A CONVERSATION WITH THE FOUNDER OF ASIAN WOMEN MEAN BUSINESS, RUPINDER KAUR
Updated: Feb 23
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Did you know, it takes South Asian women an average of 4.9 months to find a job? In comparison, their white counterparts are likely to find a job almost 2 months quicker (2.8 months).[i] Research conducted by Totaljobs also found that 64% of Black and South Asian women, in managerial positions, said that their ethnicity impacted their progression[ii]. “I don’t deny that. All the evidence says that’s true. But here's where I take a slightly different position,” says Rupinder Kaur, founder of Asian Women Mean Business (AWMB). “We also need to look within. There has to come a point where you have to take personal accountability and say, ‘well, what am I doing?’ That’s what I challenge. We need to look at our upbringing. We need to look at our social conditioning.”
Around ten years ago, Rupinder decided to leave a successful career in the corporate world behind her, to start her own boutique HR consultancy. It wasn’t the easiest of tasks. “People talk about entrepreneurship and think it’s easy, sexy and think it’s an overnight success. It really isn’t.” Social media [ten year ago] wasn’t what it was today, so networking events and conferences were crucial to business success. But her presence at these events wasn’t the most comfortable of experiences. “I was a young woman of colour, with huge energy and passion. What I found was, I wasn’t seeing people that looked like me. You see lots of white, ‘male, pale and stale’ faces and you question yourself, like ‘where do I fit in?’” Initially set up as a network and support group for South Asian women, AWMB has seen somewhat of an evolution over the years. After launching AWMB, Rupinder took a little hiatus. A few years passed before a bit of a resurrection, but with a slightly different purpose. That purpose was realised after, what Rupinder calls, “one of the biggest reckonings” in her career. The realisation that her upbringing and social conditioning were a hindrance to her career. Not just slightly, but directly. “Many of my generation are taught that you don’t make direct eye contact with seniors or elders, because it’s seen as being defiant. You don’t speak first, you wait until you’re spoken to. In corporate Britain, [these things] are going to hold you back. We’re not taught to advocate for ourselves. We’re not taught to champion ourselves. We’re taught to downplay a lot of our achievements…this sense of modesty is really prevalent. It’s a beautiful thing within our culture, but it is in direct contrast to what we need when we’re in these roles. The people I was seeing around me [professionally] were doing things that I wasn’t. I wasn’t doing them because, not only have I not been taught them, but doing those things brought turmoil and conflict within me. For twenty years I’d been conditioned not to behave in that way. That was a huge realisation and reckoning.”
AWMB offers coaching, mentoring, support and inspiration to South Asian women “who are daring to dream bigger.” There’s even an online directory of south Asian female owned businesses. “We’re all about collaboration,” Rupinder says and her passion for inspiring South Asian women to be, and do, better is obvious and unapologetic. “I am going to make these women realise that you can’t play small. You can’t choose comfort. You’ve got to be courageous.” AWMB is also a safe place for these women. A place for them to come into and feel confident in publishing blogs, being on a podcast or zoom calls, all with a very specific purpose, which is that “if they go back into their corporate world, if they’re pitching or if they’re a business owner…they can present themselves in a way that they feel authentic and genuine.”
Since the pandemic there has undoubtedly been, more than ever before, a beaming light shone on the injustices of the world we live in. Whether that’s with regards to health inequity, or societal racism. The workplace did not escape the wrath of that beaming light. “We’re working within an infrastructure that has certain power privileges. We live in the prison of the infrastructure & institutions around us,” Rupinder says. The Totaljobs research highlighted in the opening of this piece found that 70% of Black women and 64% of South Asian women have code-switched at work[iii]. In the context of diversity, equity and inclusion, the research defined code-switching as relating to an individual adjusting their style of speech, language, appearance, or behaviour to fit in or gain acceptance. Three quarters of Black women and 65% of South Asian women have also felt the need to “tone down” certain phrases or mannerisms at interview stage.[iv] Code-switching and other assimilation traits can often result in an impact on the mental health and wellbeing of an individual and also a sense of abandonment of their culture or heritage.[v] Sometimes, the person assimilating, code-switching, or being discriminated against might not even realise it’s happening. “When having these conversations, in our safe coaching and mentoring spaces, sharing experiences, I’ll talk about code-switching and micro aggressions. Sometimes that’s the moment the penny drops. The reality of that can be like a bomb going off, because we are so good at accepting things. Once we’ve had that conversation, it’s like ‘right, what do we do about it?’ It is a very real presence, but I come at it from a solution focussed, forward facing, ‘what are we going to do about it?’ approach, in contrast to therapy. I’m about taking action and getting people to where they want to be, as quickly as possible.”
The tools and advice that Rupinder and AWMB provide, at their root, come from a place of lived experience and a desire to raise awareness. “I know what it feels like when your heart is beating fast because you have to raise your hand, or because you have to speak up, advocate for yourself, or ask for that pay-rise. These aren’t skills that we (South Asian women) are given. What I was told was to work hard, keep your head down, don’t get in trouble and one day, I’ll get a pat on the shoulder and get told ‘well done, you’re going to be promoted’ – it doesn’t work that way.”
AWMB has grown from strength to strength. They’re climbing mountains…literally. “I took the first group of south Asian women to Africa to summit Kilimanjaro over the summer.” Now with 200 members globally, Rupinder, along with her team, are doing something special. “We’re doing stuff to shake things up a little bit and shake up the perception of what South Asian women can do, for themselves and for others.”
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[i] https://metro.co.uk/2022/06/23/black-and-south-asian-women-wait-two-months-longer-to-land-first-job-16878530/ [ii] An equal path to progression: An employer’s guide to uplifting Black and South Asian women in the workplace – Totaljobs: The diversity trust, p15. [iii] An equal path to progression: An employer’s guide to uplifting Black and South Asian women in the workplace – Totaljobs: The diversity trust, p8. [iv] An equal path to progression: An employer’s guide to uplifting Black and South Asian women in the workplace – Totaljobs: The diversity trust, p13. [v] An equal path to progression: An employer’s guide to uplifting Black and South Asian women in the workplace – Totaljobs: The diversity trust, p18.