Stepping into the female-only co-working space at The Wing SoHo for the first time will leave you in awe.
First, you'll be taken aback by the decor (think Art Deco themed seating, communal tables in various shapes and sizes, skylights, a bustling cafe where you can grab a coffee, work and connect), then by the camaraderie displayed by women from all backgrounds. You can’t help but feel like everyone is united by a common goal.
Our morning at The Wing was a purposeful one.
In collaboration with Girl Rising, a non-profit organisation which ensures that girls around the world get access to education and opportunities, British footwear brand Clarks has organised an event called “Stand Up for Change”. The event not only “promotes the importance of empowering women to stand up, share their stories, and change perceptions and social norms in their communities”, but also serves to announce Clarks’ latest partnership with Girl Rising, and their global ambassador, Freida Pinto, who is featured in the brand’s latest F/W '19 campaign. The event discussion also coincides with International Day of the Girl (which takes place annually on Oct 11), an observance day that aims to address persistent challenges that girls face around the world.
At the event, a panel gathered to speak about the need to give young girls access to education, and provide opportunities for girls to reach their full potential. Panel members included Yari Blanco, senior manager of Culture & Diversity at The Wing; Freida Pinto; Christina Lowery, CEO of Girl Rising; and KIPP Infinity Middle School teacher Ali Nagle.
Speaking at the panel, Nagle talked about equipping her young students with “a certain amount of knowledge, because no one likes feeling less than”. Only with knowledge can a young girl become confident of who she is and her ability in life. Pinto, whose mother was a teacher and father a banker, credits her parents for giving her the opportunity to “do activities outside school”.
Pinto also recounted a poignant moment growing up in Mumbai: “[I met] a girl who was two years younger than me begging for money on the street… and I asked if she went to school. She was so frightened [upon hearing] the word “school”, and she ran away.” Confused at this encounter, Pinto told her mother, who explained that there were many girls her age who were denied the opportunity to education, and were instead sent by their families to beg on the streets to bring money home. While her mum had no solution to the poverty crisis in India, she encouraged Pinto to “complete school and find her own solution”.
Aligning herself with Girl Rising was one of the solutions. Pinto has been such a force in championing for young girls to go school in India that she organised a meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to discuss girls’ education as part of his “Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao” (Save a Girl, Educate a Girl) initiative.
I had the opportunity to speak with Pinto after the panel discussion over a phone call, and here’s what else she had to say.
You talked about how your parents pushed you to get an education. How can girls who have had access to education help?
Education is not just about getting a college degree. An "education" is about growing as human, being able to have empathy. Once you have empathy, you want to spread the word and teach. Whether you have a college degree or not, or if you possess a certain talent, you must find the thing that speaks to you most passionately.
I cannot say that championing for girls’ education is something that everybody will feel as passionately about – I have friends who feel more passionately about mental health – but it’s important to find an organisation that is legitimate, and that you know does the work. Find a way to spread the word through the organisation’s platform and your own platform too.
There is no right or wrong way to do it. Some people feel like they can donate money, and that’s fine, but donate money in way that has purpose. Follow up with what’s happening with your money. Ask questions like: "How is that money used?” “What changes have they felt?” “How is the impact?”
I had the education I wanted. As I’ve shared in the panel discussion, if there was something I felt I wanted to learn, I would pitch to my parents why it was important for me to learn that, and eventually convince them to help me take a course. It wasn’t easy because I grew up in a regular middle class family.
You can also learn from various sources, keeping an open mind is one of the ways to start.
Speaking of courses, can you share specific incidences in your life where education, or having learnt something important, has changed your own life for the better?
I studied music growing up, and my parents did want me to continue that, but it was not necessarily my passion. What I wanted to do was to write plays and continue acting – even in school. I just pitched what I wanted to do, and it was super easy. With my parents, there was no pressure.
Even though I was born in a country where you constantly hear “oh children are very pressured to become academics”, my parents encouraged me to take part in a lot of extra-curricular activities, because they knew that was what I wanted.
The thing that shaped me the most was writing. My mum had a close friend who was an English teacher, and I would write poetry and send it over to her. She would help me with rhythm and language. All the stuff that I did, I have learnt in a very hands-on way, as opposed to sitting in a classroom, which is why I feel education means many different things to me.
It means mentorship to me as well, and I think what I had, more than courses, were mentors.
Any mentors in particular?
One of my very close friends is producer Tabrez Noorani, who has been my mentor for the past 10 years. He has guided me through the ins and outs of how to be a successful producer, how I can tell the stories that I want to tell through my films, with integrity. I have not been to film school, but learning first-hand from people has been my way of learning.
Moving on to talking about films, the Indian media has credited you with breaking the stereotypical image of an Indian women in foreign films. Why do you think they say so?
I don’t know why they say so, I can’t speak on behalf of people!
But I can tell you this much, I’ve been in the fashion and film industry since 2008, and there aren’t many roles for women from South Asia at all. With great difficulty, you’ll find one in 10 years. Slumdog Millionaire was a great gift – this isn't something that happens every day.
There was no one from my country or my part of the world doing work that I could do with a formula. There were many actresses like Parminder Nagra and Archie Panjabi whom I looked up to, but it was very hard to find a formula, even from the work that they have done. I took a combination of what they have done, and what men from my country have done before me, and I knew I had to create something brand new.
It was very daunting in a way that I was the first person doing it, but I felt I had all the right support – and Tabrez was with me the whole time.
I made a lot of mistakes, I took roles that I wouldn’t take on now because they were roles that did not speak of my talent at all. But I think all of this is super important. I learn what I don’t want to do in the future, and I give credit to all the women before me for giving me lessons along the way.
Oct 11 is International Day of the Girl. How do you think girls all over the world should celebrate a day as powerful as this?
If all girls can put aside competition and differences, and just be kind to each other, that would be enough.
It will be a great first starting step to know that we are all in this together.
The more opportunities we create for ourselves, the more opportunities we create for others. I live in a world where women support women, but it will be great to see this as this mass revolution of sorts.
“Revolution” is such a powerful word. How did you feel about the event at the The Wing? Do you have an aim as Clarks ambassador? What do you hope for Clarks’ consumers in the future?
I don’t like doing anything that has no relevance, because that means a lot of money is wasted on a big event and nothing came out of it.
I feel very strongly that there were women and men who were inspired in the audience yesterday. They will continue doing the work on behalf of Girl Rising, and of course, Clarks will use its platform as well. There is always something you can learn from every event, and I feel like the next time we do an event like this, we can hear from the girls directly as opposed to us telling the stories for them.
Tell us more about your partnership with Clarks.
One of my more important needs – in the last four to five years – has been that whichever brand I get associated with first needs to have an organic connection, and I need to have a personal story with the brand.
The second thing is, these brands are obviously coming to me for my platform, I want their platform in return – not for myself, but I want it for the causes that feel near and dear to me, and I know that the platform will elevate the cause. It was not even difficult with Clarks, I was waiting for some pushback or “no we can’t do that”. They offered to give a donation, which was amazing, and they even offered to put up an event to spread the word – which to me, meant more. They've got the following all over the world: Every person I know who prefers “comfort over pain”, will own a pair of Clarks shoes. I’m one of those people.
What was this personal story with Clarks?
I grew up in India where there were no shoes for my very big feet. I was a child with extra big feet, and I constantly had to wear shoes that were one size smaller than my actual size because that was all that was available. When Clarks came to India – I must have been between 17 and 20 – it was finally a massive relief for my feet. The size was comfortable, and I felt that they were shoes I could own for a really long time.
How does Clarks fit in with your everyday style?
I just took my morning meeting today in my Clarks shoes. For me, I just love the quality of the shoes, and I like how there are so many styles and colours. I don’t need 10 pairs of Clarks shoes, two to three pairs at the most – and they go with almost everything. My boots can go with a pair of jeans or a long skirt. I love mixing and matching, and the great thing about Clarks boots are, the longer you have them, the more worn in they are, the better they feel.
To further the partnership, Clarks is extending the Girl Rising message and supporting donations across its regions and through its various channels, encouraging passionate Clarks audiences to champion the mission.
To learn more about the initiative and how you can play a part, visit https://clarks.sg/pages/girl-rising.