By Daniela De Luca
Italian version translated by Daniela De Luca
Most people, reading an article about a 21-year-old Indian girl who launched a start-up to promote women’s leadership, which she is now running together with her parents, her brother and her boyfriend, would think it was just a fairytale. This is the power of the story you are about to read. It is possible, it is real and it has a name: The Inner Goddess Academy (TIGA).
“Everything started in 2015, after reading a book by Sheryl Sandberg (Lean In: women, work and the will to lead). I was impressed with how she started her foundation by bringing together people from around the world to talk about gender-related issues. Her way of addressing the low proportion of women in leadership positions is very pragmatic and effective.”
Is this what TIGA is attempting to do in Chennai?
“No. I attended similar gatherings and forums, and even though they raise awareness about the issue, I realized they would not be able to produce tangible outcomes. I wanted to do something concrete. So I turned to my dad, who I often seek advice from.”
I hope you’re not going to tell me that your dad supported your idea and invested his resources in his daughter’s project. It will be difficult to make that sound credible!
“Ha ha, it was not that easy. Yes, both my parents supported me. However, they did so in the all the right ways. When I told them I wanted to start something on my own, their suggestion was to wait until I had found a solution that could help those women concretely. So for the next 3 or 4 months, I researched, I spoke to a lot of women in Chennai as well as friends, teachers, and my colleagues in AIESEC. I tried to get in touch with as many women as possible, especially from a variety of different backgrounds. They all expressed one common thought: they felt they did not possess the competencies to do as well as men. They felt they did not have enough confidence to take the opportunities they wanted to. It was then that I realized that this was the path I should take. I wanted to turn it into a business model and the first thing to do was to find a team, so I sent out a volunteer form to my contacts. About 100 people signed up, and some of them are still on the executive team of the company today.”
So, would you say that TIGA was created for gender equality?
“We are not directly working towards gender equality, but we run programs and sessions in which we help women to become more employable through training courses and workshops, in order to be a bit more independent.
We created a business model which has three products: the first one is the inspiration phase in which we conduct workshops for professional skills training (graphic design, music, art, entrepreneurship), so that they can learn something tangible. In this phase we involve mentors and experts who work with us to achieve this. We don’t want to stray from our goal of women’s leadership. The second is the connection phase, divided into two parts: the first one is a session related to self-awareness, and how awareness of one’s own potential is directly proportional to professional success. The second part involves the relationship with mentors in order to receive training in specific fields of interest. Nowadays we can count on the support of 50 experts in Chennai area. The last product is the action phase, in which we provide services to help them develop their entrepreneurial ideas, for example with designing business models, social media, launching the idea and so on.”
It seems clear that the power of TIGA lies in this structure where theory is perfectly mixed with practice. The way you involve experts and mentors is interesting. Are they part of your networks, do you already know them, or do you seek them out specifically as and when you need them?
“Well, I might say 50/50. At TIGA we have a broad range of networks and thanks to our different backgrounds we are lucky enough to know people in several fields of expertise. But we have also had the pleasure of fortuitously meeting a lot of people at the events we attend. I happen to have met a lot of women in coffee shops simply by overhearing conversations. For example, one of them is Radhika Ganesh, a very important political activist in India. I was sitting in a coffee shop having a meeting with my team when we overheard her talking about the feminist movement she started. So I stood up and I gave her my business card to let her know about what we were doing, and see if she would be interested in collaborating. Now she is one of our mentors. Having a young and diverse team really helps in this.”
Exactly! The young age of the team is one of TIGA’s key strengths. When we met first, you were an engineering student. Are you still studying Aerospace engineering? How do you and your team balance work, college and social life?
“Yes, I’m still studying Aerospace engineering! I’m not going to lie, the journey has been intensely hard. We are not working full-time yet, but we have very tight schedules and our weekends are booked up with meetings. Each person in the executive team works about 30-40 hours a week. Most of us don’t have a business/humanities background, so we also invest our free time to constantly improve skills through studying, reading and training. The major problem that we face is that all of us work part time and/or we are still at university. What really helps us is the support we receive from our families and teachers, many of them are aware of what we are doing and try to help us.
So, is TIGA a volunteering activity for most of you?
“I wouldn’t say that it is a volunteering activity because we are a start-up with a working business model. When we start making enough for the company to survive on its own, then we will think about giving ourselves salaries. We have a team of around 20 volunteers, which is constantly changing as some team members leave and others join. It’s more about them getting bit of the start-up experience, and then if we feel that they are the right fit, we offer them a more permanent job. We implement the ESOP (employment stocks option plan), on which basis some stocks are given to employees who hold significant positions in terms of labour supply and income. We offer this to people who want a more permanent job and we are trying to make it our number one priority.”
You mentioned that you get a lot of support from teachers and families, but what has the response been like from your peers and social networks?
“A lot of institutions and schools have recognised the utility and effectiveness of our workshops, and thanks to this our brand has become very credible in the market. We also produce a lot of feminist merchandise. Walking around my college campus I see lots of girls wearing sporting these products and that clearly shows that girls care about this issue.”
It is always a struggle to spread the message that you don’t need to be a woman to call yourself a feminist, and in this sense, TIGA seems to express the concept quite well.
“I have the pleasure to work with men who understand how and why we are still talking about gender equality. The have never asked questions like “why do we have to talk about women’s emancipation? Why is there a need to address women’s rights?” Many of them have interesting stories as well, and they speak about their relationships with their girlfriends, mothers and sisters. They wear t-shirts with feminist slogans and open public forums and discussion by defining themselves as feminists. My brother, who works as VP for TIGA, ran a session explaining the concept of feminism to a bunch of youngsters in Bangalore, and I was very touched by this.”
So, you are the boss. Speaking of your brother, how does he deal working under your supervision?
“When I first thought to ask my brother and my boyfriend to take part in the project I was scared. You know, this is not what happens, normally. You see a lot of family businesses with husbands and wives, but not wives and husbands. The ordinary reality is one in which men hold positions of leadership. But then when I spoke to them, they were extremely offended that I had even thought that my being the boss could be a problem. The amazing part is that it wasn't hard for me to convince them to take part. Both of them cared about what I was doing because they considered it much more important and bigger than who I was. They are very understanding and take their work seriously. I feel very lucky and wish all women could be in my position.”
Would you say that TIGA is an exception in the Indian context?
“It’s all about how you’ve been brought up, my parents have raised me in a very progressive way. Even though my grandparents are very conservative, my parents always made it clear that I would get the same freedoms as my brother did and vice-versa. As I already mentioned, nowadays my boyfriend is not only part of my family, but of my company too. He works along with my father, my mother and my brother. We developed an environment of respect, valuation and love. We have mature relationships with one another and I feel surrounded by this protective atmosphere.”
Anannya Parekh, CEO at TIGA, represented her country, India, at the G20 summit in Munich this June. There she shared TIGA’s business model and its vision for the future of women in leadership “The more women become leaders the greater the chances that inequality will decrease.”
One month after this chat I had the pleasure of attending one of TIGA’s conferences. I took away a lot in terms of motivation and determination. However, it definitely inspired me the most to see other young girls challenging themselves and developing new levels of awareness in a matter of days. I was chatting with some of them when someone told me “Before this conference I strongly believed I had to be empowered, then I realised how much I already am thanks to studying, knowledge and the daily needs I can afford for myself. Now I know where I have to start in order to become a leader.”
However, it really impressed me to watch and listen to young men running sessions on legal rights, safety, feminism, and the need for more women in leadership positions. “I have a problem with the fact that women are changing. They work, apply for respectable jobs, they are independent and not subjugated to family and society rules”, Atal said sarcastically, “Keep changing please! I want women to change this world”, he concluded seriously.
Let’s not disappoint Atal. Women will keep changing. They will change the world, one TIGA at a time.
You can follow them at TIGA Facebook, the__iga Instagram
Check it out and you can find more about their conferences/workshops/mentorship programs at The Inner Goddess Academy
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