‘I’m the boss. If I’m not going to be bossy, who will?’

A panel discussion at Northeastern’s Women Who Empower in Mumbai featured 2020 Rhodes Scholar Kritika Singh and entrepreneurs Devita Saraf, Priya Prakash and Minal Vazirani moderated by Andrea Garcia. Photo by Sunil Thakkar for Northeastern University

MUMBAI, India—Ask women in leadership positions across the world about the challenges they face, and their answers will have a striking familiarity: Being at the top of male-dominated industries requires a certain amount of rabble-rousing, a certain type of guts. Indeed, women in India and the United Kingdom said just that, at events in both countries hosted by Northeastern University this week. 

“I’m the boss. If I’m not going to be bossy, who will?” said Devita Saraf, chief executive officer of the premium television developer Vu Technologies, addressing a pervasive societal tendency to view female confidence in a negative light.  

Diane MacGillivray, senior vice president for University Advancement, speaks during the Women who Empower event in Mumbai. Photo by Sunil Thakkar for Northeastern University

Saraf spoke to an audience in Mumbai Sunday as part of Northeastern University’s first of many Women Who Empower events in March. The event brought together entrepreneurs from around the world to share their experiences. Throughout the month, the university is hosting numerous similar events around the world to commemorate Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day on March 8. 

“What we learned is that a lot of the themes and issues are universal,” said Diane MacGillivray, one of the organizers and the senior vice president for University Advancement at Northeastern. “But that there is also a lot of specificity, whether it is to a community, a country or a sector. To be able to share the stories in context and also bring them together is exactly what Northeastern enables us to do.”

At the event in London, Joseph E. Aoun, president of Northeastern, recounted a female rabbi he’d become acquainted with early in his career, and praised her ability to change perceptions about roles and genders, both within her congregation and within the wider community. She communicated to young girls that if she could be a rabbi, then so could they, he said. 

“That’s why we’re all here,” Aoun said, “to empower and to be role models.”

Saraf was joined at the Mumbai event by Priya Prakash, founder of the children’s healthcare organization HealthSetGo; Minal Vazirani, president of international art auction house Saffronart; and Kritika Singh, a current Northeastern student, Rhodes Scholar, and the founder of both Northeastern University Global Health Initiative and Malaria Free World

The entrepreneurs described how they forged their own paths while they were still young—and often the only woman in the room. 

“I thought nobody would buy anything from me,” Prakash said of her initial resistance to directly pitching clients on her product. But, after a conversation with a friend, she felt jolted to action. “The moment you get over your own insecurities and the voice in your head, that transforms everything,” she said.

Prakash’s hesitance is perhaps even more surprising given her background. 

As a child, Prakash said she often ate unhealthy foods. “I struggled physically, I struggled mentally, and I didn’t know what to do about it.” She made changes to her lifestyle and discovered her passion for weightlifting, and in 2017, Prakash won the state level weightlifting championship in Delhi. She started a company to help Indian children grow up with access to health and nutritional resources, saying, “health is revolutionary.”

From the age of 16, Singh was also drawn to the power of healthcare to change lives. During an internship, she was assigned to a malaria project during which she said she “started realizing the huge importance of global health.” 

She founded her organization to eradicate malaria, in part due to the startling statistic that every sixty seconds a child dies from the illness. She also launched her Global Health Initiative at Northeastern to foster an interdisciplinary approach towards healthcare that creates social impact.

Two days after Saraf and Singh shared their stories, and more than 4,000 miles away, another businesswoman shared a similar sentiment. 

At the London Women Who Empower event, Misha Daud, an influential blogger, serial entrepreneur, and owner of fashion boutique Eye Candy in Muscat, Oman, acknowledged the challenges facing women who start their own business, but noted that adaptability and resilience can help clear professional hurdles. 

“You must never allow someone else’s talk in your ear to distract you from what you want to achieve,” she said. “You must be faithful to yourself and know that even if you fall flat on your face, it’s a lesson that you’re learning.”

She urged budding entrepreneurs in the room to “shut out the noise” and “focus on the goal you want to pursue,” all the while being careful never to “under-sell yourself.”

Daud was joined at the event by Morgan Mixon, chief operating officer of accelerateHer—a consulting firm that helps to fix the underrepresentation of women across the tech sector; and Julietta Dexter, founder and chief executive officer of The Communications Store, a public relations agency with offices in London and New York City. Dexter and Daud are both also parents to Northeastern students. 

Mixon called for a fundamental rethink in mindsets across a host of industries and highlighted two key issues that tend to hamper female entrepreneurs’ efforts to start and grow a company.

“Firstly, there are not enough women in business that are household names, so that means we have a perceived lack of women role models,” she said, adding that women also tend to have more restricted access to networks than men, which in turn inhibits their ability to raise money.

The statistics underscore her argument. A 2019 study by Boston Consulting Group and the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women found that there are more male than female entrepreneurs in almost every single country in the world.

The research also concluded that if more support—both financial and otherwise—were available to female entrepreneurs, the global economy could be as much as $5 trillion better off.

According to PitchBook, a data provider for private and public equity markets, venture capital investment in startup companies with at least one female founder represented just 20 percent of total invested capital in 2018. Investment in companies with all-female founding teams is significantly lower.

Back in Mumbai, Aoun asked MacGillivray about a decision made several years ago to change the umbrella term for these conversations from “Women Who Inspire” to “Women Who Empower.” 

“‘Inspire’ is passive, but ‘empower’ is active,” MacGillivray said. 

“Our goal is to take this platform and make it a network that supports, and enables, and empowers all of the members of our community to pursue their dreams. And it’s not for five-years, it’s for life.”

Josie Cox reported from London.

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