Dateline: Mumbai

Barnard’s Fourth Annual Global Symposium draws together India’s women leaders to share their culture and ideas and to inspire young women to become leaders of the future

By by Alyssa Vine

“How can we not be here?” asked Barnard president Debora Spar as she opened the Fourth Annual Global Symposium, Women Changing India, sponsored exclusively by Credit Suisse in March. “This is one of the most important countries on the planet, and is driven in large part by women.” Spar continued, “Women are critical stakeholders in India—they are leaders in their communities, in economic development, in activist movements, in corporate board rooms—their influence is really at the heart of everything happening here.”

The symposium’s goal of greater understanding of how women’s leadership works in different cultures was explored through three panels during the daylong event. Distinguished panelists tackled key topics such as women’s leadership in social activist efforts, media and arts, and business and government. Women drawn from these fields included Kiran Bedi, India’s first and highest ranking woman police officer; Shaheen Mistri, founder of Teach for India; CNN international correspondent Mallika Kapur; Shaina NC, politician and fashion designer; actress and activist Nandita Das; and Vedika Bhandarkar, managing director and vice-chair of Credit Suisse India. 

As the symposia have evolved, increasing attention has been directed to developing women leaders of the future on both regional and world stages. Beginning with last year’s symposium in Johannesburg, events were scheduled for Barnard’s Global Fellows (there were six in Mumbai), students who expressly apply to a selection committee for the honorific months before the symposium takes place.

On March 15, more than 80 high school students from around Mumbai gathered at the Cathedral and John Connon School to take part in Barnard College’s 2012 Young Women’s Leadership Workshop. The event featured a plenary address by Riya Bhattacharya, a research analyst from Credit Suisse in India, who stressed the importance of financial literacy for young women. Participants also heard from President Spar and Professor Kathryn Kolbert, the Constance Hess Williams Director of Barnard’s Athena Center for Leadership Studies. Ann Dachs, a senior admissions officer and director of Barnard’s Pre-College Programs, talked about the value of a liberal-arts education.

Student fellows led small group workshops to help participants explore leadership and develop collaboration and negotiation skills. The curriculum, “Perspectives on Leadership,” incorporated a role-playing exercise where the students were encouraged to consider an eminent domain scenario set in a fictional Mumbai slum. A redevelopment plan would bring in foreign investment and help establish the city as a leading global center, but would also have significant humanitarian, environmental, and health impacts. The students talked through the clashing perspectives and interests associated with this issue.

“[They] were extremely well-versed in the concept of slum-renewal,” said Jung Hee Hyun ’13, one of the Barnard fellows. “Their arguments were insightful and they were able to engage in lively, collaborative discussions about very complex issues.... I learned more from them than anything.” Neharah Gill ’13 agreed, noting how the students embraced the role-playing experience, “One young woman told me, ‘We’re always blaming the government, but now coming from the perspective of the government, we see how difficult it is to come up with solid solutions.’” 

Other aspects of leadership emerged. “The most memorable moment for me was witnessing firsthand a shift in how the students defined leadership,” said Sara Lederman ’12. At first, the high school students talked about presumed strengths among leaders, such as being bold, outspoken, and confident. But later debriefing the exercise, one of the quieter students in the group admitted that she didn’t feel like a “leader” during the workshop because she was less vocal. Another reassured her that listening and letting others speak is an equally powerful leadership attribute. “It was incredible to actually see that message click,” recalled Lederman. 

Jordan Borgman ’13 added, “Leadership is not about gaining accolades for yourself; it is about being an advocate for others, while also helping them find their own voice.” 

The experience in Mumbai also made Borgman more aware of what she’s learning at Barnard about being part of a community where women are respected, and about believing in the value of her own thoughts and opinions. “Before I thought of Barnard as an academic experience, now I realize that it is actually a deeply personal one,” said Borgman.

To watch videos from the global symposium please visit

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