Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Mathangi Swaminathan of Parity Lab Is Helping To Change Our World

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Kindness to the world starts with kindness to oneself and our teams — I have worked in several nonprofits across multiple countries and found that many of them struggle with a culture of toxicity and the urgency to constantly produce. The urgency to do something here and now is powerful and true, especially in impact work. We also live in a capitalistic world where our self-worth is determined by what we do and how much we do. In this context, loving oneself and being intentional about self-care is radical. How can we be kind to someone else if we cannot be loving and healing towards our own self? Operating from a space of self-love and self-care will have a huge impact on our own organizations and the world.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mathangi Swaminathan.

Mathangi Swaminathan is the founder of Parity Lab — the first-ever incubator for community-led organizations addressing violence against women and girls. She has worked across the Global South and the US in the impact space and was awarded the Jane Mansbridge Award by Harvard University for her work on reducing gender bias in organizations in India. She is an Acumen India fellow, a Senior Fellow of Foster America, a World Economic Forum Global Shaper and an alumna of the Harvard Kennedy School.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Women feel unsafe in almost every sphere of life. I started my career in the tech industry, while doing impact/public sector projects part-time. 3-years in, I was recruited into a tech company in Singapore, through campus recruitment from one of the top 2 B schools in India.

Almost every single day there was a source of trauma — my supervisor would comment on what I ate, how I dressed, every movement of mine was tracked. I was asked to wear certain kinds of clothes to boost their sales records. My professional achievements did not matter; I had crossed my annual sales targets within my first six months in the company.

At that point, I was already a survivor and healing from another violent incident. I spoke to several alumni from my university and realized I was not alone. My MBA school had been allowing organizations with records of sexually harassing their alumni, repeatedly back to campus as recruiters. Nobody at my university wanted to help. That experience pushed me to move full-time into the impact space and create a change within my lifetime.

Reclaiming my power has been the hardest work I have had to do for over a decade. Since then, I have worked with thousands of women across multiple systems of power and oppression. I began my journey working with women from the informal waste picker community in India. At Harvard, I built a framework for Indian organizations to address gender bias, and the last 3 years advocating for preventive community-led resources for families in the US.

Violence is expensive; it breaks families and takes an enormous toll on life. Trauma passes through generations until one person does the deeply courageous work of healing themselves. There is very little concerted effort towards prevention. When violence does happen, as it happens to nearly 1 in 2 women from their partners, there is insufficient support from trusted community networks. The sad reality is that there is no single social group where someone we love has not faced violence or abuse.

Nearly 1 in 3 women face violence globally and nearly 1 billion women are survivors of violence. Violence is also intersectional, and the data gets worse as we move across race, caste, class, religious and other identity lines.

That is how Parity Lab was born. It was born of an understanding that violence is extremely prevalent and intersectional. Technical top-down solutions are insufficient to create change. We need change driven by communities, bottom-up, to change minds and hearts.

Parity Lab is the first-ever incubator for women-led community-driven organizations to end violence against women and girls. We identify women-leaders from marginalized communities with both an extensive track record and vision for fostering change to either prevent or respond to gender-based violence. Parity Lab is an embedded support system that provides capacity building, coaching, capital and thought partnership, for a year.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

After conversations with 100+ stakeholders including start-ups, government representatives, researchers and funding agencies, and a decade of my own experience working across various systems addressing violence, Parity Lab was officially launched in 2021.

In all our conversations, be it grassroot organizations led by the most elite individuals or by women from the most marginalized communities in Asia, 4 themes always cropped up: they all spoke about an urgent need for more capacity, coaching, community, and capital.

That is exactly what we decided to do through our incubation process.

During our pilot application process targeting non-urban grassroot Indigenous women-led organizations in India, we were unsure if people would apply. Would they be interested to invest their time during a pandemic, in virtual programming?

We had tailored our application and selection process specifically for the target population: the most marginalized women-leaders in India doing brilliant work on-ground. For example, to account for time poverty, the application just had 2 questions in 3 languages. This was shared through trust-based community-networks. An evaluation rubric was constructed that valued their identity and approach over style of answers. Our rubric valued lived experiences, root causes of violence, nature of leadership and community-led vs not.

Despite no offer of funding and minimal marketing, we received 30+ applications, all from grassroot women leaders, within the first 3 days. Usha, an applicant said, “I feel like we were stuck in a famine and Parity Lab gave us the food we were desperately hungry for.”

The feedback we have received has been incredibly positive and an indication that women leaders on the ground need support like the ones we provide at Parity Lab. That has been the most gratifying and also the driving urge for us to do what we do.

It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I can’t remember anything right away!

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

Imagine if we could create a community of community-led innovations on-ground, all addressing violence against women & girls, strengthen these organizations, and help them scale. Imagine if every family has a touchpoint with at least one support system when violence does rock their life, as it will, often. Imagine a platform that not only addresses violence after it happens but applies data and technology to innovations that work on prevention and helps them solve this massive challenge at scale. This is Parity lab’s vision.

Change must be bottom-up. When violence does happen, the first place women and their families seek help is from their immediate personal trusted networks that are often within their own communities.

Parity Lab is the first-ever incubator for community-led organizations that address violence against women and girls. We scour for unique interventions that work on either prevention or response and provide an embedded support system across capacity, community, and coaching for a year. In the long run, we aim to incubate 100+ organizations and reach 10 million+ families by 2032. We want to reduce violence significantly, and when violence does happen, ensure at least 10 million women have a robust support system to seek help from.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

Ranjita is from the 150 Mn-strong Nomadic tribal community in India who have been criminalized since colonial British times. Disparagingly called “criminal tribes”, her community never had access to formal financial institutions or microfinance. Caste and gender-based violence are high. Survivors are left with no support if they leave abusive partners. Since age 5, she has witnessed both family violence and violence from the police & dominant caste men.

Ranjita has been organizing in her community since she was a teenager and has successfully set up the first-ever nomadic-tribe and women-led financial institution that contextualized microfinance to the specific needs of her community. She also works with men and boys in her community and has mobilized 500+ men to be allies.

Yet Ranjita lives in a small town and does not speak English. Complex legal regulations in India and barriers to understand international funding ecosystem norms have made access to foreign funds incredibly hard. Funders’ demands to use data to translate the impact of her work have worsened the inequity.

Parity Lab’s incubated projects are led by such incredible women who address violence in their own communities. Our current cohort is 100% innovations led by women survivors from Dalit, indigenous and nomadic tribes. Each of them works with several hundred families within their communities.

To address this gap between each women’s brilliant work on the ground and access to resources, Parity Lab provides connection to local funding circles, personal coach, capacity building workshops around storytelling & data, survivor-centered research, shared human resources around legal and accounting compliances, workshops around income diversification, pitch deck and fundraising strategy etc. They are creating case studies & strengthening their organization with admin/legal/financial tools.

In addition to Ranjita, our cohort includes Neelam Besra, an Indigenous woman leader who trains and supports elected women representatives to use a feminist lens in community-developmental initiatives. Meena, a former child bride from the Dalit community, has used the power of her own story to build a powerful feminist organization. She & her team have mobilized 15,000+ women and girls in the infamous Bundelkhand region of India to prevent child marriage and forced marriage.

Through Parity Lab and the work of these women leaders, India gets a playbook for how to truly enable equity in policy and politics, especially in indigenous groups. Strengthening their work implies that the million+ survivors in their communities will have a support system to lean on. Prevention becomes the focus of funding and policy, and communities finally heal.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

#1 Invest in prevention

Despite the huge numbers and how rampant violence is, there is very little money moving towards prevention. Prevention asks us to re-imagine our society, one where people can live safely with dignity, where abuse/violence is not okay. It implies we need to re-imagine all our systems as they are: our education system, judiciary, caregiving, federal budgeting, religious and family systems.

#2 Design your solutions (be it at an organizational or city or country level) around the most vulnerable

Centering structures and policies — whether it be a small organization or a large country — around the most marginalized (instead of the most elite) is incredibly important. Parity Lab operates with the belief that if our incubator is accessible to the most marginalized populations in India, then we have created a platform that can support all.

#3 We all have the power to shift norms

Every small action affects the system we live in. The way we treat our children and our spouses, our expectations of them — every single action has a manifestation of gender norms. If we decide to remain quiet when our male colleague bullies his female subordinate, when we choose to victim blame our friend when she finally takes the leap of faith to confide her sexual harassment experience to us, we pass on the torch of inequity and trauma to yet one other person, to yet one other generation.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

I believe the world needs to shift away from patriarchal, capitalistic, aggressive male-dominated forms of leadership to more inclusive compassionate non-binary forms. I believe that exercising leadership requires compassion and courage and creates space for many others to exercise leadership as well. It increases freedom and allows space for authenticity and passion, for honest conversations, to grieve, heal, and make group decisions. Exercising leadership needs bravery and intentionality of the hardest kind to recognize one’s own patterns and to shift them intentionally when necessary, so no one is left behind.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

#1 Recognize and manage energy boundaries

We often mistake time boundaries to be energy boundaries. They sometimes overlap, but mostly do not! What is worth investing our energy on? Who can we say “no” to, for our own wellbeing?

#2 Social impact needs a longer 20-year vision & timeframe

Social impact startups operate out of a need to shift long-term outcomes for people and communities we care about. That is a fundamental difference from commercial startups. This has implications on every aspect of organizational design: kind of partnerships we make, types of people we employ, the intentionality with which we structure goals and priorities.

#3 Intentionality is everything

Process is as important as the end goal. Very often, nonprofits recreate the power dynamics they set out to change in the first place. Being deeply intentional about the process — who sits in, who gets to be heard, who gets to partner, the eligibility requirements, the overall process of selection — is incredibly important for true long-term change.

#4 Creating space for deeply soul-searching creative work is hard and essential

There is a constant tug of war between the ever-urgent/ever-present to-do list and the need to sit back and think creatively to do broader systems-change work. I have found that the energy shift is hard, but my big breakthroughs have come when I have intentionally set some time out to do this work.

#5 Kindness to the world starts with kindness to oneself and our teams

I have worked in several nonprofits across multiple countries and found that many of them struggle with a culture of toxicity and the urgency to constantly produce. The urgency to do something here and now is powerful and true, especially in impact work. We also live in a capitalistic world where our self-worth is determined by what we do and how much we do. In this context, loving oneself and being intentional about self-care is radical. How can we be kind to someone else if we cannot be loving and healing towards our own self? Operating from a space of self-love and self-care will have a huge impact on our own organizations and the world.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I believe that patriarchy is a double-edged sword. Many men do not recognize the enormous harm it is causing them. If men can deeply reflect their own needs and wants, step up and be allies, we can achieve tremendous change within a generation.

I also believe that the world needs more healing. All of us have been hurt in one form or another. Genocide, racism, colonization, slavery, wars, natural disasters, patriarchy have all ravaged us. I have come to realize that hurt people hurt people. Victims end up victimizing others. There is incredible evidence on how trauma passes intergenerationally and keeps manifesting in families until they heal.

There is a misnomer that healing happens simply by giving it time. I don’t quite think so. While time may soften the weight, that alone is insufficient. One of my favorite authors, Edith Eger, talks about her own healing journey after surviving the Nazi concentration camps in ‘The Choice’. She says “Time doesn’t heal. It’s what you do with time. Healing is possible when we choose to take risks, and finally, when we choose to release the wound, to let go of the past, or the grief.”

If there is one thing we can all do with our own lives, we can all be allies and we can all heal.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

There is a famous saying “Equality is giving everyone a shoe; equity is giving everyone a shoe that fits.”

This manifests in gender-related conversations a lot. The conversations around maternity leave and affordable care are examples of this. The difference is all in what we value.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Ooh! That’s an interesting question! I would love to have a conversation with MacKenzie Scott — she has been donating to many women’s rights organizations I admire. I would meet her and share the impact we are creating at Parity Lab and why women leaders on the ground deserve more support.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

They can follow our work at Parity Lab on facebook, Linkedin, IG and twitter

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

Thank you! I appreciate the opportunity to share!

Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Mathangi Swaminathan of Parity Lab Is Helping To Change Our World was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.