'I think acceptance, non discrimination and being non judgmental is the biggest help anyone can offer in this world' - Mitali Srivastava Hough, Co-Founder & Director of Utopeia

This interview is part of the series for International Women's Day.

Busting myths of everything a Strategic Planner can do, Mitali Srivastava Hough is Co-Founder & Director of Utopeia. From journalism & politics to the gnarled galleries of Advertising, Mitali’s career is a journey that few in their right minds dare to take. An MBA, TV Reporter for Zee News, Senior Correspondent & Deputy Editor for a magazine, - it was a good seven years of thriving as a Journalist after which Mitali took the plunge into advertising.

Today, as one of the only women planners who is a co-founder of an ad agency, Mitali is shaping a new environment for women, one that breaks age-old locker-room culture and cultivates a new one that is conducive for women to grow without compromises.

Mitali Srivastava Hough
Co-Founder & Director of Utopeia

Mitali Srivastava Hough in an interview with Suman Prasad spoke in length about her support to various causes related to women, LGBT community and animal rights, about women entrepreneurship, about women as innovators & game changers and other interesting details.

Excerpts from the interview.

On her support to causes related to women, LGBT community and animal rights

I believe that charity must begin from home. Therefore, I do my small bit in my immediate circle to help create awareness about various issues that I feel plague our society. As a woman, I have cultivated a safe work culture for women in my organization. I often counsel women on a personal level regarding their professional and personal woes. One doesn’t need to be an activist or a professional to be kind and compassionate. Sometimes, listening to people is also enough. Indian laws are very vague regarding various women related issues like sexual harassment, misogyny, marital rape, inheritance, pay scale and diversity at work etc. I think it's important that we help other women out or the least we could do is support and create awareness in our immediate circle. A lot of women don't know their rights at home and at work place. If we encourage women to exercise their rights, then that's the biggest help we can give them. It's the same for the LGBTQ community as well.

I have a lot of close friends from the community and I empathize with most of their problems. My agency is secular, diverse and LGBTQ friendly. By accepting them as part of our inner circle, by supporting them, including them, as a society, we can eliminate a lot of problems that the community faces.  I think acceptance, non discrimination and being non judgmental is the biggest help anyone can offer in this world. Basic kindness is on the decline these days. I do my best to break myths and misconceptions amongst heterosexuals people regarding the LGBTQ community and I am open and vocal about my support. As for animal rights, I have recently rescued a cat from a breeder.

I am also trying to sponsor some animals that have been abandoned. I have recently discovered that animal right activists in India are treated like pariahs and it's really very unfortunate as a lot of them sacrifice a lot to help these voiceless beings. I think people should not buy animals from a pet shop or from a breeder. They should adopt them and I think breeding of cats and dogs should be banned as there is nothing called ethical breeding. There are lots of animals that need to be adopted and are looking for a home. I am trying to promote animal adoption in my immediate circle. Like I said earlier, I think if I manage to change my immediate world, then maybe someday the rest of the world will change too.

On keeping the team motivated at work

That's a big challenge for me and my four partners (Sudarshan Banerjee, Sean Colaco, Krishna Padhaye and Krishnaraj Bhattit). We have a lot of young people in our agency and it's not easy to keep them motivated at all the times. Young people get bored, jaded and disillusioned all the time. My partners and I are constantly thinking of ways to infuse freshness into our system.

We have a few initiatives like 'Uff' (Utopeia Film Festival) where all employees are encouraged to think of creative ideas and films…it's a pro active initiative and we try to encourage people to think creative even if they were not not working in creative team. Later these films are also showcased to our clients.

We also conduct the "School of Love" at Utopeia where we invite experts and mentors to take an informal class in various streams in Utopeia…some of these experts don’t really belong to advertising, but they bring value into people's life. The most important challenge for me and my partners is to always keep up the pace with technology, innovation, cultural observations and marketing solutions so that we can constantly tickle the minds of our young team members.

On women being reluctant to take the first step towards entrepreneurship even today

Whether you are a man or a woman, entrepreneurship requires way too many sacrifices, deeper commitment, longer working hours and a big career risk. I think women in India find it very difficult to balance this kind of work life with their homes. They are still struggling to convince their families that they want to continue work, even if it's a 9 to 5 kind of job, post marriage and seek independence and financial independence.

It is difficult to find a partner and his family that will be supportive of a woman's desire to be an entrepreneur. Especially, if it's a successful and scalable venture. Small time ventures that don’t require them to step out of their homes are encouraged by families, but anything larger doesn’t get the support it deserves. There is a rise of women entrepreneurs though many are single women or have the backing of their parent's wealth. Our society is still dominantly patriarch and it is not a surprise that women are still bound to conventional roles. Entrepreneurship is not a role that is expected from wives, daughter in laws or sisters.

On how receptive the industry is to women entrepreneurs when it comes to funding

Funding is a very complicated ball game. Everything depends on your product and it's scalability that you need to prove to an investor. Most investors don’t like taking chances. For women, it is even harder to get funding, because at the back of their mind, men often believe that a woman is not in it for the long haul. Having male partners in your venture helps because it gives confidence to an investor that the work will continue in case a woman needs to take a break due to family commitments. Often, the funding comes from family or spouses.

Having said that, there are a few women who are getting funding for their venture from people who are not related to them and it's admirable. I think it's a big deal and it must be celebrated because it's not an easy thing for a woman to achieve this. Indian investors are not as receptive as they should be, and those very few who are willing to take a chance, must be recognized and encouraged.

On industries where women can enter as innovators and game changers

I think there are a lot of industries that could benefit from women and skills that they might bring to the table. If you do an audit of just advertising industry, you will be surprised to see that there are very few women leaders in the ad industry. It's even more interesting because advertising depends heavily of female consumers. However, a lot of ads that are aimed at women are created by men. Besides this, the gaming industry could seriously benefit from women.

According to research, Indian housewives spend a lot of time playing games on their mobiles or on their laptops. There are very few coders in IT industry, very few engineers and very few women in auto industry. One of the best drivers I know personally happens to be a woman. Sadly, we are stuck with our stereotypes and believe that women are better with their softer skills and certain jobs are harder for them. I think there is no industry in the world that a woman cannot excel in. It's all about opportunities, and breaking the glass ceiling.

On skills which are important to be a good leader

I think the most important thing for a leader is to forget that he or she is a leader or a star. In India, when we start believing that we are leaders, we can't look beyond sycophancy and surround ourselves with people who are mediocre. As a senior professional, it is important for people to never let go of their craft even if they have hundreds of people that can be delegated to that job. Rolling up the sleeve and doing work that everyone else is also doing is a key to being a leader of any sort. This will also fore you to stay competitive and stay on top of your game. No matter how financially successful or famous an individual gets, stay humble and retaining the ability to fight the on ground battle is a must.

On rising cases of sexual harassment at workplaces and if a woman on top can curb these

I know that it can be curbed. I am the only woman in our board, and my presence automatically has impacted how women related issues are handled at Utopeia. Most men want to do the right thing or be the right way, but someone is required to define it for them as equality at work place and challenging misogyny at a work place is a recent phenomenon. This problem is a behavior problem and we might never have a world where men or women are completely safe from harassment, however a woman who is also the part of senior most team certainly helps as she would have access to decision makers.

However, just having any woman in top position is not the solution. There are many senior women in organizations who are part of a board team due to their families or because they blindly follow what is told to them. It's important to have women professionals who have earned their promotions. Women who are not afraid to stand up and fight for their right. Women who are not part of the team because of corporate policy of having diversity at the top. A conscious effort needs to be made to identify talented women who have the platform to voice their opinion. Infact, just having a platform for women where the top management or decision makers can be access could be enough.

Very often, it's the middle management who becomes a wall between employees and top management. This wall needs to be broken. Most leaders will give an ear to women's issues. The problem is that may a times, the issues don’t reach the top floor. An organization that in highly inclusive of women at all levels will face lesser issues of sexual harassment as women who get support in numbers. It's easier for them to speak up if there are more women in a room, and not just necessarily on the top level.    

On whether it is important to have an International Women's Day

I think the actual battle for equality for women has just begun. Every day should be a women's day is a rhetoric I often hear. But, the day 364 days cease to be Men's day, I will stop asking for that one day where women related issues get a spot light. We are still battling with female infanticide, FGM, rape, dowry deaths. We are still trying to prove to men that we have the attitude and aptitude to do a job as well as they do. We still don’t get paid as much as a man for the same role. We are still objectifying women in films, and TV. We still snigger at a woman driver. No matter what men might say in public, women face all these same issues worldwide. It's not just a problem in India. Women across the world are fighting for equality. Yes, the fight has become more vocal and more visible. But, we are far away from equality. So let there be a day, where the world is forced to hear, support and celebrate a woman.

Tips for women who want to be a entrepreneur

Plan your career path wisely. Get the right mentors and friends. Don’t be impulsive and think your plan through. And marry wisely so that you have a partner who will support you in achieving your dreams. And in case you don’t want to marry, then also have a strong support structure that you can lean on emotionally when life gets tough because it will surely get tough. Lastly, don’t give up. I am a late bloomer in life professionally and personally and I truly believe that patience and perseverance is the key to success.

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