When applying to Harvard, Dr Ruha Sadab was appalled at the lack of Muslim women whom she could turn to for recommendations. What started off as a disturbing observation has now flowered into an organization that is guiding thousands of Muslim women toward self-emancipation. A doctor turned public health professional turned social entrepreneur, Dr Shadab founded the Led By Foundation last year to provide dedicated guidance and mentorship to young Muslim women in India. News18 spoke to Dr Shadab on the occasion of Women’s Day 2021 about empowering women from minority communities, and the need to instill women with the agency to create change.
You have started the Led By Foundation, a social enterprise that provides mentorship to young Muslim women, at Harvard. Tell me more about the endeavour, when it was started, and what it aims to do.
Led By Foundation is a social enterprise and we are working toward the professional development of young, college-going, Muslim women in India with the goal of increasing the representation of Indian Muslim women – which is currently one percent or so – to match its size of their population. Led By was incubated at Harvard but isn’t currently housed there. It was started when I was pursuing my master’s at Harvard on a scholarship.
I was at a two-year program called the Masters in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. After having finished my MBBS, I worked as a general physician, as a public health professional at the Clinton Health Access initiative, and then, at NITI Aayog. After which, I came to Harvard University for a two-year Masters in Public Policy. For my application essays to Harvard, I wrote about the two things I’m very passionate about – public healthcare and the underserved community of Muslim women. My main focus was how to improve the access to public healthcare for Muslim women. However, while reaching out to my fantastic mentors to write my letters of recommendation, I thought the stark absence of senior professionals who are Indian Muslim women. In my second year, I got the opportunity to apply for a very sought-after social enterprise incubator at Harvard. I worked really hard and got selected in April 2019. Then there was no looking back. Apart from studying and working part-time at Yale, apart from co-chairing the India Conference at Harvard, I was also working on incubating Led By. And lo and behold, in 2020, we had our first summer fellowship happen in September 2020 after a four-month co-curricular intensive rigorous program. In its course, these women were trained in negotiations by people working at Harvard. We had dozens of advisers-in-residence including senior women executives who host office hours for our fellows.
We have over 150 women executives from more than ten countries who coach, mentor and guide. We will also be getting executive coaching from this year. So Led By has three arms – Workshops, a 360-degree advisory framework where you get mentored by executives, you get mentored by peers, and younger Muslim women as well, and executive coaching.
What inspired you to come up with the foundation? How have your personal experiences shaped the initiative and the work that you do?
It happened at the time when I was applying for Harvard. The application has three components – GMAT scores, a number of essays you need to write, and three letters of recommendation. I had a GMAT score in the 98th percentile, and my essays were ready. The only thing I needed were three letters of recommendation. So I went to my mentors – I have a few fantastic mentors who guided me through this transition from clinical practice to public health and public policy. I got selected at Harvard through their recommendation letters. But during the time, it was quite evident to me, that all my references were written by men. None by women. And hence, no Muslim women. Which made me wonder, where are these 100 million Muslim women in India? Why have they not been able to reach places of professional excellence and be role models at an amount that is proportional to their population? That is what I thought about for my first year at Harvard.
A second factor that inspired Led By, I would say, was my transition as a religious majority in Saudi to a religious minority in India. It made me reflect on the experiences of some of my closest non-Muslim Indian friends in Saudi and I felt really empathetic. After I came to India, I realized that they were never able to celebrate their festivals comfortably there. And that made me realize how as part of the majority, we often don’t really know what the lives and realities of minorities are like. That’s why, although we are a minority in India, I feel that the issues that minorities are facing in India – and in this case, it’s an issue of education and employment, we need to solve these problems and we need to have conversations with people from outside of the community to support us in solving the problem. At Led By, we have found support from everybody across the panel when it comes to industries, states. Everybody has been supportive because they realize that for India to move forward and for its economic indicators, employment and education to improve, it is important to empower every single Indian. What we are trying to do at Led By is ensure that the underrepresented community of Muslim women is contributing 100 percent to the success story of our country.
What was the need for a platform such as this?
There is a lot of need for education and employment opportunities in India. However, to understand why these opportunities are lacking or why people are unable to access them, we need to find the root cause of problems faced by people in certain communities so that we can find a solution to them. We are trying to give specific, targeted interventions for a community that is so far underrepresented while leveraging all the resources we have. While we aim to improve the lives of Muslim women across India, I strongly believe it is the duty and responsibility of the entire nation. Or it should be. Hence, you’d notice that our experts, facilitators and young girls who come are from across the country.
Why did you think that Muslim women, in particular, were in need of mentorship?
I don’t think that Muslim women are in need of mentorship at the cost of someone else’s chance to get mentored. What we are trying to do is, suppose you have a paratha – I’m not saying I want a bigger piece of this paratha for Muslim women in India. I’m saying by unlocking the potential of Muslim women, you can increase the size of the paratha so that everyone can get equal and improved shares. Everybody needs mentorship. And why are we providing mentorship to Muslim women in particular? First, they have had no access to it so far. Second, they don’t have enough role models, third, they are incredibly underrepresented. Fourth, there are hardly any targeted intervention schemes for Muslim women. There is enough data to show that the community is lagging. And unless you focus, and create targeted interventions for underserved communities in India, you won’t see results. A targeted intervention will not only help the community but also help improve national numbers.
How many women have you helped with the program so far?
The fellowship itself that we run had 24 women last year and this year we are selecting 36 women from a pool of 1200 applications. And for our less intensive programs, we have worked for 5,000 women in less than a year.
What are your plans with the organization for the future and how do you plan to have an impact on policy measures that support women and in particular women from minority or disadvantaged communities?
We really want to be able to support every college-going Indian Muslim woman with three things – access, agency and avenue. Access means they get access to the right networks so they can find the right mentorships and sponsorships in their industry. In terms of avenues, we mean platforms where they can co-learn, engage and share to grow professionally. Agency means instilling the belief in Muslim women that they can succeed. Ultimately, helping women unlock their aptitudes, their ambitions, and their aspirations.
A larger goal for us would be to support communities that look at Led By and feel that this is a program that their community could use as well. We would love to create modules and contextualize the program for them. The final goal would be to increase the size of that paratha so that everyone gets more.
I love working on issues that are key challenges for Indians to unlock their potential. And I want to keep doing that every single day of my life.