Women for 20/20 Interviews: Ms Usha Rani
To commemorate Women's Day this year, Mission for Vision is delighted to present the blog series "Women for 20/20: Celebrating Women's Leadership in Eye Health." This series aims to highlight women leaders in both the public eye health and corporate sectors. We had the privilege of interviewing Ms Usha Rani, Director of Programs at the Cognizant Foundation.

To commemorate Women's Day this year, Mission for Vision is delighted to present the blog series "Women for 20/20: Celebrating Women's Leadership in Eye Health." This series aims to highlight women leaders in both the public eye health and corporate sectors. We had the privilege of interviewing Ms Usha Rani, Director of Programs at the Cognizant Foundation. In this blog post, Ms Usha shares her remarkable professional journey, offering insights into working in a leadership role. Be sure not to miss her special message for other women aspiring to grow into leadership positions.

Mission for Vision (MFV): Can you share a brief overview of your professional journey so far and your tenure with Cognizant Foundation?

Ms Usha Rani: With over 20 years of proven experience in social development, I have navigated through various technical and managerial roles, honing my skills in executing large-scale Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) endeavours for the Cognizant Foundation. Presently, as the Director of Programs and Healthcare Sector Head at the Foundation, I bring forth 17+ years of invaluable expertise. My journey commenced at the Madras School of Social Work, University of Madras, where I specialised in Medical and Psychiatric Social Work. Further enhancing my professional acumen, I completed the "Transitioning into Leadership Program" at the prestigious Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta. Embarking on my career, I initially served as a community coordinator, spearheading a research project aimed at raising awareness about tobacco usage among students aged 6 to 13. Transitioning into a role as an Executive in the Social Development Department at the Confederation of Indian Industries (Southern Region), I undertook pivotal responsibilities in managing HIV intervention projects, Tsunami relief and rehabilitation efforts, and various other community initiatives. Through these diverse experiences, I have cultivated a deep understanding of social dynamics and a keen ability to navigate complex challenges, driving impactful change within communities.

MFV: Can you share any memorable experience that has had a significant impact on your career trajectory?

Ms Usha: My undergraduate specialisation in sociology and post-graduation course in social work, along with its two years of hands-on field visit training exposure, enabled me to work on the ground with multiple NGOs. This experience helped me understand the lifestyles and socio-economic challenges faced by rural, tribal, and urban slum communities. Witnessing these communities grappling with poverty, challenges in accessing quality education, and healthcare had a profound impact on me, motivating me to undertake developmental initiatives to improve their circumstances to the best of my abilities as an individual. From my school days, I volunteered in various capacities such as guides, NCC, and later extended my volunteering efforts to multiple NGOs, where I worked as a mentor to provide career guidance to underprivileged students.

MFV: In your opinion, what unique strengths and perspectives do women bring to leadership positions, and how do these contribute to organisational success?

Ms Usha: When I think of modern successful corporate women leaders and entrepreneurs, they all share common traits of excelling at driving the business forward, outsmarting competition, growing the bottom line, and creating superior product or service experiences. However, to become a women leader and a star performer, the select few characteristics that immediately come to mind are those of bold, vibrant women leaders who possess something extra and special. General business acumen isn't sufficient; women leaders typically share one common attribute – the ability to step out of their comfort zones and challenge the status quo in society, becoming champions. Women also bring diversity, a unique perspective, and the ability to succeed in their desired goals within a multitasking environment. They excel in collaborative team building, leveraging their natural abilities as women. Additionally, they demonstrate problem-solving and risk-mitigating skills. Given their strengths and timely deliverables, women naturally assume key roles in leading and transitioning their work, which significantly contributes to the success of an organisation. Through their actions, women often exemplify leadership by guiding the entire team or resources towards the organisational goals.

MFV: What are some effective strategies for overcoming gender biases and stereotypes in the workplace?

Ms Usha: In my opinion, when faced with such situations, they are generally perceived as personality clashes, decision-making problems, simple conflicts, and differences of opinion. In scenarios where a woman stands her ground and asserts her point of view, she often gets branded as aggressive, uncooperative, insubordinate, and may encounter the "glass cliff" and "glass ceiling," among other challenges.

In my view, we must remain steadfast even if these perceptions persist, and women should continue to perform and develop their professional career abilities.

MFV: Tell us about the women role models in your life and how they influenced you.

Ms Usha: My early life role model was Mother Teresa, as I was deeply moved by her acts of service. Later, in my tenure at the Cognizant Foundation, Dr. Nandini Rangaswamy, Director of the Cognizant Foundation Board, Chairperson and Founder Trustee of GRG Institutions in Coimbatore, and Managing Director of Chandra Group of Companies in Coimbatore, became my strong role model. Her deep passion and compassionate eye for serving the underprivileged, along with her contributions to improving academic standards and women empowerment, have been an inspiration to many. Besides her active roles in business and education, she has been actively involved in rendering laudable service to society through the promotion of human welfare as a philanthropist.

MFV: What role do you believe technology plays in advancing gender equality, and how is Cognizant Foundation leveraging technology for women's empowerment?

Ms Usha: Technology is a powerful tool which acts a catalyst, influencer, amplifier for promoting and advancing gender equalities in the society. Cognizant Foundation’s commitment is to ensure a better future for all by enabling participation and access to resources and opportunities for the marginalised sections of the society. With inclusion, technology, and collaboration at the heart of all that we do, our programmes are designed and implemented to empower persons with disabilities, children, and women to lead a better quality of life. Our objective is to enable equal access to quality health, foster sustainable livelihood, provide tech-centric skilling, facilitate access to higher learning and promote STEAM, digital and inclusive learning in schools. These interventions are aimed at inspiring a future of possibilities, where every individual can lead a life with dignity.

We leverage technology and collaboration for greater impact and aim to promote a culture of inclusion. Our interventions are focused on empowering the lives of the marginalised, primarily persons with disabilities, children, and women.

MFV: Could you provide insights on your involvement with Mission for Vision, especially Cognizant Foundation's unwavering support towards eye health initiatives?

Ms Usha: Our collaboration with Mission for Vision has been an enriching working experience, as we appreciate and respect the core focus of MFV and its similarly like-minded professional team (just like Cognizant Foundation) with a strong focus and goals to improve and strengthen eye health services for needy people and to prevent avoidable blindness in this country. The heartwarming success stories in our programs have always paved the way for Cognizant Foundation to deepen our intervention strategies, approach, reach, and impact, ultimately leading individuals to mental well-being, productivity, mobility, and a sense of fulfillment, as it improves their quality of life.

MFV: How important is it to prioritise eye health and motivate others to invest in this cause?

Ms Usha: Purpose-driven initiatives in eye health are a must for all of us to invest in, given the current digital age, where children excessively use gadgets of all kinds. Children and adults need to be educated that their eyesight is one of the most precious assets and protecting it should be a top priority. Demonstrating our work in the eye care space, focusing on niche neglected areas, and showcasing outcomes and impact serves as a motivational subject for others to invest in this cause and address the needs of people in the country.

MFV: Looking to the future, what do you envision as the biggest opportunities and challenges for women leaders in your field or other sectors?

Ms Usha: Women should aspire to take on higher roles and lead by example for both women and men, as the challenges faced by both genders in professional careers are often similar. The greatest opportunities exist at every level of work; it is crucial to possess the acumen to identify and seize them to make them feasible.

Challenges for women exist in all spheres, just as male leaders face challenges in their professional lives. It is the lens through which we view these challenges that truly matters. Importantly, challenges faced by male leaders are often not discussed or debated, whereas they become a prominent topic when it comes to women in leadership roles. We must discard this fundamental bias and approach the challenges with impartiality, recognizing that they are common for both genders to handle.

MFV: What advice would you offer to other women aspiring to grow into leadership roles?

Ms Usha: I am convinced that if women battle and eliminate the underestimation of their abilities and self-limiting thoughts, they will reach great heights in all spheres of life. As a result, success, respect, and dignity will naturally follow. Women should attribute their success to themselves rather than to external factors, as they may not fully understand their own success.

As a confident woman, one should always uphold oneself as an achiever and champion. I strongly believe that education and strong value systems enable individuals to fight challenges and overcome odds in life, delivering the best in both personal and professional spheres.