Chitra Rajeshwari describes herself as a global citizen who is an agent of change.
“I’ve lived everywhere and travelled so much,” the executive director of the US-based Avasant Foundation (AF) who has been working with NGOs since she was a teenager, told WMN.
The foundation is the social development arm of global management strategy firm Avasant.
Last week Rajeshwari travelled to Trinidad and Tobago on the most recent of her change missions – to explore the possibility of offering underserved young people access to skills training and education with the goal of job creation in the digital economy. That, and to visit her sister who is married to a Trini and lives in Tunapuna.
While her not-for-profit work has seen her volunteer her time and efforts to better the lives of people ranging in age from babies to senior citizens, she believes the demographic she was meant to work with is young people.
“I’ve worked with young children in places like New York…and at an NGO in Australia with more mature people…But the core of any economy is the youth. They are the building blocks and if you don’t give them access they can make or break any economy. They can be vulnerable and can be brainwashed into wrong things. If you give them an opportunity it can really change them…Give them an opportunity to change their lives and have that ripple effect.”
Rajeshwari said AF has been doing not-for-profit work since 2011, and as its executive director she is responsible for whatever impact it has around the globe.
“When I put my head on my pillow at night, I either breathe a sigh of relief and say, ‘this was a good day’ or I tell myself, ‘Oh, there is so much more to be done.’ It never ends. It’s like a sentence that goes on and on because I’m responsible for the programmes, operations, getting funding and to make sure the foundation is thriving by doing its mission,” and ensuring that its footprints are expanded wherever there is a need for it. And she absolutely loves it, especially as it involves a lot of travel.
“I was born and raised in India and my father was an air force officer, so we moved a lot. That travel bug was in me from a very young age. It is in my DNA…My home is in San Francisco and I can easily fly from San Francisco to London and back in two day and not be bothered by it.”
So it was no surprise when, as a young woman, she started working in the travel industry. Eventually, though, she switched careers and took up a job in the banking sector.
“I left the travel industry and worked for Citigroup (a US multinational investment bank and financial services corporation), so it was like from one extreme to the other. Selling travel to people was so much fun, then to working for a bank. That can be very dry, but it was fascinating. Understanding people and how money is such a sensitive topic if you have it and if you don’t have it. I always looked at it from the human aspect. And when the banking community collapsed I ended up opening my own consultancy firm helping companies find solutions within themselves rather than having an external person coming in to advise them.”
This, she said, involved looking at the problem from different viewpoints – from top management to entry level employees, and coming up with a solution.
“I had an undergraduate degree in economics and sociology, and had just completed an MBA in sustainability and I was in that space of trying to figure out what I wanted to do when I found out the CEO of Avasant wanted to speak to me. We met and the rest is history” and a match made in heaven, of sorts.
She believes the work of AF is a fulfillment of a responsibility to fellow humans, especially the youth.
“Not all are fortunate enough to go to university and have a successful career. Some of them don’t have resources, but they have fire in their belly to want a great life like anybody else. That’s the focus of AF, and we try to bring together all key players to make the movement happen. It really takes a village, and we at Avasant have had an impact on so many lives. I feel blessed for this opportunity and I don’t take it for granted. I feel like fate brought me here. I truly love my job. It can be stressful, but you just have to keep one foot in front of the other.”
And just as her love for travel stemmed from her experiences at home, her penchant for volunteerism came from the same source. Her mother was a classical Indian dancer with a small dance school teaching the artform to children, among them disabled children.
“Maybe that’s when the not-for-profit was instilled in me. She would often use me as a prop,” she said with a chuckle.
In her teenage years, Rajeshwari and a friend would frequently visit a senior citizens’ home to help take care of the people there.
“We would read them Mills and Boon love stories, paint their nails, give them cookies they were not allowed to eat and spend afternoons talking with them,” and she took the same fire into adulthood.
But, in as much as she spends countless hours giving of her time and expertise to help young people around the world, her work at AF certainly does not consume her entire life. Her activities outside of work are numerous, ranging being a wife and mother, to fitness-related and artsy.
“I love to work out. I run a lot. Weekends I go running in the trails, and it’s literally therapy, listening to audio books while my feet take me where they want. My husband and I are good companions for travelling and we especially love trekking,” including a number of hard-core trails such as Mount Kilimanjaro – a dormant volcano located in Kilimanjaro Region of Tanzania; roughing it in tents; and mountain treks.
“For me that is a vacation. I don’t do the toes in the water at the beach.”
She dabbles in watercolours, which she admits she not really good at, and is an avid reader, but does not fancy mushy love stories.
“I love clouds, I love fashion. In fact, there are very few things I do not like. I love to dance and I may not be very good at classical Indian dance, but I have a little rhythm in me. Not as much as you Trinis for sure,” she said with a laugh.
Rajeshwari swears by the philosophy that no experience is ever wasted.
“It’s just a question of how you apply it. Just like when you leave one country to live in another, you don’t ever forget where you came from. You take that part of you and your new experience, shake it up like a martini and have a delicious sip of it.”