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Fueled by Curiosity
Episode 813th January 2022 • Voices of Exchange • U.S. State Department ECA Alumni Affairs
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A chance meeting led EdTech founder, entrepreneur, podcast host, and ExchangeAlumni Nidhi Nidhi to her first experience with the International Visitors Leadership Program (IVLP). But it wasn’t the first time curiosity led Nidhi to new experiences. 

In this episode of Voices of Exchange, travel with Nidhi from India to Singapore, Switzerland, and the U.S. to discover the ties that bind us, how Nidhi challenged societal norms, and how she is empowering young girls to take risks.

Transcripts

Nidhi Nidhi

I had taken a five-year break before, after having my kids. So when I wanted to restart work, I found myself with an outdated resume. And my, my degree was already five years old by that point.

And I was applying for jobs, but I was not getting any kind of response, no interviews or whatsoever. So I was feeling a little bit disappointed that this whole idea of taking a break has backfired on me. And I went back to my Alma mater, which was a national university of Singapore. And I asked my professor and he was kind enough to offer me a research position at that point.

And during that time, I came across Coda, which was a coding training camp for people to train young students, primary and secondary school students in coding. I had no experience in coding, but I thought it was a great opportunity to give back to the community. And I just joined that program. And at the end of the wrap-up event of that program, I happened to be at the wrap-up event. I realized that the program was funded by the U.S. Embassy in Singapore. And there was, there was a lady there and she was taking pictures of the ambassador and I thought, “She's from the media.”

And I just happened to speak to her.

And she asked me, what do I, what was I doing at this point? And I explained to her that I'm working on this project about the Singapore salary system, and I'm documenting the journey of how it has been developed and so on. And she said, oh, that sounds very interesting. Why don't you send me more details of what you're doing? And I so I did. And after a few days, you're back to me and she said, would you be interested in this program, the IVLP program? And because IVLP is not mentioned on any of the websites, I had no idea that such a program existed. And she said, I would like to nominate you as, okay. And it was so, so much of a serendipity because I never expected, I really thought she was from the media because there were other people from the media.

And I just happened to start a conversation with her. And I said, okay, so which publication house are you from? And, and she said, no, I just happened to work with the U.S. Embassy and because the ambassador is here, I'm here to cover her for, for our website. And so I, and she, so sometimes I feel that it was really meant to be that I had to get this opportunity and be with those 20 bright women in that, in that reframe of time. So I was really glad to have gotten that opportunity, firstly, because it gave me the confidence that mothers can get back to work.There are people, or there are people who are out there to support you, to give you those opportunities to get further in your career.

By default, when you go for an exchange program, you are surrounded by bright minds. You know, these are either creative entrepreneurs who are, have the best ideas or these are academically inclined, people who are coming out with great research. So the moment you step into that room, it's, you're going to be challenged. You are going to be shown in the deep end, where you have new ideas coming at you and it's up to you, what you want to do with them. And I was so amazed by the energy, by the idea, by the possibilities that these women had. And I embraced that fully and we enjoyed interacting with each and every one of them.

So for me, the highlight of the program was this, the cohort of these bright minds and being surrounded by them. It was like being scattered with seeds of possibilities. And those seeds took [and] germinated at a certain stage later in my life.

And often we hear people saying, oh, that was the best experience of my life. And it has been truly the best experience of my life.

We had people from the private sector, from the public sector, from the grassroots. So it was a very well home, whole development kind of process that I really enjoyed integrating into.

Nidhi’s global interest links back to the childhood trips her father took her family on. Learning independence and a cultural awareness at an early age, Nidhi eventually began working for Singapore Airlines, where she discovered new possibilities in the sights, sounds, and smells of each new city. 

My father and my, my father was the traveler in the family. He loved to take us for holidays to different parts in India.

We spend most of the time in India, but I think it was the need to be independent. That really fueled me to go out and discover what lies beyond the borders of India. I really wanted to discover the world on my own. A given, given that we came from a very conservative family, where though my parents always encouraged us to study and work hard that there was no real need to become independent, financially independent. So for me, I felt that I wanted to do something which was not done before.

Go ahead and discover new possibilities for myself. And when this opportunity came by, I decided to give it a try and see how it goes. So once I reached Singapore, I was on my own. It was a very different experience. It was the sights, the sounds, the smell of this very multicultural society, highly cosmopolitan, very different from India in many, many ways.

And the best part of it was probably realizing that the common humanity, the emotions that people feel no matter what your skin color is, what your race is, are the scenes.

So when I used to fly, I used to observe the fact that people are just drawn by the same emotions. Airport is such a melting pot of cultures. You see people hugging and that really gave me a lot of energy, but I used to see people bidding farewell to their friends or family.

And you could see grandparents flying all the way from Canada to India to visit just the newborn child or some, some other story. Or maybe sometimes somebody has passed away and a friend is flying from a really normal part of the world to see just bid farewell to the friend.

And all those emotions really were more exciting to me than the actual travel itself. I look forward to interacting with people, that was probably the main highlight for me really – so I, I was with Singapore Airlines for seven years and I became a trainer at some point. And later on, I, I really was intrigued by Singapore's development in contrast to developing A Isiha because Asia, Asia being a melting pot of different cultures and economies, it's a place where you see a huge disparity in economic status and how the economic development process has really played out. And coming back to India, where I was from, I rea  - I really felt that this the Singapore is doing something right. And I really wanted to figure that out what that is, what's the secret sauce for Singapore's remarkable economic prosperity. And that was their public policy, which is, which is the foundation of the Singapore system. And the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy is one of the well-known institutions around the world. And I thought if I want to learn about public policy, Singapore is really, it's, it's an example to many countries in the world, and that would be the best place to learn that.

And that was the motivation to go, to go back to school and study. Once I was there, it was, it was clear to me that this public policy requires navigating a very delicate space because creating policies is happening in the midst of a lot of stakeholders and how you're going to do that. How are you going to manage that is a very tricky process. The jury and the practical aspect of it can be really different. And that aspect came out very clearly when I interacted with the civil servants who were present, were there in the cohort with me, so that I learned about not just public policy aspects of how public policy is done, or what's the best standard practices in public policy, but also the fact that there are so many limitations when a civil servant is working under a minister and how they, you learn certain things in school. And when you have to put them in practice, it can be a completely different ball game.

There are many favorite moments, but the one that really stands out is, is the time when we were invited to, to dinner at, at the, at the homes of different American families. So I went to this, this person's house and her husband was -- her name is Mary and her husband was just recovering from cancer.

And despite that she invited us and a group for us to a home. And she had a couple of her friends over to help her cook dinner. And that was, that was very touching for me that despite the fact that she has her own complexities to navigate, she was willing to share her home, her time, with somebody else and show them the American way of living.

We made some food together and we, we had conversations about everything that we could possibly think of. And it was, it was a very memorable evening.

While she didn’t originally envision herself becoming an entrepreneur, Nidhi saw a piece in the educational system that was missing – self-confidence. 

She set out to add this element into children’s education through writing and self-expression; and her podcast, Brainstorm, which offers the chance for girls to express themselves freely.

As I mentioned a bit earlier that, at the end of the IVLP program, was just soaking in many possibilities in my mind. And those seeds sprouted later on in my life.

In:

So I thought what I could do was bring in a creative expression, being confident as a public speaker. That was the element that I wanted to add to this picture. Not just give them a great foundation in writing, but also being able to express those thoughts and ideas very clearly. And that's where I started my, my educational initiative for creative writing and public speaking.

And the pandemic has really given me this opportunity because earlier sitting in Switzerland, I wouldn't have had that chance to conduct what you will workshops, which has become possible now. So I, I think it's, it's just an amalgamation of all the things that have come together, my experience with IVLP my, the fact that the pandemic came and, or my, the possibility of opening up an offering workshops in Singapore.

Every day, I look forward to getting up and getting dressed to go for the new workshops or the new ideas that I'm gonna soak in today and learn not just from the people who are, who are going to conduct the workshop trainers, but also my cohort.

I think in the Zoom calls and Clubhouse, the power of voice is undeniable. Everybody recognizes how important it is to express yourself clearly and effectively. And as I touched upon earlier, when I was growing up, my father used to write newspaper headlines with some short details and ask me to share it in the morning assembly in my school.

And my teacher was kind enough to give me the opportunity every time, every, every week, once a week, I used to get the opportunity to go ahead and present the news. And as, as a young girl, I developed that habit of going up on stage and presenting something. And later on debates, elocution and poetry, poetry competitions came by and I took part in them openly because I never had that barrier. My - at a young age, I was introduced to that and I never thought it was something difficult or I never, I never was stage shy.

But on the other hand, I feel that many children don't get that opportunity because they have so many extracurricular activities to go for that these things do not take any kind of prominence, grasping and retaining information is what we are trying to make our children could add, which is, which is important. But I wouldn't sideline the importance of being confident and articulate with the ideas. So at the same time, I want children to have an in, in the current generation. What we see is children are plugged into social justice, climate change, and they want to express their voice on all important topics. But what happens is that they, they do not have a chance to ponder and think over them or express what they want to do. And through my workshops, what I end to do is to get that, that moment of calm, where a structured writing activities there, where they think about what what's happening around them and give them different writing prompts to go through so that they can actually think what they are passionate about and also have the right medium of expression.

So for maybe for somebody, it is poetry for the other person. It might be a stand-up act that they want to do. And the other person might want to do a podcast episode on that. So that is what I want them to do. Be creative think and come up with their own creative form of expression.

And now that I have been making these creative expressions into podcasts, what cast for last nine months, I've seen that they have come up with the most creative, most different, unique ideas by themselves. And I don't have to initiate that or give so many inputs anymore.

Once we got the hang of podcasting, I, I decided... first we started with Brainstorm because Brainstorm, the kid's podcast, is about integrating very well with the format of my creative writing and public speaking, because it gave the children a very safe audio platform to express themselves. 

They don't have to be on a visual medium. It's an audio medium, which is very safe for children to put their ideas out there. That was the whole intent of starting Brainstorm. And the second podcast is UNstoppable by Nidhi, which is a woman's podcast.

Oftentimes we see that important issues that affect women are highlighted during women's history month, equal Bailey women's day, or this is the gender gap. This is what's happened with domestic violence this year, all these topics just come out on particular days or particular months in a year.

And I really wanted to bring them to the front because I wanted to start conversations on these topics because I feel if we do not talk about these issues, they do not. They do not take priority in public eye.

For example, 39% of GDP is contributed by moms who stay at home. So if you calculate the economic contribution of stay-at-home moms in certain countries, it reaches the level of 39% of GDP, but does a policymaker come out and say, I want to create a policy that helps stay at home. Moms, get access to finance so that they can start their own business. Do you hear of a government scheme where women can return to work more often than not? This is started by the private sector and all these conversations do not happen because these, these issues do not have weight.

And I wanted to merge research and storytelling and have real women share their perspective on these issues, whether it's why husbands, who do household work are given that crown of being the best husband in the world and the most supportive spouse in the world.

As Nidhi pursued her career path in storytelling, she began to realize that success wasn’t just about passion – but about a willingness to learn and become curious. 

And while her proudest moment may have yet to come, she seeks meaning in new experiences, including: in conversing with people with different perspectives and beliefs. Which, Nidhi believes, is how we can foster productive dialogue and appreciate the common humanity among cultures and people.

I think my proudest accomplishment is yet to come because, and, and if I, if I divided into three categories of proud of what I'm proud about, the first category would be my physical ability. What have I go on beyond my physical limitations and Danzel, and then would be the second category of being mental and the mental and emotional area of what have I gone ahead and accomplished beyond my mental strength or in my emotional ability in the physical category?

And, in terms of my mental and pushing myself and mentally and emotionally to go ahead and break the barriers that I wanted for myself, I, I guess the most important accomplishment for me was to be the first woman in my family to be financially independent because I, I, my, my mother and my grandmother, none of us, none of them ever had the opportunity to work. And I don't think it's because lack of it was not a lack of capability or capacity. I think it was just lack of recognition that they are equally capable of doing what they, whatever they set their mind to do. And I think I I'm fueled by their dreams for me and their dreams for all the daughters in the world.

I'm not fueled by passion so much as much. I am curious to learn. So if you put me in a situation where, or in a room, I would be very curious to learn about all of you. I would like to, I would like to listen more than to contribute because I really want to know your story. So that curiosity leads me to all different sorts of areas, which I haven't explored before. I just want to, I'm just curious to see if I am able to do this.

If you're considering going for any of the programs sponsored by the U S department of state or any other exchange programs that come your way, I would highly recommend it. And my first reason for that is there is no harmony without a dialogue. If you don't start the conversation with somebody across the table, even if their views are completely diametrically opposite yours, there is no possibility of having a common ground to recognize the common humanity. You need to have a conversation. So the importance, the fundamental importance of an exchange program is to create a dialogue, to appreciate the common humanity between different cultures, even different, different ideologies.

That's the first fundamental reason why I would recommend somebody to be on exchange program. Number two is the possibility of interacting with a very bright group of people who are being selected from all over the world. They have done their part to be there, and they are there to add meaning to your program as well. So keeping an open mind and going there to learn as much as we can from that program is, is the whole idea or the whole mission for that. So it's not just the program in itself, the reputation or the prestige attached to it, but the people who are going to be there with you, who could add value to it. And thirdly, I would feel, I would say the third reason for that is your career is especially in today's day and age. It's not a static, or it's not a one path to success.

We have very different ways to get to our destination. And only when you go for exchange programs, like IVLP, you get the opportunities and those ideas that you would never thought were possible possible for you because those pivots, those ideas sitting in your country, in your community, in your hometown, you wouldn't be able to experience what you can in a room full of bright minds who would suggest something new, which might be a new future career for you. So I would highly recommend anybody to apply for such programs and work towards getting an opportunity and building that opportunity for yourself.