Our latest installment of the Daring Women Q&A features Aparna Rae, a senior program officer at Panorama Global, a Seattle-based action tank working toward solving global issues. Rae’s main focus is working toward solutions in the social and philanthropic sector, which has led her to work in six different countries throughout her career.
Read about the challenges she’s faced in her industry, her mentors and her advice to women starting out in their careers.
1. Tell us about the high point of your career. What do you love about your work? Describe your proudest moment.
In 2014, I left Seattle to solve big education challenges in India. During my time at Teach for India, I was tasked with building a nationwide teacher education program, charged with upskilling millions of India’s teachers through a technology-aided program. In one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, only 20 to 25 percent of teachers hold the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree. Over the course of two and a half years, I was exposed to gross inequities, poverty, illiteracy among women and girls, and, at the same time, such great desire for people to learn.
My time in India rolling out this program to some of the most rural states has been a high point in my career. It taught me some of the biggest lessons in my life about the value of collaborating when it’s the most inconvenient, leading with humility, and truly understanding and building for my audience/beneficiaries.
2. What challenges have you faced as a woman in your industry? How have you addressed them?
As a woman of color, working to create solutions to big social issues has not been easy. Philanthropy and the social sector more broadly value the voice of wealthy white women, who work with a “saving the world” mentality. There is often a disregard for centering the voices and needs of beneficiary communities, an over-reliance on anecdotes in lieu of evidence. Women of color find themselves trapped in lower levels of the organizations, with little positional authority to challenges norms.
I’ve utilized a few strategies over the years, albeit not soon enough, to work in a difficult environment:
- Building a personal network of colleagues, friends and community — outside of work
- Engaging in pro bono work (e.g., board service) and speaking opportunities to create and amplify my own brand
- Bringing evidence/data-based approaches to the table, as often as possible
- Bringing up issues of equity and inclusion, in approachable ways to senior leadership
- Making it a priority to know senior leaders at my organization and leaders in the network
- Taking time to learn about the vision of organizational leaders
3. Tell us about a person who has inspired or mentored you. What key lesson did you learn from them?
I’m lucky to have many phenomenal mentors and champions. One of my most trusted mentors also happens to be a local leader in philanthropy and impact investing. After building and selling a successful evaluation firm, she is now an adviser for some of the largest philanthropies and impact organizations globally.
She has encouraged and inspired me to be transparent, remain committed to learning and open to challenging assumptions at every step. With her guidance, I have grown tremendously as a people manager and a more inclusive leader.
Despite her career success (and workload), she is incredibly responsive and at every step uplifts the voices of up-and-coming latent. I’m constantly amazed at her generosity in grooming young women of color for leadership roles and sharing the stage whenever possible.
4. What advice would you give to a woman getting started in her career?
Always make it a priority to get to know organizational leaders and their support staff.
Be proactive in asking for feedback and engage your manager.
Build a strong network of friends and colleagues who can help fill gaps in knowledge.
Ask for professional development opportunities, including being paired with a great mentor.
Know the law. Get familiar with employment laws, the work of the Office of Civil Rights, and support organizations (you never know when you’ll need this information).
5. What can women do to improve gender equity in the workplace? What can men do?
In Washington, we are lucky to have a pay equity law that allows everyone an opportunity to have conversations about pay/compensation. In addition to pay, there are many small areas where men and women can come together to level the playing field:
- If you have social capital or positional authority, use it to promote quieter voices.
- If you have the positional authority, support colleagues who are being faced with harassment, microagressions, sexism, and other issues.
- Encourage all men to take leave (PFML, PTO, etc.) to support their partners with caregiving responsibilities. It’s crucial for all genders to take an equal part in managing caregiving (child care, aging parents, etc.) and household responsibilities, and workplace polices can/should support that.
- Proactively support hiring managers in recruiting diverse talent.
- Engage in conversations with hiring managers, HR and company leaders about prioritizing D&I training that is continuous.
6. Tell us about a favorite book/show/podcast and why/how it inspires you.
My favorite podcast at the moment is Future City on WYPR. I love how Wes Moore digs into the future of work and life, and provides a cross-cutting perspective on issues. Despite the show’s having a largely progressive audience, the podcast includes far-right perspective. It reminds me daily to include narratives that I may not always agree with or collaborate with people/orgs that are inconvenient.
7. Where do you find support and inspiration? How important is networking and how do you expand your contacts?
My girl gang and friends’ kids keep me grounded, feeling loved and supported. At least three times a week I prioritize downtime with friends as a way to regroup and re-energize, and create mental bandwidth to see inspiration. Inspiration abounds in small moments and with big actors.
Expanding contacts comes naturally when you reframe networking as relationship building. I believe in the value of continuously connecting with people, and making room in my own schedule for expertise sharing, job searches and mentoring. Because I’ve lived and worked in six different countries, I make it a point to stay in touch with people and update my larger network on a regular bases.
8. What are the most important characteristics of a good leader? What leadership traits are overrated?
Humility, continuously challenging assumptions, and not being afraid of failure. I don’t think any traits are overrated; we should make room for a large range of expression and gendered approaches of understanding leadership.
9. What would you do differently in your career if you had a do-over.
Every experience builds on the next. If I had to change a thing, it would be in reframing networking as relationships sooner. As a young career professional, I would only seek out others during a moment of change or crisis.
10. What would be the title of your autobiography?
No Two Weeks the Same
We’d love to hear from more women across all industries who are challenging the status quo. Does it sound like you? If it does, click here and fill out our questionnaire.
Daring Women Q&A responses have been edited and condensed.