Bringing in change is never easy. Ask Preethi Herman, Country Lead & Campaigns Director for India for Change.org. Beginnings in the sleepy town of Gudalur in Tamil Nadu meant that she had to rise above gender bias to get ahead in life. Today at the helm of affairs for the Indian chapter of the world's largest online petition platform, she is confident that positive change is possible once people are given a platform to register complaints and protest against injustice.
So over to Preethi as she talks about her small town struggles and her belief in the idea of leadership.
I grew up as the only girl among 25 boys in the hostel run by my mother
Growing up in a small town has its own set of challenges
A middle class family in a small town called Gudalur (near Ooty), a very conservative community, pressures of living upto religious, educational and cultural expectations - pretty much sums up my ‘growing up’.
My mother used to run a hostel and I grew up as the only girl among 25 boys in this hostel. Be it in school, hostel or the community around me, I was constantly reminded that girls don’t do certain things or behave in certain ways. I remember being ‘stubborn’ and standing my ground. I got my way and won sometimes, but lost and was ridiculed many more times.
I honestly don’t think I had ‘a moment’ that made me realise I wanted to do something for society. I knew that I was not going to fit into the traditional role that was expected out of me as a woman. Living with these boys, who were good friends of mine, and having to fight them to be an equal, helped my ‘stubbornness’ in challenging the status quo and pushing boundaries.
Right after college, I spent months with Tribal communities in Orissa and Dalit communities in North Karnataka. I was fascinated to see women and children understanding problems so differently than me, and finding solutions that were so ingenious. Those humbling moments taught me that you can’t have one solution, or one person or organisation providing solutions for the world. Real change happens when there are many solutions to the myriad problems we have.
Since then, I have been on the quest to figure out ways to provide people the opportunity to create change. Change.org has been a great step in that journey. I have also co-founded Campaign Academy to help interested individuals to learn or strengthen their social change campaigning skills.
The impact of change.org on my life
It has been a humbling process to be leading the work that has already empowered more than 40 lakh people and is geared to reach crores. It also has been very gratifying to see regular citizens challenge strong power structures, get heard, engage in issues that concern them and change it if there is a problem.
I see thousands of petitions being started every month on a huge range of issues (sometimes petitions that have opposing views) powerful stories, strong petition starters, decision makers engaging issues and citizen action at its best. It is quite an honour to be able to be part right in the middle of all of this.
I live my passion through the work I do. It has been a fulfilling experience to work with some extraordinary people both within the company and the people who interact with the site every day through petitions they start or support.
"I specifically draw my inspiration from regular women who start petitions"
Working with Change.org is empowering
Working with some strong women leaders within the company, and strong women who are petition starters is very empowering.
I specifically draw my inspiration from regular women who start petitions, become change-makers and leaders pushing for a specific change, like Pavithra Shetty who was driven by the urge to create a safe environment for our children in schools and single-handedly drove her campaign to victory. Then there are women like Tejaswini Naik, whose petitions impressed upon two big corporates to do responsible business, or Masooma Ranalvi, a survivor of Female Genital Mutilation, who is crusading on Change.org to get the Indian government to end the horrific practice. Their leadership and strength is my daily dose of empowerment and inspiration.
I am positive that the petition on the abolition of Female Genital Mutilation will bring about change.
This campaign is a reinforcement of the potential of a platform like change.org and the reason I do what I do. Here is an issue that was hardly recognised and forcefully hushed up including in India. This is now being confronted by a group of women, all of them survivors, in ways that would have never been possible even 5 years ago. They started petitions on Change.org, organised themselves into communities, and started speaking out - risking social ostracization.
This has now turned into a global movement. Gambia banned FGM. Australia reinforced its ban just recently and now it is India’s turn to take this issue seriously. I am in awe of these brave women and I can’t wait to see them win this campaign and get FGM abolished.
Being a woman at the top has it's challenges
I consider it a privilege to be able to work in a company that imbibes feminism as an important part of work culture. I have drawn a lot of strength and support from it. Having said that, in my journey to becoming a leader, I have encountered two kinds of men and women - sexists and sexists.
The first set of sexists are very open about it, have a problem with women in leadership and expect women to play very conventional roles, not speak up too much or even having an opinion. Then there are the sexists who like to call themselves new age, and portray an image of being comfortable with women leaders when they are not. Their approach to these women leaders is driven by insecurity, and especially feel challenged by women being very independent and not wanting to be protected by them.
Overall, my challenges were no different from what each woman faces. The biggest one for me was how people automatically assume women are weak leaders unless they mirror a male approach to it.
My leadership mantra
- Excellence, Passion and Love for your work and your team.
- Building a team that functions based on a core set of values
- Acknowledging that every individual is a leader in their own way and building on their strengths instead of trying to box them entirely into job descriptions or stereotypes.
I have encountered two kinds of men and women - regular sexists and new-age sexists.
Advice to the young women who want to participate in bringing about change in society
This is not an advice as much as it is a reflection. There are a million things within our culture and our country that remind us every day that we can’t or shouldn’t. It is very easy to lose our passion and inner voice in this cacophony. It took me a while, but when I finally blocked those discouraging voices around me and decided to go after my dreams, my life changed forever.
The situation when every woman in this country is taking charge of her life and driving towards her dream would mean that we have created the largest social change history, ever!