Dr. Menaca Pothalingam of Smile Leadership Academy: “Change is the only constant denominator”

For me, nothing is ever done until you absolutely cannot do anything. Change is the only constant denominator, and life is only meaningful as far as we grow and develop with time and evolving with those changes. Menaca Pothalingam is a multi-award-winning leadership coach, serial entrepreneur, advocate for mental health, and ambassador for women empowerment. After […]

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For me, nothing is ever done until you absolutely cannot do anything. Change is the only constant denominator, and life is only meaningful as far as we grow and develop with time and evolving with those changes.

Menaca Pothalingam is a multi-award-winning leadership coach, serial entrepreneur, advocate for mental health, and ambassador for women empowerment. After 25 years in the Healthcare industry as a dentist and a practice owner, she decided to move into the world of coaching, putting her personal and professional experiences into practice.

She trains professionals on how to increase their performance, productivity, and profit. She’s a change catalyst educating others on how to prevent burnout and stress-related illnesses and reach their full potential and live life on their terms.

Menaca has overcome adversity including escaping the Sri Lankan Civil War, battling stress-related illness, and succeeding as a two-time-migrant Asian woman in business alongside being a single mother. With qualifications in NLP, hypnosis, coaching, Leadership, and education, Menaca is helping others to take control of their lives, break free from the victim mentality and turn their dreams into reality.

Menaca, who is lovingly described as “the next Oprah” of Asia, by others for her demonstrated resilience and the willingness and eagerness to continually learn and develop along with the urge to pay it forward. Menaca wants to leave a legacy of change as an individual who left this universe and anyone who crossed her path in better shape than she found it in.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I was involved in a women’s organization when I was at school, founded by my teacher during the Sri Lanka war. Like many professionals, I got immersed in my career and life events until I started searching for a purpose in my life.

Becoming a dentist, I was involved in oral health promotion in the community, and about five years ago, I became a social entrepreneur in the real sense. Having battled with mental health issues personally, I became an advocate for mental wellbeing and an Ambassador for Women’s Empowerment. When one goes through difficult life phases, one tends to dig deep and see what matters. This search rekindled my purpose and solidified my vision to create training centres in Asia and holistic health centres in Sri Lanka.

I started speaking and writing about leadership, resilience, mental wellbeing, and women empowerment topics, widely reaching out to women from the multicultural backgrounds through social media. Creating the group Women Empowering Global Women helped me share my knowledge, skills, and experience to empower them through coaching, mentoring, and training. Now I work with men and women as I realized gender bias is a reality, and both genders have different difficulties.

Another passion I have is narrowing the economic and social gap for migrants and the inclusion of people from all cultures and faiths across the globe. We can create platforms to connect, grow and develop together and promote peace.

Evolving from speaking and writing, creating the online talk show ‘Meet Menaca’ and setting up the charity ‘Thriving Mind’, was to reach out to people from those communities and provide a safe space to discuss the social issues seen as stigma or taboo openly.

I have experienced relationship failures, mental health issues, and language barriers. I’ve been reminded of these experiences by others, and that gave me the impetus to help others and be the disrupter to break the cycle and eliminate the social stigma of such issues. I believe each person is unique, each one has a different story, and everyone needs to be listened to and celebrated for who they are, regardless of where they come from, their past, or their circumstances.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

My passion is to bring awareness about mental health issues, gender inequality, and prejudices that can damage people, make them question their very being, and push them over the edge to make mistakes. The challenges mentioned above may leave lasting impressions and cause loss of life itself at times. I want everyone to have the confidence to dream, believe anything is possible, and have the courage to be changemakers.

I am fortunate to be alive, and I’ve been given a chance to retrain and chase my dreams. Many people in Sri Lanka didn’t have that opportunity. I feel I owe it to them as much as myself to be who I want to be and help others to live their dream. I want to leave a legacy as someone who tried to help anyone who crossed my path be in a better shape than when they first found me.

Initially, I didn’t see myself as a disrupter per se, but people in my community and those I coach, mentor, and train say that I am. My approach to being a disrupter is to have the courage to speak about topics that connote stigma. I find this encourages others from similar backgrounds to talk about it and seek help as and when necessary.

Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When I entered the coaching and training world outside dentistry, I thought I knew how to bring out the best in other people. As someone who has experienced several challenges, I wanted to help everyone. I could relate to Asian women easily as I knew the challenges they faced. I could understand the barriers migrants face, as someone who had to migrate twice without language fluency on my side. I empathized with war victims as a survivor of war myself. Overcoming mental health issues personally, I relate easily to those who are trying to overcome associated struggles.

Unfortunately, with that attitude, I was set to fail. I coached anyone who approached me, helped people with their difficulties trying to be all things to all people. I was overwhelmed. I almost lost my purpose, and my vision was becoming convoluted. I failed to stop and reflect on my biggest strengths and who I consistently connected with deeply.

Then, someone asked me, ‘Why aren’t you focusing on resilience when your entire life story can be summed up in that one word”. What I found strange was I never considered myself as resilient; what others now give credit to me for being resilient was viewed by me as my weaknesses. This comment made me feel as if I am a wonder woman using my bracelets to deflect all the problems minus the figure, of course. I understood after the explanation how I can easily spot the signs of unhappiness, the victim mentality, and the constant challenges they face trying to survive.

I never want to witness anyone going through the pain, difficulties, and the lowest phases I experienced. Due to that reason, I have a passion for teaching resilience and helping others understand they cannot attain success without having personal satisfaction.

At one time, one of my mentors had to challenge me and say, it’s great that you want to save the world, but at this rate, you cannot save anyone. His statement helped me to refocus and realign my vision with clarity.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

I have been blessed to have many amazing mentors along the way from family, school teachers, the Principal at Dental School, Dr. Ganapathy, my mentor in Dentistry, Dr. Russ Ladwa, and my speaking mentor Andy Harrington.

Once, I heard Simon Sinek say, finding mentors is like finding friends. Someone becomes a mentor over time rather than you find one. In my case, it has been true most times.

I met Raj Rudran through a charity, and while having a casual conversation, I realized he has years of experience and expertise in social entrepreneurship, leadership, management, and training. Most importantly, we have similar values and a shared vision of empowering others and leaving a legacy.

I was fortunate; Raj was happy to share his wisdom and guide me in my pursuits to fulfill my vision. The most important lesson I learned from Raj is bringing structure in the planning phase and focusing on long-term growth and sustainability.

Raj’s readiness to listen patiently and willingness to give constructive feedback has been of immense help. He has given me invaluable advice and guidance in setting up a charity that I have been dreaming of for many years. As a mentor, I admire his ability to remember what I mentioned in the past and challenge me to have a different perspective, quoting what I had said. He has been generous with his time and been readily accessible whenever I have had doubts.

Even though I was training for other charities, helping others by taking calls, coaching, training, and hosting talk shows on Saturdays, I was clueless about setting up a charity. When I asked for guidance, he patiently took the time to explain and encouraged me to do so. Whenever I came up with an unachievable idea, Raj would say, “Let’s think about it” or “you should perhaps sleep on it” rather than discourage me. In the meantime, he is quick to challenge me to step up and step out of my comfort zone.

Overall, He has taught some valuable lessons in a short space of time, and I am grateful for the opportunity to be mentored by him.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’?

I believe open heart-to-heart conversations and deep soulful connections bind people together and are the building blocks for healthy, happy, and sustainable communities and societies. Social media has made us believe a like from someone, a connection, a follow, and even a message has somehow replaced the communication mentioned above modes in the digital era. Many of us have tried and failed to nourish relationships in that way. Social media has created a positive culture, an expectation to succeed continuously, and a constant need to compare ourselves to a world that is far from reality. We feel the need to pretend to be someone we are not, trying to do things we don’t enjoy and want something we cannot afford.

The primary issue with this kind of communication is missing out on building those relationships that nourish us, develop us, and creating that essential support system everyone needs and deserves. We tend to wear a mask most times to hide the pain, difficulties and suffer in silence.

I use social media professionally and personally to connect with friends, family partners, and collaborators who live far. However, I try having telephone conversations or meet in person when it is possible to nurture those relationships that matter to me. I would think this is a system or structure which has withstood the test of time. Although social media has its place and advantages, we must not fall into the illusion; it can replace a real conversation and meeting.

Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive and when disrupting an industry is not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

Without disrupting technology, we would not benefit from smartphones, television, and virtual platforms, which have become an integral part of our personal and professional lives. During the recent pandemic, the early adopters who shifted to the virtual world to engage, educate, and empower others paved the way for others to follow suit.

Can you share some examples of what you mean?

Speaking about some topics and having a platform for others to do the same is uncommon in certain cultures. Oprah Winfrey inspires me, being the disrupter, she is. Without being brave and speaking openly, and facing challenges head-on, she wouldn’t have achieved what she did.

Many of my friends and family warned me not to speak and write about my struggles with mental health issues, fearing people won’t take me seriously or, worse, would not want to associate with me. We have a massive stigma about relationship breakdowns, separation, and mental health issues. Despite applauding others for advocating on these subjects, many are reluctant to speak about these struggles openly and suffer in silence in some communities. That was the impetus for my book ‘Resilience Learned and the talk show ‘Meet Menaca’. I wanted to create a platform where socially essential topics that are hardly spoken about in some cultures can be discussed to encourage others to do the same. We have had discussions about mental health issues, domestic abuse, sexual abuse, differently-abled children, alcoholism, and other related subjects.

If I gave in to the fear of others judging me, disapproving me, and labeling me, I would not be who I am today. I have not consistently got it right. I have failed many times, made mistakes, and learned to embrace life with its ups and downs.

However, I have always done the one thing: to stand in my space, be true to who I am, follow my heart, and chase my DREAM. As a small-town girl and as an Asian single mum, it was almost impossible to believe I could become a female disrupter or a thought leader. As a change catalyst, I try to demonstrate resilience in the face of adversity and give hope to others anything is possible.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

One of my mentors would say, “there is only one way to know, by doing it”.

Every time I have self-doubt, I would ask my mentor if I should do something or explore an opportunity, thinking it might be too big or if I would be successful. He would always tell me there is only one way to find out. Having coaches and mentors encouraged me to step out of my comfort zone and explore new ventures. On the other hand, it has made me realize the importance of embracing failure and learning from it to grow.

I call myself a recovering perfectionist. At times this trait can inhibit one’s progress. One of my mentors used to tell me, “this is not an exam; no one gets a hundred percent”. If I waited till I was perfect, I could not have launched the talk show and not have moved forward with the charity. His statement has made me understand the value of starting something, learning from the feedback and experience to improve.

Having big visions can also cause you to spread yourself thin and take on too much. Raj would say it would be great to solve all the world’s problems, but let’s focus on the two or three things that matter to you most first. It helps me focus on fewer issues aligned with my vision rather than getting distracted by other things. The other advice I had to learn is to think of sustainability from the outset and review it as we go along.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

For me, nothing is ever done until you absolutely cannot do anything. Change is the only constant denominator, and life is only meaningful as far as we grow and develop with time and evolving with those changes.

My long-term vision is to create holistic health centres in Sri Lanka and Training Centres for Women in Asia.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by ‘women disruptors’ that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

Women, in particular from certain parts of the world, are faced with more challenges than others. The cultural expectations, societal need for conformity, and gender-biased beliefs more often than not expect women to be submissive and be followers. In such a world, let alone being a disrupter, even being a leader is often challenged.

As a Sri Lankan, I take pride that Srilanka created the first woman Prime Minister. However, if we look closer and analyze history, the statistics and evidence paint a different picture and a story. Unfortunately, this theme is not exclusive to Sri Lanka alone; it’s a widespread occurrence across Asia and even in other parts of the world.

I was lucky to have a family who encouraged me to dream, follow my heart and break the glass ceiling in any small way I could. When I decided to migrate after witnessing death in a war zone to pursue my education, I was told it’d be better to get married and settle down. When I wanted to set up a business, they said it would be hard for a migrant woman to succeed. When I decided to get divorced, they told me I would struggle as an Asian single mother. I was discouraged from following my passion, teaching resilience, and promoting mental wellbeing because it is an English man’s job. When I wanted to share my story to empower women, they said I was not fit and I would fail due to my strong accent. I have not consistently got it right, but the lessons have been invaluable.

With love from my family, supportive friends, and visionary mentors, I could overcome these prejudices and resistance I experienced at different stages of my life.

If you want to take one message from this, always own yourself, follow your dream and be the author of your story!

My mission is to be the catalyst for others to become the director of their destiny and transform into their best versions.

Do you have a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us?

I listen to most of Oprah’s shows. In one of her Super Soul Sundays’ shows in 2011, she speaks about a conversation she had with Maya Angelou when she visited her at her house for the first time “When you know better, you do better”. No one should be judged for the person you were but the person you are trying to be and the woman you are now”. Those words left a lasting impression and impacted me.

I can be very self-critical and least forgiving of my faults and failures at times. From the day I listened to the show, I try remembering this statement. Not that I have never made a mistake or failed, but it has been an anchor for me to remind myself of how important it is to forgive, forget and move forward. I now share this with people I work with; I share the impact this one sentence had on my life in difficult times.

The meaning I have crafted for myself is to forgive the past and correct the wrongs by being and doing better by myself and others. A Mantra I try regularly recalling to become the best I can be.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

A non-judgemental inclusive world where each individual is given an equal opportunity to learn, grow and develop, live on their terms, and be fulfilled regardless of their background, gender, religion, race, and most importantly, their past.

Migrants can often be reluctant to seek help to overcome language barriers, fearing ridicule. My experience of being judged for being divorced and openly discussing my mental health struggles have highlighted the difficulties one can face when seen as not conforming to the cultural norm. I have also both experienced and witnessed the calamitous effects this has on individuals and families.

The only way to eradicate these inequalities and encourage inclusiveness at every level is by making a radical change across the board. In the digital era, anything is possible. We need the will to make a real difference, the resources to implement them, and the cohesive, collaborative thinking across the globe to work together.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?

My favorite quote is “Be the change you wish to see in the world” by Mahatma Gandhi.

We often expect many things from people around us and somehow forget everything begins and ends with us. This quote has made me realize that the only way to witness positive change around us is by being part of that change, first being ready to change oneself and then act to ensure that change happens.

Initially, I was afraid to share my dream of building training centers and holistic health centers in Asia. I felt I came from nowhere and hardly had the experience or knowledge to make that a reality. I had a fear of failing, judgment, and ridicule. The first time I mentioned this to someone close, I was asked if I even knew how much funding I would need to make this happen?

I try remembering the quote by William Arthur Ward “If you can imagine it, you can create it. If you can dream it, you can become it.” This quote has inspired me to believe everything is possible regardless of how big the dream is. I still have my moments when my imposter syndrome takes over, but I try to recall it. Surrounding myself with people who share the same or similar dreams has helped me navigate difficulties and roadblocks.

I want everyone to believe they can be anything they want to be, and there are limitless possibilities one can envisage.

Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Many times, I’ve been challenged and discouraged to do something. I’ve also had self-doubt and imposter syndrome many times. This quote reminds me that anything is possible with the right kind of thinking, perseverance, guidance, and support.

I was lucky to grow up in a family where I was told anything is possible and be encouraged to follow my dreams. If not for that belief, I couldn’t have become a dentist, businesswoman, speaker, author, talk show host, and more importantly, an independent woman and thought leader.

I’m a small-town girl who didn’t study English until university from a middle-class family. My grandmother had to raise five children singlehandedly and declined the opportunity to work as she had to look after her five children. She was still determined to send my mother to public school and university against all odds. She always believed everything is possible and instilled that belief in me early on.

Both my parents are self-made. My mother lost her dad at ten, and my paternal grandfather fell ill early on. My father still ensured he chased his dreams of becoming a doctor and an entrepreneur. During troubled times, his practice was vandalized and burnt down twice, but he never doubted for a minute about restarting his life and continued to make progress. He managed to provide us with a privileged lifestyle and spent everything he could afford to send me abroad to pursue my studies, for someone who started from nowhere.

The biggest asset I have is my immediate family. As a child, I remember my mother traveling for six hours in a war-torn country to make sure I had the right color outfit for a dance performance. My grandmother always encouraged me to take part in speech competitions and sports. Even though I was not good at sports, she would say it is more important to participate than win. I had very supportive teachers who believed in me to compete at the all-island level for speeches. I guess all that created a perfect milieu to chase my dreams, develop my skills, and the drive to succeed.

How can our readers follow you online?

LinkedIn: http://linkedin.com/in/menaca


Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/MenacaPothalingam/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/menacapothalingam/

Twitter https://twitter.com/DrMenaca

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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