Rita Kakati Shah of Uma: “Five things you can do to create a fantastic work culture”

Authority Magazine
Jun 8, 2020 · 9 min read

Focus on your people. If you demonstrate that you truly understand them, care for their wellbeing, then you keep them happy, which eventually results in increased retention at your firm. Just getting to know your team is a good first start. An example is celebrating team members’ birthdays and hobbies.

As a part of my series about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Rita Kakati Shah.

Rita is an award-winning, globally recognized gender, diversity, inclusion and career strategist, speaker and advisor to Fortune 500 companies. She is Founder and CEO of Uma, an international platform dedicated to empowering women returning to work after a career break, transition or relocation through networking events, workshops and curated job experiences that allow attendees to gain confidence, emotional support and clear career direction in a constantly changing work environment. Uma partners with companies to foster optimal work environments and cultures through retention, diversity and inclusion best practices and strategy. Through Uma, Rita is creating an international movement by identifying pain points and challenging the status quo. From income disparity to paid family leave, she is not afraid of asking tough questions and making bold suggestions. With presence in New York, London, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Toronto, the community continues to grow. Visit our website, follow us on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and LinkedIn.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I started Uma in response to the “motherhood penalty” that many women face when trying to return to work after a career break. I wanted to instill confidence, build emotional readiness and preparedness for workforce reentry. In Sanskrit, the Hindu Goddess Uma is a daughter, a mother, a sibling and a wife. She represents strength, courage and confidence and depicts all the many roles women have. I came from a finance background, transitioned careers to pharmaceuticals, got married and relocated to New York City where I took a career hiatus of almost four years to raise my two children. When I was thinking of re-entering the workforce, I was surprised about the fixation employers had with the gap on my résumé, rather than transferable skills and experience. I have met so many incredible women who have similar stories and realized that someone had to challenge the system. I lived the problems and made it my mission to fix them.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

Tireless patience, intense stamina, diverse skills in organization and leadership and the supreme negotiation savvy to take on anyone on the planet are only some examples that describe motherhood.

Almost 3 years ago, I had made up my mind to return to work after an almost 4 year career hiatus so began my journey at a networking event, where I confidently sported my name tag with the acronym SAHM (Stay-at-Home Mom). When a fellow networker asked me what it meant, I spelled it out. Feeding into my worst fears, the attendee then turned her back and walked away. However, rather than let her reaction phase me, I asked why did that. Funnily she had no idea of her reaction, which is an example of the unconscious bias that exists. She later confessed that seeing my nametag was a turnoff as I was not in a paid job and so couldn’t possibly have contributed to her future career ambitions of meeting someone in finance. Little did she know, I came from finance, and after she found out, promptly gave me her card to help her next career move!

Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We have many exciting updates and expansion plans in the pipeline. Recently we had the soft launch of our digital education and mentoring portal, which has received a great response from our members and partner companies. We have already put the infrastructure in place to scale across cultures. And hot of the press, we are currently filming a new TV show for a prominent Indian TV channel to take the message of Uma and empowering women to a global audience. Through interviews with successful women in the South East Asian community, telling their stories, challenging them with questions and bringing in audience and viewer participation, we can really reach the masses and question the status quo. Topics like career breaks, gender equality, diversity, inclusion and domestic violence, are discussed, to open up previously closed dialogues. These topics are never spoken about on television, especially in South Asian homes. Through Uma’s platform for change, we are building confidence, empowering the community and are truly the voice of the people.

Ok, lets jump to the main part of our interview. According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?

This is a great article as it really highlights the reason for my company’s existence! Our focus with companies is retention strategy. We train not just returning employees but train and educate management too. Case and point in this article where almost 60% of managers do not actually know how to manage, and the same percentage of their employees do not trust them as a result. We’ve preached this for years — when employees leave their jobs, they do not leave their companies, they leave their bosses. Without proper training on retention in the workplace, these stats will not improve. Research shows that it costs 1.5–2 times an existing person’s salary to hire and retrain someone new, so it really is in companies’ best interests to have a retention platform to avoid spilling hundreds of thousands of dollars where they could be saved.

Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity b) company profitability c) and employee health and wellbeing?

If your employees are not happy, they will do one of two things — leave, costing companies more to replace them — or they face stress, burnout and dismal future prospects from being in an unhappy work environment. Employee morale and productivity then decrease, causing stagnation in the vision of the company. A mass culling situation then occurs or major restructuring which can quickly spiral costs.

Our recent white paper on Costs and Solutions for Workforce Reentry, suggests that if you take into consideration the 1.5–2 times an existing employee’s salary to hire and retrain a replacement, based on the average salary range of an urban, educated, professional employee, the aggregate annual cost of this attrition is potentially between $18–24bn with many months required to adequately complete workplace integration. It is likely that these costs are mostly borne not only by established large corporations but also smaller high growth firms who cannot afford delays and additional costs of workplace churn.

Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?

Firstly, focus on your people. If you demonstrate that you truly understand them, care for their wellbeing, then you keep them happy, which eventually results in increased retention at your firm. Just getting to know your team is a good first start. An example is celebrating team members’ birthdays and hobbies.

Having frequent idea-exchange sessions, with staff from all levels is a great way to encourage managers and team members alike to be on a level playing field. This helps them to share their thoughts and feel empowered. If in a boardroom for example, then encourage a mix of managers and employees from different teams to sit next to each other.

Employee outing days are always a nice bonding occasion. Making it open and friendly to families really helps as it shows empathy and genuine care. Any retreats can be organized at family-friendly resorts with special attention to including events for everyone to come together.

Research shows that after brief spurts of exercise or fresh air, employees are more refreshed and recharged to perform more positively at work. So encouraging frequent breaks during the day actually helps with productivity. A two-minute walk around the office will do, and it works wonders.

Having resources easily available to employees is something important too. For example, if someone is about to go through a life-changing event such as buying a new house, getting married or having a child, presenting them with resources in advance can really help any anxiety and create better morale. We allow our teams to work from home, the office, or wherever they feel most comfortable and creative. This shows trust and ultimately can reflect better attrition numbers.

It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but it seems like we have to “change the culture regarding work culture”. What can we do as a society to make a broader change in the US workforce’s work culture?

In terms of what we can do, there is ample research to show that a work culture with flexibility reduces turnover and enhances employee wellbeing and in fact, The Work, Family & Health Network published a study based on a randomized controlled experiment in the IT division of a Fortune 500 company that found that workers who participated in a program that emphasized flexibility and encouragement, reported reduced burnout, perceived stress and psychological distress, and higher levels of wellbeing and job satisfaction than those who did not participate. Therefore, as company leaders, as members of society, we can all do our part to encourage flexibility in the workforce.

How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?

I like to practice what I preach, so although I run a tight ship with deadlines and procedures, I also give my team the full flexibility to work remotely, from wherever they are. We have regular team meetings to check in on where we all are. We have presence in London, Toronto, Hong Kong, Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York and so have an incredibly diverse team by cultures, backgrounds and skillsets and we openly promote this. The underlying thread is trust, and an encouragement of creativity allowing our teams to blossom.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Great question. I have been fortunate to have strong mentors, friends and colleagues throughout my life and career. However, the single tie that has been there for me consistently and throughout is my family, without whom I wouldn’t have been able to grow and achieve what I have been able to. An early childhood memory is my mother always pushing me to go outside my comfort zone. She would always encourage me to keep moving onwards and upwards. “See the world, try everything at least once. And when you find your calling, never give up.”

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Everything we do is to help the society we live in. Whenever I get a personal shout out, I make sure to acknowledge that it is purely because of the great and incredibly hardworking team I am fortunate to have. Other than the immediate scope of what Uma does — empowering women returning to the workforce as well as educating companies and management hand in hand — I volunteer my time to mentor veterans, domestic violence survivors, school children, students, entrepreneurs and my local community.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

A powerful message in self-confidence and just being bold and proud to be who we are, is this quote that some cite to Oscar Wilde, “be yourself as everyone else is already taken.”

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire 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 a much more robust maternity and paternity leave policy in order to help people launch their families in this country — the U.S. is the only developed country in the world without a mandatory paid parental leave policy, and the numbers of re-entrants into the workforce has gone down. Uma wants to help change that, and much of our research has been focused on this. Being a mother is the toughest job I’ve ever done requiring laser focus, an unparalleled skillset and immense dedication, yet because there is no compensation for being a mother and caring for your children, you are not part of the GDP calculation in the US. You could be better than the best nanny, housekeeper and cook on the planet, but you are not getting paid, you have no recognition, and you feel like a forgotten segment of society.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you continued success!

Authority Magazine

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Authority Magazine

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Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Pop Culture, Wellness, Social Impact, and Tech. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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