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Mentor Donna Orender with mentee Sarika Bhattacharyya at the Global Ambassadors Program in India. 

Sarika Bhattacharyya is Co-Founder and Director of Altavis Pvt Ltd and Co-Founder of BizDivas. She has participated in both the 2012 Fortune/State Department/Vital Voices Global Women’s Mentoring Partnership and the 2012 Vital Voices Global Ambassadors Program, where she was mentored by Kathy Calvin and Donna Orender, respectively. Sarika has drawn inspiration from her mentorship experiences to become an advocate for women’s leadership and entrepreneurship in India.

It’s a difficult context to operate in. India ranks 105 out of 135 countries on the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index, a measure of gender equality that uses indicators such as economy, health, education and politics (WEF, 2012). According to the Gender Diversity Benchmark, India has the lowest national female labor force participation rate and the worst leaking pipeline for junior to middle level position women. Despite its strong history of female heads of state, India is considered the worst place to be a woman among the world’s biggest economies (TrustLaw 2012).

I belong to a conservative business family. Women in our family are educated but not expected to pursue a career. Instead, they are supposed to get married after graduation. Despite this, I decided to continue my education by pursuing an MBA and a career in banking.

While in the corporate world, I realized the scarcity of women in top positions. How is it that women have 50% of a country’s purchasing power, but not 50% of the decision making power? In India, women drop out of the workforce due to family pressure, child care needs, and social norms. In my personal experience, I have found that there are so many well educated and skilled women who could be contributing to economic progress — but they lack the necessary support systems at work, at home, and throughout society.

This became clear to me after I became a mentor. My mentee came from an affluent family, and was very well educated, but she had gotten married very young and never joined the workforce. As a result, she had no clue how to run a business. Her husband had recently been diagnosed with cancer, so he pushed her to gain skills to take over the family business. I was able to teach her business knowledge I had learned from my experience, and I am proud to say that today she successfully runs her own logistics firm (in a male dominated-industry, at that). She pays it forward in her community by supporting education for girls. She showed me that we need women leaders in business, politics, and all other areas of society because when a woman is successful, she invests in other women in turn.

Though I became a mentor to help my mentee meet her goals, serving as a mentor opened my eyes and changed the course of my career. I realized that there are so many women who could similarly excel, if provided the opportunity to be mentored and had a network of support to embark on new opportunities. So after twelve years in banking, I quit my corporate career to work in the women’s empowerment space. I started a venture called Altavis, a talent management and diversity consulting firm that helps organizations build their women leadership pipeline. We also launched a nonprofit organization, Biz Divas, to promote women’s participation in the Indian economy through facilitating professional mentoring relationships for entrepreneurs, because when women are economically empowered, they have more choices, and their voices are heard.

Biz Divas focuses on three core areas: increasing female participation in business, politics, and public leadership; providing mentoring and training opportunities for women leaders; and creating awareness and advocacy campaigns around violence against women. In our first year alone, we made an impact on more than 1,200 women through workshops, round table sessions, mentoring programs, and public forums. And we trained and mentored another 500 women in Delhi and Gurgaon to help improve their business skills, financial literacy and personal development.

Sarika advises mentees at the Global Mentoring Walk in Mumbai, India.

As the organization grew, we had the vision to scale up our initiatives, but lacked the experience and knowledge of how to effectively run a nonprofit organization. The Fortune/State Department Global Women’s Mentoring Partnership, run by Vital Voices, came at the perfect time, giving me the opportunity to be mentored by Kathy Calvin, President and Chief Executive Officer of the United Nations Foundation. Kathy introduced me to her team, and they exposed me to various functions of running a large nonprofit organization. Her team changed my outlook: a nonprofit organization should be treated and run like any other business.

Biz Divas today seeks to be the voice of Indian women. We have launched diversity initiatives in major corporations to promote gender equality in the workplace. We’ve helped many women grow their small businesses and become financially independent. And we’ve increased the visibility of these issues by holding public forums to raise awareness on violence against women.

Later that year, I was nominated for the Global Ambassadors Program, a partnership between Bank of America, Merrill Lynch, and Vital Voices. My mentor was Donna Orender, Chief Executive Officer and Founder of Orender Unlimited. Donna truly supported me and made me believe that I could achieve anything. My relationship with Donna has continued to grow and now she serves on the Biz Divas Board of Advisors.

With Donna’s guidance and inspiration from the Vital Voices team, Biz Divas launched our first National Conference for Women Leaders: I INSPIRE. More than 300 women leaders attended the day-long conference. With support from the US Embassy, Deutsche Bank, Capgemini and Bank of America, the conference provided a public forum for women to voice concerns, share challenges, and swap inspiring stories. We have created a platform that gives visibility to our members, and creates awareness amongst them.

Donna’s commitment to helping me make my dream come true has encouraged me to further pay it forward by starting a Mentoring Program for women leaders in India. Biz Divas has partnered with the Cherie Blair Foundation & the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women program to provide our members with a structured mentoring program and access to international networks. We launch the Biz Divas Mentoring Leadership program next month, pairing 20 senior businesswomen with 20 emerging women leaders – a model inspired by the Global Women’s Mentoring Partnership.

I have been blessed to have such wonderful mentors in my life. They make me believe that we can reach new heights everyday if only we have the courage and confidence to stop limiting ourselves, take bigger risks, and pursue our dreams.