Shared from Formidable Woman Magazine, written by Jules Lavalee. Original cover story here. Rita Kakati-Shah is an award-winning, gender, diversity, inclusion and career strategist, speaker, author and advisor to Fortune 500 companies. She is the Founder and CEO of Uma, an international strategy, coaching and training platform that empowers confidence, inspires success and builds leadership and resilience in women and minorities. Prior to Uma, Rita lead Business Development globally in CNS healthcare.

Rita began her professional career at Goldman Sachs in London, where she was awarded the prestigious Excellence in Citizenship and Diversity Award. She is also a Distinguished Alumna of King’s College London and a triple Stevie Awards for Women in Business winner, judge for the Middle East Awards, and recipient of several international awards in recognition of advancing gender equality, diversity and inclusion, and empowering women and girls around the world.

FWM: You founded Uma in response to your personal journey of motherhood, transitioning careers, and entrepreneurship. Tell us about your background. 

I’m a born and bred Londoner, with heritage from Assam. Coming from a South Asian background there was an expectation of following in my parents’ footsteps, which in my case was to become a doctor. So I studied medicine, but knew this wasn’t going to be my future. Soon after my preclinical studies were completed, I transitioned degrees into Mathematics and Management at King’s College London. I didn’t put any pressure on myself as now I just wanted to enjoy learning and absorb all that I could.

Perhaps that’s what caught the attention of the recruitment head of Goldman Sachs whom I met purely by chance at a Careers Fayre at King’s. Thirty-two interviews later I was offered a place on the much coveted Summer Analyst Programme at Goldman Sachs in London. That summer was the start of my career in finance.

I fell straight into diversity and inclusion initiatives by virtue of being one of very few women and of color, on the Equities trading floor. After a decade at the firm, I transitioned careers into the pharmaceutical and drug development industry, which took me to New York where I relocated to after getting married. I have two children and transitioned to raising them full time after they were born, which by far was the most challenging of my careers to date!

FWM: Uma challenges the status quo and breaks the mold. Tell us about Uma. 

Uma was founded in response to my life experiences, with confidence being at the foundation of the work that we do. Named after the Hindu Goddess, Uma is confident, determined and bold, and seeks to bring out the inner Goddess of Go-GettingTM that lives inside us all. Headquartered in New York, with presence in Los Angeles, Toronto and London, Uma is an international coaching, strategy, and training platform that empowers confidence, inspires success, and builds leadership and resilience in women and minorities around the world, using diversity, equality and inclusion principles. Our tagline Be Bold. Be You. Be Uma.TM encourages our clients to embrace who they are, and accept others through listening, understanding and mutual respect. Uma aims to create a domino effect of empowered changemakers and positive thinkers who in turn pave the way forward.

FWM: What advice do you have for women reentering the workforce post-pandemic? 

The first thing to acknowledge is the experience and skills you already possess that are directly relevant to the paid workforce. Did you work from home during the pandemic, care for your family, or return to civilian life after serving in the military? Or are you transitioning careers or relocating even? Whatever the reason, start by looking at the skills you possess currently, what you have that could be a little rusty, and what you may need to either brush up on, or learn from scratch.

Once you have that, group those skills into technical and soft skill buckets. For example, if you were a mother that raised your children, some skills that immediately come to mind are communications and negotiations skills. Similarly, go through your entire arsenal of skills in this manner.

Then look at what interests you. Only because you possess a certain background, that doesn’t mean that will still be the right fit for you. What industry do you tend to follow more these days? Were there any hobbies you took up that you wish to continue with after the pandemic? Think of your lifestyle and hours too. Once you have narrowed down the areas a bit, network! Reach out to friends, family members, social media or LinkedIn contacts to find out more about what they do.

If someone works in an area you wish to get into, ask for virtual or in-person coffees. Practice your elevator pitch with them. Conversation starters, small talk, eye contact and remaining calm under pressure are all great areas to practice.

Finally, as you are ready for your return, make sure your plan b for any unforeseen emergencies are covered or balanced as you enter the next step in your career journey.

FWM: As a Strategist, how important is corporate training to sustainability for companies given the pandemic.

Research shows 79% of job leavers cite lack of appreciation and not feeling like they belong as the driving reasons. So even if a company has glossy marketing with state of the art diversity and inclusion graphics, unless a manager knows how to communicate effectively with their team or a senior executive doesn’t acknowledge his female colleague’s very legitimate cost savings pitch, someone will leave. Especially during the pandemic, when most employees transitioned to working from home, that extra step to help them feel engaged and valued can go a long way. Corporate Training for senior leadership and management therefore does not only refocus workplace culture, but can also increase a manager’s Decency Quotient (DQ), measured by a genuine desire to do right by others. This increase in retention statistics is a direct link to sustainability for companies.

FWM: Tell us about Uma’s offerings. 

With over 25 years of experience, we mentor and coach women and minorities from all backgrounds and life stages, in areas such as career strategy, the art of concise communications and negotiations, and leadership development. The foundation of our coaching and mentoring offerings is focused on creating unshakable confidence, inspiring success and building resilience and leadership.

Our sessions are packed with practical and real-life tips and techniques for problem-solving, finding your passion and your voice. We mentor schoolgirls and boys, university students, women in STEM, C-Suite leadership, senior executives, military veterans and spouses, survivors of domestic violence, those in career transition as well as parents returning to the paid workforce.

For our corporate and educational clients, our underlying focus of diversity, equality and inclusion enables us to create truly bespoke DEI strategy, training and coaching programs for employees of all levels. Our approach begins with confidence and communications, before tackling a comprehensive suite of curated workshops on areas such as workplace culture, bias, privilege and decency. Our offerings are geared to create a sustainably diverse and inclusive workplace.

I am also invited to speak at policy forums, educational institutions and corporations around the world on topics such as gender, cultural and race equality, as well as confidence, communications, diversity and inclusion.

FWM: What will people notice about working with you? 

I drive change and get results. I make people feel more confident than they have ever felt before. In return, I curate a program that is completely bespoke and brings together the best methods, experiences and resources from close to 25 years of international diversity, inclusion and industry experience. Whether the client is an individual coaching client, a speaking venue or corporate client, working together demands mutual respect, trust and flexibility. This means being held accountable, taking responsibility and striving to do your absolute best. If this resonates with anyone, and they are willing to put in the time and effort and truly invest in themselves, then I invite them to get in touch!

FWM: Can you share a few client success stories?

Absolutely. Here are a couple of industry examples:

A London based private school served a diverse population with communities from around the world. They needed guidance on ensuring their curriculum, staff interactions and policies were fully inclusive and equitable in order to serve their diverse pupil body. We worked with the school leadership, board, teachers and parents, to strategize a DEI roadmap, structured the formation of a DEI Taskforce, and provided communications, inclusivity, and cultural awareness training to select faculty and PA members. The school community, pupils, and faculty all reported a stark rise in morale, confidence and overall motivation, with a greater understanding and respect for their various cultures.

An IT Consulting and Services firm was looking for an individual from a diverse background to spearhead talent acquisition as well as have a strong technical background, so they turned to Uma. At the same time, a former software engineer on Wall Street, was reevaluating her future career goals and her work/life balance. We structured a six month Umaship where we coached and prepared the candidate, as well as trained the firm’s management on ensuring a smooth transition. The company and candidate are flourishing, with the successful creation of an opportunity that matched the lifestyle goals of a diverse candidate, resulting in a win for the firm and the candidate they hired.

Here are some individual testimonials:

“Just watched this… you are amazing…. your energy, your vibe, your positivity and your passion in what you say and do is so empowering. Your eloquence and delivery is perfect…” Viewer of Ticker News, Australia segment

“Thank you so much for your help! The student you have been working with just received an offer from Trinity College, Cambridge, and she mounts her success and confidence during her interview and preparation down to your work together! Thank you so much again for your help uplifting our year 12 girls and all our students!” Headmaster, all girls’ school, Hertfordshire, UK

“Last night’s talk was one of the best I’ve attended, seriously! The tangible takeaways of how to empower women in the workplace were unique and seemed to resonate with SO many of us. Really, this was top notch!” Senior manager, Capital Group, Los Angeles, USA

“Thank you for such an amazing, energizing class! I was thrilled to have you, and you saw the students were engaged in your important topics as well. Hope to have you back for an encore soon! Today’s timing was perfect for Women’s History Month!” Prof. Minna Logemann, Baruch College, CUNY, New York, USA

“The epitome of self-assurance and poise, Kakati-Shah presents confidence-boosting strategies in her live masterclasses and coaching seminars to help anyone create unshakable self-confidence to meet any challenge head-on,” Marcia Larson, Head of Partnerships, Knopman Marks Financial Training, New York, USA

Individual Coaching:

“Rita, the coaching sessions have been simply AMAZING! Thank you! I really feel ready and fully prepared to launch my company now! You gave me so much clarity, curated the sessions to my exact needs, and were so down to earth and easy to work with!” Executive Coaching client, Founder of MORR Strategy LLC, Saratoga Springs, USA

“It was an absolute pleasure to work with UMA for my re-joining work sessions. I was paired with Rita, who was so thoughtful, and tailored her approach to my unique career needs and growth. She gave me excellent advice on resume building, networking and interview tips. I wish I had more sessions with Rita as they were so engaging and enjoyable. I look forward to my journey back to work and cannot recommend Rita enough, she’s amazing! Thank you Rita and thank you UMA!” Re-Entry Coaching client, California / New York, USA

FWM: Tell us about your workshops. 

Our workshops are comprehensive, fun and very interactive! The aim isn’t just to impart theory, but to involve the audience, such that they are engaged, vested and passionate about the topic. I love roleplaying so that is incorporated into quite a few of the sessions, which helps tremendously in creating empathy, understanding and realization of a particular topic. We end by asking our attendees to pledge a change from something they have learned, whether that is paying it forward to another colleague, or discussing a certain topic around the dinner table at home, so that change isn’t just limited to a certain age group, gender or industry sector, but can empower all members of our communities, one person at a time.

To give you an example, we hosted an event in New York City about pay equity and parental leave. Rather than have a roomful of female professionals and caregivers in the room, we ensured that men were part of the conversation. We planned the event around Father’s Day, and invited men and women from different industries and stages in life. Through roleplaying and case studies and a comparison of the US with other countries, everyone in the room felt so engaged, that they took a pledge to actively have a conversation with a senior colleague in their place of work, personal or social circle.

FWM: You are a much sought-after speaker. What are key topics for upcoming virtual events? 

That’s very kind of you! It really depends on the event. For example, at international policy forums such as European Parliament in Brussels or UNESCO in Paris, topics are often related to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, such as changing the narrative around SDG 5, gender equality. At academic institutions such as Marshall School of Business at University of Southern California or London Business School, it is often around communications and confidence. At schools, the talks are more centered around career development and future goals for school children. Corporations are generally focused on creating diverse and inclusive workplaces, improving employee morale and confidence across all levels. As I recently co-authored books on women in business, diversity and inclusion, with a specific focus on decency, that’s a natural topic for current talks too.

FWM: What is the key to inclusion and diversity for companies today and how is Uma the solution? 

Diversity and Inclusion can be thought of like a muscle. In order for muscle memory to form and to build strength, it needs to become part of the company’s DNA with regular messaging, repetition and practice.

Ultimately listening to one another, showing empathy and taking the time to acknowledge what someone has just said, is the start of inclusivity. How we communicate is key, and regardless of whether we agree with someone’s point of view or not, taking the time to listen to why they feel a certain way, with empathy, respect and acknowledgment goes a long way.

While it is important for everyone to feel able to speak up and use their voices, it is also important to note that there is a fine line between being entitled and being empowered. At Uma we build confidence and resilience in our clients through regularly practicing empathy, good listening and mutual respect, and attempt to quash negative feelings of self-pity in the bud.

With effective communications across cultures, empowered thought and leading with decency, employees can start to feel confident, comfortable and competent to excel in their organization.