The Architects of Empathy

What a Child Bride Can Teach Us About Feminism

My Indian grandmother was born in what is now Pakistan ninety years ago. She was promised to be married at 11, married at 13, had her first miscarriage at 14, her second miscarriage at 15, her first child who passed away at 16, another child who passed away at 17, and then seven children who survived, the middle of whom is my mother.

She was educated only through the sixth grade before she had to leave schooling to be a child bride and to raise a family. She wasn’t Lean In, she wasn’t Lean Out, she was Never Had a Chance to Be Anything But What Men Decided She Should Be.

I recently asked her, through my mom’s Punjabi translation, what age she would have gotten married if it were up to her.

She said 25.

In 1913, one hundred years ago, women in the United States couldn’t vote. In 1971, only 9% of bachelor’s degrees were going to women. In 2013, as of the the 113th Congress, the Senate still only has 20 women. This 20% of the current Senate is almost 50% of the total number of women who have ever served in the Senate since 1789: these 44 brave souls.

Fast forward to 2013, and the majority of graduating seniors from college are women. Those female graduates go out and earn only 82% of what their male counterparts do, and their trajectories further diverge over time, which indicates we still have miles to go and which is why Sheryl Sandberg’s book is timely.

For years we’ve imputed much about our character as a species from our closest living relative, the chimpanzee. We have talked less, as a society, about the chimpanezee’s cousin the bonobo — who we are equally closely related to. The bonobo stands alone amongst the five great apes (humans, chimps, bonobos, gorillas, orangutans) as having developed a matriarchal society.

While famous for their use of sex as a means of conflict resolution, what I find more interesting about the animal is how their males behave better as a result of female empowerment. While bonobos are not at all entirely peaceful, they show a stronger sense of empathy than their chimp cousins, and as a result they have a much better record of non-violence than any of the other great apes.

Why is this? As a man raised in a strongly matriarchal family (the five family elders were all women, and my mother and sister are forces of nature not to be messed with), I have a straightforward take on this: women make men better. As a society, my belief is we are gradually empowering our women, and becoming much better for it.

For this reason I believe the education and empowerment of women could be considered the top priority for the advancement of our species. I don’t have the research to prove it, but my hypothesis is that the happiest and most prosperous societies in the world are ones where women are the most empowered. Some of the most regressive places in the world are where we are, as my dad puts it, “wasting half the talent of our population.”

In 2010 my sister got pregnant. My grandmother told us that if my sister’s baby was a girl, she would bring with her great wealth. I dismissed this thinking as superstitious.

The first three years of building my company were a grind: I raised $8 million of equity capital over three years from over 100 courageous angel investors. This is an unusually large amount of angel equity capital to raise to start a business, and it was incredibly taxing as the company was almost ninety days from being out of cash for most of our first three years. I felt like I was walking around the country with a tin can. There was simply no belief that a clothing brand could be built primarily online, and were it not for the angels that believed in us that kept us going, we never would have made it.

Then something stunning happened. The day my niece Isabella was born, I was in Palo Alto. Sure enough, two venture capitalists committed to investing $18.5 million into my company that day. The name of the company? Bonobos. The date of Isabella’s birth? The same day my grandmother and Bella’s great-grandmother was born eighty-eight years earlier. The prediction of the prosperity that Isabella might bring with her came true, and it came true on the birthday of the woman who made it.

That evening, I was invited to dinner with one of the angels who had saved the company’s prospects the previous year by investing. We had dinner at his family home around the corner from where the company was launched, a home where my cofounder and I had lived in Silicon Valley at the time of the company’s launch. Though I had run past the street many times, I had never noticed the name. It gave me chills when I realized where dinner was: Isabella Avenue.

When I see my niece now, I think about the world she was born into and how much it has changed since her great-grandmother was born. In the look in my grandmother’s eye, I see so much joy and hope for a bright future for her great-grandaughter.

It is a future my grandmother helped make. She moved to the US when I was five so that my mom could Lean In, and return to work. Without it, my family would not have been able to provide the education that they did for me and for my sister, Isabella’s mom.

And so today I wish a Happy Mother’s Day to the brave women I know:

To my grandmother, my badi mummy: you sacrificed much of your own life to make a family, and you emigrated later in life from your home in India to help your daughters’ raise their children and so that they might have more options than you did. You took care of me when I was young so that my mom could work, and we didn’t miss a beat together did we.

To my mom: you came from India alone at the age of 20. You are brave. You did so to work for the family, to send money back home to keep things afloat while your dad, the sole breadwinner, could no longer make money. You were sad to not be there when he died, I know you still haven’t gotten over that, that you never will, and that we are all so grateful for what you did for all of us. You worked forty years, hard, and you are an amazing leader: tough and kind, empathetic and fierce, a rare mix. I hope to one day be as good as you. You are the best mother that a son could dream of.

To my sister: you are the best mother Isabella could dream of, and her dreams have a lot of hope in the world that you, and our mom, and her badi mummy, have made possible for her. You are the best sister that a brother could ask for.

To all of the moms in the world today: you have the most important job on the planet. You are the architects of empathy for sons and daughters alike, and it is empathy — our ability to understand the world from the perspective of others — that offers hope for our species to bear what it may.

Next Story — I Like My Men Like I Like My Coffee. Strong.
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Elinor Smith Sullivan’s Airplane at the Udvar Hazy Center / E.C. McCarthy

I Like My Men Like I Like My Coffee. Strong.

It takes courage to look at yourself, really look at yourself, and accept responsibility for a hurtful outcome or a failed attempt. The easiest path in life is to say nothing, do nothing, and blame others when you feel confused and ashamed. Most people scoff at the suggestion that they have anything to be afraid of when they look in the mirror, yet it’s pathological self-acceptance that perpetuates the nasty isms and phobias of our time. Hostility is fed and watered by self-ignorance.

I’ve always believed that men are the key to equality for women. At face value this is a provocative statement, but history shows that paradigm shifts by those “in power” are necessary before the tide turns on value-based issues. Behind every great woman are more than a few men. Logic prevails. As such, I’ve spent a good deal of time exploring male attitudes toward women and finding creative ways to elicit empathy for women from men.

It mystifies me when men assure me they aren’t feminists. Gloria Steinem often notes that:

“A feminist is…a person, male or female, who believes in the full social, economic, and political equality of women and men. And, I would say, also acts on it.”

She’s quoting the dictionary, not promulgating dogma.

There are increasing numbers of ordinary men out there who see, understand, and feel compelled to speak out against the rampant sexism and misogyny that exist in our society. A standout like Nick Kristof at the New York Times comes to mind. Or Jackson Katz. But in the same way people struggle to list their favorite female authors beyond Jane Austen and J.K. Rowling, women typically struggle to list the male feminists in their lives. That’s pretty horrifying considering that men make up half of our society. Surely we can each come up with twenty or thirty names of guys we know personally who are keeping it real? No? Okay, five. Five is doable. Five guys who are aware of sexism and would vocally back you up in a roomful of coworkers. Now subtract the guys who are comfortable being called feminists. And then subtract the guys who would do the same for any woman, not just you personally. My anecdotal observation is that most women end up with roughly two names. That’s not very many, compared to the number of men we interact with daily. Not enough to make the difference.

Any guy can become a feminist. A reformed rapist can become a feminist. Sexism is a mindset, not an incurable disease, and past behavior doesn’t damn you for the rest of your life. What men may not realize is that women need to hear people articulate the world as it is. It’s soothing and reassuring and hopeful when a guy acknowledges the injustice of gender bias. A simple acknowledgment takes the crazy out of a crazy-making experience and lays the groundwork for change. In time, agreement over the problem becomes a shared goal for change and a powerful engine for achieving it.

The workplace is a prime opportunity for men to lead by example. The sexism I’ve encountered at work over the years weighs heavily at this point. It has accrued. I would be an idiot to walk into a new situation without lowering my expectations because I don’t have the time or energy to deal with disappointment over not being treated equally. There was the thirty-something guy who told me “don’t worry your pretty little head” about aspects of a partnership I was brokering between two multibillion dollar tech companies, or the Hollywood director who told me I’d have serious trouble getting work as a director, no matter how good I was, because, simply, “you’re a woman,” or the agent I was hoping would read my work who instead wanted to know if I or my friends would mind posing naked for photographs. I could write pages of examples that stack up to a mountain of nonsense I climb every time I decide to go get something done. The saddest part is that the guys in those examples weren’t strangers. They were acquaintances and friends.

The worst work-related offenses are when I’m made complicit in the misogyny. I’ve worked in multiple industries and this happens across the board. I’ll be the only woman in a room of guys who throw their elbows around while making comments that objectify or undercut other women. I’m then forced into the position of “boundary-drawer” and “moral-decider.” My energy, which should be focused on meeting people and having interesting conversations about creative projects, is redirected to an uncomfortable inner dialogue over whether to speak up and say I’m offended. When I speak up, I’m frequently shut out of future meetings, and when I don’t speak up I can’t do my best work because I’m concentrating too hard on keeping a smile on my face. Sexism’s mission is accomplished: ultimately, I don’t want to go back to that room. I don’t look forward to being at work, and my motivation to collaborate with the guys is diminished. When I leave a room like that, I take with me the distinct impression that those guys say much worse things when I’m not there, possibly about me, and I’m demoralized. I lose enthusiasm for the game because the guys aren’t playing fair. For any guy who hasn’t noticed, that’s how sexism and misogyny work. And they really do work.

Personally, I think it’s disgraceful that every third or fourth person I meet has an unconscious problem with me before they even shake my hand. Life has enough challenges and I don’t need that one. I wish all people, men and women, would look in the mirror and get curious about their biases, ask themselves how many times they’ve wished a woman would be less emotional, would stop talking, would need less from them, and then ask how many times they’ve wished the same of a man. Even the least biased among us contends with the influences of a biased world. When I’m honest in the mirror, I acknowledge that I still fail to value women equally sometimes, including myself. Sexism is wily, but it’s easy to challenge once you’re willing to see it.

Next Story — Binder of Funny Women
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Marquee at Mo PitKins

Binder of Funny Women

How producing Chicks and Giggles Made Me A Feminist

Right before I left my job at KPMG, I had lunch with a colleague. I had no idea what I was going to do next, but I knew I did not want to be an auditor any more. She suggested I take acting classes, and I wished I did. Two years later in 2004, I had the idea of starting a stand-up comedy show featuring all women. I hadn’t done any stand-up, and I only knew one female comic, but I did it. I posted an ad on Craig’s list looking for comedians. I scouted comedy shows all over town looking for talent. I created a blog for the show. Chicks and Giggles debuted in May 2004 at the Laugh Lounge on the Lower East Side. The show was well received. It got a mention in the New York Times, The New Yorker and even a short article in Bust magazine.

Anyway, spring of 2008 was the last show of Chicks and Giggles.The show was popular but penniless. I still support women in comedy virtually by spreading the word on social media about comic’s shows, podcasts, web series and tweets. There are a lot of funny women out there, but you often can’t tell by looking at TV. Saturday Night Live is the legendary institution of sketch comedy. Lorne Michaels is to comedy as Anna Wintour is to fashion. [Analogy by Liz]

Like Anna, some people think Lorne has a diversity problem. I agree to some extent. Many of the featured and prime time players of Saturday Night Live come from either sketch/improv groups. Upright Citizen’s Brigade, The Groundlings in Los Angeles and Second City in Chicago are like the Ivy League feeder school for the people who audition for SNL. The thing about improv groups are the classes. The classes are not like inexpensive continuing education classes; it can be expensive. I even considered taking an introductory class about three years ago, but I couldn’t justify spending the money. So if the barrier to entry is money for classes, then some people regardless of gender or race are not going to go that route. Improv is not for everybody. Stand-up is not for everybody, but comedy is for humans.

Anyway, when I read about this year’s new SNL class, I wasn’t surprised since I kinda know how the SNL sausage is made. It is a pretty much a brat party. [By brat, I mean the white sausage, not ill-mannered kids.]

There are a lot funny women who have taken the show online by doing web series, Vine videos and podcasts. These women are comedy writers and content producers. I have a long list, so if anyone reads this posts and wants to find a “binder of funny women” they can ask me and give me a producer credit.

Some of the funniest comedians I know include Michelle Buteau, Sara Benincasa, Carolyn Castiglia, Abbi Crutchfield, Robin Carson Cloud, Claudia Cogan, Livia Scott, Ann Carr, Marina Franklin, Calise Hawkins, Giulia Rozzi, Jenny Rubin, Catie Lazarus, Brooke Van Poppelen, Leighann Lord, Jess Wood to name a few.

Next Story — “Rupee, Rape.” Rage! Really?
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“Rupee, Rape.” Rage! Really?

I am not going to be most popular person around because of this post. I, nonetheless, invite constructive feedback and discussions that are rooted in facts and responsible behavior. But, if after reading this post you feel a deep hatred towards me or it makes you want to spit on me; please move on, ignore me and do not let me ruin the peace in your life.

So the Indian Rupee (INR) is in free fall these last few days. Today, about 68 Rupees make a US Dollar. Less than a month ago that figure was around 60. And about a year ago it was 50. It is a matter of great concern after all. A nation of more than a billion people is showing signs of poor economic health.

The chart that a Google search has been displaying the last few days upon searching for “USD to INR”.

Like with any grave and imminent disaster there have been numerous debates, discussions and comments floating around the web with many counterpoints, retorts and backlashes. But the one backlash that struck me most was the mass addle-minded response to one Indian novelist’s tweet that equated the current plight of the INR to that of a rape victim. Now to be fair, every Indian nowadays is slightly touchy on the subject of rape, given that the country has been made starkly aware of two incidents of brutal gang-rape, in two of its major cities: Mumbai and Delhi and both taking place within the last nine months.Everyone is naturally upset and angry. So, perhaps the usage of the word “rape” was poorly timed. But to create such a big ruckus about it that it resulted in the deletion of the tweet is slightly mind-boggling to me.

It so happens that an older meaning of the word “rape” is to “to seize and take away by force.” To that end, the usage is not entirely wrong; the Rupee is tanking after all and if that is your objection then you need a reality check. Then there is this idea in English literature called personification, where you give inanimate objects qualities of human beings. My point being that in terms of reality, language style and grammar the tweet was not all wrong.

So all that really irritated a lot people was the use of the word “rape”? I saw one response which read in part:

“Joke about the rupee, never about rape […]”

Mind you, such comments are coming from a people that declared a certain Bollywood movie a box office success despite the repeated use of a rape-based joke in different contexts and settings. It seemed pretty hilarious coming from a movie that everyone, kids and adults alike, enjoyed; so much so, that it became one of the most popular dialogues from that movie, and the movie by the way had a lot of good things about it in general! How can we be so selective in our causes?

Here is a question to those who feel agitated by the aforementioned remarks: What happened to the fundamental right of speech? For a country that is tolerant enough to accommodate every major religion in the world today, more than 2,000 ethnic groups and about 1,652 languages and dialects, we sure get nit-picky and touchy about certain things that people say. Here is one advice if you do not like the words coming out of someone/thing: move on and be peaceful.

If anything this tweet should have roiled us Indians into a movement, demanding an explanation from our leaders about the current plight of the Rupee and why they did not prevent it. That is exactly what we did in the recent past; and not just against rape but against things like murder and corruption; and while we may not have solved those problems, i am glad that many of us (if not all) cared enough to swing into a movement against them. I am not suggesting that the two, i.e. rape and the falling of the Rupee, are the same. And i am in no form advocating the use of the word “rape” in each and every inane context. However, i am saying that the consequences of a weakening economy for India could have an impact that is so gut wrenching, on about 17% of this world’s population, that it might start to look just as horrifying.

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