Sixth annual conference draws distinguished speakers from wide variety of disciplines.
The Empowering Women and Girls Conference, a signature event of the National Federation of Indian American Associations (NFIA), drew distinguished speakers and guests from various backgrounds and walks of life, all in support of a common cause: ensuring that women and girls have opportunities to succeed and rise.
Spearheaded by Washington-area community leader Angela Anand, the conference celebrated its sixth successful year, Friday evening, with an informative event held at the Marriott hotel in Tysons Corner. The August gathering comprised luminaries from government, business and industry, academia, arts, entertainment and media.
At the outset, Melanie Bixby, Senior Coordinator in the Office of Global Women’s Issues at the State Department, noted, “President Donald Trump hosted Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the White House in June and the visit reinforced close ties between the United States and India that strengthen both our great democracies. Over the past few decades our cooperation has grown steadily across the security, economic and global leadership arenas,” she said.
“It has also grown in the area of women’s empowerment,” Bixby added, and proceeded to cite examples of bilateral, regional and global cooperation.
In this regard, an eagerly-awaited event is the Global Entrepreneurship Summit co-hosted by India and the United States which will be held next month, November 28-30, in Hyderabad. It is the ninth Summit sponsored by the US and the first time it is partnering with India. President Trump has asked his daughter Ivanka Trump to lead the US delegation.
Noting that the Summit “is geared towards solving 21st century challenges and improving lives,” Bixby told the conference audience that this year’s theme, chosen by the White House is “Women First, Prosperity for all.” Women are challenged more than men in cultural and family responsibilities, business management skills, access to finance and markets, ease of doing business, among other factors, she said.
The US administration official mentioned that leading up to the Summit, there will be a whole series of events, ‘Road to the Global Entrepreneurship Summit’, which will be held both in the US and India to extend the reach of the event, allowing many more people to participate.
Bixby recalled her first experience of working on women’s empowerment in India: the 2010 Vital Voices of Asia Conference co-hosted by India and the US in New Delhi which brought over 200 women together from civil society, corporate and government leaders. She noted how through SEWA (Self Employed Women’s Association) and other organizations, the US and India are working to support women’s development in Afghanistan, Nepal, African countries, among others.
Delegate Aruna Miller (Democrat – Montgomery County), who is running for Congress from Maryland’s sixth district, presented a Citation from the Maryland General Assembly to NFIA for promoting the culture, values and influence of people of Indian origin to advance the greater good of America. Miller migrated to the US from Hyderabad at the young age of seven and is now aspiring to be one of the most powerful lawmakers in the world.
A formidable and exceedingly articulate speaker, she was in full form at the event that centered around a topic so close to her heart: empowering women and girls.
Thanking Anand for her leadership, she enthused, “What a wonderful program to be able to come together and recognize the importance of women and empowering us. It is events like this that are able to bring people together to make sure our voices are heard.”
About choosing the field of public service, she said, “I can think of no greater way to give back to a country that has given me so much than to be in the space of public service.” It is her way of paying it forward to help the future generation.
“When people talk about the door of opportunity, I don’t just want to open it. I want to take it off its hinges. I want to make sure every young woman and man in this nation has incredible opportunities,” she said, to much applause from the audience.
Miller firmly believes, “The business of politics is everyone’s business” as policy-making affects our daily lives from clean water, to transportation, education, taxes, and much more. “That is why it is incumbent for everyone to be engaged particularly the Indian American community, particularly women,” she stressed.
Making a strong pitch for women to run for political office, she noted, “In 2017, the percentage of women in political office is almost the same as the percentage of those that are in clergy. If we don’t get more engaged, if we don’t step out of our comfort zone and we don’t raise our voice, it is going to continue to be the way it is today,” she warned. “We are going to be the 51 percent minority when it comes to our social, economic, legal, political and reproductive rights.”
Miller told the NFIA conference, “Never, ever hesitate to be that someone who can represent people in our country,” including standing up for all minority communities. “These are extraordinary times that our country is going through and it is no longer acceptable to be just status quo and sit on the sidelines. Get out, register to vote, participate in the primary which is about 80 percent of the electoral process,” she said.
In her keynote address at the conference, Devinder Kaur Singh, President and CEO of Amdex Corporation, spoke from personal experience, recounting rising from the depths of despair to the dizzy heights of fame and fortune. She migrated to the US from Chandigarh, in 1977, and now heads one of the largest information technology services firms based in Silver Spring, Maryland.
Singh does not attach any importance to luck, rather is a firm believer that family, mentors and community shape one’s future.
At the conference, she disclosed that the death of her beloved husband, her best friend, changed her in profound ways. “I learnt about the depths of sadness and brutality of loss,” she said.
Singh also learnt that when you are at the lowest point in your life, you rise. That is when her real journey began: raising her two children and taking charge of her husband’s company without any formal business training.
“We all have untapped potential which oftentimes goes wasted. Use it,” she implored. “Create the life you want to lead. If you don’t dream, you cannot achieve. I believe if you have focus and a vision, you can achieve any goal,” she said.
Underscoring the importance of self empowerment, Singh affirmed, “We need to put ourselves first.” Take care of yourself, only then can you give to others, she told the NFIA gathering.
“Do not make emotional decisions; make logical decisions,” she advised. “Women must always seize the opportunity and take a seat at the table, not behind it,” she said.
“Empowerment comes with leadership which comes to those who take it. Leadership starts with you. We have to define ourselves. Do not let others define you. Our life is a story. Empower yourself to write your own story,” she told conference attendees.
The cultural component is always an important part of NFIA’s Empowering Women and Girls Conference and the sixth edition was no different featuring: a bharatanatyam piece by a student of Natananjali School of Dance, founded and directed by Lakshmi Swaminathan; a classical Indian dance performance by a talented trio of the Kuchipudi Dance Academy headed by Lakshmi Babu; a riveting Kathak performance led by Shalu Shrivastava, a visiting instructor from India, accompanied by Sneha Misra of the Nrityaki Dance Academy founded and directed by Shweta Misra; a ‘Shakti’ (strength) dance by artistes of Fairfax-based Bandhabi, choreographed by Sumana Sarkar.
The items are interspersed with the speeches, making it easier for the audience to assimilate the gravity of the event. Women and girls issues are never easy!
On a lighter note, speaker Vijay Lakshman, 50, with twenty years of experience in the games industry, gave a humorous account of what he described as “a very difficult career to succeed in.”
His remarks were a revelation: the games industry is significantly larger than the movie industry. “My game, Lord of the Rings, made 250 million dollars in three minutes, over one billion dollars in three days,” he disclosed.
The largest segment of game players is adult women, at 31 percent, he said, much to the surprise of the audience. They outweigh boys, 18 years and younger, he added.
Poojah Ganesh, winner of the 2017 Miss India-DC Pageant organized by Neena Bhaskar, spoke about her journey and experience entering the competition, now in its 23rd year. She lauded the event which allows aspiring young women from different backgrounds to showcase their experiences, knowledge and dreams.
Poojah dons many hats as a storyteller, writer, poet, singer, composer (Carnatic music), dancer (bharatanatyam), model and traveler.
“Though I have lived in the US practically my whole life, my heart is woven into my Indian culture,” she told the NFIA conference. “I go out of my way to learn new things such as Indian mythology, customs and traditions. I became extremely connected to my Indian culture through Indian music and dance. All I dreamed to do is to perform around the world. When I teach music to children, I’m the happiest person,” she said.
Sneha Misra, a senior at Rockridge High School in Ashburn, Virginia, recalled that when she was in fourth grade, she was one among two students of Indian-origin in her class. “As I grew up, I saw Indian Americans everywhere. It’s just amazing,” she gushed. “Now, in my class, it seems like everyone is of Indian origin.”
At 17, Sneha is earning a Masters degree in the Kathak style of Indian dance, working with the Prayag Sangeet Samiti in Allahabad, India. She plans to pursue a career in science and engineering.
Sneha credits her parents, Deepak and Shweta Misra, for always guiding her towards her goals. “They taught me you don’t have to wait for someone to empower you,” she said.
Among other speakers were: Dr. Toohara Kawaja, a Maryland-based physician specializing in Internal Medicine; Dr. C.M. Prasad, an eminent psychiatrist in the Washington area with some 30 years experience counseling Asians; Dr. Satyam Priyadarshy, Chief Data Scientist at Haliburton, Senior Fellow at the International Cyber Security Center at George Mason University, author, speaker and coach; Xinyu Zhang, a Chinese-American television anchor and producer; and Abhi Sanka, graduate student of Public Policy at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, and Research Fellow at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Michael Pelletier, Dean of the School of Professional and Area Studies at the US State Department’s Foreign Service Institute, told conference attendees, “My personal and professional links to India go back and run deep.”
Pelletier has served as Deputy Chief of Mission at the American Embassy in New Delhi (2013-16) and his current position involves a focus on South Asia and India.
Recalling his second overseas tour in the US foreign service to Chennai, in September 1988, he said, “I didn’t realize I was soon going to fall in love not just with the country but with my future wife.”
Looking around the ballroom of the Marriott hotel, he said, “It has been a privilege to work in India and the United States and see the amazing contributions of the diaspora, all of which strengthen our bilateral partnership. It was my privilege to meet folks working in business, culture, medicine, science, defense, social welfare.”
Among the “outstanding and amazing representatives of the diaspora” who he worked with, he mentioned: Ambassador Rich Verma, the first US envoy to India of Indian origin; Nisha Biswal who served as Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs; and Manpreet Anand, Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, under the Obama administration.
Pelletier hoped that tradition of Indian American appointees will continue noting President Trump’s recent nomination of Manisha Singh as Assistant Secretary of State for Economic and Business Affairs at the Department of State.
“Truly, US and India, and truly Americans and Indians, working together in every field of endeavor to advance our shared visions and goals,” he said. “Tonight’s program has shown you the wealth and diversity and the breadth of exactly those sorts of linkages.”