Shero Tales. Cassie Delaney – Autodidact. Media Maker. Game Changer.

Shero Tales. Cassie Delaney – Autodidact. Media Maker. Game Changer.

At 23, she was a college dropout working in a care home. At 28, she is featured in the ’30 under 30’ article in the Business Post! Every moment of the conversation with Cassie Delaney was inspiring to no ends.

She dropped out of college because she felt that she was not really learning what she was passionate about. Along with the care home work, she self-learned with the help of YouTube videos whenever she could. This meant that she would be at the care home from 7am. to 11pm and she would study during the break and get back to work from 4pm to 11pm! Most of her learning was on photography/videography editing and illustration. This was her routine since she was 18. (translates to 16 hours of work and study everyday!)

Between the travels and one’s own daily chores, there was hardly any time left during such a routine. But she knew what she was passionate about, and she found a way to accomplish her goals one at a time. Social issues and women empowerment were areas that interested her the most.

She was passionate about the potential of media to impact social change and has led various other projects on feminism, mental health, international aid and youth unemployment. She did a documentary on young girls in East Africa who did not go to school and stayed at home to take care of their younger siblings. She was also the One Young World Coordinating Ambassador for Ireland.

Cassie is a self-proclaimed nerd who is in love with all things digital, and that did help her in her journey into the media world. She got her break in Her.ie with the help of her impressive portfolio. She got in as a multimedia producer and got promoted two levels within three years. She was a Deputy Editor by the third year in her job. Her.ie that had over a million readers a month, was focused on celebrity, news and fashion. Cassie realised that those were not the real or comprehensive representation of ‘HER’ in Ireland! She brought in initiatives like Her say and Her talks for a more accurate representation of the women in Ireland. She also directed and produced the multi-award-winning ALONE campaign the power of a simple Thank You. In 2017 the campaign received the Grand Prix at the Media Awards.

In 2015, Cassie along with Anna Cosgrave decided to give the ‘repeal the 8th’ campaign its first ‘visual’ identity. They together designed the t-shirt with the ‘REPEAL’ word which was an instant success. Cassie had also helped Her.ie. build their ‘Repeal hub’. The job gave her ample opportunities to explore her passion with the camera where she created awesome videos and home-made GIFS.

Her chosen routine since she was hardly 18 was to creatively and continuously work for things close to her heart, and that has reflected in her career timeline. She did not rely on a college degree or pause on the lack of technical know-how at any point in time.

She joined Jobbio as the Director of Content and helped steer the company in a unique content direction which places workplace issues like the gender pay gap, diversity and paternity at the centre of their campaigns. She helmed the campaign ‘Shatter the Glass’ which conducted original research on the salaries of senior tech professionals in the UK and US and revealed the disparity in pay. Through the campaign, Jobbio encouraged customers to pledge to alleviate the gender pay gap.

She is also the co-host of Lovin’ Dublin’s Before Brunch podcast which has amassed over 100,000 listeners over the past few months.

It is not just a career growth that I see in these years. Nothing deterred her from her chosen path, and she invested every minute she got in the canvas she got to paint her dreams. Not having enough time, knowledge or opportunities were never an excuse for her to stop working her way towards her dreams. Well has she stopped now? Not quite so..as we speak she is planning on opening a compact studio in Dublin dedicated to delivering brilliant podcasts. – And this, while she is packed with a full-time job as the Director!

“Don’t make excuses. Make things happen. Make changes. Then make history.” Doug Hall. Cassie surely is on her way through making things happen, making changes and making herstory!

Rukmini Vijayakumar – Waltzing in each step of her Way

Rukmini Vijayakumar - waltzing every step of her way

Music and dance never cease to inspire me, and I truly believe that an element of some ‘divine force’ resides in an artist while they perform their art. The art, of course, applies to any art but having spent my ‘dreamy teen years in a place next to “Kalamandalam’’ music and dance hits home first. Though it was the dance that made me ‘follow’ (stalk is a better word in my case) Rukmini, I went to her to write about her ‘creation’ – the Rukmini she is.

If I’m to enumerate the reasons I’m in awe of Rukmini Vijayakumar, the list is endless. I tire easily by just thinking of the various activities she packs into every 24 hours she gets.

To me, to be able to dance, to stay fit and healthy, to be creative, to contribute to the community – is a bunch of dreams. Sometimes, some of these happen. There are many around me who are gifted, – who do many of these in bouts and some who take a couple of them as their core. What sets Rukmini apart is that she is a sculpture..sculpted by her dedication in every hour of the day and brought to life by the creativity and grace she’s innately blessed with.

She practices regularly, has 60 odd students in her dance school called Raadha Kalpa, engages the community around her in performance arts under the banner Lshva, does programs across the world, choreographs and creates new dance numbers for performances, is an actress, practices Yoga, Pilates, inspires vegetarians with her ‘salads’ from Madhavi Farms (her Father’s farm) – and there may be things I have missed out..just because I’m out of breath!

There is a routine she follows from the age of 17!

4:30 a.m. to 5:30 a.m. – Core strength training

6 a.m. – 8 a.m. – Adavu practice

8:30 a.m. – 9:30 a.m. – Yoga or Pilates

10 a.m. – 4 p.m. – Rehearsals (partly discussions and creations and partly practice)

And this is on days she doesn’t travel – and she is someone who has danced in various stages across the globe. US (most of the cities in the US); UK; Netherlands; Malaysia; Dubai; Qatar; Germany; Switzerland; Brazil; France; Czech Republic; Bali; Canada and a couple more!

Dance is a meditation of the body and soul like any other art form. But to devote oneself to such a regular routine of creation is like participating in the divine act of creation itself. She started dance at the age of 5, and her character was that of the mythological figure Dhruva. Dhruva had demonstrated such steadfast commitment (Tapasya) to Lord Vishnu that he was blessed to take the position of the steadfast pole star. Somehow her career so far seemed metaphorically aligned with Dhruva’s story. I’ve often seen her hourly commitment in the creation of the artist she is – as her ‘Tapasya’.

It is coincidental that Rukmini’s mother who used to perform as well, danced for the last time in the same stage where Rukmini staged Dhruva. Both her parents encouraged her to continue her passion..even if it meant skipping college. Considering that she got a scholarship in Carnegie Mellon..it was quite a bold and unconventional take by the parents.

Rukmini was 17 when she finished grade 12, and she decided to explore dance until she reached 18 and travelled for studies. The exploration shifted to a passionate vocation and a lifetime choice when the years of learning and performing dance extended from 1-3. After 3 years, she decided to formally learn dance and give her talent and passion some form of formal degree. She did BFA in the Boston Conservatory (Berkeley College) (She studied Anatomy & Physiology at BU, and started MFA at Sastra University, she did physical training at UCLA)

It becomes drab prose if I’m to list her accomplishments and the crowns she juggles – it is available in Wikipedia. (What you must correct there though is that she’s initially from Bangalore and not Hyderabad as Wikipedia says).

I was keener to discuss the zeal with which she pursued and continues to pursue her passion. Someone who took an interest in ‘shows over exams’, she did her Arangetram when she was 15 and still managed to get selected in a university like Carnegie Mellon for Science. She was trained by Sundari Santhanam the senior student of the famous Padma Subramanian) and learnt ‘Karanas’ the oldest form of Natyashastra defined by Padma Subramanian – she would go to the US and study dance forms like Ballet and Jazz during summer holidays. When she did her BFA in the US, she did the reverse by spending her 4-5 months of time away from college – literally living in her teachers’ houses. (Sundari Santhanam and Narmada).

To sum it up – she danced – all the time, all forms, all the places and all the opportunities she ever got. She mastered the oldest form of Bharatanatyam and applied her learnings in the pedagogy of western movement forms and created new avenues.

She was just 19 when she did her solo production -she smiles as she said that it was named ‘Rukmini’. After college, she spent time in productions and dance choreography where she created a bunch of Bharatanatyam vocabularies – Varnams. Ashtapadis etc. Andaal and Kodligowtham remain her favourite.

Her space in Koramangala – decked with children’s paintings on the wall and book collections on all things from Bharatanatyam, yoga and non-fiction, extolling the virtues of performance arts and the need to stay agile reflects yet another side of her personality as a teacher. She started teaching only recently as she wanted to ensure that she mastered the maturity required for passing on the art. Chiselling things to perfection is her way as we know by now!

As I went there seeking to tell the story of a poetry in motion, I realised that she was the one who painted stories in the most beautiful ways one can imagine. From her own style of dance, her inspiring healthy living stories in social media, encouragement of societal involvement in performance arts, fashion shows and the big media (movies) – she fills the canvas with her vibrancy and colour.

I was speechless the moment I met her – overwhelmed at meeting a star..and was exhausted listing down her simple steps in her crafted journey. As I was busy taking notes and listening to her – the one question that kept ringing in my head was ‘How’! How is possible to do all of these – in the same 24 hours that all of us get.

Her answer – in her own words –

 “I’m not sure I work at all. Dance envelops my being. Meera wrote that she had to give up, her social body, her town body, and her family body to be with The Dark One. My Dark One is my dance.’”

I love dance, I admire the dancer in her, I’m in awe of the beautiful mind she’s got – but above all – I gasp at the tenacious and tireless creator she is – not just of dance forms – but the art called life.

Shero Tales. Professor Jane Ohlmeyer – The Force for Females

Professor Jane Ohlmeyer - The Force for Females

“Women need to be at the forefront”, “we need more women leaders”, “why are women underrepresented in the top strata”. I can’t stress enough, but there has been a lot of rants especially in the recent few years regarding gender gaps.

Ironically, while there are very few women who manage to climb the ladder, fewer still extend their own hands down for the fellow ladies to follow their footsteps. While we complain against a society that does not provide us with equal opportunities, it may make more sense if we consciously take one step to be accommodating, positive, mentoring and helping the women around us.

Jane Ohlmeyer is the visionary, founder and director of The Long Room Hub, Trinity’s (Trinity College Dublin) research institute for advanced study in the Arts and Humanities and active proponent of the education of Digital Humanities. She is the first Vice President for Global Relations, the chair of the Irish Research Council, an agency that funds frontier research across 70 disciplines. Jane is also a non-executive director of the Sunday Business Post, a member of the Irish Manuscripts Commission, of the National Archives Advisory Council, and of the Royal Irish Academy, where she chairs the Brexit Taskforce. She is the author/editor of 11 books. She has fellowships in Huntington, Newbury and Folger Library, covering the entire region from west coast to east coast.

She advocated the importance of Internationalization and the need for long-term relations with academics in all countries. She stressed on the importance of the financial benefits of inviting academics from other countries, she was also keen on sending Irish students on programs across the world for them to get the required exposure. In three years of office, she has covered 130 countries and 60 cities. She travels almost every week, be it a day visit to London or a few days in the U.S or in India and is in her office, always, the very next day. She had overseen the ground-breaking project in Irish history – the 1641 depositions and launched a fully searchable digital edition in Trinity College Library. She is now involved in the publishing of the depositions in hard-bound books. She had also studied in detail the depositions of the 500 odd Protestant women who gave their testimonies to understand the lives of colonist/Protestant women in the period.

If I’m to explain the roles and tasks she must undertake for various positions, it is just beyond any calendar or calculable human efforts. I kept asking her throughout the interview as to how she manages it all, and she just smiled saying that when you do what you love, you just keep doing it. It is no wonder that her colleagues call her a ‘human dynamo.’

Most women, when they hear such busy lives of successful women – have these questions. How were you able to take time away from family? How do you have work-life balance? “Well, as they say, it is work-life integration. I have two boys, and when they were young, I either had a good support system back at home to rely on, or I would bring the kids to work. They would sit through the conference with their own games, and I would compensate my time away from home when I’m with them” she says with a smile.

One would be amazed beyond words when you look at the positions she toggles and the publications she has in her name. But, more than that, it is her touch with the reality of female fellow colleagues and her efforts striving for a better world for women at work that inspires you.

As the chair of Irish Research Council, she has mandated the participation of women in projects seeking funding. “Gender is an aspect, and there is an unconscious bias,” she says. “IRC has become an example of best practices in this space.” The ‘Gender Strategy & Action Plan’ of the IRC aims to provide equal outcomes to both men and women and strives to ensure that at least 40% of each gender is represented. IRC, along with Science Foundation Ireland and the Health Research Board, has decided to make it a mandate for Third-level institutions to have gender quotas to be eligible for funding.

“Leadership roles are largely men. Only 19% of senior professors are women. The publishing world is no different either. There is data to demonstrate that women find it difficult to publish” Jane says concerned about the underrepresentation of women.

Why does it matter? Acceptance and success of women and society in the hands of women leaders has a much higher societal role than is apparent. Perceptions towards women need a significant overhaul across the world, and the first, most positive step is women to succeed in what they do and help their female colleagues. Speaking of her own tussle, she said that once, when she was ‘touched very inappropriately’ by a senior Vice-Principal during her early years of career in the University of Aberdeen, she did not think twice to report to the Vice Chancellor and inform that she will go to press if required. Many would think that it would mean the doom of her career to speak up against the atrocity. But, as fate would have it, the culprit was indeed in the press – ‘Top Peer’s Drug Binges with £200 Prostitutes’! years later for all the wrong reasons. “I’m very conscious that there is a Lord Sewel in every place. Women need to come forward and speak up.” She has coordinated and ensured there is a task force in Trinity to ensure that women feel safe to come forward and talk about issues they face at work from male colleagues.

As she says – ‘Awareness is the Key’. I cannot imagine a lady’s calendar being swamped with activities like hers in my small circle. I clicked a pic of her office to show those little shelves marked with the various offices and activities for each. Yet, there she is – imploring women to speak up, insisting more women participation and ensuring a ‘fair’ future for females.

If as a woman, you strove to do whatever is in your capability to help another woman, there will be two who have climbed the ladder – the very act increases the percentage in the gender ratio favourably, and the resultant actions can improve the positivity for women across the world. The support system you are seeking for should start from within, extend to others and those ripples will create yours.

Hema Subhash – An amputee who carves wings for other PWDs to reach their dreams

An amputee who carves wings for other PWDs to reach their dreams

As much cliché’d as it is – let me begin with the age-old adage – “When life gives you lemons, you go make a lemonade out of it” For.. I am and will be, in dearth of words to explain how Hema Subhash, took the accident that made her an ‘above the knee amputee’ as an opportunity to ‘better the world for herself and others who are physically challenged.’

Our conversation was not an hour-long chat, neither was it an interview of any sorts – it didn’t take her more than a minute to form a camaraderie with me – a friend of a friend – whom she had never seen before. While crafting beauty is a god-gifted talent, spreading the art of finding beauty in everything is her self-made goal – and quite an infectious one at that.

On February 02, 2010, as Hema steps out of a bus, the negligent driver takes off causing Hema to fall and the rear wheels run over her left knee. Unfortunately, the excruciating pain did not make her unconscious as one would imagine or even hope for. She could see her bones and muscles dangling amidst the blood that was gushing out of her leg. While the people around were stuck in trance, she wasn’t..she held onto a person’s leg and begged to be taken to the hospital.

At the hospital, since the condition demanded it, the doctors had to ask her parents to sign the agreement that her leg could be amputated above the knee while she was sedated for the surgery. Her initial moments of recovery were far from being remorse or furious though she did go through each of these in different bouts and different periods. She was happy to be alive and she felt she never valued life or her body more. She remembers her conversation with her brother. “Leg is gone..but I’m here,” she said..somewhere in between the joy of getting the life back and the anxiety of dealing with it sans a limb now. Her brother comforted her and urged her to see this as an ‘opportunity to be stronger’.

“I’m not denying the moments of anxiety, self-pity, remorse, or anger. Even with the driver, I just wished he wasn’t that neglectful and that the system valued the life of the citizens better to be letting him go scot-free like that. He or his peers would not worry about the consequences of their actions as they know the way around the system. We are perceived to be the ‘better off’ in society and we are left with a meagre amount of 8 lakhs after filing the case and fighting for it for years. This is in the civil court. The high court case is still pending, and I could be blamed as by now I don’t see the point in pursuing much.”

“Help poured in from unexpected quarters and I’m grateful to each one of them. Linda – I had no idea that a total stranger could take you from the road and act with such compassion like she was your family forever – which she is now. Mindtree – I had worked with them for hardly 1.5 years at a junior level when this happened and both the Managing Directors – Ashok Soota and Subroto Bagchi came to visit me. It showed that they valued the lives beyond the so-called term of service or designations which is a rarity to find. Subroto even visited my home after I got discharged. They reassured me in every possible way – told me that my job would be safe until I recover and feel good to be back in office and my insurance was doubled.”

Such thoughtfulness in times of distress not just earns respect but inspires people who receive it to pay it forward.

Hema spent the next couple of months in recovery. She did undergo systematic training and had a physical trainer focussing on her fitness and diet. She realized that kind of support is not available in hospitals or elsewhere in India, but when she created that for herself, she knew she benefitted well.

“Each step back to normality was painful and with loads of apprehensions. There were moments when I wished one part of mine hadn’t vanished overnight or even that it appeared miraculously just like it vanished. There were crazy things I thought of like ‘cloning’ my leg or cloning me and taking one leg of mine. I even called up people and checked about it” – she laughs at herself as she says it. Apparently, it is doable – but the law is not in favour.

She was back to work, marriage and childbirth sooner than she would have imagined – of course each with its own perks and pain. While getting back to work for almost a year was a relief, travelling 3-4 hours in Bangalore traffic wasn’t. While it was a blessing to be accepted as is by your boyfriend, the sudden realization that an ‘able-bodied’ person is accepting a ‘not-so-able bodied’ for life, came with its own tensions. While childbirth like for any mother out there was a blissful experience, it brought with it the complications. But these were the first wee steps in her answer to the disaster.

The mishap and the situation could perhaps alter her situation, change her looks and disrupt the way she functioned – but never her plans. In fact, she had more to plan when you would think life gave her a little lesser to plan with.

In the brief period she got to take care of her baby, she realized the need to give others the kind of rehabilitation she went through in whichever ways she can. She kept reading up and searching for similar people and started small with a Facebook/Whatsapp group. “We were just five of us who were amputees and would meet up for a coffee” When they realized that the discussions and getting out as a group together boosted their spirits, they searched for other amputees across Bangalore to form a larger group.

They realized that as a group they had more energy to participate in public gatherings, take all the staring, shed inhibitions and jump right into the act. She slowly started getting contacts and friends and by word of mouth, the group expanded, and they started participating in marathons and cycling events across Bangalore. It is at this point that Hema meets Madhumita Venkataraman who heads the Diversity and Inclusion for Coco-Cola in the South Asia region. One of the earliest members, it was Madhumita’s idea to include people with all kinds of difficulties. This inclusion and wider participation gave way to the formation of a non-profit – OSAAT.

OSAAT (One-Step-At-A-Time) was formed with a vision: Provide systematic rehab programs for the disabled to return to life and facilitate social participation, friendship and inclusion. They had three parts to their program:

1.     Awareness & Advocacy – yoga workshops and disability awareness;

2.     Adapted Art – includes dance and theatre classes culminating in a public performance;

3.     Adapted fitness – swimming camps, marathons, cycling meetup, hiking event etc

In October 2015, they participated as a group in the Bangalore Marathon. It was the first time that in Bangalore, PWDs were participating in a public performance as an organized group.

On March 2016, OSAAT organized its first public event – 10-day free swimming camp.

The PWDs who joined OSAAT were from different walks of life and had different disabilities to cope with – but they all had one thing to say – that OSAAT has helped them come out of their cocoons and inspired them to celebrate the life and the ‘abilities’ they have got despite the disability. As I said, in the beginning, Hema’s zest for life is infectious. It is no wonder that from 5 to 60, OSAAT grew to a non-profit of 150 odd members within a couple of years.

As the accident took away one limb not only did she replace it with such ease and grace, but she carved one ‘wing’ for adventure sports as well! While gardening and mosaic designing is her craft which she parted to some in OSAAT, she got the adrenaline rush from trying things that were meant to be pushing her limits.

She does yoga, cardio and strength training everyday at home and follows a strict diet to be able to maintain herself well. “You have to find time regularly for exercise. Any impairment, you must compensate, otherwise, it leads to further complications, esp with conditions like amputation you tend to be prone to Osteoporosis, joint imbalances, spine dislocation if you do not focus on strength training. As I’ve gone through motherhood and ageing I must stress more on being fit.”

“As an exercise I love swimming and I can’t begin to explain the benefits it brings along. For an amputee, any other physical activity would require aids which would give vertical pressure to the hip-joint. While swimming takes your weight, it requires your muscles to move improving your muscle mass, oxygen intake and providing you with the right amount of cardio. I’ve tried swimming out into the Pacific Ocean – where the waves break, it is the hardest place for anybody to swim and even more if you don’t have two legs to stabilize yourself.”

She goes hiking with her family (5-6kms). Did rock climbing though it was difficult as the prosthetics kept slipping off the holes in the wall. Tried snorkelling twice. Went for Paddleboarding at Missions Bay, San Diego. And…did Sky Diving – in 2016, December – the day after the Disability Day when she jumped with another amputee who was the trainer.

The lemons were sour indeed, but her lemonade took the sweetness from her. If it had touched and inspired me to do things I was plain lazy to do just listening to her, it has transformed the lives of so many people with disabilities and changed the attitude towards disability in India. No twist of fate can amputate that wings she has carved for the many out there that have taken them to heights where all limbs and bones couldn’t take people to.

Nida Haji – Helming the Crusade against Cancer with Humour

Helming the Crusade against Cancer with Humour

The first time I saw Nida, she held her head high and walked in what I would call a ‘tomboy’ fashion, giving everyone an ‘I don’t give a damn’ look. I knew, standing there on the front porch of that office – that her gait and the fire in her eyes came from a storm that was weathered. 

I never asked questions and never heard beyond those two lines “Nida had cancer once”; “Nida had cancer twice”. I knew it would bias my interactions with her and she would hate that. I knew that much about “warriors from a wretched battle” – or so I thought.

She was there on my list when I started this series. And, whenever I came to her name, my ‘deservability’ meter (a term coined by my favourite actor) told me – maybe not now. Then, for my college paper, I went researching ‘grief’. While my bibliography had more than 30 references, I had watched more videos of individuals talking about how they dealt with grief/pain and turned it around to creativity, power, social work etc. I scheduled the call with Nida, imagining that I was ready. But, all those blogs, books, websites and videos of people from different parts of the world- they did not prepare me for the conversation I was about to have with her. 

In 2008, when she was 26, Nida was diagnosed with Bone Tuberculosis. Almost a year later, she found out it was a misdiagnosis, and the actual condition was Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a form of cancer. It is easier to recover during the early stages, but due to the misdiagnosis, cancer had progressed from Stage 1 to Stage 4b (last stage), and doctors informed the family that they thought it was too late for her, and that even a bone marrow transplant would not help. The family insisted on chemotherapy anyway. They started immediately, and after only three months of chemotherapy, in a repeat scan, doctors saw no trace of cancer at all in her body. She was apparently cancer free. It was so unbelievable that her doctors requested her to go to Johns Hopkins in Singapore to cross-check since such a recovery could only be called ‘miraculous’. Johns Hopkins confirmed that Nida was cancer free.  

Her first cancer episode was dealt with her family that included her parents, cousins and friends. At one point, 13 of them moved to a single house wanting to ‘celebrate’ the moments together. Her dad would ask the doctor to let things be transparent so that he could re-write his will accordingly! I bet the poor doc would have been as silenced as I was! Nida wrote out a word document, bequeathing things like her clothes, shoes and car to her siblings. They even split pantry items! Her cousins and friends joked around saying an Aries born can now claim to be a Cancerian too! During the aftermath of chemo, for her exercises, her dad revisited her toddler days and kept encouraging her with small rewards for walking a few hundred steps. Together, the Haji family made this episode of cancer a battle of positivity and humour. When people were talking about the ‘war on cancer’ and fighting cancer, Nida and family laughed their way through it. While doctors researched the potential of different medicines, the Haji family proved the potential of positivity. 

She would schedule her chemo treatments on a Thursday so that she would resume office on Monday. Not working from home or hospital – just in case you imagined it like me. She would travel to office and work, use the stairs as often as possible, instead of the elevator. At one point, she was losing a lot of hair and realised that her mother kept cleaning up behind her quietly, not wanting to upset her. Nida left for work normally that day, stopped by her salon and asked her hair stylist to “chop it all off!”. As she recollected those days, she said – “I never wore a wig. Never felt the need to. Yes, people often stared. I would smile back and think of myself as Sinead O’Connor!”. 

Nida met her husband Farooq in 2009 – the exact puzzle piece to fit the fun-loving Haji family. He nonsensed their wind of caution of the whole cancer episode with vows of ‘together in sickness and health’. Almost a decade, two childbirths, two countries and the second cancer episode later, he truly is the hero in this Shero’s life.

In March 2017, cancer re-visited, this time in the form of Breast Cancer. It is extremely uncommon for cancer to recur in a different form and that too in a person with no genetic traces of it, and for someone only in her 30s- but, we aren’t talking about commonness here!

If you search for the meaning of the word ‘cancer’ among many others, you will find “evil, blight, scourge, plague, rot,”. Nobody would associate anything but negativity.

That’s where Nida writes Herstory – by adding ‘positivity and erasing the plague from the word’. She says, “I was always asked the question – “Are you worried you have cancer?” I would reply – “No. Cancer should be worried; it has me!”. She mocked the disease, resuming work from the very next day of her treatment; sticking to as much of a normal schedule as possible, and giving cancer the same look she gave me in 2015 – “I don’t give a damn”. As much as I know her – she wouldn’t have skipped the “Frankly my dear” part of it either. 

Her second cancer episode once again had her family coming together, this time in the USA. A few months before she found out about the Cancer, Farooq and Nida had moved to the U.S. courtesy of Nida’s promotion at work, but the decision was primarily made for her talented tennis player son – Zizou. 😊 If you didn’t know it already, this is the kid who asked Roger Federer why he was nicknamed the ‘GOAT’ though Switzerland has very less livestock. It wasn’t just the sense of humour he got from his genes, but the passion for sports that runs in Nida’s and Farooq’s blood. Zizou has been playing tennis since the age of 3 and off late has been performing extremely well at the training camps and tournament circuit in the 10 and Under age group. He’s got Federer to make a pinky promise that he would continue till Zizou hits the field to play with him!  

“I never doubted that I would defeat cancer this time around because I had to be around for Zizou’s dream. He can’t turn pro without me cheering in the stands!” Her words just echoed the power of positivity and faith that says when you are passionate about your purpose; nothing can stand in your way.

There is another family Nida owes her strength and confidence to. Her ‘company’ which is true in both the noun form of the organization and the verb form of ‘being with her’ through thick and thin. Tavant Technologies – has always stood by her. Be it simple steps, like allowing the flexibilities she required during difficult times or larger commitments of helping her with her treatment finances; they were truly her ‘company’ through it all. She said with immense pride “each member of the leadership team called me personally and offered me help.” 

Nida joined Tavant in 2005, and she has been with them ever since. Her passion and persistence reflect in her work too. In a span of 12 years (2005 – 2017), she has been promoted six times based on her performance. Cancer, Chemo or Childbirth – she never left the table. A year after Zizou was born, she was promoted to Business Architect. Again, a year after her daughter Inara was born, Nida was promoted to Senior Business Architect. She was fast-tracked to a Director role in 2016. Her contributions to the growth of the company earned her a coveted spot on HousingWire’s “Women of Influence 2017” list. 

If the Haji family and Farooq define her story with humour and positivity, I have one for adorable little Zizou and Inara. “There was cancer whirling at your mother, with tight fists and cruel snarls, but your mom laughed, and cancer crumbled into nothingness. It is said that at any given battle, it is the victors who write ‘herstory’. And guess what? Your mom wrote this one – a story of the relentless pursuit of success with matchless passion. What will your story be?”

Helen McEntee – Minister/Member of Parliament (TD) at 26

MinisterHelenMcentee

I was shocked to hear Helen McEntee’s introduction as the “Minister of State for European Affairs” when she had come to our college. She looked like one of us – well – am too old to be in school – but she looked like the rest of them at college I mean. I was in for the next shock when I heard her speak. She was urging more young people to take up European Union jobs. “Nothing is impossible,” she said – and you could tell that this was someone who has indeed inserted the apostrophes and spaces in that word. 

I walked up to her after the meet, asking for an interview, she said she didn’t carry a card – ‘yea that was quite an expected excuse to elude from a minister!’ – imagine my surprise when she tore off a page from her notepad to write down her phone number! “Cultural Shock” is what I thought I got and then, my ‘Irish’ professor was equally startled to hear that ‘the minister’ texts me! I don’t want to digress much – but I must add this – when she got a few minutes late for the chat-up, she came ‘running’ and ‘apologizing’ all the way! And she walked me till the gate when it was my time to leave. Speaks so much of a person – humility does. “Until you have suffered much in your heart, you cannot learn humility.” – Thaddeus of Vitovnica.

It was touching to hear Helen McEntee’s entry into politics. On Dec 21, 2012, her father, Shane McEntee, took his life couple of days after his 56th birthday – for reasons unknown till date. Helen assisted him for about 3.5 yrs in his role as a ‘Minister of State for Food, Horticulture and Food Safety’. I remember the days following the ‘much predicted’ demise of my father who was 76 – blaming myself for a hundred things out there, wanting to work every minute of the day lest I go mad. I remember thinking that the anger is not going to go without killing me in the process. And I could so relate to her when she said – “I could spend the next 20 years being angry, but it won’t make one bit of difference. He was doing great work, and I wanted to take the baton from there and give his legacy my commitment, merit and ideas.”

Talking about her decision and entry, she said “it would be heart-breaking to see all the causes he worked for, come to nothing. The by-election was in March 2013 – giving me very little time for grieving – I had declared my decision less than four weeks after his death. It was like I had to gear up for moments of strength during the hours of tragedy” She had to campaign, visit the public and convince them of having the abilities to tackle what until then was the domain of people in their late 40s and 50s. She had to prove that her wit, honesty and hard-work will match up for the wisdom of age and years of experience her counterparts had. 

On 27th March 2013, just three months after her Dad’s demise, she was sitting there in the Dáil – making all sorts of trends! She became the first Fine Gael candidate to win a by-election with the party in government since 1975, and she was the youngest female (aged 26) in the Dáil when she was elected. 

But the success at the elections was not a happy ending of a story for her – it was just the beginning. Politics, without doubt, is a domain dominated by the experienced and mostly by men in Ireland as anywhere across the world. At a global level, Ireland ranks 89th for female political representation, with a poorer percentage of women in government than Uzbekistan, Iraq, Afghanistan and more than 80 others. Within the EU, Ireland ranks 25th out of 27 countries. * Helen’s challenges were multi-fold. “People elect their representatives with a hope that they will voice their opinions. Ireland is the EU’s most youthful country, with over 40% of the population aged under 30. Of the 32nd Dáil’s 158 Deputies, there were just 5 of us under 30. The elected representatives should in ways resonate with the public.”

 “Everything has changed when we are talking about a new generation here – the way they think, communicate and behave. So, while we think it is important to have an ‘experienced’ 50 plus person to represent them, it is equally important to have someone as young as them with whom they can connect better. They should feel they have a say in the government.” 

Since the election in March 2013, she has had the privilege of serving as both, Minister for Mental Health and Older People and more recently as Minister for European Affairs. In her role as Minister for Mental Health and Older People, she chaired the government’s youth mental health task force working group. This was set up to increase awareness of mental health issues among young people and to identify how to best address these problems – continually striking at her goal to empower the young and educate the country better. More recently, since she took up her role as Minister for European Affairs she strongly advocates the Erasmus Programme (European Community Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students) which is a European Union (EU) student exchange programme established in 1987 to encourage cross-country education within Europe. 

She shuttles between colleges and schools encouraging the Irish youth to have a more active participation in the European Union, be it through studies or work. She focuses on initiatives which will train the young to avoid youth unemployment and promote their involvement in the European Union. 

She has launched the ‘Citizen’s Dialogue on Future of Europe’ – a forum to encourage all citizens to be politically active in the member states in dialogue with the Irish Government. “It is important for the young to be heard from whichever channels they are most active on – that in some ways is the way forward – you cannot stick to legacy mediums. They need to be encouraged to talk, and we should be reciprocating with the latest measures addressing their concerns– we need more of a young and educated workforce at the government to be able to bridge such gaps.” 

From running around and learning what people have learnt in 30 years or more in the system to start serious dialogues with 17-year olds – and managing it all being a woman – she has quite a task at hand. “It is not easy being a woman politician – there are a lot of things I’m grateful for. Paul (Helen’s husband) has an equally busy schedule, and he is very interested in politics. It makes it easier when he can understand and relate to my schedule as I travel crazy – for campaigns – almost fortnightly.”

But, as anybody who loves doing what they are doing – she said – “it’s all worth it. I take a break away every three months where I switch off my mobile and any communication channel and just relax – be it within the home or a home away from home! I come back refreshed and start running again. It is a privilege to be where I am, and as long as I’m honest and hard-working enough to earn the trust people bestow on years of experience, I’m good.”

She may be years younger to me – but she has shown me how resilience could make you rise like a phoenix from agony instead of crumbling to ashes. I don’t think she has to go around talking to the young to inspire them, if they so much as hear her story, struggle and success – that should take them far in their journeys. Every day, every opportunity a gift in itself, if we stay humble and keep striking at our goals it translates into the legacy we leave behind. You’re never too early or too late for that.