An engineer and venture-capital professional who took a detour to write a book on relatable role models for young girls, Varsha Adusumilli has now brought together a host of powerful names from the corporate and creative worlds to lead an ambitious new fellowship that arms high-school girls with skills for future careers.
The Bengaluru-based author of Wonder Girls: Success Stories of Millennials Who Fought to Do it Their Way (Juggernaut Books), which has been taught as part of the curriculum in over 150 secondary classrooms, has created the Wonder Girls Student Leaders Fellowship, to nurture and train high-potential girls into leaders for tomorrow.
The 10-week transformational programme is unlike any other in India and targets girl students from grade 8 to 12. The 50 fellows who are selected will go through a comprehensive programme and get to learn about game-changing topics from economist Roopa Purushothaman, philanthropist Rohini Nilekani, award-winning photographers Joshua Karthik and Joseph Radhik, publisher Chiki Sarkar, business leader Radhika Piramal, Teach for India founder Shaheen Mistri, organisational psychologist Rachana Bhide, celebrity chef Pooja Dhingra, and several more eminent personalities.
“Role models, mentorship, sponsorship, internships, and community have changed my life, starting from when I was at school,” says philanthropist and columnist Aparna Piramal Raje, who is one of the senior advisors on the Wonder Girls Fellowship. “They broadened my horizon, allowing me to learn and grow over time, until I found the career path that best suited me. I’m delighted to support this stimulating programme.”
eShe spoke to Varsha Adusumilli on the inspiration behind the fellowship and why she believes the challenge for getting more Indian women in the workforce lies at the entry point.
Why did you decide to create the Wonder Girls Student Leaders Fellowship and how did the idea come up?
A lot of research has been done globally on the value of all-girl learning environments. They enable girls to explore and grow without being bogged down by stereotypes. The success of platforms such as Girl Scouts, the Seven Sisters Schools and so on, point to that. Here at home, Roopa Purushothaman’s and Dr Urvashi Sahni’s pathbreaking work in education are great examples.
We have interviewed and interacted with hundreds of girls and their parents, and we see a massive hunger in the market today for definitive programs that tie in leadership and learning experiences at adolescence to long-term outcomes for girls, especially. This fellowship addresses that need comprehensively.
What kind of outcome do you hope to achieve from this?
Our programme is designed around four cornerstones: Learning through role models directly; learning through peers; learning through leadership projects; and learning through internships. Through each of these cornerstones, we aim to create transformational experiences for these young girls, and arm them with just the skills, literature, and tools they need to pursue long-term career paths.
India’s female labour participation rate has been on a free fall for the past two decades. The pandemic has further taken a toll, and at present, India’s figure is the lowest among the world’s major economies at just 16 percent. This workforce and aspiration-gap is a class and region-agnostic issue in India. Out of all the working-age women who work, only 7 percent are urban dwellers.
Outside of policy, we believe that deeply engaging and thoughtful long-term oriented programmes could potentially change these numbers and encourage more women into the workforce. We want to play a part there.
Our curated paid programme is designed for adolescents in IB/ICSE/CBSE. We also have a robust foundation arm that works in low-income communities (completely free of cost) through which we have serviced over 250 classrooms to date. We are keen to build on both.
In your experience working with the corporate world, what was the kind of mentorship you missed, and is it something you are trying to create now for these students?
Young men are able to access mentorship in more organic ways. For women, this issue has to be solved in structured ways. A study published in Harvard Business Review talks about how women tend to be over-mentored but under-sponsored. The conversations and literature around role modelling, mentoring, sponsorship and so on need to be made accessible to young women very early on so that they don’t waste years once they get into the workforce.
We are trying to set up some of these structures for young women through our modules in our fellowship programme. We provide them skills, tools, and resources that will hold them in good stead as they move ahead.
In the Indian corporate world in general, what more can be done to tap into the energy and creativity of young people?
That’s a topic very close to my heart. Companies and the top-brass should actively invest in better management processes, and commit wholeheartedly to good management practices. This can significantly improve productivity and creativity of the workforce.
Unfortunately, in India, in many industries, a certain kind of servitude and kowtowing is expected. The root of this expectation is probably an anthropological case study in itself! This behaviour, however, should completely go.
Young people should be assertive and bold in demanding better management processes. Professionally conducted one-on-ones and regular feedback cycles should become the norm. ‘How to give feedback’ and ‘how to take feedback’ is a key skill to pick up.
At the end of the day, all professional relationships are contractual. And, hence adhering to a well-defined ‘code of conduct’ at work is critical. Contracts are sacrosanct.
These are all valuable skills that make a difference to the workplace outcomes in terms of productivity, creativity, longevity and workplace happiness. Gen-Z’ers have an opportunity to make a real difference. They should ask for better standards. For women, this becomes all the more paramount.
As a young woman, what kind of experiences shaped your worldview about workplace culture, and is that in some way related to the world you are doing now?
There are so few women in the workforce in India today that, as a young woman, if you do well, you do get noticed and rewarded. I was noticed and rewarded often and I am tremendously grateful for that. I also have numerous stories of people taking me under their wing and helping me out, and many continue to do so. That’s a big positive!
I am, however, driven more by the larger landscape. We over-index on women dropping out of the workforce in their mid-30s for the sake of building their families, but the real problem lies at the starting line. Women don’t enter the workplace to begin with.
Take STEM, for example. According to UN data, India has the highest number of female STEM graduates in the world but only 14 percent of them transfer into the workforce. There is a massive problem at the entry level that’s being ignored.
Which is why we do the work we do. We believe that aspiration needs to be seeded early on and the work needs to begin early so we can make a difference to the entry point, which will have a massive trickle-down effect.
Will these fellowships be annual events?
Yes! We want to institutionalise them. The whole thing is aspirational without being intimidating and we want to build it that way. We are delighted by the support we have from outstanding leaders/advisors and progressive organisations. We want to change how adolescent girls prepare to enter University and beyond, and to shape the way they see and pursue possibilities. We also want to shape how they collaborate with and work with each other along the way.
VARSHA’S RECOMMENDED READING
I recommend Ben Horowitz’s The Hard Thing About Hard Things, a game-changing book on management, and Reid Hoffman’s The Alliance on reframing workplace relationships in a way that makes sense to millennials and Gen-Z.
Broad Band by Claire L. Evans is a compulsory reading for everyone in computer science and STEM in general. She talks about the pioneers who worked on building blocks of the internet as we know today, and many of them are spectacular women. These scientists don’t get the recognition they deserve. The book also didn’t take off as much as one would have liked to see. Ironically, I picked up my copy from a pile of discarded books at the New Yorker’s offices in NYC.
I was also inspired by Dr Deepa Narayan must-read book Chup: Breaking the Silence About India’s Women (Juggernaut, 2018). She provides an anthropological vantage point from where we can comprehend the data on women’s workforce participation we see today and why it pans out the way it does in India.First published in eShe magazine