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Nirmala Menon: Women Creating Impact

Nirmala Menon, over an interesting career spanning 40 years, has made a mark in the field of Diversity and Inclusion. In fact, she has been one of the pioneers in this space in India.

In this interview she shares her journey as an entrepreneur in this niche space, talks about persevering through multiple sabbaticals and being passionate about a cause that truly matters.

1. Tell us a bit about your career journey, especially Interweave

Been a long journey of almost 4 decades! Starting from a time where if you were late to work by 15 minutes you could lose a half-day’s casual leave to entirely working from home, my generation of professionals have been the fortunate ones who have really seen the workplace evolve so dramatically over the years.

My career has also been an interesting mix of diverse experiences traversing the public sector, private sector and a large trans-national company. I was also someone who has taken a couple of serious career breaks and come back in. The first break was a sabbatical of 3 years to do an additional Masters in the USA and later a longer one of 6 years to start a family! As you might imagine, it wasn’t an easy entry back in the late 90’s. Not only were companies reluctant to take me on, but also I was very tentative, lacking in confidence and unsure of myself. Microland gave me my first break where I had a short stint, and then moved to IBM. It is at IBM where I was part of their Global Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) team that I first engaged with this domain seriously. I travelled to different countries spanning from the US and Mexico to Japan as an internal consultant inculcating IBM's D&I processes in these countries. This is also the time when I learned how to work-from-home, be part of global teams and how to consult--influence and motivate people to explore behavioural changes in themselves and those around them. When the constant travel and being away from my daughter started to be an issue with me, I left IBM and started Interweave. That was 13 years ago, and very few in Indian corporate sector was seriously talking the D&I language. So in many ways Interweave is one of the first companies to exclusively focus on this space in India.

Starting Interweave is clearly a milestone in multiple ways. Moving away from the safety net of a predictable pay check to charting out your own path in a yet-to-be-appreciated area of work was a tough decision. When we declared ourselves to be an organization focused exclusively on Inclusion Solutions for companies at a time when India was not speaking the language, it seemed like too far-fetched an idea. However, having seen the importance of the subject at a global level in my stint at IBM, I realized it had potential and pursued the idea. Was an extremely difficult phase of adjusting – when you are in an organization, your business card gives you a direct entry, but as an entrepreneur, you are looking at building everything from scratch and you can rely on nothing but the value you can create for the client. And, as a start-up with no stories to share, it was tough to build the brand and its credibility. You have to put all of your ego aside and succeed only on the basis of your knowledge, hard work and quality of service. The range of experiences and the entire gamut of attitudes one had to deal with was a truly transformational experience.

It was difficult to run a business financially with the only focus being D&I, and though we were compelled and tempted many a time to look at other areas, we stayed true to the strategy of being an exclusive niche player and I think it paid off in the long run. In the last 13 years, as a team we have built an organization with strong credibility, having some exceptional professionals with us and helped marquee clients across all industries and sectors to move the needle on their D&I journey. We also signed up some great partnerships with globally renowned organizations like the UN Women, Catalyst Inc and DTUI during this period.

2. Share with us the impact you are making in the areas of Gender Diversity

While Gender Diversity has its own challenges within the overall D&I spectrum, it is fundamentally part of the basic issue of respect, equity and Inclusion. So our efforts have been in addressing this from both ends...create an overall climate of Inclusion, and also work specifically on gender issues, not just in the binary sense of the term but also in the LGBTQ+ space.

And in this journey we work with the leadership teams, peer groups and most importantly the women themselves. Working with women are important as the change has to start from within us many a time. We need to acknowledge the legitimacy of our need for equality, our need for equal opportunities and also some of our unique needs specific to women because of biological or socio-cultural reasons. So we try to impact the whole, rather than only parts of it. We help organizations understand the issue, diagnose their context, work out a holistic roadmap and help them implement it. We also have developed interventions exclusively for women which involve not only workshop sessions but also mentoring, coaching etc.

We feel deeply satisfied about having developed the market for the D& I space in India. It is a buzz word now and on every leader’s agenda but it wasn’t so when we started talking of it 14 yrs ago.

3. What are your views on ways in which leadership gender parity can be achieved faster?

Gender Parity in leadership is something beyond a Leadership issue within organizations. It is an issue of how we view gender roles at a societal level. So while we can create impact at an organizational level, which in many ways we have, it is not enough and not sustainable unless there is accompanying social change. Having said that, we have an opportunity that organizational changes are good catalysts for social changes as well, especially at leadership level. It is very visible, very aspirational. So to achieve Leadership Gender Parity faster, we need to do a few things consciously: implement the already existing laws in the spirit of it like women on the boards, showcase and project women leaders in media and public forums, create mentoring and training opportunities for women, ensure pay parity across the gender divide, support and nurture women-led businesses etc and work across organizations, the marketplace and the community.

4. What's the way forward and what are the next big ideas in the field of diversity as per you.

The ideas probably would remain the same as we still have miles to go with what we have already been working with...we are nowhere near exhausting them. We need to first ensure that the initiatives that are already in place are executed well. India has brought in a number of new laws to enable better inclusion. Companies must implement them in the true spirit of it rather than just meeting statutory requirements.

The pandemic has redefined and enhanced our need and understanding of why diversity and inclusion is vital not just for organizations but for nations even. The pandemic has made us see what it means to be a global village and we are understanding the need of coming together as one. Unity in diversity is something we all are experiencing in the backdrop of the life-threatening environment that has been created by Covid 19. Our inter-dependencies and a planet and the fact that we cannot succeed in isolation is a truth we have learned. Therefore, the big focus for us as we move forward is to look at Inclusion across the board. Be it in schools, workplaces, public institutions or communities, building inclusive mindsets and societies is our only hope for sustainable growth.

The focus for diversity firms will continue to be varied, be it advancing the cause of employee & especially leadership gender diversity, focusing on anti-harassment programmes at the workplace, overcoming age-based discrimination or that due to disability, racial background or sexual preferences. All of these will continue to fill up the D&I work landscape as none of these prevailing problems have been resolved completely.

In addition to this, I see neuro-diversity and emotional wellness emerge as new focus areas in this space. After all, if someone is in emotional turmoil, it impacts their ability at work and not noticing this can lead to their exclusion at the workplace. So this surely is something that has come to the fore as a current and future requirement.

Thanks Nirmala, for sharing your thoughts with us. We wish you continued success!

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