By Poonam Ahluwalia
“The knowledge that makes a difference in changing the world is knowledge that travels and mobilizes, shifting and creating new forces and agents of history in its path” – Anna Tsing
I truly believe that the India New England Woman of the YEAR award manifests what Anna Tsing is professing in the quote above — they do this by recognizing women and providing a platform from which women can move forward their purpose. My core belief is that no one by themselves can accomplish anything; it is only in collaborative action that we transform our lives and those of our fellow travelers.
When Upendra (Mishra) invited me to the 2013 WOY gala — I came to rejoice with friends — having zero expectation of being selected, it was a huge surprise to me that I was chosen. This acknowledgement meant so much to me that I could not hold back profuse tears of gratitude. A few of my friends at the event knew what this meant to me. In September 2012 (nine months earlier), I became very sick, and it changed the course of my life forever. In addition to losing my health – I lost many close friends and family members when I needed them the most. I felt that my illness had somehow made me a pariah, and I was struggling deeply with the loss of health and close relationships. Into this darkness came the award and lit me up from within, I will be eternally grateful to the judges who saw it fit to bestow this life-giving gift upon me.
WOY 2013 changed my life in so many ways; it gave me a community from which I received the much needed sustenance — having lost much of my former support structure. Suddenly everywhere I went — I was welcomed and loved. I started receiving invitations to events and parties and developed some of my closest friendships with those whom I met due to my award — this has been priceless for me. Whenever I felt darkness coming to embrace me – all I had to do was open a community event calendar and attend whatever event was being held that weekend, I was always welcomed with warm open arms — this showed me the love with which the community holds this WOY recognition.
Another benefit was the solidarity that developed between many of the 20 WOY 2013 nominees. I knew that each of them was equally capable of receiving the award, and I got it because only one person could be named. So I decided to gather us for monthly meetings. For many months we met on the 2nd Sunday and thought about various ways in which we could foster collaboration between the nominees of WOY — we are still working on this.
I was fortunate to participate in many amazing events during this year sharing about my work with YouthTrade — three of the highlights were making the keynote address at the TiE Social Entrepreneurship Forum in Boston, participating in the Global Agenda Summit of the World Economic Forum in Abu Dhabi, and finally speaking at a plenary session of the Annual meeting of the Club de Madrid in Brisbane Australia. Club de Madrid is a membership club of former democratically elected heads of states so it was a special privilege to meet over 30 former Presidents and share my work.
My winter visit to India solidified efforts to bring YouthTrade to India. YouthTrade INDIA will certify products of triple bottom line producer companies’ owned/employing 51 percent low-income youth under the age of 35 and find corporate markets for their products. The team in India intends to build a fully looped architecture/ecosystem by (a) Focusing on Markets- (1) identify corporate buyers who want to support YouthTrade as part of their core procurement or corporate gifts and supplier diversity programs and (2) identify demand driven products for sale (b) Production: working with low-income youth producer groups/clusters to (1) help develop high quality demand-driven products (2) support in merchandizing, packaging for corporate consumption.
On a separate note, I was asked to share what I felt were the three biggest challenges facing women, especially South Asian women. All my adult life I have believed that we have three major challenges to overcome (1) Team work. I believe that we women do not really work together as a team — we sometimes actually work to negate each other, hold back and pretend. I think this comes from the fact that we come from scarcity and work on a zero sum game. I also see this in relationships mother-in-law/daughter-in-law/sister-in-law axis. There are already many forces against us women — my prayer is that we work on treating each other with loving compassion and forgiveness. (2) Home/work balance. In our efforts to do it all, we are working too hard and trying to hold it all together at our own expense. It is my earnest request to women to reconsider their roles as super women — there is a cost to this and it is our mental and physical health. (3) Our health. Leading fast and furious lives we are losing our health and mental well being and are prone to burnout. It is my hope that we can take advantage of the many options available to us such as meditation, health clubs, massages, Ayurvedic treatments etc to slow us down a bit. I have always believed that our challenges and our demons are inside of us, and that is where we have to go to build our resilience and fortitude to keep going and succeed. I do not believe in external barriers — it does not mean that there are none out there, for there are many — my conscious decision is to not think about them and not make them responsible for my condition — I believe in doing the work of shifting from within and being accountable.
To the 20 outstanding women nominated for WOY — I would say that all of you are already winners. One of you will be named WOY 2014 — but all of you are part of that win and I hope that you will form a solidarity group, and find a way to forge your interests and passions for the greater good.
I believe that the WOY platform can become a powerful vehicle to align women to become a team fostering loving support and encouragement. At our 2013 WOY meetings all of us were clear that we wanted to organize conversations throughout the year that would support us women in fulfilling our purpose.
“Life only demands from you the strength you possess.” Dag Hammarskjold.
My Seven Design Principles for Life and Work
1. Believe in the power of your dream and do not get stopped by circumstances: dreams are REAL
2. Create from the future: Imagine having accomplished your goals and walk back in time.
3. Be a Dream catcher and find a Dream catcher: Find people who will believe in you unconditionally and give the same gift to others
4. Practice Freedom: By practicing freedom I mean, making the choice to be free from moment to moment. We cannot be free if other people’s opinions and our circumstances imprison us
5. Helicopter above your circumstances: so you can observe what is going on and find a way out of your maze
6. Be too ambitious to compete: Competition limits you to others like you — move beyond that to truly create something new
7. Love and create something from nothing: Knowledge can be disempowering•ignorance is bliss•create a future undaunted by the naysaying power of knowing too much
Poonam Ahluwalia is the 2013 India New England Woman of the Year. She serves as the President of Youth Entrepreneurship and Sustainability (YES) Inc. and has over the last 15 years developed two innovative programs that shaped the global youth employment agenda: YES Campaign and YouthTrade. YES Campaign: 14 years of tireless work helped place the issue of youth employment on the global agenda. Since the inception of YES in 1998, five Global Summits were held— Egypt 2002, Mexico 2004, Kenya 2006, Azerbaijan 2008 and Sweden 2010; 5 Regional Summits and countless in-country forums were organized. Through her innovative low-touch, high impact approach to development over 400 projects have been initiated and implemented by young people throughout the world. 2012 marked the final year of the YES Campaign. YouthTrade: inspired by Conscious Capitalism is an innovative architecture that certifies mission-driven youth entrepreneur’s businesses and provide access to markets, while building demand for their products. YouthTrade products can be found at Whole Foods Market and Nordstrom. The YouthTrade Innovation Studio is based at Babson College. Ahluwalia sits on the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council for Youth Unemployment. She lives in Lexington with her husband and two children.