“If you take the time to listen, you are patient, approachable and focused, you can shape somebody’s future for the better.”As a part of our series about stars who are making an important social impact, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Rita Kakati-Shah. Rita is an award-winning gender, diversity, inclusion and career strategist, speaker and advisor to Fortune 500 companies, and Founder and CEO of Uma. Rita began her professional career at Goldman Sachs in London, where she was awarded the Excellence in Citizenship and Diversity Award. She is also the recipient of the King’s College London Distinguished Alumni Award. Rita actively mentors students, entrepreneurs, women veterans and survivors of domestic violence. She also serves on various committees and boards, such as the NYC Bar Association, JCC, ACP Women Veterans and Governor of Ormiston Park Academy. Rita has been featured as an expert on multiple international television and news shows, interviewed and quoted in various podcasts, publications and panel discussions and has vast international speaking accolades.
Rita started Uma in response to her personal journey, and has grown its presence from New York to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Toronto and London. Uma is an international platform that empowers women for successful return to work after a career break or transition. Uma partners with companies to foster optimal work environments and cultures through retention, diversity and inclusion best practices and strategy and has successfully worked with many returning candidates and companies, structured return to work and buddy programs, curated numerous workshops as well as mentored and coached women and minorities looking to enter senior leadership positions.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share with us the “backstory” that led you to this career path?
I started Uma in response to my life’s journey. I was living and working in London, then transitioned careers, got married, relocated to New York. I took a career hiatus to raise my two children, then experienced the “motherhood penalty” that many women face when trying to return to work after a career break. I wanted to instill confidence, build emotional readiness and preparedness for workforce reentry. I met so many incredible women with similar stories so realized that someone had to challenge the system. Due to my background and experiences in diversity and inclusion, it was a natural next step to work with companies on their inclusion, retention and diversity strategy. Having experienced many of the issues, I made it my mission to fix them.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career? What was the lesson or takeaway that you took out of that story?
When I decided to explore work possibilities after an almost 4 year career hiatus, I attended a networking event, where I confidently sported my name tag with the acronym SAHM (Stay-at-Home Mom). When a fellow networker asked me what it meant, I spelled it out. Feeding into my worst fears, the attendee then turned her back and walked away. However, rather than let her reaction phase me, I asked why she did that. Funnily she had no idea of her reaction, which is representation of the unconscious bias that exists. She later confessed that seeing my nametag was a turnoff as I was not in a paid job and so couldn’t possibly have contributed to her future career ambitions of meeting someone in finance. Little did she know, I came from finance, and after she found out, promptly gave me her card to help her next career move!
What would you advise to a young person who wants to emulate your success?
It’s worth knowing that success isn’t just handed to you on a plate, but warrants itself after much perseverance, dedication, trial and error. To start, be passionate about what you want to do. When you feel that buzz, that motivation toward a certain industry or company, you need to go all in. This means doing your research, attending as many networking or career events as you can and meeting prospective employers for coffees. Being an entrepreneur means you are constantly creating new concepts and ideas. Combine that with also being the boss, now you can shape the entire direction and philosophy of your company.
Is there a person that made a profound impact on your life? Can you share a story?
An early childhood memory is my mother always pushing me to go outside my comfort zone. She would always encourage me to keep moving onwards and upwards. “See the world, try everything at least once. And when you find your calling, never give up.” These words still ring true in everything I do.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Finding a strong mentor is key, be it a former colleague, friend or family. A professional mentor is great for bouncing ideas off and speaking to friends is very helpful in understanding your target market — I’ve even changed strategy based upon actual market research of talking to my actual target demographic.
How are you using your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share with us the meaningful or exciting causes you are working on right now?
Everything we do at Uma helps the society we live in. Empowering women returning to the workforce as well as educating companies and management hand in hand is shifting the needle on how jobs are traditionally done and how women are perceived in the workplace. I also mentor veterans, survivors of domestic violence, school children, undergraduate and postgraduate students, business leaders and entrepreneurs as well as members of my local community. I also do a lot of public speaking around the world, on topics around gender, minorities, diversity and inclusion, and an underlying thread through my talks is the importance of confidence as a key to success and changing our own narrative. An example is the negative connotation associated with career “break”. In essence we are talking about a career transition into a caregiving role, but the word “break” doesn’t always suggest this.
Can you share with us the story behind why you chose to take up this particular cause?
Uma is creating an international movement by identifying pain points and challenging the status quo. From income disparity to paid family leave, we are not afraid of asking tough questions and making bold suggestions. Through our platform we have created a unique experience for our members where they are not only connected with job prospects across industries, but we build confidence, resilience and the fighting spirit to progress in their new journeys ahead. Nothing beats the feeling of seeing the actual difference you have made to a person’s life. Companies benefit greatly from our training workshops too. Every person we have mentored or worked with that in turn doesn’t leave their company within the usual attrition period of 12–18 months, is a significant saving to that company’s bottom line, which is a direct result of our program. Our aim is to take our mission global, as we seek to change the narrative on how companies do business, and by doing so, empower as many women around the world as possible.
Can you share with us a story about a person who was impacted by your cause?
One of our members had recently moved to New York City and spent several months looking for a job, but she just wasn’t getting any offers. After a friend’s referral she got in touch with Uma. We completely overhauled her resume, went through typical interview questions, did mock sessions, what to wear and also breathing techniques to relieve stress. We focused not only on verbal skills but also nonverbal cues. She left feeling confident about her next steps, sent off her new resume, got the call for interview and soon after received a job offer. This is one example of many, but it shows that if you take the time to listen, you are patient, approachable and focused, you can shape somebody’s future for the better.
Are there three things that individuals, society or the government can do to support you in this effort?
- Companies could be more open to flexible, remote and shared working hours. The government could also promote this too, perhaps in the form of a tax incentive.
- We know biases exist that prevent women from having an equal presence in the workforce, leading to the dearth of female talent at senior leadership level. This is a combination of cultural, societal, demographic and socioeconomic nuances altogether, so individuals could each take the step of looking at their own views. Are they themselves truly inclusive?
- Conversations can then start with families, friend circles, the wider community. The government can certainly do its part in promoting awareness.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or an example for each.
- Being an entrepreneur means you are constantly creating new concepts and ideas, and ultimately shaping the entire direction and philosophy of your company. You are working around the clock and it feels as though you never have enough time! Add into the equation frequent travel both domestically and abroad, being a mother to young children and family and household responsibilities, it’s easy to get into a confused spiral!
- You need to be laser focused and have superior organization skills. Thankfully I was always on top of my game, but it was definitely challenging at times, especially when I had a pitch due, flight to catch, nanny that quit over text message the morning of, and a sick child so no school.
- As an entrepreneur you are the CEO, COO, CFO, Marketing and IT department all rolled into one. I had worked at big corporates previously, which meant you just switched on your computer and everything worked straightaway or you called up IT if it didn’t. Big difference when you are your own boss and it’s your very first day. You have to figure out everything — from what is your domain name, and where is your server hosted to which CRM is the best bang for your buck.
- Learning to let things go and be flexible. When you start as a leader, you are told about what to focus on — have a passion, have clear goals, a robust business plan for example, but not much guidance on taking a break or a deep breath and switching direction if that is what is needed.
- Make sure to have a budget set out at the start with estimated costs for initial set up, inventory, marketing etc so that you do not run out of cash before you are even properly launched.
You are a person of enormous influence.
If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would love to see a much more robust maternity and paternity leave policy in order to help people launch their families in this country — the U.S. is the only developed country in the world without a mandatory paid parental leave policy, and the numbers of re-entrants into the workforce has gone down. Uma wants to help change that, and much of our Research has been focused on this. Being a mother is the toughest job I’ve ever done requiring laser focus, an unparalleled skillset and immense dedication, yet because there is no compensation for being a mother and caring for your children, you are not part of the GDP calculation in the US. You could be better than the best nanny, housekeeper and cook on the planet, but you are not getting paid, you have no recognition, and you feel like a forgotten segment of society.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you explain how that was relevant in your life?
“Be yourself as everyone else is already taken” — this quote that some cite to Oscar Wilde carries a powerful message in self-confidence and just being bold and proud to be who we are.
We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Politics, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
Indra Nooyi! I see her as a role model in many ways, not just because of our shared Indian heritage, but she is a working mother, risk-taker and someone who is not afraid to make tough decisions. Not only did her savvy business decisions lead to multibillion-dollar deals, but Indra is a true allrounder, having played lead guitar in an all-women rock band in India and cricket in college.
Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was so inspiring, and we wish you continued success!
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