When Simi Ahuja first moved to New York six years ago, she was impressed by the South Asian women professionals she met. But she noticed they lacked an independent community of their own to provide the resources required for leadership development and professional advancement.
“I thought there could be an opportunity for women within the South Asian community to shape and influence how we are perceived,” recalls Ahuja. “I felt it was even more important that South Asian women were presented as experts and advisors, just as their male counterparts had been for some time. An examination of the mainstream media and business platforms did not indicate this then.”
Sensing this void, Ahuja – a marketing and communications professional – decided to start the South Asian Women’s Leadership Forum (SAWLF) as a network for South Asian women to draw upon and actively contribute to.
Created in 2003, SAWLF is the first national, non-profit organisation dedicated to the advancement of South Asian women professionals. Based in New York City with chapters in Chicago and Washington, D.C., SAWLF serves as their business and networking platform. “Initially, we had a series of informal events and the response was strong,” says Ahuja. “We wanted to be able to capitalise on the experience of a few women in top roles and extend their knowledge to the growing number of South Asian women who have entered the US workplace in recent years. Our goal is to increase the number of women that occupy leadership roles within their organisations.”
Through a variety of activities like speaker’s bureau, monthly events, research and mentoring programmes as well as educational programmes and networking opportunities, SAWLF works to raise awareness and visibility for women in the marketplace and mainstream media. And all the good work is supported by corporate underwriting and event registration fees paid by members.
Congress – SAWLF’s signature event held last year in New York City (NYC) – turned out to be a successful conference that united more than 400 women professionals from all over the world to discuss the opportunities and challenges they face as they pursue their lives and careers. This year, too, the event will be held on March 15, at the global headquarters of Pricewaterhouse Coopers in NYC and will feature a large number of private and public sector women leaders.
“On so many occasions, I have benefited from conversations with our members and the insights of our speakers,” says Ahuja. “Their input has helped me to shape SAWLF and allowed us to forge ahead with new programmes and events that are timely.”
Sarika Sidhu is a South Asian professional who found herself inspired by the women she met at SAWLF. Sidhu, a Change Management Consultant at Pricewaterhouse Coopers in Chicago, felt that there was a lack of a South Asian networking group in the city. After learning about SAWLF and having detailed discussions with Ahuja, Sidhu decided to help begin SAWLF’s Chicago chapter, so that the women in the Midwest could benefit from the opportunities it had to offer.
“We had our first event two years ago and over 75 women were in attendance from various corporate, medical, legal and not-for-profit arenas,” recalls Sidhu. “The response has been great to the development of the Chicago chapter. We’ve had about three large events since then and are starting to have smaller, more focused, programmes aimed at some of the members’ needs and desires.”
Sidhu finds herself to have benefited immensely from SAWLF, both professionally and personally. “Being a member of SAWLF has provided me with not only great contacts and friendships across the country, but it has also given me insight into how far South Asian women can go in various corporate arenas, here in the United States,” she remarks. “Having heard women such as Padmasree Warrior (Chief Technology Officer of Cisco Systems) and Indra Nooyi (President and chief financial officer, PepsiCo) at SAWLF events has been an honour and a privilege that I might not have gained with any other organisation. I also think that being a part of the development of the Chicago chapter has provided me with leadership and networking skills that are difficult, if not impossible, to attain without actual experience.”
Today, SAWLF’s membership has grown to over 4,000 women professionals across the US, with members representing industries that include finance, media, healthcare and law. “Our participants are entrepreneurs, consultants, activists and advisors,” says Ahuja. “We actively survey our members and as a result have built a large repository of information that will benefit our members and corporate partners. For example, a growing segment of our members are women who were once active professionals and are now re-entering the workforce after an absence, but not necessarily returning to the same roles or careers they once held. They could stand to benefit from drawing upon the prior experience and advice of others in order to enter a completely new category.”
SAWLF’s plans for the year include creating new chapters as well as a series of educational and networking programmes. “Last year we began a new initiative, [email protected], which is designed to provide undergraduate women students access to young professionals as well as networking events, job shadowing and mentoring,” shares Ahuja. “The programme’s most interesting feature is the fact that some of our speakers are women who are just one to three years into their careers.” The concept behind this is to take advantage of the fact that these women are in the best position to counsel students because the transition from college to their careers is still fresh in their minds.
“We also wanted to create a platform where young professionals could hone their public speaking skills and could serve as mentors,” adds Ahuja. “Our belief at SAWLF is that women of all ages have something to share.”
(Courtesy: Women’s Feature Service)
By Ziana Qaiser