Carnegie Mellon University

Rubini Naidu

May 09, 2024

Shifting Focus

CMU alumna Rubini Naidu spreads awareness and encourages empathy through visual storytelling

By Kelly Rembold

Carnegie Mellon University alumna Rubini Naidu never considered herself an artist.

The 2016 Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences graduate was pursuing a psychology degree with plans to attend medical school. That changed when she enrolled in Black and White Photography.

“I didn't anticipate loving the arts as much as I do,” Rubini says. “I had to take some arts courses as a part of my degree and decided to be in the darkroom, and one thing led to another.”

Today, Rubini is a visual artist and photographer who focuses on long-form documentary photography projects. She’s also the founder of Empact, a social justice and inner healing community organization.

“The camera is a way for me to process the world,” she says. “To show up mindfully with my camera and have a deep conversation with someone has helped me experience the world and people and communities in a respectful and honest way.”

Rewarding Research

One of the things Rubini loved most about Carnegie Mellon was the opportunity to participate in research. She launched her research during her junior year, using her newfound passion for photography to explore the impact of visual storytelling and narratives on social constructs.

She received a Small Undergraduate Research Grant and Tartans Abroad Scholarship to travel to Tamil Nadu, India, for a documentary photography independent study. That trip led to more research opportunities during her senior year and beyond. 

“I experienced a lot of highs back-to-back,” Rubini says. “As a student, that looked like giving my first TEDxCMU talk, being selected by my peers to give a First Lecture, being an ACS scholar and having my honors thesis exhibited at the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust. And afterwards, it looked like a variety of very interesting professional opportunities.” 

Those opportunities included a fellowship with the International Foundation for Sustainable Development, a program coordinator role with the Bill & Melinda Gates Institute for Population and Reproductive Health, a Fulbright Scholarship and several pilot programs for Empact. She also earned her master’s degree in sociocultural anthropology from Columbia University. 

“The research elements of CMU, combined with the arts and technology, really set me up for the work that I'm doing now,” she says. “And it’s all a work in progress.” 

The Impact of Empact 

Some of Rubini’s favorite work happens at Empact.

She launched Empact’s first two pilot projects — a storytelling and crowdfunding platform for nonprofits to build recurring donors and a social mobilization platform that offered virtual volunteer matching for organizations — as part of her Fulbright Scholarship. She also received grants through the Vital Voices x Tresseme Women's Leadership Incubator and the AerieREAL Changemakers program.

The projects were rewarding, but came with their own set of challenges.

“Entrepreneurship is hard, but when it’s combined with a social mission and is dealing with real communities and real stories and people's personal experiences, as their own change makers, I think it becomes more complicated,” she says.

Rubini let the dust settle on that project before rekindling her work at Empact in 2023. She’s excited to see it grow and evolve. 

“Currently, Empact is about holding space for the intersection of social justice and inner healing, because typically these tend to live in their own spaces,” Rubini says. “I realized how the two go hand in hand and by holding space for both, people can show up as their full selves and be on this journey together.”

Empact sponsors virtual events and group discussions and will start holding in-person events this year. Rubini also hopes to create an Empact studio where she and her team can work with communities and organizations to share their stories and produce content that brings broader awareness to social issues. 

Photo Focus

In addition to her work at Empact, Rubini is also putting the focus back on her photography. 

She restarted her photography practice and is working on collaborative, long-term projects about Parkinson's disease, transgender visibility and the South Asian diaspora.

“I'm interested in bringing awareness to different human experiences and working with like-minded brands and organizations and outlets that want to tell underrepresented stories,” Rubini says. “I try to include the perspectives of the people I'm working with as a part of the process. It's a lot of fun and really, really challenging. And I wouldn't have it any other way.”

Regardless of the project, Rubini always strives to bring authenticity, passion and heart to her work.

“Something that has stayed with me since CMU is that motto, ‘My heart is in the work,’” she says. “It resonated with me as a student and I am mindful of it — maybe consciously, maybe subconsciously on other days— and am doing work that I think can help bring about a meaningful change in the world.”