Geetha and I met a little over a year ago. I as a Room to Read Active for Education Ambassador and Geetha as the new, incoming CEO, we wanted to get to know each other. Already knowing some of the people who work at Room to Read, I expected Geetha to be incredibly intelligent and passionate about her work. What I didn’t expect was to hear her story and see so clearly how the dots of her life have connected. This, of course, being acheived through brutal hard work and instinct.
Upon meeting Geetha, I could tell right away she was a force to be reckoned with. I mean, she’s a statistician by training and can throw it down with the best of them in any given room. What really struck me was Geetha’s story. How her mother fought child marriage, gained an education, joined the Indian Army, came to the States as an immigrant on a nursing visa, only to send money back home to make sure her family members earned their education as well. Family members who I might add have gone on to do incredible things in their own right. She then made sure her children had the same level of an education as she did, if not better.
So, here I was sitting in front of someone who is the product of that boulder lifting sacrifice. This person knows exactly whose shoulders she stands on. She’s taken that baton to not only make something exceptional of herself but is now passing that baton onto millions of children. Geetha never expected to become the CEO of Room to Read but she followed her heart and swerved —as Michelle Obama would say. How beautifully poetic that her path has led her to be at the forefront of making sure others receive the very education her mother faught so very hard to gain.
Geetha, you have had such a vivacious life. And I say that because of what I know about how incredibly accomplished your mom is and how she fought the grain to stand up for herself and do what she wanted to do. A rebel in her own right. Would you go please elaborate for those reading this?
My mom has always been a bit of a revolutionary. Her family had a tradition of early marriage – my grandmothers were married by 2 and 14, but my mom refused to get married too soon. She graduated high school at 13 and remained adamant that she would not marry, even in the face of constant pressure. Instead, she joined the Indian army and trained as a nurse, paving the way for her to move to the US on a nursing visa, put herself through school, get a doctorate, become a statistician and join the pharmaceutical industry. For years, my mother sent money to her younger siblings and other family members for their education, setting them on a path to pursue impressive careers spanning from medicine to the United Nations. Over time, her family assumed she would never get married, but she surprised them all and got married at 32 in a one-bedroom apartment in New York!
How did this set you on your path to now be CEO of Room to Read?
Without the role that education played in my mother’s fight for her future, I would not be dedicating my life to an education focused organization. My mom’s background meant that education was everything to her and that thinking became the foundation of my life from an extremely young age. Her story, my family history, helped me recognize that knowledge gives you the power of choice and dignity. That recognition drives my commitment to this work. Providing educational opportunities to young girls and boys gives them the chance to learn about opportunity, to seek it and reach their full potential.
If you had to give one piece of advice to someone who is trying to pave his or her own way, what would it be?
I have tended to shy away from the “follow your passion” philosophy and have always believed in the notion that you have to put in the hard work to become excellent at something that is important and valued. Learning and achievement can help you develop passions you never had on your radar. This is not to say, start on a career path and just work at it all your life – as I certainly did not, but rather ensure that what you’re doing is opening you up to new skills and experiences that can optimize your positive contribution to the world. I never had specific ambitions about leading an organization. To be completely honest, when I was young, I didn’t even know that being the CEO of a non-profit was a job to aspire to. I was on a direct path to a career as a statistician. But this is where I am now, and importantly, where I want to be. I know that your life trajectory can change as you grow and expose you to new possibilities. Once you have cultivated marketable skills and you can apply them, more opportunities and choices emerge for your future. That was the lesson I learned as I built my career.
Who has had the biggest influence in your life?
Without a doubt, my parents –from the second I was born to this moment. My parents were extremely focused on my future, especially in relation to education because they knew what hardships I might face without an education. The love, care, and time they devoted to my education and my ability to succeed in life have been instrumental in the life I’ve carved out for myself. I’ve charted my own path, but the foundational lessons my parents have taught me remain today and now are passed on to my children.
What are you most proud of?
When it comes to my career and work to date, there are so many things to be proud of. I’ve built a career that brings me joy every day, however, my truest sense of accomplishment lies in my family – specifically my children. I had my first child in 2004 as I was just finishing my dissertation and had a little flexibility between school and my next job. After having my son, I went through a personal struggle around whether I should have my second child biologically or through adoption. Through my work, I’d seen so many children in this world without parents to guide and nourish them, which made a lasting impression.
I ended up taking my family through a journey towards adopting our second child. It took us three years, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that we needed to do it. That’s how our family was formed. My son is 14 and my daughter is 9 and adopting her is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
What was one of the hardest mountains you had to climb, personally, while you were trying to achieve your dreams and how did you deal with it?
After getting my master’s in Biostatistics and working at pharmaceutical companies, I got a good sense of what a career trajectory in statistics would look like. I kept asking myself if I really wanted to do that type of work for 45 more years, and I realized I wanted something different for my life. I had just invested many years of my education in statistics and had a lucrative job. In order to make a shift to the social sector, I’d have to take a risk, go back to school, and acquire more hard skills and experience. This process took several years, including personal and professional sacrifice; but, in the end, my practice reflects my purpose, and I am contributing to the world in a way that makes me satisfied.
An existential question….If you had to do it all over again, meaning life, would you? And no, you can’t start with the lessons you’ve learned this go around.
No, I wouldn’t. I could never give up on the life that I’ve built and the lessons that I’ve learned. This life and the people in it are too precious to chance on anything, and I have so many things that I am currently looking forward to!
What kind of music do you like?
This question is hard as there are so many answers to choose from! I grew up as a dancer and I was exposed to many types of music, so that has made me a bit eclectic. I enjoy everything from jazz to classic rock to Carnatic music. But the artist I’d love to hear live is Andrea Bocelli. His voice is magnificent!
Do ghosts exist?
I hope so – that would make life interesting!
What’s one thing you’d do differently if you were to start this process over again?
When I was younger, I wouldn’t have been so singularly focused on grades, but would have taken the time to enjoy the learning process more.
Chicken or egg?
Chicken. Nobody ever asked if the egg wanted to cross the road, did they?
If you had a superpower, what would it be?
Time-travel: I can show the world how our actions today can have a significant impact on our future.