Change can often feel trivial, but one can recognize the importance of climbing the ladder one step at a time. We have seen the world evolve and progress quite significantly around female and minority opportunities in just past few years. Although we still have a lot of work ahead of us, I am optimistic about getting to a place where the terms “inclusion” and “diversity” become functionally obsolete because the process of equality is simply a part of every-day life.
As part of our series about ‘5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society’ I had the pleasure to interview Tara Rafaat of Mphasis.
Tara is the Semantic technology specialist and the Chief Ontologist leading all knowledge engineering projects across Mphasis, an Information Technology (IT) solutions provider specializing in cloud and cognitive services. She is an active member of the Oxford Women’s Leadership Development Programme and the International Association of Women. At Mphasis, Tara Is involved in the organization’s women’s forum designed to include, involve and invest in women to reach their potential, both personally and professionally.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to ‘get to know you’. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
I was born and raised in Iran by my family who greatly emphasized the importance of education and compassion. Both my parents are highly educated, and my mother has always been a role model for me to be an enlightened, schooled and independent woman. My parents’ encouragement for education, combined with my fascination for cutting-edge technology and a bit of a rebellious side of me against gender discrimination, led to my undergraduate studies in computer science in Iran — a field which was not common for women. I faced many challenges when entering the workforce as a female engineer, which made me even more eager and passionate to prove my worth and fight for my seat at the table.
From Iran, I moved to the United Kingdom (UK) to pursue my masters and PhD. About 7 years ago after my studies and while working full time, I continued my path with another major move to the United States. I felt the need for another change, which prompted me to move forward and leave academia to experience the corporate world across the ocean!
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
I come from a culture of poetry, so it’s no surprise that my two go-to books are “Masnavi” by Rumi, a world-wide known mystic Persian poet, and “Rubaiyat” by Omar Khayyam, the famous Persian astronomer, mathematician and poet.
As I find some modern motivational and self-help books useful for strategic daily practices on how to grow, fight fear and lead, I find Rumi’s book to be a treasury of wisdom. There is a life lesson in every single poem, which is beyond time, culture and place. Masnavi speaks to what all humans yearn for and Rumi’s influence transcends national borders and ethnic divisions.
While Rumi has always been an inspirational read for me, I have turned to reading Khayam during some tough periods in my life. My father was the one who suggested it to me. Khayam’s “Rubaiyat” is all about hope, being mindful of the moment and gratefulness. It points to a reality beyond itself and beyond the words it contains. Rubaiyat is still the book I refer to whenever I need motivation or a reminder of how beautiful this life is.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
“The wound is the place where the Light enters you.” — Rumi
The journey of an immigrant is usually a bittersweet one. With every move, you leave part of you behind with the hope of discovering a new part of yourself. There is a lot of breaking and mending that happens throughout this journey. This quote by Rumi has always reminded me of how these breaks are enablers of my growth. It is because of those wounds that I am where I am today.
My other favorite quote is “The entire world shall be populous with that action which saves one soul from despair.”-Aomar Khayyam
This quote speaks to a simple philosophy I have followed throughout my life which is, “ People matter, be kind, be respectful”.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Leadership is taking responsibility for finding the potential in people and processes while providing individuals the courage necessary to develop that potential. Among the most critical leadership qualities and responsibilities is the ability to challenge and empower others to help them overcome their limitations.
Great leaders lead with vision, passion and empathy. They take people along their journey and make an effort to understand the human aspect of their teams. Leaders don’t look at their team as resources, but see them as human beings, each having their own strengths and trying to balance their life and work in this busy world. Out of this acknowledgement naturally comes humility and empathy — humility that though you are the leader, you are part of the team, and empathy that everyone is working on doing their best while balancing life.
Great leaders attract and inspire other great leaders, whom they trust to carry out a shared mission and instill a sense of purpose that transpires to each and every team member. They have the ability to build peers around them to be as successful, if not more than, the person in charge.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
Dance, Music and Gratitude are my three methods of coping with stress.
For me, dancing is a non-verbal language that is akin to cognitive therapy. It’s emotional impact and physical energy provides me with an empowerment to tackle hard situations and resume control. I try to incorporate a daily time for dance throughout my day as a means to resist, reduce and escape stress.
Before high stake meetings or talks, I manage stress by listening to classical music. I am a true believer of the power of music on the brain. Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E minor is my go-to piece of classical music. Besides the magical melody, the song is associated with a scenery of calmness, vastness and unlimited possibilities.
Another routine I practice is writing down 5 things I am grateful for every morning. This way I ensure to start my day on a positive note.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?
When issues that have existed for long are not dealt with in an open and honest way, they inevitably reach a boiling point. With the role of social media in dissemination of knowledge and facts, there is a much greater outreach than we have ever seen before. New platforms give activists a broader voice and many of these issues have now reached a point of clarity that can no longer be ignored, avoided or denied.
Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to promote Diversity and Inclusion? Can you share a story with us?
As a woman and a minority, working at a company that values diversity and inclusion is very important to me. At Mphasis, we celebrate the unique and diverse backgrounds that each individual brings to the workplace and we strive to create an inclusive work space where employees are appreciated for their individuality and therefore comfortable being their authentic self.
There was a time when I led a team of 10 individuals who came from 10 different ethnicities and backgrounds. This inclusion added a plethora of point of views and experiences valuing and empowering each individual’s strengths and uniqueness which resulted in stronger, more dynamic team.
I personally put a lot of focus on advocating for women in technology as well. I give talks, participate in panels, particularly at schools and universities to encourage young women not to shy away from the technology field. I have also participated in speaking engagements where I try to demystify technology for women leaders in other fields in order to empower them to further thrive in their careers.
This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
Businesses and organizations need to understand that diversity is not just compliance. It is critical to the progress and survival of a company in the current globalized economy. By bringing together unique and different backgrounds, skills, and experiences, businesses are better able to produce the type of innovative and creative solutions needed to succeed in an increasingly competitive economy.
Globalization is real and competing in multi-national and multi-cultural markets calls for an urgent need to integrate distinct cultural and more inclusive values into a company’s vision.
In order for a leadership team to better embrace diversity, it starts at the top since it’s the chief leader who has the power of making this shift. Culture is the sum of our collective behaviors. It’s how we treat one another. It is how leaders treat each other and their people. So, the innovative and financial benefits of diversity start with a company’s mindset and commitment to day-to-day behaviors that foster diversity and cultivate a culture where team members feel respected, valued and confident in their contributions.
Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. You are an influential business leader. Can you please share your “5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society”. Kindly share a story or example for each.
Acknowledge & Empathize — Listen and open your mind to new perspectives. Acknowledge that there is an issue that should be challenged or changed. Before you can possibly appreciate what’s happening, you have to have truly acknowledged the feelings of others, and only through those expressions of empathy can the kinds of open conversations happen that will ultimately drive change.
Be Mindful — There are behaviors and patterns that have been ingrained in our subconscious through culture, background, society and our upbringing. It is utmost important to be mindful of these and be prepared to unlearn them.
Educate — Educate and foster diverse thinking. Many organizations fail to acknowledge that their lack of success in incorporating diversity is the rigid mindset. Unless this mindset is changed people within the organization will not be open to change, diversity and inclusion. Moreover, working toward greater diversity and inclusion will require us to challenge the various ways we create policies and distribute opportunities. Until we have the framework to implement a more inclusive way of thinking, we will continue to perpetuate the same outcomes.
Create and Demonstrate a Growth Path — People will feel truly included if they see a growth path in front of them. Examples of diversity in the leadership team and high position within an organization provides a promise and possibility of growth for diverse individuals.
Embrace Change Together — Find inspiration in everyone and everything around you. Surround yourself with diverse perspectives. Inspire others to support your vision as nobody can make significant change on their own. Vow to do something and commit to it with accountability by devising an in-depth plan of action to institute change.
We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?
Change can often feel trivial, but one can recognize the importance of climbing the ladder one step at a time. We have seen the world evolve and progress quite significantly around female and minority opportunities in just past few years.
Although we still have a lot of work ahead of us, I am optimistic about getting to a place where the terms “inclusion” and “diversity” become functionally obsolete because the process of equality is simply a part of every-day life.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Trevor Noah. Ironically, I am not a big fan of comedy but I truly admire how Noah uses his platform, his wit and his intellect to elaborate and simplify complicated daily issues with the aim of educating people.
How can our readers follow you online?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!