Geeta Poduval dons several hats. Apart from being entrepreneur, motivational speaker, actor, anchor and ex-government officer, her most significant role, she believes, has been as the Founder-Director of DRZYA (pronounced as drśya or Drishya, which in English means sight) – the only firm in India that brings differently-abled and unique performers from across the world together on one platform, for talks and workshops. Mumbai-based Poduval is also the mentor of We Are One Trust, a group of differently-abled artists. An ex CAG Senior Audit Officer, she now scouts for talent among specially-abled, trains them and provides them with a platform to perform and earn a livelihood.
In a conversation with SheThePeople.TV, Poduval talks about her exceptional professional journey, her drive to empower the differently-abled through DRZYA, how she embraces motherhood, and what it takes to be a woman in charge.
Following voluntary retirement from two-decade-long government service as a Senior Audit Officer with the Comptroller and Auditor General of India, you had a flourishing career in the entertainment industry. At what point did you feel the need to start DRZYA?
I was very clear that I will give twenty years of my life to government service when I joined in. In those years, as a gazetted audit officer, I was sent on a UN audit assignment, the audit of key government projects and departments. While I thoroughly loved every moment of it, I knew I had to move on to something else that would give me even more happiness.
In about one month of retirement life in 2014, I was chosen for a lead role in an offbeat Malayalam film Kandethal. This was followed by the second, Velli Velichathil. Parallel to several television stints and advertisements, I compered over 500 events in India and abroad. However, deep within, there was this restlessness. I was yet to find the purpose of my life.
One day, while compering an event in Mumbai, I came across a differently-abled performing group. Their amazing performance touched my core and I facilitated their performance in Oman too. Two years later, in 2016, I got a distress call from them for help and support. I reached out to them in New Delhi. I became their mentor and facilitated three events in Mumbai for them. Due to financial challenges, I put up the girls in my home and the boys in my friend’s home during the events. These events were a stupendous success and more importantly helped reinstate their confidence.
Being extremely active on social media, when I wrote about this, differently-abled from across the country began reaching out to me in the hope of similar support and mentoring. This was the turning point of my life.
My heart went out to those differently-abled who were not only grappling with their physical and mental state but also lack of guidance and opportunities. I, therefore, founded DRZYA. It’s been just a year and a half and we already have made a difference to over 150 differently-abled lives through mentoring, training, empanelment and performances, which led to contributing to their economic independence.
With DRZYA being the only organisation in India that gives the differently-abled a stage to showcase their skills and talent, what are the challenges you faced, or still face, in your journey?
Challenges were and are numerous and endless. When I started out, the first challenge was venturing into social entrepreneurship without knowing anything about the process.
Finance was a huge challenge as I had only my government pension to support my own livelihood. Third, the fact that there were many organisations in this space, but I had to create something unique and extraordinary – a platform for the differently-abled – be it performance, training, mentoring, offering emotional support, making them feel appreciated alongside helping them earn in the process. I also realised that this would be possible only when we could offer them a chance to learn, get inspired, trained in soft skills, entertained and create a new perspective about their own lives, too.
The fourth challenge is the measure of acceptance by society. A differently-abled doing something for differently-abled is considered normal. But an abled person working for the differently-abled is viewed with suspicion by both – the differently-abled and the society. This was easy for me to overcome through trust and clarity of intention.
I personally connect with my mentees, visit their homes, create an office staff that is equally empathetic. I want them to stand in front of the society with dignity and not seek sympathy. So, I am very firm with my mentoring and training styles. The result is that all the mentees who have worked with me till date consider me like their mother.
The last challenge is getting work. Companies and organisations are still not very open to accepting the professional services of the differently-abled. They tend to slot it in CSR for the wrong reasons. Abroad, differently-abled entertainers are considered as professional as the abled. India is still not open in this regard. I face numerous rejections every other day but each rejection eggs me to strive harder and believe stronger.
Right from childhood, my circumstances have taught me that when in doubt – go for it. If you succeed great, if you fail it gives you an opportunity to introspect and change your strategies.
DRZYA has on its platform Guinness world record holder for the most number of spins in a minute on a wheelchair, Gulshan Kumar, and para National Taekwondo champion, Gulfam Ahmed. How do you think we can give them more platforms to shine?
We also have many more such national and international achievers on our platform such as Karamjyoti Dalal – world ranking number three in Paralympian sports, then Swapnil Patil – a visually challenged but MBA topper, an engineer and an HR Professional and many more.
The society has to open up. Corporates should clear their mindset and be open to differently-abled professional offerings in terms of training, motivational sessions, entertainment and not bracket these offerings into just CSR offerings. They should be open to considering and accepting the professional services offered by organisations like DRZYA. There has to be a body that monitors the organisations that operate in this space.
In what ways do you believe our country can strive towards inclusion and, at the same time, build empathy and responsibility towards the differently-abled?
There must be regulations ensuring that differently-abled professional offerings are not viewed with sympathy but given equal opportunity in competition. We also need a national committee comprising prominent people closely associated with the differently-abled space which will address these issues in individual and scattered spaces, act as a bridge towards the same and ensure that the corporate responsibility in this direction is not just lip service but implemented in true letter and spirit.
What is your vision as a mentor of a differently-abled wheelchair performance group, We Are One?
When I got associated with We Are One, they were looking for support, guidance and help. It has been two years now. In these two years, we have been together through thick and thin. But today I can say with all humility that my first batch of differently-abled children have grown up and flown out of the nest to build a world of their own. I am still around as and when they need me, and they continue to be an important part of my events across India.
What is your vision when it comes to uplifting the youth and inspiring them?
It is my unshakeable belief that the youth is definitely the backbone in the sustainable progress of the society. And, I strongly feel that not enough is being invested in building this national resource in terms of their mental and physical growth and skill-building.
I have spoken to many educational institutions on this aspect and was disheartened to learn that while they are willing to spend on brand building through celebrities, they, however, are not willing to spend even half of it on sessions and activities targeted at building emotional intelligence and empathy among students which can never be effectively imparted through technology.
How important do you think it is for young girls to see women in positions of leadership?
About time, it is very important. There is still a lack of acceptance of women being in positions of power. While working in the government services, my willingness to accept responsibilities that came with my post as an audit officer viz. travelling to perform duties inside and outside India, conducting audit meetings etc. was considered being over-ambitious. Then, after retirement, when I acted in films, people started perceiving me as a fame-hungry person. Thereafter, when I started DRZYA as a social entrepreneurial venture, even during official meetings I often encounter men who find it difficult to talk business with women.
Tell us about your experience with motherhood?
Being a mother definitely changes a woman’s life. One learns a lot right from the time one carries a child in a womb till one’s death. The moment a woman becomes a mother, she develops qualities that she herself did not know existed within her. I’ve become more patient, analytical, responsible. I have always instilled in my son a sense of responsibility towards the dignity of women.
Today, I am a mother to many apart from my biological son. All of them, every day, are enhancing in me my responsibility towards them, empathy, compassion and undiluted love. Having said that, being a mother should not be an end to being a woman in one’s own right.
As a mompreneur, what is that one tip for a healthy work-life balance?
Me-time. It is very important to take periodic breaks and spend time with yourself every day – be it introspection time, pursuing hobbies, travelling, walking or pampering oneself.
This guilt-free me-time is very important for mental, physical and relational well-being of a woman.
What have been the biggest influences in your life?
I hope my answer to this question will help a lot of women out there. Right from childhood, I have learnt to fight debilitating circumstances myself and emerged either a survivor or a victor. In fact, my negative circumstances helped me be what I am today. While my parents strived to make ends meet, I developed my own values, principles and support system. I learnt the battle of survival from a very young age and it helped me to never depend on anyone for moral, financial or mental support.
What do you feel about stigmas attached to working mothers?
Both men and women are responsible for this stigma. Male children of today will be tomorrow’s men who scoff at the advancement of working women, and female children of today will be women tomorrow who will stop their daughters and daughters-in-law from daring to dream big. This needs to be curbed right at a young age.
We project an image of sacrifice in our children’s minds who in turn expect the same from women in their lives when they grow up. Corporates are doing their bit by giving work from home options, crèche at the work-place, etc. But, the fact that people are scared to hire women due to their potential situations like marriage, pregnancy and motherhood is disturbing. This will only improve by talking about it and practicing inclusion.
What’s your advice to mothers pursuing entrepreneurship?
Mothers should stop feeling guilty about being ambitious. Being a mother does not mean the end of your dreams and aspirations. Your children are watching you, set the right example for them to follow when they grow up. I would also recommend being your own support system. Also, know that finding ways to work around your circumstances helps you professionally too.
Image Credit: Geeta Poduval