According to a recent World Economic Forum, India has one of the lowest national female labor forces in the world. In this second installment of Newsweek Daily Beast’s series on Bank of America’s innovative Global Ambassadors Program, we check in with two of the women who took part in four days of mentoring conferences held last October in New Delhi and Mumbai entitled “Women’s Advancement in India’s Growing Economy.”
The Global Ambassadors Program, a Bank of America and Vital Voices partnership, pairs senior executives from the public and private sectors, including Bank of America, with emerging women leaders from around the world in a mentoring relationship that helps mentees build critical communications, advocacy and business skills, and strengthens their existing networks. During the forum in India last year, six ambassadors, six mentees and more than fifty international and women leaders from India came together to examine how to move women forward economically, socially, and politically. The forum reaffirmed the imperative for strong leadership to advance economic opportunity and bolster civic involvement. In her opening remarks, U.S. Ambassador to India Nancy Powell said, “The Indian economy needs entrepreneurs who bring new ideas to life. A woman with economic independence is a woman with choices. The Global Ambassadors Program will create the enabling and empowering environment needed to stimulate the next generation of women entrepreneurs in India.”
Some key challenges inhibiting women-owned businesses in India were covered in interactive sessions. Corporate social responsibility was on the topics agenda, as was the vital relationship between mentoring, leadership development, and career growth. Representing a broad swath of industries and expertise, ambassadors shared words of wisdom about their own path to leadership and the value of mentors. One of the Global Ambassador mentoring teams included CEO of marketing and consulting firm Orender Unlimited and former president of the Women’s National Basketball Association, Donna Orender. She was paired with Sarika Bhattacharyya, a co-founder of the India-based non-governmental organization Biz Divas. This year, the U.S. Embassy has provided a grant to support her NGO’s own mentoring programs and upcoming conference. Now, nearly six months into Donna and Sarika’s one-on-one collaboration, two women from opposite ends of the globe share their experience.
Q: How did your path cross with the Global Ambassadors Program?
Donna Orender: I was honored to be asked by Vital Voices to participate as a Global Ambassador in their new program with Bank of America. I have a passion for mentoring, and the opportunity to pay forward the kindnesses and generosity that have been offered to me during my career is ever present. Having previously represented the State Department on a diplomatic sports mission, I believe that we are a global sisterhood and connecting with women of the world is important. As part of the program, Vital Voices pairs its ambassadors with their mentees, and judging by the success of their pairings, do a marvelous job of finding mutual points of connection.
Q: As India continues to emerge onto the global stage, what are some of the critical issues that have stood in the way of its women and how are they finding their voice?
Sarika Bhattacharyya: With one of the lowest national female labor forces internationally, ranking 123 in the world [out of 196 countries], India’s entrenched cultural attitudes towards gender issues, lack of adequate work/life balance policies, lack of role models, and exclusion from informal networks are some of the most critical issues they face.
Over the past decade, the Indian government, civil society, and Indian enterprises have taken several steps to promote women’s leadership. Women in India are more aware of their rights and are taking steps to collaborate, mentor, and support each other. Lots of women leaders from all walks of life are taking initiatives to form informal networks and create a supportive ecosystem.
Q: Do the challenges they face differ from women entrepreneurs in other developing countries?
SB: Some challenges are similar, but due to social and cultural differences Indian women tend to face more unique challenges. For example, it is not an accepted social norm for women in rural India to step out of their homes and have a livelihood. Also, access to capital, resources, and professional mentoring is very difficult for Indian women entrepreneurs.
Q: Tell us a little about your experience at the forum last year, and how the program inspires women to drive progress worldwide.
SB: When I started my career, there were very few women as role models. I always had men as my bosses, and even when they were great mentors I always felt that there is something different about being a woman in business that a man might never be able to understand.
For this reason, I felt fortunate to have the opportunity to be paired with Donna, who was the former president of the WNBA. In the days we spent together, traveling to Delhi and Mumbai, she helped bring out the best from my skill set, and showed me what I have to learn and by helping me see what I can give back to my community.
DO: From my perspective, it’s always good for us as Americans to see the world through a different lens. And participating in the forum provided quite a new perspective for the challenges and opportunities for women in a non-American culture. I was very impressed with the ardor and enthusiasm around elevating women in the workplace as well as growing women’s leadership in India.
There is great value in creating community and fostering open conversation around issues, especially when opportunities to connect are limited. Sarika and the women in attendance were able to meet peers with similar interests and issues as well as hear the stories from women who were inspirational role models. It was a supportive environment that gave permission and voice to the aspirations of a burgeoning class of women executives and entrepreneurs.
Q: What have you and Donna been working on?
SB: Up until the program began in October, I was thinking of my recruitment business and nonprofit as two separate organizations, two separate interests. Donna helped me understand that with my skill set of networking and my passion for helping other women, I could expand my company into a diversity-inclusion consulting business; it was advice I immediately adopted and executed.
India is just waking up to diversity inclusion. There are few firms currently working in this space, and so far our ideas have been very well accepted. We have been tying our approach to investing in diversity, and investing in women especially. What we tell our clients is that this is not solely a human resources issue, it is about innovation, brand, and reputation, and answering the question ‘where are you going to get talent?’
In a fast-paced economy, businesses need to attract top talent. If they ignore women, they are losing out on an entire pool of talent. They need to look at women as the other side of their audience, not just as customers, but also as valuable employees.
My ideas really came together during the program. I learned that Bank of America Merrill Lynch has a diversity ratio higher than the industry standard, and this encouraged me more.
DO: Sarika was looking to help clarify her strategic business approach and validate her objectives. We worked through a strategic framework and delved into the tactics that would help her realize the goals. We agreed that we would put together an immediate list of materials that she would complete and we would review together. She has done a terrific job of creating her marketing materials and has also designed a women’s conference for aspiring women business professionals.
Q: Did you have the benefit of mentors coming up in your business? Mention some of your lifetime experiences that are now helping Sarika realize her goals?
DO: I actually did not. In the pursuit of a career path in a rather non-traditional role for women, sports, it was hard to find role models. And because many of the jobs I had were new roles without a previous track record or road map ahead, I had to figure out how to create and build businesses from the bottom up. It helped me develop resilience and hone my creative skills and abilities to build belief systems and teams where none existed before. It’s that sense of being alone that has spurred my interest and commitment to being available to help women in their life and career pursuits.
In working with Sarika and the other mentees, it is as important to help build emotional strength, as it is strategic strength. Believing that you can succeed is a vital ingredient in success. Sarika and I discussed what she hoped to achieve and her doubts about how to get there. Reaching out to those who could help her was part of our discussion as we were engaged with so many fabulous women who she could approach to engage with her Biz Divas concept.
Q: Even before they participated in the program, all mentees were already so accomplished. What impact has that fact had on the mentorship and on you?
SB: That’s true. Yet the exposure to global leaders gave us the insight of how to pay it forward in our communities in a sustainable manner, which will drive progress for a lot of women in India. Donna not only helped me to visualize my business going forward, she understood the challenges I was facing, and we talked about ways I could attract talent and funding. A senior professional with a global perspective, she gave me exactly the encouragement I needed. I spent a lot of time with Donna as well as Gerry Laybourne [founder and former chairman and CEO of Oxygen Media], another mentor. They both told me that it’s great to have a plan, but in order to execute it you have to trust your instincts.
Q: What about Biz Divas’s successes so far, and tell us about the forum you’re planning?
SB: Biz Divas has three chapters in Delhi, Mumbai, and Gurgaon. We have trained and guided 1,000+ women over the last year through skills-building workshops and mentoring programs. Last year, we mentored four high-performing women entrepreneurs at different stages of their business and they have been able to take their ventures to the next level. This year, our national conference for women leaders, I-INSPIRE, aims to be a convergence of ideas and a celebration of the spirit of diversity and entrepreneurship. It will offer participants a 360º view of their work, their world, and their place in it. When women walk into our conference, we want them to come with open minds, and when they leave to know that they can pursue anything and be excellent in their lives. I think that people, women especially, often feel alone because they think that their challenges are unique. I want the women who come to our forum to see how other women are coping with challenges, that they are not alone, and that they can find solutions and connect with others. We want them to walk out comfortable with themselves, confident; to meet great contacts and start forming networks, and to know they can benefit so much from each other.
Q: Is your mentor-mentee relationship ongoing?
DO: Yes. I remain so pleased to have been introduced to Sarika and to be a part of her life and for her to be a part of mine. As I have done what she is now trying to do, I can share my direct experiences and we can both benefit.
SB: Donna has also agreed to be on our Board of Advisors, and I connect regularly with her via Skype and email to seek her guidance!
Q: What is some of the best leadership advice you’d give women in the developing world that you might also give to emerging women leaders anywhere?
DO: Have the courage of your convictions. You have to believe in you and be willing to stand up for your beliefs. There is a great saying from the Jewish religious leader and sage Hillel, ‘If I am not for myself, who will be for me?’ As women, we find unlimited strength to protect and nurture others. But we must have that same courage to act on our own behalf in order to realize our dreams.
Q: What do you see as your goals three to five years from now?
SB: Now 700+ women strong across India, we want Biz Divas to become the gateway for global mentorship for women in India. They should be able to have access to global leaders, their best practices with local insights. We aim to support at least twenty women leaders who can become mentors and role models for emerging women leaders in India by 2020. We also want to work with a minimum of ten organizations in India and help them to increase their gender diversity ratio and have twenty senior women leaders to reach C-Suite.
Q: What do you most treasure from the experience of participating in the Global Ambassadors Program?
SB: Sharing and collaborating was most empowering. I cherish the bonding and friendships that were formed. And my mentor Donna has inspired and motivated me to reach for higher goals than I thought I was capable of initially.
DO: I truly treasure the time spent with amazing women—both our mentees and the other Global Ambassadors. We were united in the spirit of helping each other and through that help making a bigger contribution to help change the world. It was a very special time, and as we keep the mentorship door open it’s one that is sustainable. I do very much look to connect with women as a part of this program in other countries as well.
Go to bankofamerica.com/globalambassadors for more information.