Growing up years at home and school are the foundations on which our personalities are built. This is the time to explore your interests, put them to actions and learn from experiences. Your career then becomes an extension of your activities at school.

Disha Shah (B.Tech from SRM university Chennai, Computer Science) , Young Changemaker talks about her attention being drawn to issues facing women, especially Financial Literacy and her attempts to make the world a better place for women.

Disha, tell us about your background?

I was born in Bangalore and brought up in Chennai. I was initially a smart but shy student and all the credit goes to my mother who encouraged me to try everything that my school had to offer and paid close attention to what I was good at.  I danced, told stories, played team sports, started Karate and took up acting.  My parents were an integral part of my childhood and my cheerleaders through everything! They always applauded our participation no matter how big or small the occasion was and it taught me that trying matters. Being on stage and winning school competitions really boosted my self confidence and sports taught me that losing was an important part of winning. I was elected house captain in 9th grade and led 500 students to win the sports day trophy, this journey of leading at such a young age taught me so many lessons that I carry with me even today. In 11th   grade I was appointed cultural secretary of C.S.I Ewart school. My leadership journey started young and has evolved many fold because leadership cannot be learnt from a textbook; it comes from doing it yourself and incorporating lots of feedback from the people you lead.

Travelling was another integral part of my childhood thanks to my parents and Mama (Nimish Soni) as they believed travelling would teach us important life lessons and adaptability as a skill. Even now, it is an important time where I bond with my family and expand my comfort zone. I have travelled so much with my family, not just for sightseeing but also on real adventures, from trekking in the Himalayas,seeing the source of the Ganga, to embarking on a cycling expedition across the highest motorable road in the world, Khardung La in Ladakh, water sports in Mangalore

Why did you choose to work on a social initiative?

In school, I was almost always the only girl who had a bank account and debit card, both of which I had complete control over, thanks to my parents’ trust and guidance. I had started saving money and making FDs as early as 6th grade. I remember having the freedom of choice and independence to make my own informed financial decisions when no one in my class was even thinking about money. But this was not the case with boys, they were given larger sums of money, more autonomy and asked less questions. This obviously gave them a massive jump in learning the value and potential of money, and let them holistically learn more about financial instruments from a young age and grow inconfidence while making financial decisions. I recognised this gap in financial literacy among genders at a very young age and it always unsettled me.

I volunteered with an organization when I was 15, working on woman’s leadership-ambition gap, a concept popularised in the book ‘Lean In’ by ‘Sheyrl Sandberg’ the COO of Facebook and that’s where my social entrepreneurship journey started. I started reading more about gender related disparities and picked up empathy as skill. The more I worked with woman, took workshops and created content, the more obvious it became how ubiquitous the financial literacy gap was. That’s when I started working on increasing woman’s financial literacy so that they could take charge of their life, making informed and independent decisions.

How did you feel when you just started off working on your initiative? Did you face any resistance from society/ parents/ friends/ family/ teachers ?

The start is always difficult because you are not sure if you are heading in the right direction or if you are capable of actually starting an initiative and are faced with  a lot of questions with almost no satisfying answers. Passion beats uncertainty. Iterative learning beats inexperience. Human assets beat lack of knowledge. Education beats insecurity. While starting my initiative I spoke to a lot of people about the gap that I was identifying and my plan to create  a solution and  this is how I found my team. Everyone on my core team realised during those conversations that they could empathise with the problem and wanted to create a solution alongside me. Because we are young, we have to always prove ourselves before anyone takes us seriously, whether it’s society, parents, friends or teachers. During this time, I equipped myself with as much knowledge as possible to overcome any resistance I would face. I read a lot of books and did not shy away from asking questions or having conversations with people because that’s how you learn. Practice makes perfect, trial and error is the only way forward. 

What are the challenges? How do you address them?

Challenge 1: Knowledge, because of my age I didn’t know as much as I would’ve liked to when I first started. Investing in gaining knowledge and surrounding yourself with people who are more experienced and knowledgeable than you will do you wonders. READ MORE.

Challenge 2: Team, if you get this step right, you’ve won half the battle. Your team members must have complementary skills and compatible personalities. A shared passion makes the team stronger. But this takes time and effort, so be patient and practice empathy while leading anyone.

Challenge 3: Consistency, when you start everyone is motivated and you work full speed, but after 3-6 months your enthusiasm lags and the challenge begins. Keeping yourself and your team consistently motivated and engaged is key to long-term impact.

More about your work – 

I work towards removing barriers and myths that women carry about their capacity to make financial decisions for themselves and for their families by increasing financial literacy. This lack of self confidence that women have when managing money comes from not being taught or spoken to about money from a young age and constantly seeing men in the house handle the money and thinking that it’s not something they can do. First the father handles the money and then the brother or husband. The problem with this is that every life goal is always defined and funded by a financial goal and when the women are not given the confidence and knowledge to make the financial  decision, they become dependent on others for their life decisions too. Teaching women how to manage their own finances is the biggest security blanket there is. Women who are financially independent are free to make their own life decisions. 

Empathy! When trying to identify and solve this problem, I spoke to women from all backgrounds, ages, demographics etc. It is very important to me that we create solutions based on constant feedback and conversations and not assumptions. When you constantly exercise empathy, that is, when you try everyday to understand what the struggles and feelings of your beneficiaries are, you will not go wrong with the solution. 

Empathy and Leadership go hand in hand. Leadership is an action word, which means you cannot read a book about leadership but have to practise it and learn from your mistakes. It is a journey. Lead your team with empathy too as a strong core team when led with empathy and focus will create and execute the most impactful solutions. These 2 skills along with a strong work ethic have helped me throughout my journey and I’m still learning everyday. 

I start my day early with yoga, meditation and a good breakfast everyday. Then I make a ‘Must do’ list which has 5  tasks based on priority and follow a simple rule which is, I do not move on to my 2nd task for the day till I complete my first and the same for the rest. This forces me to prioritise and understand what my day will look like. Doing something out of my comfort zone or learning something new and talking to my team are always on the list because I know these small tasks keep me happy and it’s important to do more things that make you happy! Your to do list should excite you and not give you anxiety. I also enjoy making youtube videos on personal finance for students, cooking, reading (currently reading – Maybe you should talk to someone by Lori Gottlieb) and entertaining my cats.

I love feeling independent and making my own life decisions. My work lets me pass on this feeling to thousands of women and students around India and that truly makes my heart happy. I love the conversations I get to have, the adrenaline rush of facilitating workshops for curious women who are eager to take charge of their lives and seeing their faces and smiles filled with confidence at the end of a session is overwhelming!

How does your work benefit society? 

My work, I believe, first benefits my peers and team mates as they are constantly working on their changemaking skills and gaining experience in coming up with sustainable solutions. My work also directly impacts my target audience by empowering them to take hold of the reigns of their own life through  education on personal finance. 

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

I loved facilitating this session in my workshops where I would ask women what they’d do if they had all the money in the world and I remember getting goosebumps with the answers I got! I would get the most ambitious and powerful answers. For me, that was always a reminder that no matter what the world says, women are just as ambitious as men if not more and feminism fights for equal opportunities that can give these women the tools and platform to be heard. This was truly a memorable moment in my story. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Participate and volunteer, try everything you can and experiment with your strengths and weaknesses. Only then you will know what your calling is and what you would like to work on. Start small and stay consistent but the key is to start. 

Future Plans?

Having worked with young minds over 5 years, I have come across so much untapped potential and believe in the power and problem solving abilities of the youth. We are more aware and informed than ever before. Still, I often see young people having to fight to be heard and taken seriously. I am now working on building a platform that creates a space for young changemakers to be heard and use their skills for causes they empathise with! 

I haven’t stopped talking about money though, head over to my youtube channel “Moolah” where I talk about the basics of personal finance and growing your money as students!