For over a decade — ever since it was institutionalized thanks to progressive male leaders of AAPI and indefatigable women activists like Dr. Kalpalatha ‘Kay’ Guntupalli, a professor at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, who was AAPI’s first woman president in 1998 — the Women’s Forum has been one of the most popular features at AAPI’s annual conventions.
The ballrooms where these forums are held have drawn standing room only audiences, including scores of men, thanks to regular star power of some Bollywood starlet or icons of yesteryear like Hema Malini or Rekha, who have always, sometimes contrary to expectations, honed in on substantive women issues and spoken truth to power.
This year too, at AAPI’s 37th annual convention in Atlanta, the women’s forum was no exception, with the star attraction being Preity Zinta, who did not disappoint, exhorting the women physicians and the other women in the audience, including several Generation X’ers and millennials, never to be subservient, obsequious or play second fiddle to their male counterparts, and always in the words made famous by Facebook Sheryl Sandberg’s book title, never fear to "Lean In."
She acknowledged that “I have to work doubly hard in Bollywood,” and said still, “Men have lots of freedom and can have their way,” and if you let them, “Women had to be confined to toe the line always.”
But, she said, there was absolutely no reason to do so, and pointing to her fellow women panelists, said all of them had excelled in their respective professions and fields of endeavor and could not only hold their own against any men in their fields and then some, but also leave them in awe “of all of our achievements.”
Besides Zinta, who delivered the keynote, the panel comprised Archana Kochar. And international designer, who promotes India and Indian-ness through fashion, India’s Consul General in Atlanta, Ambassador Swati Kulkarni, a physician turned diplomat; Aparna Bhattacharya, founder and president of Raksha, who has won innumerable awards and accolades for her relentless community and social service; Malini Moorthy, vice president of Medtronics; and Dr. Ila Shah, a physician and longtime AAPI Leader, who with her husband, Dr. Vinod ‘Vinny’ Shah, a former AAPI president, built one of the most successful medical practices in St. Mary’s County in Maryland, with several specialties, at a time when the County was underserved with hardly more than a couple of primary care physicians to meet the health care needs of this rural community.
In her welcome remarks, Dr. Asha Parikh, chairwoman of the Women’s Forum, said, “There is a need for empowerment of women, which means women should be respected at home, at work and in the larger society.”
She said that thanks to women leaders and women activists within the organization, who had fought for their rights and helped along by progressive male leaders within the organization, the Women’s Forum was now an integral part of the AAPI conventions and also at the AAPI initiated and organized Global Healthcare Summit held annually in various major cities in India.
Parikh said, “Not only has it evolved over the years, today it’s one of the much sought after events, and we’ve always been privileged to host distinguished panelists at the Forum.
“The Women’s Forum is where successful and powerful women come and share their life’s dreams, challenges and in turn help empower and inspire other women. Today’s Forum is about how career changes by women affect t them and the larger society,” she said.
Dr. Udaya Shivangi, another driving force behind the AAPI Women’s Forum for several years, and now its vice chair, then led the panelists to a lively discussion on ways how career changes affect women and how itis the inspiration for leading successful career lives, when they don’t let initial failures or challenges to make them throw in the towel, which in most professions and industries is still a man’s world.
With her quick-fire and insightful questions, Shivangi was able to bring out the best from the panelists, with Zinta describing how through sheer hard work, perseverance and zeroing on her most viable talents she was not only able to succeed as an actress in Bollywood, but across a large canvas incorporating Hindi, Telugu, Punjabi, and English language films, but also achieve tangible goals as an entrepreneur.
In her easy-going and free-flowing interaction with the moderator, fellow panelists and the audience, she described her metamorphosis from Bollywood actress to entrepreneur, including owning cricket teams.
But she said, “In a developing country like India,” there are no short-cuts and everything that successful women have achieved, whether it be in Bollywood or in business or in specialized professions, “have been only thanks to working really hard, doubly hard—that’s been the key to our success.”
Zinta said it was a no-brainer that women have to be paid equal wages even as they as accorded “equal respect,” and called on the men to make sure that “women can walk shoulder to shoulder” with them, arguing that patriarchal mindset among men “continues to be the biggest challenge we face.”
She also said that education of women is critical and the need of the hour. “In fact, education helps to highlight a woman’s strength and how much she can do to better the life of her children.”
Zinta said that working toward empowering each and every woman financially, socially, educationally, so that she can be independent,” should be a sine quo non of all women who have achieved success and those who have succeeded because of their own mentors and those who helped them along the way. “I believe that woman empowerment means financial independence and self-reliance for women.”
While reiterating that there’s no denying that “women have achieved so much,” she said, “We still have a long way to go. A woman has to realize her own potential and strength as an equal member of society, and this can come only through empowerment.”
Zinta said, “Empowerment is also about women realizing that they should embrace change. Creating awareness is so important, drawing public attention to instances of injustices towards women.”
Then to peals of laughter and applause from the older generation in the audience, obviously as a nudge to career women who may be putting off marriage and starting a family, she said, “My biggest change in life is being married and I love it and that's the best change that has ever happened in my life.”
Bhattacharya shared with the audience her own advocacy role she and RAKSHA, working with women are doing in the state of Georgia and other southern states.
Condemning violence against women as “utterly shameful,” for which there should be “zero tolerance,” she bemoaned the prevalence of violence against women as not just exclusive to certain societies or certain countries, but as“a global phenomenon,” and stressed for the need “for education towards gender sensitization.”
Bhattacharya recalled, “I started as a volunteer and was working with survivors and wanted to help victims of crime in my community. Breaking the silence of talking about violence and able to talk about it and empower those silently suffering has been the biggest challenge — getting to communicate and become aware of working with the administration to get the resources and help someone get services and break the barriers — to move forward on the initiatives we atr RAKSHA are committed to work on.”
“The biggest challenge is to keep fighting. Women need to support each other and applaud each other’s victory. If you are not doing it no one is going to do it for yourself,” she added.
Moorthy, while acknowledging that there is discrimination in the business world, noted that in choosing lead positions and when it comes to payments, men are always preferred over women.
But she said, “We have come a long way. Changes are taking place. There are questions raised when such practices are seen happening.”
Moorthy called upon “more people to speak out against any type of discrimination.” And in stressing the permeating need for equality, said, “I strongly believe in promoting equality. You are the role models for all of us here. Keep fighting and support one another.”
With regard to women’s empowerment, she noted, “Medtronic has a policy and program for empowering and ensuring recruitment of women from each community, ensuring equal representation to all. We look at leadership as coming from all forms women bring in their unique talents and leadership.”
Asked if she would run for political office, Moorthy said that while she wants to use her talents and skills for serving the larger society, she was not sure if she wants to enter the political arena.
Kochhar, whose designs have been adorned by celebrities, including the likes of Prabhu Deva, Shriya Saran, Amrita Rao, Nargis Fakhri, Jacqueline Fernandez, Bipasha Basu and Vijender Singh among others, spoke of guiding “our children to make career choices” including in the highly competitive fashion world.”
Echoing the perennial theme propounded by Zinta and the other panelists, she said, “If one wants to make fashion his or her career, one needs to be prepared for hard work, right attitude, creativity, how you deal with people, especially being humble and an open attitude. We should work hard on building our brand, be able to recognize one’s uniqueness, try to carve out a niche, and build on it and pursue your career.”
Sharing her personal experiences with SMILE and the inspiration to start SMILE, Kochar said, “My journey with SMILE happened accidentally after seeing an acid victim.”
Kochar spoke of how in her efforts to help acid victims and help with their treatment, she had encouraged an acid victim to walk on the runway of a New York Fashion Show, “which made headlines across the world media.”
She spoke of how she “was able to raise money to help victims of acid victim,” and that ever since, it has been her passion to be associated with and to support acid victims.
“When we share our platform for a noble cause, we can create magic for all,” she said.
Dr. Kulkarni, credited her uncle from Mumbai who was the catalyst behind her changing careers — from physician to diplomat — and said that while he “dragged me” into the world of diplomacy, she had now come to thoroughly enjoy this change in midstream.
But she confessed that that she still misses being with patients and caring for their health, and thanked he medical training and career that“gave me the rigorous discipline which has made me successful in my present career. I miss my OPD, but I love my new career and work.”
She also said women’s education is the lifeline to women’s empowerment, and asserted that “education is the keyword, which will empower women socially, emotionally, and economically. Financial independence will give one self-respect and then she can become a key role model for others.”