Category Archives: These women.

These women make us smile and jump with joy. And remind us that women can do A-MAZING things!

Breakfast of Champions

There are things we wish we could be there for. In person. Physically. There. Like seeing our little sister take on a skating competition and bringing home the gold. I still remember her on the ice at 5 years old. Ten years later and she wins the national ice dancing championships for her level. Boy, do we wish we could have been there. This video for now will have to do.

Till we can skate together again… Resh, we are so proud.

Discomfort in Conversation: Soledad O’Brien

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Soledad O’ Brien is feisty. Fierce. Some might even say combative. At least these are some of the words that first come to mind. And then I force myself to step back. Would I say those things if Soledad O’Brien were a man?

She addressed that question head on Wednesday night during a JFK Jr. Forum at the Institute of Politics. When the moderator noted that many of her critics call her controversial, Soledad chided: “That’s because people are lazy and can’t come up with a better word with more nuance… what does controversial even mean?” This from a woman who went on to say that she’s not afraid of a fight and that she won’t stand people treating her “like a little girl.”

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There are certain forums you sit in on because you’re fascinated by the topic or because you really admire the person. And then there are certain forums where you see a sliver of yourself in the person who is speaking. When Soledad O’ Brien said “I like a certain amount of discomfort in my conversations,” I think I saw that sliver.

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Soledad O’ Brien will grill you, as I unceremoniously found out during an impromptu Q&A after the forum. She had come to the Institute of Politics to talk to a group of about 40 undergraduates about politics and public service in a more casual setting. There was pizza, there were stickers, there was 90’s music.

She came in, stood at the podium, and instead of launching into the banal stump speech glittered with inspirational stories and encouraging mantras, fired a question at us: Why do you want to go into this field (politics)? It seems to me that there are a lot more effective ways to affect change, she challenged us. She stood defiant. No one answered her at first. “Well this is going to be a pretty short meeting,” she chuckled.

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She wasn’t there to inspire us, she was there to make us think.

From the moment she started talking, we were on the defensive, forced to justify why we wanted to help people through a career in a field that doesn’t seem to be doing all that much these days.

“I mean, have you looked at Congress’ approval rating?” she asked us. Soledad O’ Brien wasn’t going to let us off easy.

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Her bio is not at all common. She told us that growing up her mother would always remind her: “Now don’t let anyone tell you you’re not black. And don’t let anyone tell you that you’re not Latina.” It’s something she says it took her years to appreciate, a seemingly obvious truth that gave her confidence when her critics said “she wasn’t really black” or went so far as to say that she was named after a prison. (For the record, there is a prison named Soledad in California but to be clear she was named after the Virgin Mary.)

But to her point, statements like these speak to a larger conversation that we often shy away from. What is black? What is Latina? What is really black? And what gives someone the right to say that another doesn’t fit either characterization?

In hearing her pose questions like these, I could see that Soledad had  wrestled with them personally. It’s the reason why when she did her series “Black in America” she says she cared so much about every aspect of it– how they framed a story, how they produced it, how they told it. To her, those stories came from her community. They mattered. And they deserved to be told because as she put it, “I don’t know what the answer to these questions are– but I do know that the answer is not ignorance.”

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These are the memories like vignettes that remain now from the two or so hours I spent sitting in Soledad O’ Brien’s presence this past Thursday. I would like to say that my perception is nuanced enough to have automatically adjusted for the fact that 2 hours is not nearly enough to know a person. But I won’t lie– it probably isn’t. First impressions, as they say, are everything.

Soledad O’ Brien to me came off at first as fierce, combative, smart, offstandish, not willing to back down. I saw in her the same defiance I sometimes see in myself.

 I know many of my peers walked out of the room shaking their heads. ‘Wow she was something, wasn’t she?’ We all nodded knowingly, disapprovingly. It is not customary, after all, to put your audience on the defensive before you’ve even said hello.

Soledad O’Brien did not reveal at first that she is a mother to four children, two of them twins. She did not talk about how she sits on a board that gives scholarships and mentorship opportunities to low-income girls who need it most. She did not mention any of that. She didn’t care if she was liked, she wasn’t aiming to be our friend.

But if my hunch is right, Soledad asks questions and challenges her interviewees in the way she does because she really cares. More so than most. She wants to know and understand and unpack your answer more than you probably do yourself.

So then, my question is, absent style, why is it that we have such an averse response to this kind of forwardness? Why don’t we inherently like people who are there to challenge us, push us, make us justify ourselves. People who don’t let us get away.

Perhaps, Soledad’s style– and our response to it– actually reveals more about us than it does about her.

what strong looks like.

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We met her a week ago today. It was striking really, how scared she looked. Thin and frail she sat across from us in a foldable chair trying to make herself as small as possible. Wearing a blue MAS Intimates shirt and a long brown skirt, her hair swept up in a bun with a trademark red bindhi on her forehead, she was classic Sri Lankan. But I couldn’t help looking at her and feeling like a cat somehow encroaching on a mouse, a big person sitting down with a very, very tiny one.

She trembled at first as she answered our questions, not sure at first why exactly we were there, worried that the three of us might just make more trouble for her. But with our smiles and reassurance, gentle prodding and simple questions, she slowly grew a little more comfortable, understanding with time that we were merely there to listen to her, to learn her story. How strange that must of felt. Still, I can’t say that she walked away trusting us in the end. Then again, I can’t say that a woman like her who had seen so very much could really ever trust again.

Her name was Anjali and she was a Sri Lankan war widow. Ishani, another one of our classmates, and I went to a Killinochchi MAS factory to interview her and learn of her challenges. Anjali had one son and her mother and father to support; she had lost her husband, an LTTE fighter, to the war. Why and how exactly, she did’t readily disclose; then again, we didn’t exactly want to push the point either. More tangible really than any of her answers was the fear she spoke with. She never lost that look of terror, of fear when she talked to us. Her’s was a story that reminded us of how very lucky we are to live in a place and a society where trust is inherently given with a ‘hello’ and is something we offer automatically at the table, only to retract if necessary later. But for Anjali, trust was not inherent, her interactions waged from a place of paralyzing, mind-numbing fear instead.

The stories of these war widows are not ones we hear of often. Although that in itself is not really a bad thing; these women prefer privacy and modesty over all else. They do not need to air their troubles out in public. But these women… they need help. There are more than 90,000 of these widows in northern Sri Lanka, women who have lived in bunkers and who have heard the ringing of gunshots far too often. Unlike most other wars, these women were not just on the ‘homefront,’ but too were recruited to serve. The LTTE created a breed of strong female soldiers that was rare throughout most of the South Asian world.If not recruited, many of these women were forced into hiding or early marriage to escape military service.  Their stories are far more complex than we might ever imagine. They have seen their brothers and fathers and sons ripped away, they have seen the destruction of the only land they know and the end of a war they knew too well. I am by no means qualified to tell their stories, but if you are to leave this post remembering anything at all, let it be this:  regardless of sector or experience or position in the war, people here in Sri Lanka universally tell us that no one deserves our help or needs it more than these women.

Combining passions: Entrepreneurship & Fashion. Meet fsense co-founders Dilani & Poornima

Over here at Seeing i-to-i, we’re excited to kick off the New Year with a new Friday series of posts meant to highlight the work, ideas, and achievements of incredible women—be it here at home, on the world stage, or on a college campus somewhere across the USA. We’ve met some incredible women while doing this blog and we can’t wait to share with you all that they’ve been up to.

 This week, we’re spotlighting the work of fsense, a fashion startup cofounded by Dilani, Danny, and Poornima. They are building an online fashion network that allows users and stylists to create looks using a Pinterest style pin-board system and  request style help from stylists. As long as you have a good eye for fashion, you can be a stylist on fsense!

Below you will find our interview with fsense’s Poornima and Dilani. Enjoy!

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I&I: What are your backgrounds?

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Dilani: It might sound strange but I have always had an interest in both physics and fashion. I completed my undergrad in
Australia at Monash University doing Physics and Electrical Engineering. Now I am in my final year at Harvard where I am pursuing a PhD in theoretical particle physics.

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Poornima: I have always been interested in technical fields, and currently work as a product development engineer for Saint Gobain. I studied theoretical mathematics and environmental economics at UC Berkeley and then finished a Master of Engineering degree in Materials Science & Engineering at Boston University.

I&I: What challenges do you face as an entrepreneur?

Dilani: The main challenge for me is the pace, and juggling a startup with finishing my PhD. We also have to make sure we communicate well among the three of us so there are a large number of emails that get exchanged. Still, it’s exciting to work with a great team of people who is just as dedicated as you are to seeing the idea flourish.

Poornima: Starting a company is different in that you have to wear all hats and play all positions. Challenges also lie in the fact that you have to come up with several full-proof strategies to have your business succeed–this is difficult to do for any business, but especially a startup. You also don’t have someone spot-checking your every move to tell you if you are doing it right.

I&I: What’s it like to do a fashion startup without having any formal background in fashion or business?

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Dilani: There are pros and cons. Running a startup is very different from running a business at least in the early stages. We don’t have to worry about revenue or making projections, and many of the principles that apply to large businesses just don’t work for startups. For us, it’s all about building a great product and getting other people excited about it. The pros of not having a business or fashion background is that I can think outside the box and my technical background definitely helps me see patterns and solve problems. Having said that, I do spend a lot of time reading fashion blogs, shopping online and thinking about style.

Poornima: I have had some exposure to both, actually. I worked for BCBG as an undergrad and have always loved being fashionable. As for business, I have a lot of coursework experience, and most of the internships I did over summers were in consulting and/or business. That being said, I think that having a variety of skills is useful in any startup and it’s definitely not necessary to have any particular background to join one.

I&I: What do you have to say to women who are worried about choosing the “wrong” academic path now and wonder about their ability to pivot in career decisions later on?

Dilani: My guide to figuring out if I am doing the right thing is seeing if I  feel excited to start work and learn new things at my job every morning when I wake up. Pivoting is not easy and you might have to take a few steps back to learn some of the basics, but it can definitely be done and often your ability to view things from a different perspective can be a huge advantage. If you are going to pivot, be strategic about it. Try to find natural pivot points like the end of your undergrad or the end of your PhD. Make sure you have a solid plan B.

Poornima: I would tell them that there is nothing like the “wrong” path, and I am a perfect example of it. I spend a lot of time working on fsense, which is a sign that this is what I am meant to do. Just because I studied science or math does not mean that I have to do that for the rest of my life. I really think it’s important to explore options and various fields.

You can check out fsense for yourself on their website and facebook page.

Mukhtar Mai, the next Mother Teresa?

Happy Black Friday! On this day which is famously (or infamously) known for mass material consumption of goods and products that–let’s face it–we probably don’t need, I thought I would provide just a quick daily dose of your inspirational woman of the day and a gentle reminder that even on this day when shopping sprees abound, we ought to remember the distinct value of the ways in which we spend our time and money. Enjoy yourself today and everyday (I can shop with the best of them!), but let us not forget that even when money is not at our disposal, there is yet so much to be made out of so little.

“Being famous often damages one’s liberty, and enhances one’s responsibilities.”–Mukhtar Mai

Glamour Magazine, which honored her as Woman of the Year in 2005, asks is this the world’s next Mother Teresa?

Mukhtar Mai (who is also known as Mukhtaran Bibi) comes from the small village of Meerwala, Pakistan. And one girl at a time, she is changing the world by wielding both the pen and the sword: she opened a school to teach young girls how to read and write–a school where she herself later enrolled–and openly fought against those who tried to dishonor her for her defiance of an anachronistic way of thinking.

Mukhtar has left a past of gang-rape and oppression behind, while all the while keeping it around her as a reminder of that initial fire that burned within her when she refused to marry her rapist and went instead to the police to report the crime and demand that the perpetrators be forced to shed their veil of impunity.

Soon Mukhtar had founded the Mukhtar Mai School for Girls using compensation money that Pakistan’s President Musharraf and sent to her after hearing about her case and sympathizing.

However, this empathy would not last and Mukhtar would soon find herself harassed and threatened by the same government which had once lauded her. Because of her outspokenness about the issues she was fighting against, the government would rally behind a cry that Mukhtar was shaming Pakistan and therefore needed to be silenced.

But, of course, this would not be possible with a woman as defiant as Mukhtar. The publicity and fame grew and soon Mukhtar was on the world’s stage, speaking out about her cause and being honored for her work.

Throughout it all– the government pressure, fellow Pakistanis taking out their reage on her, and others who were uncomfortable with the newfound influence that a peasant woman from a village of Pakistan had earned–Mukhtar Mai remained strong and determined.

Against the odds, she truly proved herself to be one in a million.

“Mukhtar’s courage is having an impact,” writes Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn in their book Half the Sky, “she has shown that great social entrepreneurs don’t come just from the ranks of the privileged.”

Indeed, they come from a place of determination and passion which is so strong that it not only lit a fire in Mukhtar’s eyes, but lit a fire beneath the entire world as well. We would be foolish not to take notice.

Outside her comfort zone, Tulsi Gabbard inspires

Aloha! Last week, I wrote a short little post about a Ms. Tulsi Gabbard, the new Congresswoman-elect from Hawaii. And while I was not explicit in saying so, you might have noticed that I was quite in awe of Ms. Gabbard, a woman who from my limited exposure seemed so poised and articulate, so ready for duty.

Well yesterday I had the honor of sitting in the room as Ms. Gabbard, who arrived not to long ago for her freshmen orientation, talked to a group of undergraduate students about her experiences, her journey, and more than anything what she is ready to do in Washington.

Gabbard was refreshingly real and down-to-earth, characteristics that one could cynically attribute to the fact that she has only just arrived in the messy bureaucratic town that is Washington, DC. But to do so would be to miss how this woman carries herself, how she didn’t frame her talk with lofty notes about where she’d come from but about the little struggles she’d encountered along the way, little struggles that she’d encountered as recently as yesterday when she’d had to fly in from Hawaii to New York, catch a train because her flight was delayed, and catch a cab in a city that was not her own, luggage in tow.

But it was not these casual remarks alone that later helped me piece together my understanding of Ms. Gabbard. It was the stories she told, the way in which she spoke. Gabbard remarked that running for office—in any capacity—was a “huge step outside [her] comfort zone,” claiming that she was so introverted that had you asked any of her friends growing up whether she would have run for office, they would have said “there’s no way in hell—that would involve talking to strangers, and Tulsi doesn’t do that.”

It would be hard to believe that now of a congresswoman who at the end of the day just passed the hardest job interview process out there—receiving a stamp of approval from hundreds of thousands of constituents and proving to people that even though she is young, and even though her critics claim she has little experience, she is ready.

A few notes I just have to share:

  • My favorite story. Tulsi talked about how the day after she won her first election she stood on the sidelines of the highway with a sign that read THANK YOU, watching as her fellow citizens—people who had voted for her and those who had not—drove by. On that day, one woman pulled over and in the dashboard of her front window she had written in capital block letters on a little piece of paper a note to Tulsi: DON’T LET US DOWN. “I carried that with me,” Tulsi told us. “That’s when it got real.”
  • From Military Service to Congressional Service. Tulsi remarked to us that the decision to go to war “is personal for me—and it should be personal for the country.” And with those words she underscored a fundamental problem in our society. The fact is the realities of those who serve in our military—and their families—are increasingly growing distant for the average American civilian. These brave men and women are a part of the 1% of our population that we oft forget about. That’s not acceptable. When we go to war they should be the first and the last thing we thing about.
  • On being a woman in Congress. Tulsi made no qualms about it: “Perception is everything—especially for a female leader.” Her advice? Be aware of how you carry yourself and always remember who you work for.
  • For women, it’s a community. I automatically appreciated that when Congresswoman-elect talked about being a female in the military, she said “We can handle it.” It wasn’t just “I” can handle it but ‘I’ve got your back—female or male. And we’re in this together.’ And you could tell right then and right there that Gabbard didn’t just say it to say it. She meant it.

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“It comes down to who you are touching.”

– Congresswoman-elect Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI)

on Leadership and Service (and why it matters)

Define Your Table

Sheryl Sandberg tells women not to leave the table; Sonal Shah says to define it. No matter what the shape, make it yours.

When economist, entrepreneur, and innovator Sonal Shah walked into our small dinner event tonight and sat at the table, she was joined by a group of excited undergraduate women from the Harvard College Social Innovation Collaborative and Harvard Undergraduate Women in Business who were there to learn, engage, and join in on a conversation.

They wouldn’t be disappointed.

Sonal is one talented woman–it only takes a glance at her impressive CV with names like Google, Goldman Sachs, and the White House peppering the page to leave you convinced of that fact. But for me and for the other women sitting in that room, what was far more impressive–and indeed, endearing– than her  list of accomplishments was how real, honest, poised, and approachable she was as she shared her story and answered our questions. Sonal will be the first to tell you that you can’t predict what step you’ll take next on your far-from-linear path, even though you can make the connections and develop the work ethic now to ensure that you’ll be ready to take it when it comes. In fact, that’s the beauty of the entire life-career trajectory–it completely leaves the realm of any recognizable geometric shape and takes on a life of its own, with you at the helm.

“When you walk through one door, you think the six other doors next to you will close. But what you don’t realize is that once you walk through that door, another six will appear.”

Sonal made it clear that we’re lucky to be living in the time that we are. “I’m jealous of you all,” she said. “You have so many options.”

As the evening went on, the conversation twisted and turned much like Sonal’s career path–going from a broad discussion of the “do good” mentality of our generation to WalMart’s impressive initiatives to reduce its carbon footprint to the kind of confidence it takes to accept an amazing job offer and the courage needed to turn one down.

The conversation was honest, frank, and inspirational in that non-preachy, down-to-earth tone that is so distinctly Sonal. You could tell from the get-go that she is a woman who  knows what it means to take a risk and can accept a job at a premier investment banking firm when she’s ready to get her hands dirty, but is given no job description to tell her how exactly she should do it.

But that’s the thing with Sonal. She is the type of person who will not just get her hands dirty–but will jump headfirst at a challenge and figure out how to organize and work most efficiently with the talented people around her in order to get the job done.

Here are just a couple of mind mints that I picked up today to hopefully inspire your thoughts on this Wednesday night:

  • Sheryl Sandberg is one successful woman. But she is also persistent. When she wanted Sonal to join her team at Google, she called every single day until she got the answer she wanted to hear. So, know what you want, and don’t be afraid to be obnoxiously persistent in order to achieve it.
  • Help the women around you. You will have mentors who will help you get to where you’re going, and one day, it’ll be your turn to pass the buck.
  • Know what you love, leave what you don’t.
  • Despite the gridlock and the partisanship and the struggles on capitol hill, government remains the place where real, large-scale change happens. Instead of just starting a nonprofit that helps keep kids in school, consider aiming to work on policy that will ensure that schools can attract better paid, better performing teachers to work with children across the entire nation and give them a reason (or many) to stay in school.
  • Go straight to the source. We often see companies like Starbucks or TOMS supporting service initiatives and community development projects through their business models–especially because their products are very visible as you walk down the street. Yet, these two ventures represent such a small percent of each of their respective markets. Instead, think about going to the coffee behemoth (Folgers) or the country’s largest shoe manufacturer. Think about how large you want the impact you make to be, and then go and make it.
  • Know what you love and what you’re good at because, sometimes, a job just isn’t for you. So when it’s staring you in the face, don’t convince yourself that you have to like it just because others think you should. At the same time, that opportunity that just came up may not be at your favorite company, but you know that you’d be working with an amazing team. Go there for the people and get ready to embrace everything that you will learn.
  • Companies and employers are increasingly cognizant of their employees’ desire to use their skills to give back to the world around them. That’s why you can get a certain amount of “you” time as an employee at Google, which many use to go out and work on saving the world–or at least develop an algorithm to do so.

I hope all of you are doing well and getting excited for Thanksgiving! For me, that means I’ll finally be visiting my family at home <3

Can’t wait!

Ishani