January 23, 2014

On Feminism, Diaspora, and Giving Back: An Interview with Amar Rao

AMAR RAO IS an intrepid Silicon Valley entrepreneur, whose specialty is the high technology sector. He currently heads marketing, sales, and business development for a start-up company. Additionally, he is the San Francisco Bay Area chapter head of Pratham USA, the American arm of the Indian education non-profit Pratham. We had an enjoyable conversation about his experiences, feminism, and why he does what he does.

DB: Hello! Thank you for sharing your time with Ultra Violet. Could we begin with you telling us a bit about your background and work? 

AR: My name is Amar Rao and I spent the first 20 years of my life in India. I grew up in Hyderabad, came to the US in the late 1970s to pursue graduate education and ended up settling here. Currently, I head Marketing, business Development and Sales at an early stage software company based in Silicon Valley, California. I am also involved in supporting a non-profit called Pratham that supports primary education for the underprivileged children of India.

DB: How did your belief in feminism come about?

      AR:  I grew up in an India that was a traditional society, and as is the case in most traditional societies, the deck was stacked against the full blossoming of women. Even when I was very young, I noticed this. There were double standards for boys and girls in term s of what they could and could not do.  As a teenager, I was frustrated by the near-total segregation that existed in schools, public spaces, etc. as a way to “control” and “protect” women. I remember my mother telling me about her wanting to be a doctor when she was young, and instead of supporting her, my grandfather insisted on getting her married off at a very young age. It was a very paternalistic society, where in the name of tradition, women were dis-empowered at every turn. All of these experiences collectively shaped my views and when I came to the US, I saw that things were a lot better for women. It did not take me too long to realize that while women had made a lot of strides in the west, there were still many things holding them back.  My journey on this subject has been a lifelong one. Even in the 21st century, the struggle goes on. As recently as the 2012 national election, there were many ways in which men tried to control women, ranging from a woman’s right to control over her own body to the sexualization of women in the media and culture. I firmly believe in the rights of women to control their experience. My feminism also has been stoked by my realization that from an economic development and evolution of society, giving girls and women equal opportunity and empowerment in all aspects of life are key to achieving the full potential of our civilization.

      When I was in India as part of a 2-year assignment from IBM, I found out how traditional societal norms came in the way of empowering and enabling women in the workplace, reinforcing the need to have “encouragement” and “special” ladders of opportunity for women in the work place, especially in more traditional societies. My experiences working for Pratham made me realize how by empowering and educating girls, we could accelerate development of impoverished societies. An educated girl was more likely to resist being exploited by the norms of the “traditional” paternalistic societies, more likely not to put up with exploitation from abusive males in her family, break patterns of generational poverty of mind and body, have earning power, and also help toward a more sustainable planet by having fewer children, later in life.

      DB: You mentioned you were a feminist within minutes of our initial meeting, and as much as I would love to see more people do that, we grapple with the reality that most men and women don’t give it much thought.  What makes you react differently?

       AR: I support feminism with the hope and objective of eventually creating a more just society that would allow all humans to achieve their potential and everyone has the potential to achieve self realization. This would result in a more happy and fulfilled society. There are too many women like my mother who do not achieve their full potential because societies put them “in their place” and everyone loses in the process. I would like to see much higher levels of women participation in leadership roles in business and politics. We would be all much better off for it. We would have fewer wars, more just societies, and more work-life balance if they had more control on the levers of power. I think life would be more interesting and fun for men in a gender-blind society. I know it would be for me. I would much rather walk hand-in-hand as an equal with a woman than have her following “seven paces behind”. I would love to see women priests, presidents, chief justices of the Supreme Court.

      My experience with Pratham has taught me that the best way to break the grip of extreme poverty that envelops developing countries is to educate and empower girls and women. An educated girl would less likely put up with abuse form her husband and relatives, would have fewer children later in life (wouldn’t that be great for reducing overpopulation and improving the environment?) and the generational cycle of poverty would be more easily broken. We would have happier and less violent societies and countries. It is not an accident that Denmark, which was ranked as the happiest country also has a higher participation of women in all walks of life, including government. Countries and societies that suppress women are usually the most backward. An example is Afghanistan, where in the name of extreme religion, girls are discouraged from going to school and working outside the house.

DB: You are a successful Silicon Valley entrepreneur, in addition to heading an arm of a global non-profit. How would you recommend men crystallize their beliefs about feminism and harness them for social good and professional success? What do you see are the benefits of being openly feminist?

AR: I would tell men that it would be a better place for them if they became feminists and women were truly equal in all walks of life. The world would be more prosperous, it would be more peaceful and less violent. There would be less poverty and the environment would be less degraded. Most importantly, it would be a more fun place for men. Would it not be more fun to have a more interesting workplace, a more interesting partner, and a more interesting society? I have not sought out feminists actively, but I associate with progressive people and so many of my friends are feminists. I do not place much credence on labels. It is more what you do that matters. I treat every woman I interact with as full equal with respect. It is no different than how I would treat another man. To me, feminism is all about full equality in every respect, regardless of gender.

DB: What led you to become head of Pratham USA’s Bay Area chapter? How do your beliefs tie into the cause?

When I reached 45 and my daughter was a teenager, she went to a Catholic school that really promoted social justice and I got involved in supporting the school financially and also helping raise funds for them so they could support subsidizing education for less affluent children. I realized that there was more to life than accumulating wealth and moving up the corporate ladder. The lesson that got deeply ingrained in me was that it was important to give back and pay forward. I also realized that education was the way to transform people’s lives. Most of us in Silicon Valley are successful because of our educations. I discovered Pratham while watching a TV show. I learned about its amazingly cost-effective model for supporting education for the poorest and most underprivileged children of India. There are many good causes out there that are worthy of supporting, but I believe Pratham is unique in charities and here are my main reasons for supporting it:

1) Impact at scale: Pratham has developed a decentralized, highly scalable model that has demonstrated ability to scale to tens of millions of children, and can have an impact at national and global scale.

2) Return on donor investment: Charity Navigator has awarded Pratham USA the highest 4-star rating for the fourth year in a row. Pratham delivers 93 cents out of every dollar donated to projects in India. The average cost of supporting a child in the Read India rural program is less than $10 per child per year.

3) Focus on educational outcomes: Pratham surveys 600,000 children annually across India to gauge learning levels and maintain accountability for quality outcomes in education.

4) Innovation: By adopting novel techniques and approaches to education and learning outcomes, Pratham has been able to deliver strong results. Our most recent validation is the WISE prize awarded to Madhav Chavan, which is considered by many to be the Nobel prize for education.

 DB: What do Pratham’s USA chapters hope to achieve? How can the diaspora pitch in other than writing a cheque?

AR: There are over 4 million people of Indian origin in the United States. Pratham has about 5000 active donors. Pratham is having a great impact, but much more needs to be done and Pratham is limited today by the resources it has to scale up its programs further. Can you imagine if we got 100,000  people to give just $100 a year? That would be an additional $10,000,000 a year. $100 year is about $8 a month. Put another way, it is 2 cups of coffee at Starbucks. $100 would support about 10 rural children for a year in the Read India program. Pratham has 14 chapters spread out across most of the large metropolitan area in the US. We would benefit from having volunteers who could help in increasing awareness of Pratham’s work and also help raise funds.

 DB: Looping back to your ideology, do you think it necessary for more men to speak up in support of an openly feminist society?

AR: Despite all the progress we have made over the last several generations with regards to women’s empowerment, there is much more work that needs to be done. It is a task that is the responsibility of progressive men and women everywhere–they need to speak up and be proactive on this topic.

DB: What role do you see the next generation playing in furthering feminist causes?

AR: I think that the next generation is way ahead of the older generations in attitudes about feminism and full equality between the sexes. So I am hopeful that as in many other social causes, the new generation will lead the way towards a more inclusive, open and equal society, regardless of gender, race, religion, or sexual orientation.

 DB: It is inspiring to know you, Mr. Rao. We would like to know what inspires you to do what you do?

AR: I think each of us can make a difference every day in making the world a better place. I believe in doing what I can every day, even if it is in small measure. The moral is that you do not need to wait until you become a millionaire to start giving back. Start today, with what you can. It will make a difference in someone’s life. I try to live a simple life, uncluttered by material things, and it is important to have meaning in your life, and nothing gives more meaning than trying to help the underprivileged in whatever way you can. 

Thank you for this motivating conversation, Mr. Rao. It was a pleasure chatting with you!

2 comments to On Feminism, Diaspora, and Giving Back: An Interview with Amar Rao

  • Bonnie

    I appreciate this interview with Amar Rao. It was good to be reminded of how Pratham is unique and how
    it gives 93 cents per dollar directly to children’s education. It is refreshing to hear his emphasis on
    helping women display their talents and thereby helping all of us, men and women, to move forward.

  • Dilnavaz Bamboat

    Thanks, Bonnie! I agree, which is why I was keen on profiling Pratham’s work and the people it attracts abroad. 🙂

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