoys a bit of a reprieve while the TODAY opening segment airs. She had landed in this newsroom because the station had offered her a full-time job (she had freelanced in New York) and because, she says, it had a reputation for developing good reporters.
Verma works a schedule that for most of us might be unbearable: 4 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays and Tuesdays; 4 a.m. to 8 a.m. Wednesdays through Fridays. To her, the arrangement is a gift: It frees her afternoons and weekends to apply to film festivals, push Hardy into general distribution, work on the nonprofit and scheme up her next project.
Managing it all requires a bit of fastidiousness.
“I’m very … I don’t want to say I’m habitual or strict, either,” Verma says, wrestling with how to describe herself. “I’m very regimented. I will do this. I will do that. My apartment is clean. I am very clean-cut—that’s just how I am.”
Yes, she does sleep—crashing out for a four-hour nap one weekday, a seven-hour one after a particularly strenuous stretch. No, she is not a workaholic. Her afternoon plans that day included a spin class at the gym and dinner with friends. And she was getting geared up for her birthday—her 21st.
“Maybe New York,” she says, grinning in anticipation. “Or Austin. Sixth Street is amazing.”