A lot of people have asked me as to why I choose to work in the space of Diversity and Inclusion.
It is time for me to share my story.
In the spring of 2004, I was accepted for a postgraduate program at the prestigious London School of Economics and Political Science. However due to a road accident that followed in the week immediately after receiving this letter, I was left injured, struggling with mobility and was almost bed ridden for a couple of years to come. It is difficult to be young and to feel thwarted on personal ambitions, when the world around you is making strides, on daily basis. And in those long days and nights that I took to recuperate, I found my calling!
After completing my MBA in 2008, I started my career as a Diversity Recruiter and traveled across the length and breadth of three of the largest states in India, engaging with young candidates (mostly from semi urban and rural backgrounds) and learning about their hopes and aspirations. My next stint was in the space of HR Compliance and Project Management. But while the career trajectory was very lucrative, I changed tracks and came back to the domain of People Programs with my third employer. That, by all means, was the turning point in my career. I could actively learn from the best minds in Talent Strategy, Employee Engagement, Policies and Diversity & Inclusion; soon enough I was leading a portfolio that had everything from Gender, Disability, Sexual Orientation, New Parents, Childcare, Awards, GPTW Rankings, Media Strategy and much more. After this, there was a brief period in 2016, when I was engaged with a global startup, working in the space of International Development. However the organization never really took off, from the concept stage and I moved to my current employer in 2017, where I am currently leading the Diversity and Inclusion portfolio for India.
A lot of professionals in my fraternity would say that Change Management is the most important competency for any individual who wants to make a career in Inclusion. I have a different take on this. Allow me to narrate an incident here.
I once had an intern working in my team, who was suffering from Retinitis Pigmentosa. This is a rare, genetic disorder, leading to complete blindness and his condition was incurable. One afternoon, as I was leaving him at his hostel, at a premier business school in the country, situated in the heart of Banerghatta Road at Bangalore, I noticed that the sun was shining brightly on our heads and we had to walk a few kilometers from the gate to reach this building.
As fate would have it, this internship was as much a learning process for me, as it was for him. Stepping inside the premises, he told me, ‘The sun seems so bright’ and I stopped in my tracks, listening to this articulation. When I quizzed him on how he had sensed it, he said, ‘Just stand still, close your eyes, face the skies and you will see what I see.’ And with our eyes closed, we both walked, hand in hand, in complete silence, till his hostel. That incident left an indelible imprint on my consciousness. When we reached the hostel, he used his finger, to outline a nearly round boundary on my palm, a technique lot of people with vision impairment use, to navigate distance. That nearly round outline was his version of the ‘Sun’, the object in the sky, that he could sense and use for tracing the path, despite his medical condition.
Indeed nature has its own ways of surprising us!!
The next morning, he had his final project presentation and as we were setting up his laptop, he turned around and asked me, ‘Prerrna, how am I looking?’
I would like to ask everyone reading this article, to take a pause and think for a moment; how would you answer a person who is blind, a question related to personal appearance? The right to live and experience life, in its entirety, is a ‘Universal’ one & so I did the best that I could. I straightened his tie, asked him to smile and proceed fearlessly in the pursuit of his professional aspirations.
‘Empathy’, ‘Compassion’ and ‘Advocacy’, as competencies, will always come before ‘Change Management’, when it comes to driving Inclusion, in any setting. Unless we understand the person’s needs or even attempt to walk a step in their shoes, we cannot even begin to fathom what workplaces, organizations, social structures can either provide them with or deprive them of, in their daily lives.
Some months back, I attended an Executive Program at the Harvard Kennedy School, in the area of Building and Leading Diverse Organizations. The experience at Harvard was a life changing one in many ways. I was the only Indian participant in a cohort which comprised of senior leaders from Government, Intelligence, Military, Law Enforcement, Higher Education, United Nations and Corporates from places ranging across USA, Europe, Egypt, Australia, New Zealand, Philippines and Africa. Completely unlike the training programs I have attended locally, at Harvard, I experienced the power of solutioning when officials from Government, Civil Society, Defense and Corporate Organizations sat at the same table. The integration allowed for people to come together in extremely meaningful ways and link Public Policy, Economics, Human Rights and Sustainable Governance with the overarching agenda of Development.
The road ahead for Diversity professionals, is a complex myriad of unexplored domains. As a cohort, my batch’s reflections have concurred on how Inclusion in our present times, is a byproduct of our global economic realities. Furthermore as Robotics and Artificial Intelligence evolve, some of the debates we will see in the days to come, will have social, moral and political undertones. That perhaps is the evolving conversation that our community needs to actively invest in. Think about it, a Robot will not need reasonable accommodation or maternity leave or support by way of childcare. Careers will be disrupted in unprecedented ways in the coming decade. Not all skills will demand a market price and to ensure ‘equality of opportunity’ in such socio-economic settings will be a mammoth task, by all means.
In conclusion, I would like to introduce a critical competency for D&I professionals that will possibly be the game changer, in the days to come. I had the opportunity to visit the statue of ‘Fearless Girl’ at Wall Street in New York, after finishing my academic program at Boston. The statue stands right before a charging bull; tall, bright and with a firm resolve on its face. Some of the topics that we will touch in Diversity in the coming decade, will neither be easy, nor will they be seamless. But our ability to take a stand, to lend our voice to those who cannot speak for themselves (literally and metaphorically) and to navigate forward, even in the face of adversity, will decide the fate of the world that we will leave behind for the generations to come.
Allow me to sign off by stating, ‘Here is to a community of Fearless Inclusion Champions, May we know them, May we be them, May we raise them!!’
About The Author
Prerrna P Kapoor is an alumnus of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Executive Education Program. She has spent almost a decade working on People Programs in India with various organizations. As the City Ambassador of the first regional chapter, of the Harvard Kennedy School Women’s Network at Bangalore, India, she firmly believes in, ‘Ask what you can do?’