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People in India always support genuine cause: Ruha Shadab

Atir Khan

Ruha Shadab acquired a degree in medicine from the Lady Harding Medical College, New Delhi, before joining Harvard University for higher studies. She along with her team at Ledby Foundation are working towards empowering Indian Muslim women to be gainfully employed and become independent. Awaz-The Voice Editor-in-Chief Atir Khan spoke to her about her work. Excerpts:

What was the intent behind starting Ledby Foundation?

There were many reasons why we started Ledby Foundation. The primary reason was the lack of Muslim women in the offices that I had worked in. Also, the overall socioeconomic indicators of our community made me feel compelled to start this. But the story most close to my heart is of my mother, who, I think is one of the most intelligent people that I know. Many people like her are there in a community who weren’t able to realize their intellect and develop their professional dreams that they were suitable for.

So that was something added to me as I started my early career and then went on to do better at Harvard. But I got time to think about what I want to do with my life, and what kind of social impact I want to create. And I always knew that I wanted to create a social impact for the Muslim community, especially for women. As I spent more time thinking about what I could do for the community I ended up on the idea of professional empowerment of Indian Muslim women and supporting them in the workforce.

Sky was the limit for you at Harvard; you could have chosen to work in any other field. Why did you choose to do what you’re doing?

Even my medical background of becoming a doctor had to do with creating social impact. That was my goal from the beginning. The progression from doing medicine to doing global health to working on policy and helping improve Indian society has just been a natural transition to what I think can have the most impact. And as to why Muslim women, it is it is one of my core identities there is a strong need, and if we want to do it, who else will? I remember when I was 4-year-old I used to tell my mother that I wanted to go to Africa to help people who were suffering from poverty and hunger.

And she said why don’t you first fix your own backyard? There is so much that needs to be done in India, so much that needs to be done in our community. So, that made me pause and reflect and that’s what brought me here.

 Ruha Shadab

Many people must be asking you why you only choose to work to empower Muslim women. Why not others?

Yes, there have been all combinations of questions. Why Muslim women? Why not Muslim men? Why not Hindu women, and X, Y, Z combination? Right. The truth is that I think of this almost from a doctor’s mindset. So, what is the issue that you’re trying to solve? The issue that we’re trying to solve is underemployment, the lack of job opportunities, and the lack of converting your education into employment.

As a Muslim woman, somebody might say, why don’t you work for the education and employment of women from other communities in India? Why only focus on Muslim women? And that’s true. India has one of the lowest female labor force participation rates in the world. And my answer to that is to think of it as seeing two patients in your clinic.

If both patients show up you can give them paracetamol. But as a doctor, I’m also going to run diagnostic tests on them and try to understand what is the underlying cause, what is the underlying disease that they have and then give them specific treatment.

One might have a bacterial infection; one might have a viral infection. Under different segments, different combinations of communities might be suffering from some of the macro issues we have in India with unemployment and job availability. But the reason is that they are not able to realize those opportunities or those unknown opportunities before us.

Ruha Shadab (extreme right) with her team members

So, the root causes differ. And then building on this, you don’t have targeted interventions focused on these root causes. You will not be able to meaningfully address them and solve them. You need to have at least focused approaches to solving that unique set of root causes that is hindering them from getting full participation in India’s workforce.

The constitution of your Ledby foundation is quite interesting. Your team members are Hindu and you have people from other faiths for the cause of empowering Muslim women. Isn’t it great? In today’s world where every community is looking inwards and they’re busy thinking about themselves?

It’s very validating. My chief operating officer is not from the Muslim community. 20% of our 120 advisers and residents are non-Muslims. 100 or 500 of our volunteers are non-Muslims. And that just goes to show that the narrative that we are told about our country and our brethren in the country is not entirely true.

If you put your head, you will be surprised to see how many people are willing to stand up and support you. And I think that is what this shows. It also shows that supporting Indian Muslim women is not just important if you are an Indian Muslim woman, but it is in the interest of every Muslim every woman, and every Indian to ensure that this unity can realize its dreams today.

Absolutely. Very important point. You know, it’s the intent and the good leadership, that you have, these are the things that matter the most. And when reach out to people irrespective of their faiths people come and support you. You have to have a good cause; people are always there to support you. Tell us more about your programs at Ledby Foundation.

Sure. So, our programs are completely virtual fellowships that we offer to Muslim women who are either in college or in the early stages of their careers think of it as if you are 18 to 20 years old and an Indian Muslim woman, then getting into one of the best professional development programs is probably in your best interest to expedite your professional career. There are several components to it. So, one component is online training programs that help you with, your interpersonal skills, your communication skills, and some of the basics of being able to find jobs, reach out to people, submit an excellent CV, and do interview preps. Another workshop modules look at improving your negotiation skills. Our negotiation curriculum is developed in conjunction with Harvard professors who interviewed Indian women and developed case studies with Indian Muslim women as protagonists that we use to teach negotiations to our fellows. And then the third part, which is often cited as one of the long-lasting effects of the fellowships is our mentorship program. And our mentorship program is a 360-degree framework so each young Muslim woman who joins gets mentored. And residents that I mentioned earlier are senior women executives.

The other aspect of the mentorship program is that each Muslim woman has to then have sessions with people in her class. And I would just say women are from across India. So, we have a very diverse group, even though we say Muslim women, it’s a very diverse Muslim women group and we get to speak to each other. The last part of this mentorship program is that our fellows are also young, Hindu and Muslim girls in school who coached over six months. So, there are these workshops that operate in skills on how to find a job workshops and negotiation and this mentorship framework over six months.

Ruha Shadab with the team of Ledby Foundation at a function

That’s amazing. Tell us how you make these students or candidates job-ready.

Our fellowship is very much about teaching people how to fish rather than giving them fish. So, we teach them how to identify the right opportunity, how to network with folks, and how to help them with an interview. And then we also have them practice interviews with us. They have access to facilitators, who help practice as you continue to progress.

So who are your stakeholders? Of course, the students, then you have the policymakers who are others you reach out to?

So, we try to bridge that supply-demand gap. We are creating a supply of highly skilled professional Indian Muslim women. And then we’re also making sure that there is a demand from companies to intentionally recruit and create a diverse workforce within their organizations and then really look to bridge them by sharing recipes of our fellows and identifying companies that want to promote religious inclusion in India.

What is the kind of feedback you get from, say, policymakers and the corporate world when you approach them with this kind of information?

So, we usually try to approach them from a very fact-based point of view. We also research to identify what are the barriers to entry and retention of Muslim women in India’s workforce. The things that we conduct help a lot of companies see through a fresh perspective. So even if you educate Muslim women, that does not necessarily mean they have the same chances at employment. The company officials tell us that they never thought about this we were never made to confront this reality. So, we meet them just to reflect. Then the next step is to make them act.

Ruha Shadab with a support group of her Foundation

So what kind of support and responses you’re getting from, say, people that you’re reaching out to?

Well, overall, it’s been positive. People are interested in understanding what we do, supporting us in even exploring the talent pool that we are creating. And we have several stories of women who’ve gotten recruited through our own pipeline to companies.

That’s wonderful. And there must be very very bright candidates you come across as we see there is an awareness even in small towns for pursuing higher education.

That’s true. There is a very strong drive and fire within the women that we meet. And we try to move more away from urban centers.

Right now, we are more focused on urban centers and ensure that we are able to move farther away from that in the future. And yes, we do see that. See, I think in addition to being pleasantly surprised at how many people from outside of the Muslim community are willing to help us, and other learning and very positive insights.

I’m sure that you inspired a lot of Muslim girls, you’re a big success story from India, an Indian who’s doing so well. Do you also think that we need to convey more such success stories to these aspiring girls to inspire them?

Absolutely. And I think what helped was having people believe in me, and that’s what we’re trying to do is helping or making more Muslim women feel that they are heard and that somebody believes in their talent.

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You’re doing deep thinking and you’re working in this field, what would be your appeal to the government and the corporate sector for improving the employability chances of Indian Muslim women?

My appeal would be to have intentionality behind getting more Muslim women into the workforce. The truth is that we shy away from talking about religious inclusion in India, which is strange. Because so much of our lived reality is a function of our religious identity. There is no distinction between the personal, the political, and the professional and it is incorrect to create these artificial distinctions.

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