Uma Mishra-Newbery is a global social justice and women's rights leader, transformative speaker and the former Executive Director of Women's March Global. Her transparent, visionary yet grounded leadership was instrumental in furthering the mobilisation and assembly of women globally around women's rights issues.
She currently serves on the board of directors of Minority Veterans of America and Women's March Global, is a campaign organiser for #FreeLoujain and is the Initiator of and lead facilitator for The Racial Equity Index.
What do you wish leaders were more honest about?
I wish that leaders were more honest about the fact that we do not have, or need to have, all of the answers. And that this is absolutely fine and doesn't impact our ability to lead.
There is this myth that leaders are somehow supposed to have transcended humanity to become walking, talking enyclopedias of subject matter information. And whilst the experience and insights gained throughout careers are invaluable, this doesn't correlate to on the spot decision making genius and the pressure to act in this way can, and does, regularly cost organisations greatly. Creating space to think, consider, consult then respond fosters such greater results for our organisations and makes for a much more inclusive and collaborative environment.
One of the most rewarding lessons I received from being a teacher was that my students didn't expect me to have all the answers and that it was ok if my response was, 'I don't know but I will look that up for you and I'll get back to you' or 'I'll let you know as soon as I find out' or 'I'll ask another professor or someone who works in that field what the answer is'.
I think the most powerful leaders out there know to always ask the questions of 'what is it that I'm missing?', 'What is the information that I need in order to be able to make this decision?' and 'what is it that I'm not seeing in this area that I'm not so well versed in?'. The reason that we are in leadership is that we know who to bring to the table so that we are able to make effective decisions. The feeling or expectation of needing to shoulder all of that one one person, is just unreasonable. And we should call it out more.
What does it mean for you to have a commitment to social equity?
For me, a commitment to equity means that there is an absolute, uncompromising understanding that equity is a very active journey, and a long one at that. What I mean by that is understanding it's not just an EDI workshop, or unconscious bias training or philanthropy programme that your organisation needs to solve all of your problems.
A commitment to equity requires daily work and interventions to not only uncover our biases that we bring to the table but also to understand how as an organisation, we redefine our processes to be more inclusive and fair; whether through salary pay gap analysis, advancement opportunities, or diversity data visibility. If we are comfortable in terms of what we expect from junior level staff to senior level staff on this journey and can communicate it clearly, participation and engagement will significantly increase.
Social equity encompasses so many different areas within an organisation, and so commitment to equity means to constantly have those uncomfortable conversations to uncover the issues that need to be addressed and then actually addressing them in order to really commit to this journey.
It's been said by so many amazing black people and POC practitioners in the EDI space: 'Equity is not a destination. It is a constant commitment that one must make in order to ensure that we are doing the work of being anti-racist as an organisation, as a corporation and as a non-profit.' This means that we are constantly looking at power dynamics, that we are constantly looking at hiring practices and always making adjustments and improvements. It is never finished.
You are never going to have it right 100% of the time, that's impossible because we are looking at systemic inequalities these have been embedded for hundreds of years.
So, commitment to equity, what it means to me is a constant learning process, a constant evolution process, a constant commitment process.
How has your background and experience prepared you to be effective in business?
This has been a challenging question for me to answer because I have such a varied background. It took me a very long time to say that the diversity of my experience and background informs who I am and how I show up as a leader. But now I know that it underpins my unique value as leader, as a contributor.
I've been an active duty soldier in the military. I worked in a hospital setting and was a medical technologist. I've also worked in the civilian sector and had to make that transition. I have lived between two entirely different worlds. Then, on top of this, I have been an academiam, I have been a teacher and a professor and now in the non-profit sector, every one of those experiences informs how I show up as a leader and employee and the value I can bring, as a result.
The greatest gift my background gave me, as odd as it sounds, was to join the military because it took me out of this very closed environment that was a sounding board for ideas and values and things that looked and sounded like me. It threw me into a world where you're stationed and in basic training with people who are so different from you. They are different in value sets, languages, behaviours, manners, and you have to figure out how you are going to work together.
One of the most effective lessons the military teaches you is that we are all here to serve in a unified team. So we have to put all of our differences aside and show up to support each other and literally have each other's backs, 100% of the time. This foundation of trust and accountability really teaches you how we break down and build each other back up to be able to work together. I've taken elements of that and transferred it into how I show up in my day job now. I have peace in the knowledge that despite everyone arriving at the table with their own set of experiences, beliefs and opinions, it will always be my job, as a leader, and as a person contributing to a team to be able to understand that and bridge understanding between everyone.
Funnily enough, even as a teacher the same principle applies. I know that 10% of what my students actually experience is when they show up in my classroom. I teach them whatever the lesson plan is that session and then I don't see them again for a week. And so I know very little of what is happening in their day to day lives, whether or not they have a good home life, whether they have supporting parents. So when they show up in my classroom, it is my job as a teacher to understand that not everybody is arriving in the same place, in the same way and to, again, bridge that gap between everyone.
I really believe that learning to understand that everyone is always arriving differently, even if we're arriving at the same table, at the same time, has been the greatest lesson of my experience.
What is the most valuable lesson you have learned from failure?
This is a complex question for me because there's that great saying that failure is our greatest teacher.
What I have learned is that when we fail, we need to take a look at the system in which we are failing in.
Being a non-profit leader and having to fundraise, I had two experiences in one specific space that catalysed my relationship with failure.
I was trying to fundraise and I was not succeeding. This is of course very frustrating. But when I looked around me and though, 'why am I failing?', I saw that there was a lot of white feminism around me, there was a lot of gate-keeping and there was a lot of white supremacy. Unfortunately, philanthropy is closely aligned to neoliberalism, so, automatically, as a POC, it became very difficult to succeed in a space because I was working within a system which was never designed for me to thrive in or succeed. If you do happen to succeed, it's because you have literally broken your back in some way to navigate a system which was specifically designed to suppress you.
I was not succeeding, and I literally had a black woman colleague tell me, that I needed to hire a white development person because POC who are working in fundraising in the non-profit space within the women's rights space, do not succeed, there's a lot of adversity against us.
Once that person was hired, we flipped to raising for a completely different collective, working with funders who were black and women of colour and then the development experience was vastly and starkly different. It was almost as if there was synchronicity, a commonality in what we were trying to achieve and the funding conversations were light years apart. Once I saw the success I was having being in the right space, surrounded by the right people, I took time to remind myself that my previous experience wasn't because I was a bad fundraiser or bad at my job as Exec director. I was now thriving because there were less barriers to participation, because there was no white feminism, because I was in the right place, doing the right thing. So for me, failure isn't the greatest teacher in of itself. It is for me, an uncovering of understanding, asking the question 'was it me failing because I was not showing up in the right way or was I working against a system that was not designed to set me up for success?'.