Ask Not What You Can Do for Your Community, Ask What Your Community Can Do for You

Blog Post
Dec. 19, 2017

This blog is part of Caffeinated Commentary - a monthly series where the Millennial Fellows create interesting and engaging content around a theme. As we enter the holiday season, the Millennial Fellows have chosen to explore the ideas of community and home.

Earlier this month, my colleague Dillon Roseen wrote about how today many American millennials wrestle with the idea of returning home, a place they often conceive as fraught with social inequities and discriminatory practices. As a Non-Resident Indian (NRI), who has been educated and currently lives abroad, returning home presents similar challenges for me.

If you ask anyone I have worked with professionally over the past few years, you will learn that I am one of the biggest advocates for India as a country. I spend a vast amount of time sitting in conference rooms promoting an Indian perspective on everything from net neutrality to agriculture and urging my American peers to not discredit India as a second-tier country. My community is the Indian community, whether near or far, and like many of my NRI counterparts, I have a vested interest in the development of my country and strive to represent my community in everything I do. Even from abroad.

According to a 2015 United Nations report, India has the largest diaspora population in the world, with --16 million NRI’s living abroad. These NRI’s have gained prominence for contributing to major parts of the global economy, such as the tech sector of Silicon Valley as well as for serving as ambassadors, responsible for representing India’s culture and heritage abroad. Over the past few years, the NRI community has come under the spotlight due to Prime Minister Modi’s attempts to appeal to educated and skilled NRI’s to return home and use their talents to support economic growth and modernization back in India.

Modi’s campaigns to engage the larger, global Indian community is an interesting one, especially his vision to develop an India that provides the same “supportive” opportunities and resources as available in other countries, such as the United States, the United Kingdom, and Singapore. The groundwork of these aspirations has already been laid. With goals of appealing to the large NRI workforce in the technology, science, and start-up industries, government programs such as Startup India and private sector initiatives, like the Ambani Reliance Jio’s Digital India Startup Fund, are aiming to promote innovation and jobs creation in these dynamic fields.

But communities are built on more than just venture capital funding and promises of modernization. Communities are built on social structures and cultural values. Despite my continuous efforts to represent India in everything I do, when I return home, I realize that the community I represent, does not equally represent me. The same people I advocate for in conference rooms around the world don’t bother to shake my hand in conference rooms at home. Despite all my insistences that India is a nation with vast potential for growth, what I increasingly feel while being home, is my own growth as a female professional being stifled.

If India truly wants to transform into a country that prevents brain-drain and offers NRI’s and its resident citizens the same opportunities that are available to them abroad, it needs to address some fundamental issues regarding gender inequality and discrimination. According to the World Bank, the labor force participation rate for women in India in 2017 was 27%, reflecting a staggering 23% decline over the past decades. Thus far, the country has seen the introduction of a number of well-meaning efforts including Standup India, which promotes female and minority group entrepreneurship and the Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao program which strives to reduce instances of female foeticide and support female education. However, despite the expansion of opportunities for women to grow economically and professionally, social norms remain unchanging, and therefore more still needs to be done.

This is not to say that gender inequality and institutional sexism are issues that are unique or native to India. If you’ve been paying attention to the news lately, you’ll see that almost every American industry, whether it is venture capital, technology, politics, entertainment or even the restaurant industry, has been uprooted by stories of women facing sexism, sexual assault, and discrimination in the workplace. Stories like this can be found in any culture and nation around the world. However, given that NRI women already struggle with institutional sexism abroad, asking them to return home where social support for female education, employment and professional growth remains weak is a difficult argument to make.

The number of times I’ve heard of a female colleague being passed up for a promotion that ultimately went to a less, or equally qualified male counterpart is high both in the United States and India. That being said, the number of times someone’s given me a glossed over and confused look when I tell them I want to be a leader in my field, rather than a subordinate who sets aside her career after marriage, tends to be much higher in Indian professional circles. During these encounters, it always feels like I’m airing out a topic that has been swept so far under the rug that it stinks of cobwebs, dust, and age-old misogyny.

I’ve said it before and I will continue to say it a million more times: India has a vast amount of potential for growth and global success. But, it must recognize that women are integral to achieving this goal. The world has already seen the successes of powerhouse NRI women such as Kalpana Chawla, Indra Nooyi, and Padmasree Warrior, who have represented the Indian community across the continents and even in outer space. It is time the Indian community started discussing how it can support ambitious, talented women like them. It is time our community started representing all of us.