“Ultimately, without exposing viewers of all ages, especially the young and adolescent, to diverse programming, we are stunting the growth of our society.” with Rita Kakati Shah
We are all influenced in some way by what we watch on television, whether in a movie or advertisement. Starting from childhood, watching Disney movies and cartoons with “princess” décor and a level of frailness for girls or “super hero” macho images for boys, has a great impact. This continues into the classroom, the peer group, and then becomes part of their norm. Ultimately, without exposing viewers of all ages, especially the young and adolescent, to diverse programming, we are stunting the growth of our society.
As a part of my series about leaders helping to make Film and TV more representative of the US population, I had the distinct 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 the Founder and CEO of Uma, an international platform empowering women returning to work. She has been featured as an expert on multiple international television and news shows, interviewed and quoted in various podcasts and publications, opined on many panel discussions and has vast speaking accolades. Rita is 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. She interviews successful women in the South East Asian community that we can easily relate to. She tells their stories, asks them challenging questions and brings in audience and viewer participation to really question the status quo. She covers topics like career breaks, gender equality, entrepreneurship and diversity and inclusion to name a few, to open up previously closed dialogues. These topics are not typically spoken about on television, especially in South Asian homes. Through Uma’s platform for change, Rita is building confidence, empowering the community and is truly the voice of the people. She is involved in the concept, direction and production of the show. 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 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. So I started Uma to not only fight back against this “motherhood penalty” but 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.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
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 she had run off. 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! The skills she would build in finance would pale in comparison to the demands of motherhood. 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.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When I first started Uma I bought myself a laptop and soon found out that when you switch it on, it didn’t automatically come with a personalized email address! Previously I had worked at big corporations where everything is set up for you but that is certainly not the case when you are starting up for yourself! I had no idea of the many steps needed in order to have an initial technical infrastructure. If anything, this was a lesson in not just creating a business plan or writing down your ideas and potential revenue generators, but also steps needed in order to get up and running.
Can you describe how you are helping to make popular culture more representative of the US population?
I am 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.
Wow! Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted by the work you are doing?
One of our members, a single mother, had recently moved to New York City and spent several months looking for a job, but she just wasn’t getting any offers. After a friend’s referral she got in touch with Uma. We completely overhauled her resume, went through typical interview questions, did mock sessions, what to wear and also breathing techniques to relieve stress. We focused not only on verbal skills but also nonverbal cues. She left feeling confident about her next steps, sent off her new resume, got the call for interview and soon after received a job offer. This is one example of many, but it shows that if you take the time to listen, you are patient, approachable and focused, you can shape somebody’s future for the better.
Can you share three reasons why it’s really important to have diversity represented in film and television and its potential effects on our culture?
When I switch on the television, there are some basic things I look for. Is there anything interesting on right now? Can I relate to what is being shown? Is it culturally and factually accurate? The underlying thread connecting all of these is the diversity of the viewers and the need for more inclusive programming. However, we don’t often give it the attention it deserves when it comes to television and the media.
We are all influenced in some way by what we watch on television, whether in a movie or advertisement. Starting from childhood, watching Disney movies and cartoons with “princess” décor and a level of frailness for girls or “super hero” macho images for boys, has a great impact. This continues into the classroom, the peer group, and then becomes part of their norm.
Ultimately, without exposing viewers of all ages, especially the young and adolescent, to diverse programming, we are stunting the growth of our society.
Can you recommend three things the community/society/the industry can do help address the root of the diversity issues in the entertainment business?
Firstly, you can make sure that your programming reflects the makeup and demographic of your community, in terms of topics covered, breadth of genres. Then, make an active attempt to showcase individuals of different races, backgrounds and abilities. Our society is filled with people from different backgrounds, so choose your cast accordingly.
What do you picture when you think of the hero or heroine of a movie? Now take that stereotypical Hollywood hero image and replace them with someone that has an accent, that doesn’t look glamorous all the time. Replace them with someone that looks like you or me. Do this for kids’ shows too.
Thirdly, have not only subtitles, but options to select voiceovers in the language and culture of where the viewer is based rather than licensed country, so that they can better relate to the content. Have the option for sign language for example.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
To me, a leader is someone that exudes confidence and has presence. They gain trust and can command respect. Some people have this naturally and others learn it over time. Ultimately though, it is someone who can steer the ship during turbulent times and maintain team morale and positive spirits. A confident mindset and clear thought process are imperative I would say. And albeit a little clichéd, our tagline is actually a good summary of what leadership is: Be Bold. Be You. Be Uma.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
Firstly, you never have enough time! Being an entrepreneur means you are constantly creating new concepts and ideas, and ultimately shaping the entire direction and philosophy of your company. You are working around the clock. Add into the equation frequent travel both domestically and abroad, being a mother to young children and family and household responsibilities, it’s easy to get into a confused spiral!
Secondly, and this is leading on from the first point, you have to not only be laser focused, but have to possess superior organization skills. Thankfully I was always on top of my game, but it was definitely challenging at times, especially when I had a pitch due, flight to catch, nanny that quit over text message the morning of, and a sick child so no school.
Thirdly, I had no idea that being an entrepreneur meant not only being a creative genius, but also the COO, CFO and IT department all rolled into one. I had worked at big corporates previously, which meant you just switched on your computer and everything worked straightaway or you called up IT if it didn’t. Big difference when you are your own boss and it’s your very first day. You have to figure out everything — from what is your domain name, and where is your server hosted to which CRM is the best bang for your buck.
Fourthly, and this is related to hosting my own TV show as a former finance professional, turned pharmaceutical executive, mother of two and now founder of a global women’s empowerment platform — I had no idea what it meant to actually host my own show. I’d been on TV many times, sure, but this was my own show. From having an idea, to creating the concept, storyboarding it out, sourcing influential guests, setting the tone for conversations, to post production and editing, were all fundamental steps in providing great viewer experience.
For the fifth wish, I would say it’s learning to let things go and be flexible. When you start as a leader, you are told about what to focus on — have a passion, have clear goals, a robust business plan for example, but not much guidance on taking a break or a deep breath and switching direction if that is what is needed. It’s actually fundamental advice, as it could make the difference between staying afloat or going under, especially in the early days when your funding may well be bootstrapped.
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. :-)
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. So 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.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Be yourself as everyone else is already taken.” Some cite this to Oscar Wilde, but others debate the source. Either way, it’s certainly a powerful message in self-confidence and just being bold and proud to be who we are. We actually modelled Uma’s tagline around this belief too: Be Bold. Be You. Be Uma.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)
As this piece is about film and TV, Uma Thurman! She shares the same name as our company and was named after the same Hindu Goddess Uma, bringing out the splendor and light in each one of us.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much!