My daughter, Vibha, is seven years old and loves reading. It is one of the many things I love about her, as an extremely biased parent of course. Among her favorites is Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls, a children’s book that reimagines fairy tales, inspiring girls with real stories of extraordinary women past and present. You may also know it as the highest-funded publishing project ever on Kickstarter.
Recently I was asked for my #1 tip for people wanting to become allies of women at work (and in life) in support of gender equality. My short answer? The first step toward change is awareness. Gender equality – in fact, all diversity and inclusion efforts – starts with understanding and empathy. With understanding comes the realization that equality is an ongoing struggle. It has a past, a present, and unfortunately a future.
In the spirit of my daughter’s wonderful book and in celebration of International Women’s Day (March 8), I invite you to (re)discover eight extraordinary women – past and present – whose stories and passion have not only inspired me, but also generations of women and men around the world.
Gertrude Ederle. Sportswoman. She inspired us as the first woman to swim the English Channel – and she did it wearing a motorcycle goggle! She taught us courage and resolve: “I knew it could be done, it had to be done, and I did it.”
Hattie McDaniel. Actress. She inspired us by breaking the barrier of color to become the first African-American actor to receive an Oscar. She taught us that the fight for greater diversity may be a slow one but where each action counts.
Grace Hopper. Coder. Naval Officer. She inspired us as a pioneering computer programmer who helped shaped the world of software as we know it today – also solving the world’s first “bug”. She taught us to be bold and that sometimes in life “it’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission.”
Maya Angelou. Poet. Activist. She inspired us through a fearless, open, honest recounting of her own life experiences and trauma. She taught us to celebrate differences by treating others with the utmost respect: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Murasaki Shikibu. Writer. She inspired us with the world’s first novel – Tale of Genji. She taught us the power of sensitivity, emotion and the beauty of nature.
Malala Yousafzai. Orator. Activist. She inspires us through her fight for girls’ education. It nearly cost her, her life. But it has also allowed her to become the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. She teaches us that words can change the world: “when the whole world is silent, even one voice becomes powerful.”
Jacinda Ardern. Prime Minister. She inspires us by championing causes such as minority rights, gender equality, and marriage equality while fighting intolerance and terrorism with eloquence and grace. She teaches us that as a world leader, career and family are not mutually exclusive.
And most importantly, my Grandmother Meenakshi Ammal. She was married at 11 (insane!) and had to stop school because the machoistic society of the time could not accept a girl more educated than her husband. But her curiosity and quest for learning did not falter. She self-learned five languages, devoured books on theology (and a source of my constant debates with her), had an original poem (often laced with humor) for every occasion, was confident personified with an evergreen smile on her face despite an early life full of struggle raising 6 kids as a single mom, and had an eidetic recall of her favorite poet (Wordsworth) even as she was fading after an inspiring 89 years. She truly taught everyone around her the meaning of empathy, kindness, grace, persistence, and the importance of a curious mind.
I am blessed to have five women in my life who are my inspiration: My grandma, my wife (Kavitha) who is an evergreen source of positive energy, our mothers and Vibha! I raise a toast to them, to the many inspirational women – dare I say rebel – at RingCentral, and the many other colleagues, friends, and family – I have learned from at every step of my life.
I wish you all a very special and happy Women’s Day. I commit to remain an active ally, so society evolves where equality and diversity in all forms is part of the conscious and subconscious. I hope everyday is #WomensDay. We are better because of it.
Originally published Mar 07, 2020, updated Jan 30, 2023