Pledge a solution. Whilst advocating for diversity and inclusion publicly is a start, just posting a black post on Instagram one day and going back to business-as-usual the next day won’t change anything. Demonstrate your actual commitment to ethnic minorities by changing your practices. Go out and support the minority groups you pledge to support. Start by actively seeking out businesses to partner with. Simply attending unconscious bias training is not enough. We all have unconscious biases. It’s a part of life. But how are we actually acting upon this knowledge, whether it’s unconscious bias, microaggressions or systemic bias? Each individual needs to digest, think about, then speak out about changing any structural inequalities they see at work.
As part of our series about ‘5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society’ I had the pleasure to interview Rita Kakati-Shah.
Rita Kakati-Shah is an award-winning, gender, diversity and inclusion thought leader as well as career strategist and advisor to Fortune 500 companies. She is the Founder and CEO of Uma, an international platform that attracts, retains and develops women and minorities in the workforce. Rita has been featured in several international publications such as the Wall Street Journal, Fast Company and Thrive Global, and is regularly invited to speak and guest lecture at various global policy and academic institutions such as UNESCO in Paris, European Parliament in Brussels, Woman Who Matters in Moscow, Women in Politics in Los Angeles, Women in Finance in London and High Water Women in New York.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
It’s a pleasure, and thank you for having me!
I was born and bred in London to Assamese parents who moved to the UK to settle. My dad quickly moved up the ranks as a cardiologist and my mum balanced her days around raising my younger brother and I, with radio and television performances as a classically trained singer. We grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood so experienced from a young age the notion of sink or swim. We learnt early on that to fit in you would have to insert yourself into a conversation or friend group, rather than wait for someone to invite you in. As a child growing up in east London I experienced both physical and verbal racism, but didn’t realize till many years later, that this resulted in an ability to communicate, understand and bond with people of different communities and cultures, as though they were my own. It wasn’t really until I went to university at King’s College London, that for the first time I was exposed to students and communities from all walks of life. I started my career at Goldman Sachs, where, as a woman of color I made it my mission to get involved in diversity and inclusion initiatives at the firm, which led to being awarded The Excellence in Diversity and Citizenship Award. After a transition into global business development in the CNS healthcare industry, I relocated to New York City, got married and became a mother to two beautiful children. Now I helm Uma, which is an amalgamation of my life’s experiences and all that I believe in. The focus is diversity and inclusion and centered around the empowerment of women and minorities.
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?
Absolutely. Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn which I first read in English Literature as a schoolgirl, has always resonated. No matter how many times I re-read it, it always comes across as a raw and real interpretation of race, identity and humanity. The underlying thread of making choices with your heart rather than your ill-trained conscience is just as relevant at the time of the book’s writing as it is now, when we think of unconscious bias and how that can affect our reactions and thought processes.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
“See something, say something, change something” is a personal favorite, and a quote we actually use in our diversity and inclusion trainings at Uma. It’s not only catchy, but very topical today. Being able to say something when you feel uncomfortable or see something untoward happen to someone else takes a tremendous of courage, and this quote is a reminder to speak up in order to change something. If we don’t speak up, then we cannot change anything and the cycle continues.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
I think of leadership as a noun and a verb. It’s a skillset and a roadmap of actions. It’s about being able to lead with vision, clarity and conviction, whilst being an effective guide and strong role model. In order to imbibe a culture of success, leadership should entail building trust and belief in the mission for everyone in the organization, through the good and the not-so-good times too.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
I love this topic, so thank you for bringing it up! Personally, I love to dance, and especially in my youth, would perform recitals on stage in front of large audiences. When I was on stage, I was in my element — confident, poised and ready to conquer the moment. Fast forward to today, and whether as a CEO about to present at a board meeting, or thought-leader about to speak at a high-profiled forum, I listen to music! Listening to certain dance or classical pieces immediately helps me channel positive energy and I can quickly switch into a confident, poised and go-getting state of mind. If I do not have time to prepare, then I stand for a couple of minutes in a “Wonder Woman” pose, so upright, with my hands on my hips, and that can quickly set me up too.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?
The topic of race within the diversity, equality and inclusion space has always been relevant, but as with other historical events such as the birth of the #metoo movement in the fight for gender equality, it has similarly taken an eye-opening event to bring racial equality to the forefront. It is when it reaches the boiling point that people come together, unite and acknowledge that enough is enough. Previously tolerated comments and actions will no longer be. Generalizations about creed, color and culture will be questioned instead of accepted. It is all because of this boiling point that households, companies — everyone, everywhere — is having conversations that question their own beliefs, values and education.
Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to promote Diversity and Inclusion? Can you share a story with us?
When I reflect upon this question, I cannot actually pinpoint when exactly I first became involved in furthering diversity and inclusion issues, as it’s been an area I have been passionate about and advocating for my entire life. From when I was a little girl in primary school in the UK, standing up in front of an all-white classroom of fellow five year olds talking about the Assamese festival, Bihu, to classical dance and drama performances in secondary school. Fast forward to the early 2000s when I began my career in finance at Goldman Sachs in London, as one of very few women — and of color — on the equities trading floor, I helped create the Asian Professionals Network as an internal network and community for other ethnic minority professionals, as well as grow the agenda of the Women’s Network. I was awarded the Excellence in Citizenship and Diversity Award for my efforts in the global diversity and inclusion space at the Firm. Now I helm Uma, which I like to think of as an amalgamation of my life’s experiences and beliefs. Uma focuses solely on diversity and inclusion initiatives and is centered around the empowerment of women and minorities. To date, Uma has successfully created, advised and run Diversity, Inclusion and Equitable programs at many organizations within the US and around the world, and is recognized as a thought-leader in diversity and inclusion practices. I am also a regularly invited speaker and adviser to global education, corporate and policy forums on gender, diversity and inclusion issues.
This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
Businesses provide services or products to their clientele. It is important therefore for a business or organization to understand the increasingly global needs, backgrounds, cultures and nuances of their clients. If you do not have a diverse executive team, then you cannot even begin to understand your diverse consumer base. Also, research shows time and time again that companies with diverse leadership are not only more profitable, but they make better and more wholistic business decisions which can positively impact team behavior. At Uma, we have seen that diverse leadership teams have improved team performance by preventing the negative impacts of status by gender, race and sexual orientation.
Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. Can you please share your “5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society”. Kindly share a story or example for each.
Current events have raised awareness towards diversity and here are some actions to actively make a change, now:
1. Pledge a solution. Whilst advocating for diversity and inclusion publicly is a start, just posting a black post on Instagram one day and going back to business-as-usual the next day won’t change anything. Demonstrate your actual commitment to ethnic minorities by changing your practices. Go out and support the minority groups you pledge to support. Start by actively seeking out businesses to partner with. Simply attending unconscious bias training is not enough. We all have unconscious biases. It’s a part of life. But how are we actually acting upon this knowledge, whether it’s unconscious bias, microaggressions or systemic bias? Each individual needs to digest, think about, then speak out about changing any structural inequalities they see at work.
2. Recognize privilege. Depending on where, how and with whom we were raised, we all have different versions of privilege. Take time to listen to colleagues, ask questions, compare how your lives outside work differ. Only with active communication can privilege be understood and addressed.
3. See something. Say something. Allow your employees to speak up. Do your employees have the freedom to speak up and out about discrimination? About letting it be known how a certain comment or action came across? Simply put, your employees should be able to say something if they see something, in order to change something.
4. Overhaul your hiring practices. Ask who is making your hiring decisions? Are you marketing to attract diverse talent? How are you removing selection bias? You can start by removing names, education dates and personal circumstance statements from resumes. Then do a diversity audit. Benchmark your progress. Report internally on pay differences between different ethnic groups, as is starting to happen with gender. Similarly, don’t ignore intersectionality. The same efforts made to promote equality based on one “difference” or “uniqueness” should be applied to others. So don’t allow race issues to be compounded by class, gender and age.
5. Have cultural resources openly available to employees. This can encourage a consciously supportive culture for everyone. Be an advocate for mental health. Research shows that sexism, racism and social class and income affects mental health. So create a supportive work environment to have open and honest conversations. You’d be surprised how sharing experiences can really open up your work community.
Ask yourselves and your colleagues, what are you going to do to enact real change? Be part of the solution. Say something if you see something, in order to change something!
We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?
This is actually a tough question to answer, as although I do think this issue is currently being addressed certainly by US companies, in order to fully resolve it, would entail every single citizen from every single country in the world, from every walk of life, to buy in to, be educated in, be willing to question, understand and take ownership to pledge to make change occur. It is very much a grassroots every citizen to top down senior leadership partnership that can slowly start to chip away at the underlying attitudes and systemic biases that are still prevalent today. I am optimistic that we are going in the right direction, but will it happen in my lifetime? That I cannot say.
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. :-)
The former PepsiCo CEO, Indra Nooyi! She has been a personal role model in the diversity and inclusion space for many years, especially with her confidence and bold statements as a business leader, woman and ethnic minority.
How can our readers follow you online?