BOSTON—A panel of nine independent judges on Saturday broke from the tradition and chose 27-year-old climate activist Varshini Prakash as Woman of the Year 2021. Ms. Prakash was on the TIME 100 Next List in 2019 and also made to Forbes magazine’s 30 Under 30 2020.
During the 18th annual INDIA New England Woman of the Year Awards ceremony—virtual this year, judges went for Ms. Prakash’s courage, persistence and energy to inspire to the next generation to join the battle to make the world a better place.
Ms. Prakash is leading a climate revolution in U.S. politics. Co-founder and Executive Director of the Sunrise Movement, as well as co-author of the book “Winning the Green New Deal: Why We Must, How We Can”, Ms. Prakash has led a youth movement to stop climate change and create millions of good jobs in the process, while bringing The Green New Deal to the attention of millions during the recent election.
Ms. Prakash said she was surprised to win this honor, and said “the people should lead and the leaders follow” calling upon all of the people to come together to fight against climate change. Only then perhaps leaders will listen and take concrete far-reaching measures, she said.
“It is indeed a very proud moment for the New England community to celebrate these amazing women and their journeys and recognize a young and vibrant leader in Varshini Prakash as the Woman of the Year,” said Praveen Tailam, Chair TiE Global who headed an independent panel of nine judges. “Launching and growing a revolution to address the climate crises through her Sunrise movement is no easy task. Varshini’s courage, persistence, and energy inspire the next generation to join the battle to make the world a better place and create new jobs.”
Mr. Tailam added: “Varshini is a real trailblazer by embarking on a path less traveled, especially from our community. It is upon us to nurture such selfless individuals and elevate the initiatives that affect the entire human race.”
In addition to Mr. Tailam, the right other judges were: Nikhil Bhojwani Co-Founder & Managing Partner, Recon Strategy; Shipra Dubey, PhD, Principal Associate, Harvard Medical School Director, Radiochemistry, Research and Development, BICOR, Radiology Brigham and Women’s Hospital; Vineeta Kumar, President Indian American Getting Involved Group; Santhana Krishnan, Founder, South Asian Art Gallery and Managing Partner, Om Ventures; Revathy Ramakrishna, Co-Founder, Vision-Aid; Preetesh Shrivastava, Founder, Hindi Manch and Preetesh Entertainment, LLC; Meena Subramanyam , Vice President and Global Program Leader, Takeda Pharmaceuticals; Bala Sundaram, PhD, Vice Provost for Research & Dean of Graduate Studies, University of Massachusetts, Boston.
Judges also selected two out of 20 Outstanding Women for Honorable Mentions.
“We were entrusted to pick one winner and it was hard. Along with the winner the jury decided to honorably mention two incredible women and in no particular order,” said Mr. Tailam. “Rhitu Siddarth. Rhitu has been bravely providing humanitarian leadership thru her work with UN in many troubled and battled countries like Syria, Sudan, Libya and more over the last 18 years. So proud of you. And Priti Chatter, who quietly and surely make an impact to solving problems that address the immediate needs of billion people.”
Bharatanatyam dance teacher Sridevi Ajai Thirumalai, who has taught over 1,000 students and has developed her own-style of teaching classical dance to Indian-American children, received India New England News Lifetime Achievement Award.
Mandy Pant and Jharna Madan served as emcees of the evening. Tech support was provided by Sraveo. Key sponsors included Boston Group/Sybu Kota, BMW Sudbury/Pranav Gill, Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, Alankar Decorators, Boston Sound & Light Company, Dyuti Majumdar Photography.
“I always say that you do not get Woman of the Year award. It finds you. Somehow an independent jury panel finds someone who is right for the role in that moment in time from 20 fantastic and extremely qualified women,” said Dr. Manju Sheth, director hostess of the Woman of the Year awards. “Climate change is currently on everyone’s mind so not surprisingly that Varshini, a leader in climate revolution with her sunrise movement is Woman of the Year 2021. She is perhaps our youngest winner. Congratulations to her. We are proud of her. Congratulations also to Rhitu Siddarth and Priti Chatter for special well deserved recognition as well.”
Mr. Tailam said that the judges were faced with a amazing slate of 20 incredible women who are all winners.
“There could not have been a more diverse set of women from healthcare to music to art to stepping up to the plate during the pandemic to fostering early-stage entrepreneurs to climate change to innovation in food to living a joyful life thru yoga to humanitarian leadership in the most troubled areas of the world to philanthropy to high corporate success and the list goes on when I add their other passions,” Mr. Tailam said during the award ceremony. “Reading your interviews and researching you was insightful and inspiring. Most of you have underplayed the impact and we had to dig deeper to get to understand why you do what you do. You are amazing role models. You have all gone above and beyond your calling and so deserving of this recognition. We are fortunate to have you in our New England community.”
He also talked about the judging process and the challenges judges faced.
“On the judging panel, I was in august company with great thought leaders with a good head on their shoulders to pick the Woman of the Year. We come from diverse backgrounds and bringing different perspectives. We made sure we had no conflict of interest. We soon realized this is no easy task,” Ms. Tailam said. “Although we all were very clear in making this process objective, fair and disciplined, we had many debates as this was neither an art nor science. Although we had set out with a criteria but we were forced to think out of the box at times. Our criteria included leadership, breaking glass ceilings, success in the profession, being a role model and inspiration to the next generation, community service and philanthropy, sustainability and future impact. This was just a starting point. At times it was a battle between heart and mind.”
After many hours of deliberations, the jury found a winner in Sunrise Movement Leader Ms. Prakash, Mr. Tailam said.
Known most notably for their 2018 sit-in in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office, The Sunrise Movement is, in their words, “[…] a youth movement to stop climate change and create millions of good jobs in the process […] to make climate change an urgent priority across America, end the corrupting influence of fossil fuel executives on our politics, and elect leaders who stand up for the health and wellbeing of all people.”
The pillars of the movement’s agenda include The Green New Deal, a 10-year plan introduced by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey to mobilize every aspect of American society toward 100% clean and renewable energy, as well as economic justice, prosperity and security; electing politicians who will make climate change a priority in their tenure; and removing fossil fuel interests from politics.
“A defining moment for me was December 2015, when a series of extremely strong floods deluged Tamil Nadu, the state in India that my dad (and a lot of my family) is from,” said Ms. Prakash in an essay in Sierra, the national magazine for the Sierra Club, on Dec. 22, 2020, adapted from “The New Possible: Visions of Our World Beyond Crisis”, a collection from Cascade Books, published in January 2021. “[…] Hundreds of people died in that flood, and thousands were displaced. That was 2015, and it was a big wake-up call to me that the climate crisis was right now. The increase in the number and severity of flooding episodes—predicted as a result of climate change—was happening now, in the present, not in the future. That was the moment. I thought, ‘What do I have to lose?’ This time it was someone else’s grandmother; the next time, it could be mine. We didn’t have time to waste.”
The Sunrise Movement has acted to reposition the current climate crisis as not simply a matter of ‘environmentalism’, but a crisis of social, economic and societal urgency.
“It feels like for the last 40 years [the climate crisis]’s been gated to the realm of environmentalism. Like it’s about saving the environment or preserving the environment, not salvation for humankind more broadly and preserving our way of life,” said Ms. Prakash in an interview with Ezra Klein on the podcast ‘The Ezra Klein Show’.