Q&A with Anita Kumar, CEO, Early Start
Celebrating International Women's Day
Born in Chennai, India, Anita Kumar was the first girl in her family to leave home at 17 to go and study engineering, not because she wanted to show she can do anything the boys could, but to delay time and experience the world before getting married, because that’s exactly what happened as soon as she finished. She got married and migrated to Australia in 1995 when she was 21.
Read about Anita’s challenging rise to CEO, how her diversity was her superpower and her passion advocating for the rights of children and families, especially those most vulnerable.
Q. Where did your career start?
A. My dad worked at the University of Madras and he was an early adopter of technology, working on second generation computers. So, I learnt about programming software at an early age and stated teaching computer programming to adults when I was 16. My real paid job was with Burwood Community Welfare services, I provided administration support to Domestic Violence case workers and community workers, part paid, and part voluntary to gain local experience. While I was immensely grateful for the opportunity, I struggled financially to just get through each week.
I then moved to the Infant’s Home in Ashfield, an award-winning provider of integrated early childhood education and care, early intervention and clinical health support services.I started in an Admin role and eventually moved up the ranks as the CEO. I was involved in raising $10million in capital to build new buildings, doubled the number of children and families serviced to 2500, received national recognition at Early Childhood Australia and much more!
Taking on the start-up, Early Start in 2017 was another leap of faith and I took the challenge head-on. In this time we have achieved so much across research, community and reaching over 500,000 families who have experienced the benefits of play-based learning in the Early Start Discovery Space. I look forward to continuing to see Early Start flourish.
Q. What barriers have you faced, as a woman, in becoming successful in your field? How did you overcome them?
A. When you are a young, from a different culture with English as a second language, you are bound to face several challenges. I always felt my diversity gave me an edge and I learned to use it to my advantage. When I attend board meetings or presentations, there is not many people around the room like me, so all I had to do is make the most of it. Most of my career, I have been lucky enough to work for charities to advocate for children and families, so I try to keep the focus on the cause rather than on me, it makes it lot easier when we don’t personalise things.
Q. What do you think is the biggest issue today facing women of your age?
A. Although we have come a long way, we are still talking about same issues, lack of female representation at Executive levels, boards, in STEM careers. We are still dealing with pay parity, especially low paid jobs dominated by a female workforce, domestic violence, sexual harassment and discrimination.
I often hear people tell me that they offer the role to the right person with the qualifications and if it happens to be a woman it is great! We are not talking about equality; we need equity before discussing equality. Women need more opportunities to shift this imbalance.
Q. What advice did you receive early in your career that has stayed with you?
A. Growing up, I was told, everything happens for a reason, and the purpose of life is to help others, but if you can’t help them don’t hurt them. Overtime I have realised to do that I need to be in a constant journey of listening and learning, which has required me to have the courage to put myself in uncomfortable situations. I thoroughly enjoy my learning journey, although nervously on many occasions.
Q. Can you tell me about a female role model who has inspired you over your career?
A. Many women have and continue to inspire me, from the women in my family (grandmother, mum, aunts and sister), who provided me with a strong foundation, to the women I have met on my journey who have made me who I am today.
However if I have to share one person, I was most inspired by was this young women I met in supporting a court support process. She was from Pakistan, her husband locked her outside the home overnight whenever he felt that she did not meet his expectations. She generally hid on the balcony as she was ashamed and didn’t want her neighbours to know. She felt she couldn’t go back home. She had the courage to go to court, she did not have any family or qualifications but decided to pursue a life in this country. Her resilience, calmness, courage will always remain with me. She is leading now a successful life.
Q. Tell us one thing that people would never guess about you
A. For more than a decade I trained in classical music (Carnatic music), but it was brought to an abrupt end when I left home. However my love for music continues and I often get carried away when I am wearing my headphones!!
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