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Women Of Influence - Poonam Ahluwalia, Founder, YES

Nirmala Garimella

Poonam Ahluwalia was named the 2013 India New England Woman of the Year.  She is a somewhat atypical activist when it comes to advocating for global youth employment and entrepreneurship. The story of a privileged childhood with affluent parents while growing up in Jaipur seems at odds with the nature of her present work. But this is precisely the reason that has attracted her to serve the underprivileged and those who do not have a voice. “I have always had a deep need to level the playing field so that everyone could have the opportunities that I have always taken for granted in my life” says Poonam.   She found that once she became a mother she “simply could not look around me and not get involved.”

 At Education Development Center she founded Youth Employment Summit (YES) – which was a global decade campaign of action from 2002 – 2012.  For this she and her team organized global youth employment summits in Egypt 2002, Mexico 2004, Kenya 2006, Azerbaijan 2008 and Sweden 2010.  At each Summit over 2000 people attended from 100 plus countries.   This work was time-consuming and emotionally grueling and her passion allowed her to fulfill the promise of placing youth employment on the global agenda.  “Young people are our present and our future and in 55 countries youth set up YES Networks that continue their amazing work even though the campaign has ended” says Poonam.

Through her innovative, low-touch, high impact approach to development there have been over 400 projects initiated and implemented by young people throughout the world. Most people would rest after the intensity of running a global initiative such as YES – but not Poonam – she soon found something else to occupy her fully – YouthTrade.

 I sat down with her to talk about her challenges and the impact of her work.

Tell us about the concept behind Youth Trade?

While I was running the YES Campaign I came to understand that lack of demand driven products and access to markets was another major gap that needed to be filled. Young entrepreneurs  are able to get support to prepare their  business plans, locate finance and business development services.  But all support ends once they launch their businesses.  We decided to fill this last-mile gap by creating YouthTrade, which certifies mission driven youth businesses. YouthTrade is inspired by Conscious Capitalism which was  introduced to me by my two dear friends Raj Sisodia and Shubhro Sen.

Every good idea needs a champion and we found ours in Kim Rose, vice president of merchandising and purchasing for Whole Foods Market North Atlantic Region, who agreed to give YouthTrade a chance by piloting the concept.   We now have 55 YouthTrade entrepreneurs many of whose products grace the aisles of  Whole Foods Market stores all over US.   Recently we were fortunate to get two of our entrepreneurs products into Nordstrom – the thanks for this introduction goes to Betsy Sanders.  We are very blessed to be based at the premier school for entrepreneurship Babson College and this is thanks to Cheryl Kiser.


What are the personal /environmental attributes that have helped you succeed in your career?

When I was growing up in India, I never knew the meaning of want. I was always indulged by my parents, which is what motivated me to seek abundance for those less fortunate than me.  I married against the wishes of my parents, and started life from scratch with my husband.  My first job was that of selling push-button telephones and I did really well.  That led me to believe that I could sell products.  I then applied to work as a Marketing Executive at McDowell & Co at their chain of restaurants called Pizza Hut.  Here I learned the art of persuasion and enrollment and that set me on this path of identifying goals and getting partners to work alongside me to accomplish them. 

What challenges if any have you faced in your career path?

When you are foolish enough to set as your goal placing an issue on the global agenda – you should know that many challenges will come in your way.  I was naïve I thought that when you set out to do good…people will support you.  Yes, I got a lot of support – but in equal measure I got hostility for my ideas and beliefs,  and huge barriers thrown my way by the powers that be.  Ultimately it was the biggest enrollment challenge for me – which I met by (1) constantly reminding myself that these were not personal attacks on me and  (2) by my willingness to collaborate, persuade and accept what I got.  The most damaging thing that happened due to my swatting out so many fires constantly was that I put a lot of pressure and stress on myself and my family.

What is the secret to your maintaining a work -life balance?

There is no secret – it is extremely hard to maintain the balance.  I knew that I could not have it all. I choose to follow my heart and work on my purpose and I devoted myself to my  family, what I had to give up was  a social life. The art is in constantly choosing what you get.

What is your approach to parenting? Any special advice you have for women on parenting of sons and daughters

I believe as parents the most important thing is to offer is unconditional love to your children. Once they grow up they take that with them everywhere.  This is more precious than any education, discipline and money that we can give them.  I believe that the kids that are loved and not judged – start to love themselves and with that comes the incentive to do well and keep well.  The other thing is to inculcate  a love of reading - it opens their mind and broadens their horizons.

 What activities outside of work are you involved in ? (Charity, arts , community service etc) 

I work with my 55 YES Networks as an Advisor, I am also on the Global Agenda Council for Youth Unemployment of the World Economic Forum and my biggest commitment is to The Hunger Project.

What do you do for fun?

I love to sing, go for long walks, read, I love being on Facebook and being with friends.

Who are the people who you admire/ inspired /emulate?

Many people have inspired me in my life. My mother has been my greatest inspiration. When she was growing up there was no college nearby so she convinced the Governor of Rajasthan to offer her admission in the men’s college, and so she was the first woman to graduate from college in Jaipur.  She was also very adventurous and won the North India Car Rally championship seven years in a row. She encouraged me to read and never let me do any household work. The guiding principle of my parents was love.  My dad was the kindest and the most gentle man in the world.  He loved my mother very much so it was wonderful to grow up in such an environment.  I was lucky to work with   Janet Whitla, president of Education Development Center, who decided to back me up not only spiritually but also financially and we decided to organize the first Global Youth Employment Summit. Others who inspired and helped me are Dr. M.S. Swaminthan, Robert Reich, Ismail Serageldin and Mohamed Yunus , Gunter Pauli and Akhtar Badshah.

What kind of support have you valued most from your husband and what support from you has your husband valued the most?

My husband Mohinder came to Boston to do his MBA at BU in 1985.  I came to visit him and he wanted me to stay.  We had no money and no place to stay.  The lucky thing was that through a BU Housing Exchange program we were able to find a wonderful couple Bobby and Amy Weinberg in whose home we stayed for one and a half years – taking care of their home and kids and in exchange we got an attic apartment to stay in and $200 a month (which was our monthly budget!).  Plus Mohinder  worked at a liquor store in the evenings,  and I took on additional houses to clean and cooked at neighbors’ homes over the weekend.  So yes, we worked very hard and did nontraditional jobs to support ourselves while he went to school. 

As for me I stayed home for 7 years after my son was born and then started working at EDC.  I was only able to do my YES Campaign work because my husband was home with the kids while I traveled around the world.  Without ones family support it is not possible to do the kind of work I have done.  So yes, I have been grateful for his support.

 What was your happiest moment in life?

It is hard to pinpoint a single moments but the happiest have been the birth of our son Saatvik and when we brought our daughter Tara home.  

When there were low points in your life what advice did you value the most to pull through?

There have been many low points for me. I have no advice to give.  I found that for me I had to bracket the problem, put it aside and move on.  I have not allowed myself to get trapped in resolving the problem – that would paralyze me.  This way I am able to move forward and let the process take over, accept what is happening and let go of what is unresolved.

 Do you have a fitness routine that you would like to share?

Yes, I practice 45 minutes of yoga, 30 minutes walk with my dogs, and an hour of Mindful Based Meditation before going to bed so I can clear my mind.

 Do you have a beauty routine that you would like to share?

Not really!!  But I do go for a massage every week, take supplements and eat simple organic vegetarian food. 

Do you have a favorite book/author

My favorite book is Nelson Mandela’s ‘Long walk to Freedom’. This book has been a constant source of inspiration for me.   Whenever I have felt down in the dumps I think about how he spent his time in solitary confinement – and kept his spirits up.  It helps me lift myself up and not take whatever is plaguing me too seriously.

Do you have a favorite song/ musician?

My favorite song is 'Imagine' by John Lennon.  It resonates with me because I believe imagination is what bring about any progress in the world… the world is transformed by dreamers.

Do you like to cook? What is your favorite dish to make?

I like cooking.  But I do not like to cook on a regular basis.  My favorite dish is karhi chawal.  

One fun fact about you

Years ago, I made twelve Thaals of mithai for a Diwali party for a family in Winchester, I made Kaju, Besan, Badam barfi and pedas. I remember cooking nonstop for two days.

What lasting impact do you expect from your work?

My hope is that the world is able to create an enduring architecture which allows youth in every community to dream and find ways to make their dream come true.  

What is your personal philosophy of living life?

I believe that one must be of service to humanity underpinned by the values of equity and justice.  Each person has to find their own piece of the puzzle and work towards fulfilling their purpose.


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