2020 Newsmakers: Women Who Made A Difference

Dec/15/2020 / by Bhargavi Kulkarni

2020 has been an unprecedented year. As it draws to a close, the COVID-19 pandemic is still raging, with a second surge threatening to create more havoc than the first on people’s health and the economy.

However, with a vaccine on the horizon, the New Year is expected to bring hope and some relief. The past nine months have been challenging, but people the world over have stepped up to help communities and the most vulnerable. There are health care workers, scientists, firefighters, grocery store workers, aid workers, vaccine trial participants, and ordinary citizens all caring for their neighbors.


There’s K.K. Shailaja, the minister of health and social welfare of Kerala, who is credited with flattening the COVID-19 curve there; volunteers like Shilpashree A.S. of Bangalore, Ranjana Dwivedi of Rewa, Madhya Pradesh, or Laxmi Rayamajhi of Nepal, who have devoted their life to serve others during this crisis. In Minnesota, Ekta Prakash, executive director of CAPI USA, a non-profit food pantry, ensures immigrant communities in Minneapolis and its northern suburbs have access to culturally specific food. When the pandemic began to spread there, Prakash quickly switched gears to serve the area’s most vulnerable immigrant populations. Then there is Soumya Swaminathan Yadav, an Indian pediatrician and clinical scientist known for her research on tuberculosis and HIV, serves as a chief scientist at the World Health Organization since March 2019.


Another source of hope in the New Year is the new government of Joe Biden and Kamala Devi Harris. The change in Washington, D.C. has been a cause of joy and hope, not to mention what the historic win of Harris means to women and people of color.

As we celebrate Harris and her accomplishments, we must acknowledge all the women of South Asian descent who ran for elections at the federal, state and local levels. Many broke glass ceilings to become the first woman of color to assume office.

Nirmala Sitharaman became India’s first full-time female finance minister, while Priyanca Radhakrishnan created history in New Zealand by becoming the first Indian-Kiwi woman to become a minister.

Sonia Raman


Sonia Raman became the first Indian American women to be appointed assistant coach to an NBA team – the Memphis Grizzlies – and Seema Rao became India’s first woman commando trainer.


Jayshree Ullal

Women like , CEO of Arista Networks, and Neerja Sethi, vice president of Syntel, were among the 10 wealthiest Indian American billionaires in 2020, according to Forbes Magazine. Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, executive chairperson of Biocon, was named EY World Entrepreneur of the Year 2020 for her contribution in improving universal access to affordable life-saving medicine and transforming the world.


Bela Bajaria

As the world adapted to the “new” normal, streaming services became a prime source of entertainment, and ‘Netflix and binge’ took an entirely new meaning. Sima aunty (matchmaker Sima Taparia) and Aparna Shewakramani became household names, thanks to Netflix’s “Indian Matchmaking,” and fashion designer Masaba Gupta, star of Netflix’s “Masaba Masaba” became a hot topic in family Whatapp groups or weekly Zoom catch-ups with friends.

The audience also got a taste of India’s hinterland – the crime, the locals, the crude language – via series like “Sacred Games” and “Mirzapur.” Among those behind the success of series like these, is Bela Bajaria, head of Netflix’s global shows. The 48-year-old is one of the highest-ranking Indian Americans in entertainment.


Anika Chebrolu

Dr Naseem RangwalaWomen were in the forefront in education and science as well. Nineteen-year-old Anika Chebrolu of Frisco, Texas, was declared ‘America’s ‘Top Young Scientist’ after discovering a potential therapy for COVID-19. Dr Naseem Rangwala, a project scientist at the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) at NASA, was part of the team that discovered water molecules in the Clavius Crater, one of the moon’s largest craters, and one visible from Earth. In education, Nergis Mavalvala, a Pakistani American astrophysicist was named dean of MIT’s School of Science; while Kavita Bala was named dean of computing and information science at Cornell University.

Here are women around the world who shone bright in politics, as well as those working to alleviate suffering during this pandemic. I hope their stories inspire you just as much as they have me.


Kamala Devi Harris: Breaking the Proverbial Glass Ceiling

No Newsmakers list for 2020 will be complete without Vice President-elect Kamala Devi Harris, who, this August, became the first African American and first Indian American woman to be chosen as a presidential running mate. Her mother, Shyamala Gopalan Harris, came from Tamil Nadu in India; her father, Donald Harris, is a Black man from Jamaica.

Pramila Jayapal: First and Only Indian American Women in the U.S. Congress

This November, Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), comfortably won her third term in the U.S. Congress. A strong liberal and a member of the famous ‘squad,’ she made history in 2016 by becoming the first South Asian American woman to be elected to Congress.

Kesha Ram: A Brown Girl in a Very White State

Kesha Ram, 34, once again made history on Nov. 3 by becoming the first woman of color elected to the Vermont Senate in the state’s most hotly contested Chittenden District. Once a preschool teacher at the Burlington Children’s Space, Ram currently works as a consultant for towns, school districts, and organizations seeking to improve equity and inclusion in their organizations.

Nima Kulkarni: Determined to Make a Difference in Kentucky

Kentucky State Representative and Democrat, Nirupama ‘Nima’ Kulkarni is “comfortable” serving her district, despite being “less optimistic and more determined,” after her party “took a beating” in the Kentucky State House. Her career experience includes working as the founder and managing attorney of Indus Law Firm, and at organizations like Louisville Public Media, the Community Foundation of Louisville, the Rotary Club of Louisville, and the Greater Louisville International Professionals.

Nikki Haley: From Madame Ambassador to Madame President?

Nikki Haley, the former U.S. ambassador to the UN and former governor of South Carolina, is speculated to be a strong contender for Republican nominee for President in 2024 unless President Trump or Vice President Mike Pence step in. Gambling.com gives Haley an “implied probability” of 7.69% to win the White House in the 2024 presidential election. Haley created controversy during her address on the first day of the Republic National Convention on Aug. 24, where she defended President Donald Trump’s handling of the economy and foreign policy, and painted a picture of a dystopian America under Joe Biden’s and Kamala Harris’s leadership.

“Joe Biden and the Democrats are still blaming America first,” she said. “Donald Trump has always put America first. He has earned four more years as president.”

Haley, 48, was the only Indian American leader to be featured in the list of RNC speaker. This year, there was a buzz, although short-lived, that Trump would replace Pence with Haley as his running mate for the 2020 elections. Haley, however, quelled the rumors. During a tour last November to promote her book, “With All Due Respect: Defending America With Grit And Grace,” Haley told Fox News, “It’s amazing how this vice president stuff still keeps coming up.” Haley’s parents — Ajit Singh Randhawa and Raj Kaur Randhawa — emigrated to South Carolina from Punjab. They were the first Indian immigrants in the small town of Bamberg, South Carolina, about an hour south of Columbia. The New York Times reported that when Haley and her sister, Simran, entered the Little Miss Bamberg pageant, they were disqualified because the judges typically crowned one white and one black queen, and they didn’t know what to do with the Indian girls. She graduated from Clemson University with a degree in accounting and briefly worked in finances before entering government. She was elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives in 2004 and served as the state’s governor from 2011 to 2017, when she was appointed to her role in the Trump administration. After leaving her post as U.N. ambassador, Haley went on to serve on the board of directors of Boeing before she resigned from the lucrative position in March because of disagreements over airline bailouts amid the pandemic, according to National Public Radio (NPR). She has been working as the founder of Stand For America — an “issue advocacy group” promoting “freedom at home and strength abroad” — since leaving office.


Nirmala Sitharaman: India’s First Full-time Female Finance Minister

Nirmala Sitharaman was appointed as India’s first full-time woman finance minister in 2019. She holds two important portfolios — the finance ministry and the corporate affairs ministry — in the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in its second term at the federal level. Always in the spotlight for her oratory skills and clarity of thought, Sitharam generated much media mention when she presented her first budget on July 5with the longest budget speech in history.

Priyanca Radhakrishnan: New Zealand’s first Indian-origin minister

Last month, Priyanca Radhakrishnan created history by becoming the first Indian-Kiwi woman to become a minister in New Zealand. Radhakrishnan, 41, was one of five new ministers inducted into the cabinet of freshly reelected Labour Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern who also unveiled a revamped cabinet that she has described as “incredibly diverse.” Radhakrishnan is minister for the community and voluntary sector, minister for diversity, inclusion and ethnic communities, minister for youth, and associate minister for social development and employment.

Priti Sushil Patel: Britain’s controversial politician

Priti Sushil Patel is a British politician serving as the country’s home secretary since 2019. An important member of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s cabinet, Patel, 48, a member of the Conservative Party, is responsible for overseeing key issues such as immigration and law and order. She apparently impressed Johnson when she campaigned beside him for “Vote Leave” in the 2016 EU membership referendum. She has been in the headlines over allegations of ministerial misconduct and bullying in the workplace. She has voted against introducing same-sex marriage legislation and has expressed support for restoring the death penalty — although she has since rowed back. In 2018 she was sacked from the cabinet for secret meetings with the Israeli government.


K. K. Shailaja: Kerala’s coronavirus slayer

Popularly known as ‘Shailaja Teacher,’ K.K. Shailaja is the current minister of health and social welfare of Kerala, and the current MLA representing Kuthuparamba constituency. The 64-year-old has been involved with coronavirus rescue efforts since the beginning of the year, and is credited with flattening the COVID-19 curve in the state. When the World Health Organization (WHO) issued its first statement on the spread of a novel coronavirus in Wuhan, China, on Jan. 18, Shailaja began work to bring students from the state who were in the Chinese province. One of the first states to have a COVID positive case as early as January, Kerala is among the states that has high recovery rate, low death rate and slow progression, of COVID-19 cases in India. With effective management Shailaja contributed to bringing COVID-19 under control there.

Shilpashree A.S: Bangalore’s Star COVID-19 Tester

Since the coronavirus pandemic has been spreading in India, Shilpashree A.S. hasn’t been able to physically meet her children, or hug them. Despite this occupational hazard of being a COVID-19 tester, the Bangalore-based Shilpashree says there is no other job she would want to do. “Even though this involves risk, I love this job. It brings me happiness,” she says. Shilpashree was highlighted as one of seven unsung heroes of the pandemic in a blog post by Bill Gates. Every day, Shilpashree dons personal protective equipment, including a protective gown, goggles, latex gloves, and a mask, and then steps inside a tiny booth with two holes for her arms to reach through to perform nasal swab tests on long lines of patients. She has a critical job during this pandemic, but it comes with many hardships: the uncomfortable protection gear, long hours and isolation from family and kids. Also recognized in the Gates Notes is Laxmi Rayamajhi, a service provider in Sunaulo Parivar Nepal/Marie Stopes Nepal. Rayamajhi, a visiting service provider of the Long-Acting Reversible Contraception team from Kavre, hikes for hours over hazardous terrain, crossing rivers and landslides to reach villages where she spreads awareness about COVID-19 and other health concerns.

Ranjana Dwivedi: Going Door-to-Door to Educate People About Coronavirus

Ranjana Dwivedi from Madhya Pradesh’s Rewa district is the lone representative from India to be featured in NPR’s documentary of 19 women from across the globe who are overcoming challenges during the pandemic. Called Asha Didi in the village where she works, Dwivedi has served the hilly and remote Gurguda village in Jawa block of Rewa district, home to 500, for a decade now. What distinguishes Dwivedi from the rest of the volunteers is her use of paintings by her and her son to educate residents of the village about various government health programs, particularly involving COVID, immunizations and birth control. To accomplish that, Dwivedi has been traveling more than 15 miles daily from her home to Gurguda, a trip that involves crossing the mighty Tamas river in a boat.

“I twice fell in the river, but it has failed to jolt my duty and commitment to the villagers,” she told NPR.


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