Gender Equality is highly essential for economic prosperity. It helps prevent violence against women and girls. Societies are believed to be safer and healthier when it treats men and women equally.
Inequality in gender makes us all affected – all genders and of all ages and backgrounds. And for this reason, promoting gender equality is now a necessity for all of us. It is not just better in terms of economic value, safety, or health. Gender Equality is a rights issue.
Kalyani Subramanyam, the CEO of Maitrayana Charity Foundation, promotes gender equality through her aforementioned organization but in a very unique way – through sports.
We had a great time interviewing the CEO of Maitrayana, Kalyani Subramanyam. The conversation that we had with her was not only delightful but also rich in insights.
Ahead is inscribe of the pleasant conversation that we had, take a glance at it!
TELL US ABOUT YOUR AND YOUR COMPANY’S BACKGROUND IN A BIT.
I am Kalyani Subramanyam and am working as the CEO of the Maitrayana Charity Foundation. I have a master’s degree in Social Work, and I am a post-graduate diploma holder in Personnel Management. I am having work experience of 25 years in working on Gender Issues, HIV, and Sexuality.
As a strong advocate for women’s rights, I have been responsible for developing the ‘Young People’s Initiative,’ which is an initiative for women’s empowerment. Through sports, life skills education, and leadership development, this initiative empowers adolescent girls and young women to access their rights and achieve their potential.
So far, YPI (Young People’s Initiative) has reached out to over 1,30,000 girls across the country, the program was led by me to focus on economic justice-building skills, mentoring young women, and enabling them to access economic empowerment pathways.
I was awarded the Goal Lifetime Achievement Award for my commitment as a pioneer to providing safe spaces to girls so that they can play and participate in life skills education.
In my role at Maitrayana, I focus on Women’s Empowerment by leveraging the power of sport to create ecosystems that advance gender equality. Having worked with several grassroots organizations, I have gained experience in program design, implementation, strategy development for scale, and ensuring high-quality interventions.
I’m a champion of Child Protection & Safeguarding and serve as a member of UNICEF’s International Safeguarding Children in Sport Initiative’s Advisory Board. I also serve as the NGO representative on Standard Chartered Bank and its subsidiaries’ Internal Committee (IC) for their POSH policy. I’m a Vital Voices Lead Fellow and an alumnus of the Dasra Leadership Program.
Maitrayana Charity Foundation uses the power of sport to work towards a gender-equal society. It runs a sport for development program (the Young People’s Initiative – YPI) in schools and communities where it aims at developing girls’ life- and leadership skills through netball. The program is implemented with adolescent girls and young women (10 – 25 years) in Delhi, Mumbai, and Bengaluru.
It aims at creating pathways for them so that they can influence the decisions in their lives, developing ecosystems that enable them to access their rights and achieve their potential, and building collaborations to achieve systemic change that will advance gender equality. Maitrayana works currently on an annual base with 10,000 adolescent girls and young women through its basic YPI program Pragati, its netball clubs, and its economic justice program. It has reached out to more than 1,30,000 girls.
WHAT MAKES YOUR ORGANIZATION, MAITRAYANA CHARITY FOUNDATION, STAND OUT IN SOCIETY?
Maitrayana Charity Foundation is one of the very few global organizations and is the only one in India that is purely focused on gender equality through sports from a rights-based perspective. Our organization is the largest girls’ and women’s only sport for development organization in the continent.
HOW DOES YOUR ORGANIZATION CONTRIBUTE TOWARDS A GENDER- EQUAL SOCIETY?
It is Maitrayana’s vision to work towards a gender-equal society. The programs focus on providing girls with access to sport (which many of them don’t have) as a tool to build their assets (knowledge, attitude, skills, behavior) and their confidence to use their agency to access their rights, make decisions and influence others.
Maitrayana also works with parents, communities, government, NGOs, and corporates to build ecosystems that will make the playing field level for girls and women. Most of Maitrayana’s staff members are former participants who have an excellent understanding of the issues that girls and young women are facing and how the program can make an impactful change.
EXPLAIN THE ROLE OF SPORTS IN THE CREATION OF ECOSYSTEMS THAT EMPOWER GIRLS AND WOMEN TO FULFILL THEIR POTENTIAL.
Sport is central to Maitrayana’s approach. It is not only a unique tool for experiential learning but it is also one of the areas in which gender equality is prominent in all its facets: restrictions for girls and women to access public spaces, go out alone or to other places than schools/shops, to wear what they want, to be loud, raise their voice, be leaders, have an opinion. Girls’ assets and leadership are built through sports and they are empowered to use their agency.
The waves that this creates are opportunities to challenge gender norms and work with families and communities to start thinking differently about what the future of their daughters could look like. The lessons learned, success stories, and voices from girls and stakeholders regarding female leadership, child participation, and the protection of children in sports are at the heart of Maitrayana’s advocacy with those who can take measures to achieve change at a larger scale.
BRIEF US ABOUT THE VALUES OF YOUR ORGANIZATION.
Maitrayana’s values are integrity (doing the right thing), transparency (doing it the right way), respect (with dignity), and inclusion (with all, for all). The organizational culture is strongly geared towards achieving the vision and mission through its values that I am caring and that is why I run a social enterprise. Its staff engagement is people-centered with a focus on people’s strengths and their growth (rather than focusing on their weaknesses).
Maitrayana believes that fairness, empathy, and supporting each other are key elements in this. Playing and having fun is central to Maitrayana’s approach to creating change through sports. This is true for both the participants as well as the staff.
Learning and innovation are central themes in the organization as sports for development is still a niche in India. Entrepreneurship, excellence, and collaboration is fundamental in this regard, and ‘failing forward’ is appreciated. In terms of governance, Maitrayana is building its brand as a responsible, functional, and effective organization.
WHAT ARE THE INITIATIVES TAKEN BY YOUR ORGANIZATION?
- The Young People’s’ Initiative combines sport with life skills and leadership development as well as an economic justice program.
- Girls’ led netball clubs and advocacy projects
- A collective of organizations aimed at safeguarding children in sports in India.
WHERE DOES YOUR INTEREST IN ENTREPRENEURSHIP COME FROM – HOW DID YOU START?
I have always wanted to bring change. From when I was in school, I knew that I wanted to be a social worker. I believe that you have to be the change you want to see. I have the strength and ability to create a platform to bring people together to facilitate change and so that is what I do.
HOW DO WOMEN FEEL IN A MALE-DOMINATED INDUSTRY? HAVE YOU EXPERIENCED A DIFFERENT ATTITUDE JUST BECAUSE YOU ARE A WOMAN?
The fact is that you have to put yourself out there to be taken seriously. You can be competent, skilled, and have all the requisites but even then, you have to shout from the rooftops. Just because you’re a woman, people don’t take you seriously. They should respond to your role, not to your gender. Women have to prove themselves more.
Since I work in the development sector, often, the assumption is that ‘you have a husband’ or ‘you are rich.’ They think that I’m driven by altruism. They think that I feel sorry or that I’m caring that’s why I run a social enterprise. They view it as a woman’s attribute. They don’t see women through a professional lens and sometimes even ask if I get a salary. What I do is not a hobby, it’s a career. They don’t see my ambition to bring change.
WHAT DO YOU THINK IS THE TOUGHEST PROBLEM FOR A BUSINESSWOMAN?
The biggest problem is the energy that is being spent to address the barriers such as people not taking you seriously, their interest in your personal life, etc. which takes away time from the issue at hand. Women have limited opportunities to voice their opinions and take part in decision-making processes. In conferences, even around women’s issues, women’s participation is often only token representation. Women are still left out of the key policy decision-making processes and are rarely on boards.
WHAT’S A DAY IN YOUR LIFE LIKE AS AN ENTREPRENEUR?
Maitrayana is still in its early stages. We are not a typical start-up and we are big – with 28 Full time and 32 Interns and we have ambition. The first year was essentially about positioning ourselves and raising resources. Besides building the institution, my second responsibility is role modeling and being the leader who inspires young women. I do a lot of mentoring of young people. I’m deeply involved in program design. There are many tasks and the art is to assess the risks and mitigate them on an everyday basis.
WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED ABOUT ENTREPRENEURSHIP IN YOUR JOURNEY?
I have learned that it is important to build a strong team. You can’t do it alone. I have realized the value of forming a team of diverse people with different skills and abilities. In the process, I have realized that it is important to be open and share your vulnerability. All the time, we worry about failure and taking risks. I have learned to be courageous, be vulnerable, seek support, address issues, and learn from the failures we have made. It is important to look for people who share your vision. I know that I need allies, people who care about the change as much as I do.
HOW DO YOU ACHIEVE A BALANCE BETWEEN YOUR PERSONAL AND PROFESSIONAL LIFE?
It’s not an issue for me. But I’m conscious that if I want to do more, I need to have a fulfilling personal life. It has been a blessing that I have a strong support system – my husband, children, and parents. They understand how critical my role is and how they can support me to fulfil our dream for Maitrayana. They provide me with the emotional support to do what I need to do. Nurturing deep friendships for the same reason has also been beneficial. Besides this, I give myself time for gardening. Being outdoors re-energizes me. I’m committed to exercise/fitness as this is the only way to stay healthy in a hectic schedule with frequent travel. Self-care is important to stay strong.
WHAT ARE THE AWARDS AND MILESTONES WON BY YOUR ORGANIZATION?
Earlier, the YPI has been implemented in another entity. Maitrayana was founded in 2018 but became only operational in October 2021. However, I was honored in 2017 with the Goal Lifetime Achievement Award for her commitment as a pioneer to providing safe spaces for girls to play and participate in life skills education.
AFTER ALL THIS SUCCESS AND FAILURE, WHAT DO YOU STRUGGLE WITH NOW?
The main struggle is building pathways for more young women to grow into leadership and giving them opportunities to have them exercise it. We need more women who live the lives they want to, who are valued for who they are, and who can make their own decisions. And how can we make this the norm instead of the exception?
WHAT IS YOUR FUTURE AGENDA TO KEEP GROWING YOUR ORGANIZATION IN SOCIETY?
Maitrayana is still young. We have just celebrated our first year and are extremely proud that we have reached out to 10,000 girls in this period. In the next few years, we will build Maitrayana into a reliable and sustainable organization that will be fit for its purpose which is creating a deeper impact in the lives of the girls through longer and high-quality interventions. Ultimately, we want Maitrayana to be seen as the organization that leads in designing, implementing, and evaluating sports for development programs that contribute to Sustainable Development Goals on a global platform.
AS A SOURCE OF INSPIRATION FOR MANY, WHAT WOULD YOUR ADVICE BE FOR FEMALE ENTREPRENEURS PLANNING TO START AN ORGANIZATION?
My advice is: to dream and have the courage to see it through. It’s a huge responsibility. Have the ambition, courage, and smartness to reach out for investment and support. Have the courage to lead and bring people together. Be kind to yourself, not too critical.