Meet Rita Kakati-Shah, an award-winning, gender, diversity, inclusion and career strategist, speaker, and advisor to Fortune 500 companies. She is the Founder and CEO of Uma, an international platform that partners with organizations to attract, retain and develop women and minorities in the workforce, she is regularly invited speaker and guest lecturer at various academic institutions such as New York University, King’s College London, London Business School, University of Southern California among others.
“Resilience, persistence, and having armor were traits that have remained with me”
Who is Rita Kakati-Shah? Define yourself
I am a born and bred Londoner, with heritage from Assam, and now live in New York City. I am the mother of two beautiful children, a wife, love trying different foods and oil painting. As a classically trained Indian dancer, rhythm and music have always been a part of me, and so whether it is Assamese Bihu, Brazilian lambada, Guatemalan salsa or merengue, I love to dance! Having lived in, worked in, and visited over 25 countries around the world, I often refer to myself as a British-Assamese American, with a love for life, cultures, and global experiences. I have been a passionate advocate for empowering women and minorities for over 20 years now, and have been actively coaching, mentoring, and uplifting women, from young schoolgirls to senior women in leadership, across industries, from all walks of life, around the world. I also serve as an advisor, ambassador, and gender, diversity and inclusion expert to multiple boards and global organizations, which personally I love, as it allows for ideas, and exchanges to have a direct impact on local communities, organizations, and policy from the ground level up.
You are Assamese, but you grew up in London, did that fact shape your life?
Absolutely. Although I grew up with very British values, and London was my home, I was an Assamese at heart! My parents provided my younger brother and I with a very Assamese upbringing, whereby we were taught to read and write Assamese, sing, and dance. We partook in traditional Assamese cultural functions such as Magh, Bohag and Kati Bihu, as well as Shankar Jayanti to celebrate the life and teachings of the Assamese Saint, Guru Sankardev. Whenever someone asked about my heritage, I could not wait to talk about Assam tea, paat and muga silk, and cuisines such as payokh (rice pudding) and masor tenga (fish dish) that were some of the memories that shaped my identity and upbringing.
How were you as a kid?
I was always curious, brave, a go-getter and never let gender become a barrier to physical or academic ability. If I wanted to do something, I would get up and do it. If I struggled, or fell, I would get back up again, and keep trying until I did it. Resilience, persistence and having an armor were traits that have remained with me.
You hold a Bachelor of Science, Master of Science, Mathematics, and Management at King's College London. Why did you choose those courses of study?
I studied Pre-clinical Medicine initially, and soon realized that becoming a doctor wasn’t the career path for me! Up and till that point, my education was always spoon-fed to me, meaning there was a lot of rope memorization and regurgitation of academic material, that didn’t leave a lot of room for creativity and me thinking for myself, “What do I want to do?” and why. So, when I made the decision to transition from medicine to another degree discipline, I shortlisted French, Art and Mathematics, as those were subjects, I not only excelled at, but truly enjoyed. After much deliberation I picked Mathematics, knowing that I would keep up my love from French and Art even though I didn’t study it formally. A week before classes were due to start at King’s College London, I switched to Mathematics and Management. During my final year, I added the Financial Mathematics MSc. option as that was an area I really wanted to explore in more depth.
“Hard work, perseverance, sticking to your mission and a tremendous amount of grit has been my recipe, and it has truly been a blessing, and very humbling to receive the multiple recognitions”
You began your professional career at Goldman Sachs in London, where you were awarded the prestigious Excellence in Citizenship and Diversity Award. You led Business Development globally in CNS healthcare. What are the biggest lessons you have learned over the years working for those important companies?
Thank you for asking. Both experiences although vastly different, taught me a couple of things very clearly. That diversity is at the core of every organization and community, no matter how big or small, and to be effective needs to be both grassroots bottoms up, as well as top-down senior leadership endeavor, simultaneously. Having experienced and successfully navigated the hustle and bustle of a testosterone-filled trading floor and been at several global Central Nervous System thought-leader conferences, to stand out from the crowd, and not get buried in the politics, it is not just a matter of working hard and pacing your stamina but being street smart and understanding the rules of the playground, so to speak. I bring up these topics in more detail in the two books on diversity and inclusion and women in business, that I co-authored this year.
Tell us more about your company Uma, an international platform that empowers confidence, inspires success, and builds leadership and resilience in women and minorities around the world. How do you do it, what services do you offer? what does it make unique?
As you mention, Uma is an international platform that partners with corporations to attract, retain and develop women and minorities in the workforce. We do this through empowering confidence, inspiring both professional and personal success, and building key leadership and resilience skills in these amazing women and minorities around the world. Through strategic career coaching, mentoring, group workshops and community building, we build confidence, inner voice, and courage. Using the key principles of diversity, equality and inclusion, we completely transform leadership outlook and workplace culture through corporate training, strategic consulting, and coaching.
I also speak regularly and guest lecture at various academic institutions, multinational corporations, and global policy forums such as UNESCO in Paris, European Parliament in Brussels, and many more spanning Delhi, London, Madrid, Moscow, New York, San Francisco, Sochi, and Toronto, on topics related to gender equality, diversity, inclusion, workplace culture, confidence, and communications. What is unique about our services is that they have been curated with over 20 years of strategic, multicultural, and global expertise, to build a truly turnkey approach to everyone or corporation’s needs.
“Mentoring is a stronger force for good than many of us know, and I have seen the difference it can make to someone’s life firsthand”
You are an award-winning gender, diversity, inclusion, and career strategist, best- selling author, mentor, and advisor to Fortune 500 companies, regularly invited speaker and guest lecturer at various academic institutions such as New York University, King’s College London, London Business School, University of Southern California, and Indian Institutes of Management (IIM), as well as global diversity and inclusion forums. You are the recipient of the King’s College London Distinguished Alumni Award, the triple Stevie Awards for Women in Business winner in recognition of your global leadership, entrepreneurship, and services to business. What´s the recipe for your success?
You are very kind, thank you! For me, success has not entailed going out looking for recognition, but is about the work of empowering women and minorities, becoming their voice, and making an actual difference to their lives, around the world. I would say, hard work, perseverance, sticking to your mission and a tremendous amount of grit has been my recipe, and it has truly been a blessing, and very humbling to receive the multiple recognitions.
Being featured as an expert on international television and news shows, as well as being interviewed and quoted in various podcasts and publications such as the Wall Street Journal, Fast Company and Thrive Global has helped to spread the word and educate companies, communities, and individuals for the need for gender equality, diversity, and inclusion practices. Similarly, I also see the books that I co-authored on diversity, inclusion, and women in business as key channels to empower, educate and share key messages. The South Asian television show, The Uma Show, that I host on Mana TV International, similarly is another avenue to give the audience a voice and to show them that the trailblazers and glass-ceiling breaking minority women that I interview all had to work hard, carve their own career paths, and persevere.
You are actively involved with the King’s Leadership Mentoring program, Diversity Mentoring Program, Entrepreneurial Institute, and you are also a member of the King’s College London New York and Los Angeles Alumni Committees, in addition to being a LeanIn USC Mentor, New York Small Business Mentor, as well as mentor to women veterans and military spouses, survivors of domestic violence, women in technology and STEM, schoolgirls, and university students. What does it drive you?
There is no better feeling than seeing someone have an extra spring in their step, and transform their thought pattern, or come out of their shell feeling truly confident, empowered, and ready to take on the world, because of the direct result of something you said or encouraged them to do. Mentoring is a stronger force for good than many of us know, and I have seen the difference it can make to someone’s life firsthand.
Do you have any philosophy that guides your career decisions?
Purpose! What am I doing and why? Who will it impact and how? And what can I do to make a tangible difference are the key drivers for me.
What does a normal workday look like for you?
There is no normal workday! From running virtual webinars to giving keynotes, to coaching and mentoring, and authoring articles, interviewing for news shows, homeschooling my children, running the TV show, advising at strategy and board meetings, and being involved in many external committees and organizations, I absolutely must live off structure! As much as possible I schedule everything in my multiple calendars and follow them to a “t”. Also, being able to have flexibility and think quickly too, as I usually have several planes of multidimensional variables floating around too.
“it’s so important to keep nurturing your contacts. Your relationships are so important, and you have to keep those alive with scheduled check-ins”
What do you love most about your job? & what is the most difficult part?
I love my work, which is what drives me to carry on with so much passion, every, single, day. I see differences sometimes in real time, and sometimes many months later, so although this drives the passion, sometimes not seeing a result straightaway just means more patience and not giving up.
What is one strategy that has helped you to grow your business?
Always thinking ahead for ways to pivot, improve and grow the experience and offerings for improving the women and minorities’ confidence as well as the impact on corporations’ teams and management. Whether you are in person or virtual, always be prepared to pivot to the next level.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else does?
As an entrepreneur, it’s so important to keep nurturing your contacts. Your relationships are so important, and you have to keep those alive with scheduled check-ins. You never know when you will need to pull out a contact or make an ask, and when you do, maintaining the relationship will have been very worthwhile.
Based on your experience, what initiatives should the governments of the world create to foster gender equality, diversity, inclusion? and what we should do as a society about it?
Something I speak a lot on, is changing the narrative. For example, if women were to play an identical role in labor markets to that of men, then, according to McKinsey, as much as
$28 trillion, or 26 percent, could be added to the global annual GDP by 2025.
However, theory is different from reality, especially as women are typically paid 54% less than their male counterparts and there is not an even sharing of household or caregiving responsibilities for remote work. Let’s start there. If there is a more equal perception of household responsibilities, childcare duties, meal preparation, then that helps to impact your family life, and by extension, society. This then expands into the community, and so on and so forth.
So, it’s one grassroots family, one person at a time that needs to have these non- gender specific conversations to redistribute and equalize the gender narrative. The workplace is merely an extension of society. So, when we talk about changing mindsets, it isn’t just corporate culture, but years of cultural traditions – a patriarchy – or set of “expectations” embedded into societal norms that may all be contributing to the prevention of true gender parity. This isn’t helped by the education system either. Take those of us who are parents during the pandemic and relying on school schedules to plan our own workdays. If corporations are expected to pick up the tab and do their bit to helping, particularly women, in the workforce, what about the responsibility of schools and the education infrastructure? Clearly much change is needed. Not only from corporations top down and bottom up, but across cultures and society, and everyone has a part to play in making a difference by sharing their thoughts, experiences and knowledge in their own communities, places of work, at home.
“The point being, that the inner strength is ultimately yours, and only you can rekindle that energy. It’s this same underlying philosophy that I exercise in my deep-dive coaching and mentoring sessions and motivational talks”
Everybody has had dark moments in their lives, what have you done to get out of that phase?
There have been plenty of challenging moments! Whether it was from relocating to the US from the UK, quitting my pharmaceutical role, diving into motherhood, or starting Uma, there have been several challenging times. Confidence was the biggest issue for me. When I was a new mother and fulltime caregiver to my children, I did not fit into my pre-pregnancy clothes, I was heavily sleep-deprived and doubted myself. My husband would ask if I wanted to go out on “date nights” with friends, and I felt ashamed of the way I felt and looked so would think of any excuse not to go out. Although it took time, one day I realized that I was in control of my confidence, and how I felt depended on my feelings solely. So, I revamped my wardrobe, got my nails and hair done, slapped on some lip tint and ventured out into the world of networking and meeting other grownups again. Point being, that the inner strength is ultimately yours, and only you can rekindle that energy. It’s this same underlying philosophy that I exercise in my deep-dive coaching and mentoring sessions and motivational talks.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
Spare time does not really exist for me, especially as I have two small children on top of running Uma, but I make time for myself. I love to schedule, so I do the same for personal time. And by personal time, it could be going to get a cup of coffee, catching up with a friend over the phone, going for a walk, or just catching up on sleep! I have never tried to “do it all” or portray that I can, but I openly enjoy the small moments of time I do have and relish the feeling that comes with it.
Many authors say women can and must strive to have everything – a shining career, a blossoming family life, and a perfectly balanced lifestyle all at once, others point out that– then women are placing unrealistic expectations on themselves if they believe they can have it all, I so according to your experience, what do you think about these statements?
Honestly, if anyone can do it all, it is women! Research such as the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, has shown time again that women, especially mothers with two or more children, are more efficient than their single peers, both men and women. However, whether women should do it all, is another thing. I believe very much in switching the traditional narrative which places more burden on women – especially mothers – to having shared responsibility, for which much systemic changes are needed in collaboration with policy changes across corporations and the education system, to help make things easier for women to balance their lives with their careers. McKinsey’s latest report shows an alarming 25% women leaving the workforce during the 2020 pandemic, because of a failing in our “system” to support them.
What are your plans?
I would honestly love to travel again! One thing I have missed the most in 2020 has been jumping on a plane and flying here, there, and everywhere for work. That I suppose was my “me time” so I can hope to do that again sometime soon! In the interim, maintaining my international schedule, hours, and expansion plans with the different global members of the team has been great.
“No one wants to feel like they got a job or promotion simply because they were a woman or, of color, but instead, they deserve to be there through hard work and resilience. There is a fine line between extending someone a helping hand as a mentor or career sponsor and cutting corners”
There is still the glass ceiling for women in the world: Fewer opportunities, jobs underpaid just for that fact of being a woman, etc. Have you experimented with the glass ceiling? If yes, what are the biggest challenges you have faced and how have you overcome them?
For me, I started my own company, so I created my own career ladder where there is no glass ceiling. I have no boss, as I am the boss. In the past when I was in the corporate world, however, I never let my gender or ethnicity play a part in my career, as I always believed that it was good old fashioned hard work that led the way! I have seen women and minorities in situations where they feel like a “victim” or entitled to be in a certain position or role, and so this is something at Uma, that we spend time working on. At the end of the day, no one wants to feel like they got a job or promotion simply because they were a woman or, of color, but instead they deserve to be there through hard work and resilience. There is a fine line between extending someone a helping hand as a mentor or career sponsor and cutting corners!
What tips, can you give to young girls who want to become an entrepreneur like you?
- Find your passion
- Look at what you are good at, and what you are not, and work on that
- Find something you want to change
- Build a plan of how you can do it
- Don’t be afraid to fail
- Embrace fear, as the unknown and hearing “no” a lot will become your best friends soon enough
- Don’t give up
- Find your tribe, your support network
I think in your position, many people may have the wrong idea of who you are, and what do you (professionally), with this idea in mind, what is being Rita and what´s not?
I am an open book for those that know me, and although I am very social, I let very few people into my personal circle. My time with family is everything, and especially as I do not have that much spare time, I make sure that I spend it with those I respect and admire.
Who is the woman you admire the most and why?
My mother. She is everything to me and taught me how to be who I am, how to stand up tall always, and to never to look back.
Name: Rita Kakati-Shah
Sector: Career Strategy, Coaching and Consulting
Company: Uma Designation: Founder & CEO Country: USA