Heroes Of The COVID Crisis: How Megha Desai & the Desai Foundation helped address the needs of women & children during the pandemic

Authority Magazine
Jun 28, 2020 · 11 min read

There is much to hope for. As world leaders, medical experts, the media and citizens have come together in unprecedented fashion (with a major assist from technology) to curb the spread of the virus, new infections and deaths are beginning to slow in many parts of the world, and we are seeing several countries begin to emerge and cautiously restart their economies — with any luck, we’ll even have proven treatments and a vaccine at our disposal within the year. But, there’s a powerful minority who would rather downplay the risks in favor of returning to business as usual, and we must, therefore, remain vigilant. In India, by implementing the lockdown early, the country has likely averted a worst-case scenario, given its significant population density. But with plans to lift lockdown measures on June 8th, many fear, myself included, that it will be too soon, particularly as cases have skyrocketed in recent days. It could end up prolonging the lockdown needlessly, and in turn, further isolating and marginalizing women (among other disenfranchised groups).

As part of my series about people who stepped up to make a difference during the COVID19 Pandemic, I had the pleasure of interviewing Megha Desai.

Megha is President of the Desai Foundation, a public non-profit organization that aims to elevate the health and livelihood of women and children through community programs in the U.S. and India. She is also the Founder of MSD (Marketing, Strategy. Dharma.), a branding and strategic partnership advisory serving social good brands.

Prior to her work in impact and community development, Megha spent 10+ years in traditional advertising at some of the most prestigious firms in the world. Her work has been awarded five Cannes Lions, along with several other distinguished awards, and she’s been a pioneer in the branded entertainment space. When she began MSD in 2010, she focused on brands that wanted to integrate social responsibility into their businesses. These brands included HP, NPR, ONE.ORG, 1 Hotels, award-winning musicians, and more.

Around the same time, Megha became more involved in the Desai Foundation — then a small family foundation. She helped to transform the organization’s mission, work, and message leading to its pivot into a robust public non-profit organization. Her leadership has helped put the Desai Foundation on the map through heralded events, like Diwali on the Hudson and Lotus Festival, along with highly impactful programming leveraging strong partners on the ground in the US and India. The Desai Foundation focuses on sustainable development with programs spanning from vocational classes, health camps, community volunteer outreach, and sanitary napkin programs. The organization, to date, has impacted over 650,000 lives in rural India, Metro-Boston, and Harlem, New York.

Megha currently sits on the advisory boards of several start-ups and non-profits, including NPR’s Generation Listen, TakeTwo Film Academy and TiE NY. She is something of a curator of people, content and experiences. Megha holds a B.A. in Economics from Barnard College of Columbia University. She was selected for and has completed the Executive Program in Social Entrepreneurship at Stanford Business School. Megha is a member of the Resistance Revival Chorus.

This interview was conducted in late May 2020.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how and where you grew up?

I grew up in suburban Massachusetts with my parents and sister. Like most Gen X Indian Americans I worked hard to fit into my predominantly white school during the week and immersed myself in Indian culture and friends on the weekend. It was always a balance — one that I didn’t always get right. I was a singer, a dancer, a pretty terrible athlete, in drama and on the debate team. I grew up in a loving home where our parents taught us the sky was the limit. We were privileged to be able to travel and meet interesting and inspiring people. And we were lucky to live in a town with a great public school system.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Oh, so many. Very hard to pick just one. Interpreter of Maladies by Jumpa Lahiri had a significant impact on me. I felt so seen, I felt so close to the stories, and yet so far away. It was my first really strong realization that I had never really seen myself in books, tv, film, etc. And second, The Alchemist — I re-read this book every year. Every phrase and word in that book hits me, lights me up, in a different way every time I read it depending on where I am in my life.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. You are currently leading a social impact organization that has stepped up during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to address?

While the coronavirus continues to have a catastrophic effect on our lives and economies worldwide, it’s also an indisputable fact that periods don’t stop for pandemics. At the Desai Foundation, in order to continue supporting the health and livelihoods of women & children in India & the U.S., we recognized pretty quickly that a critical pivot from our usual programs was in order to ensure the immediate needs of our communities continued to be met.

First, the Foundation mobilized over 100 incredible women in India to hand-sew and distribute nearly 50,000 masks throughout rural parts of the country at a time when movement is extremely restricted.

Second, we’ve recalibrated machinery typically used for our Asani Sanitary Napkin Program to produce surgical masks in addition to sanitary napkins. The masks, which are 3-ply spunbond masks and certified for over 97% efficacy, are being manufactured and distributed at cost to local Indian communities, correctional facilities and schools.

Third, in the U.S., the organization has disbursed gifts to two food and essential supplies organizations, the FOOD BANK NYC and the Fresh Truck Box Initiative in Boston, to ensure women in both communities have access to the personal care products they need, such as tampons, pads, toothpaste and more.

And lastly, we recently celebrated the success of Pledge Your Period, our annual campaign that seeks to strip away the shame and stigma around periods. Culminating on May 28, Menstrual Hygiene Day, Pledge Your Period engaged celebrities and people around the world to generate awareness and funds for our Asani Sanitary Napkin program, making it possible for us to produce and distribute more than 30,000 sanitary napkins.

In your opinion, what does it mean to be a hero? In your opinion or experience, what are “5 characteristics of a hero? Please share a story or example for each.

A hero can be anyone who stands up for something even when it’s inconvenient to them. It can be big acts or small acts.

We’ve seen a lot of heroes this week — people standing up and fighting for what is right, voicing an opinion that hurts them but helps another, that put themselves between a gun and another person.

I don’t think of myself as a hero — I really think of myself as someone doing her job. And I am lucky to have a job where I help people.

What was the specific catalyst for you or your organization to take heroic action? At what point did you personally decide that heroic action needed to be taken?

When we saw how quickly the pandemic was spreading and bringing the world to a halt, we realized that it fell on all of us — not just governments, large corporations and billionaires — to contribute and make a difference each in our own way. We believed a modest-sized organization like ours that works to elevate health and livelihoods — the two very things affected by COVID — could make a profound difference to help “flatten the curve” and inspire others to do the same.

We, therefore, made moves to ensure our menstrual hygiene products could still be distributed given India’s stringent lockdown. But we also recognized how, despite noble efforts by individuals and companies worldwide, the escalating demand for facial masks was still not being met. Given our network on the ground and ability to convert our machinery to produce masks (in addition to sanitary napkins), it was a no-brainer for us to get involved, particularly since the need for masks will remain high, now and in the foreseeable future.

Who are your heroes, or who do you see as heroes today?

Unquestionably, the women in our network — at the height of the pandemic, they’ve selflessly put in countless hours and placed their lives at risk daily to ensure women in India have access to the menstrual products they need, all while sewing and distributing protective masks that are so vitally important to curbing the spread of the virus. They are the true unsung heroes, in my view, and I am grateful for all they’ve done and continue to do to help get us through this difficult time.

Let’s talk a bit about what is happening in the world today. What specifically frightened or frightens you most about the pandemic?

Women and girls have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, with their health, education, livelihoods, and agency all at increased risk. In countries like India, where strict lockdowns have been implemented and where historically women are marginalized for their periods — 71% of girls in India don’t know what their period is before they get it, and 1 in 5 drop out of school once their periods start — women and girls are especially vulnerable of being further disenfranchised due to menstrual inequity. The fact that even more girls in India may ultimately not be allowed to return to school especially worries me, while in the U.S., I’m really concerned about the state of our democracy and how our leadership in this moment of crisis has sought to further divide rather than unite us.

With that said, I do believe the pandemic has done some good in both countries — it has brought to light some of the sheer injustices in our society, such as income and economic disparities, education and health care access, in addition to myriad gender inequalities. It’s not only my hope, but it’s our collective duty, to ensure that we don’t let ourselves slip back to where things were before the pandemic. We are overdue for a major reset and need to do everything we can to level the playing field for good.

Despite that, what gives you hope for the future? What has inspired you the most about the behavior of people during the pandemic, and what behaviors do you find most disappointing?

There is much to hope for. As world leaders, medical experts, the media and citizens have come together in unprecedented fashion (with a major assist from technology) to curb the spread of the virus, new infections and deaths are beginning to slow in many parts of the world, and we are seeing several countries begin to emerge and cautiously restart their economies — with any luck, we’ll even have proven treatments and a vaccine at our disposal within the year. But, there’s a powerful minority who would rather downplay the risks in favor of returning to business as usual, and we must, therefore, remain vigilant. In India, by implementing the lockdown early, the country has likely averted a worst-case scenario, given its significant population density. But with plans to lift lockdown measures on June 8th, many fear, myself included, that it will be too soon, particularly as cases have skyrocketed in recent days. It could end up prolonging the lockdown needlessly, and in turn, further isolating and marginalizing women (among other disenfranchised groups).

Has this crisis caused you to reassess your view of the world or of society? We would love to hear what you mean.

For one, I am even more committed to our holistic approach and our focus on health and livelihood. This pandemic has really shown us the cracks in the system — both in India and the United States. And think it really helped us shape what the word ESSENTIAL means. I found it so interesting that I basically saw no police for two months of this pandemic — but boy did we see our mailman, our grocery store clerks, our doctors, our janitors, our truck drivers, our bus drivers, our comms technician workers, etc. I hope that our society takes a long hard look at the value of the people that keep our society running. And if we are treating them fairly. I will be honest, there were a couple of these professions that I think I undervalued — sometimes it’s hard to admit that you are part of the problem. I think we all have the opportunity at this moment to be heroes by acknowledging our own deficiencies — and being a part of fixing the system. Of course, all of this goes for what is happening with the Black Lives Matter movement — which I firmly support — but I readily admit that I too am part of the problem. Heroes aren’t perfect. Heroes are people who can see an injustice, change their point of view, and act.

What permanent societal changes would you like to see come out of this crisis?

More transparency. Greater global collaboration. Better planning, and earlier implementation. More equitable access to testing and medical care — and health care in general. And a concerted effort to foster greater diversity among leaders and decision-makers, to ensure the interests of all are accounted for, including those of women and other marginalized populations.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

“When we love, we always strive to become better than we are. When we strive to become better than we are, everything around us becomes better too.” — The Alchemist.

It is the responsibility of every member of society to help improve society. It’s one of the best teachers I have ever had in my life — go out there and try to change something — because it makes you appreciate what’s possible, in addition to those incredible people who are actually making a difference! Nothing worthwhile is easy in life. Do the work. And I assure you — you will have a better life, and leave the world and those around you in a better place.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

I would love to see Pledge Your Period grow to become a true global movement — and celebrated all year long! Menstrual inequity is real and prevents millions of girls and women globally from going to school, holding a job, and even having agency over their own health and body — we would all be so much better off if harmful stigmas around menstruation were a thing of the past!

Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)

That is a really hard question. I look up to so many people. I am constantly learning and listening to people much smarter than me. I think the folks I would like to have a one on one with would be First Lady Michelle Obama, Indra Nooyi, Reese Witherspoon, and Valerie Jarrett. They have each climbed the peaks of their professions and managed to fight for what was right, and for their communities along the way.

How can our readers follow you online?

You can find us online at TheDesaiFoundation.org and on social @DesaiFoundation.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film…

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film, Sports and Tech. Authority Mag is devoted primarily to sharing interesting feature interviews of people who are authorities in their industry. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film, Sports and Tech. Authority Mag is devoted primarily to sharing interesting feature interviews of people who are authorities in their industry. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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