When Mythili Sankaran attended women’s leadership forums, she realized the women in those networks did not look like her, even though she knew many successful South Asian women. Upon researching, she found a huge gap: there was no forum for South Asian professional women to come together around a common cultural context.
“We’re used to this situation where, when we gathered as families, the men stayed in the living room talking about innovation and startups,” Sankaran said. “The women gathered around kitchens with children and rarely talked shop or professional ambitions, or even figuring out how we could be helping each other. It bothered me, because I would much rather hang out with the guys than the women… It’s ridiculous we’re doing this, because this is not the role model we want to display.”
So, Sankaran called up two of her friends, Chitra Nayak and Sruthi Ramaswami, and together, they founded Neythri, a global community for professional South Asian women to connect, network and learn from each other. Founded in 2019, the platform has grown to include almost 1,900 women across 14 countries. Neythri is a Sanskrit word meaning female leader, and shining light.
Nayak had previously founded the Salesforce Women’s Network, so she said she knew the power of bringing women together and wondered how much more powerful it could be if those women came together around a shared cultural heritage. Ramaswami said she saw many prominent South Asian women making strides as she graduated college and entered the workforce, but she did not know many South Asian women in her field, venture capital.
United by a common cause, these three South Asian women came together to create a vision for something to bring people like them together. They began with a founding circle of 10-15 members, set up an executive committee and recruited volunteers. From there, the organization blossomed.
“What makes Neythri different from other women’s organizations is that connection with people that have your cultural context, look like you and feel like you,” Nayak said. “I personally find it deeply gratifying to be able to help and enable so many women in their career journeys and to think through the balance of their career and rest of their lives.”
Neythri functions on four pillars: professional and leadership development (which includes workshops, panel discussions and other events), mentorship, social impact and community leadership (which includes focusing on the nonprofit sector) and founders and funders. They also have a young professionals section.
The organization also has three membership circles: the Discovery Circle, a free membership targeting younger professionals or people just wanting to test the waters; the Premier Circle, which includes a one-on-one mentorship program; and the Leadership Circle, which is aimed at more senior women wanting to pay it forward. They have also created the Neythri Hub, which is a private and secure digital portal for members to connect and share resources, and they have been hosting many successful virtual events throughout the pandemic.
“My favorite part about Neythri is meeting amazing women and feeling like I have an instant sisterhood,” Ramaswami said. “Neythri brings so many people together in the shared belief that we can benefit from connecting and supporting each other.”
Members of Neythri range across age, industry and experience, as the co-founders wanted to emphasize that the organization is a cross-generational and diverse community. The organization is entirely volunteer-run.
When asked what Neythri means to her, Sankaran had an immediate response. “The people. The women I meet every day that impact others positively, that are inspirational… There are so many women that are committed to paying it forward,” Sankaran said. “If you ask me, I want every South Asian woman to be a part of Neythri. That is what I aspire for Neythri to be: a safe space for you to talk through your challenges and find allies knowing well that many of the folks in the network have been in your shoes.”
Ramaswami and Nayak echoed her sentiments. Ramaswami remembers a specific memory that stands out to her, when Neythri was still in its founding stages. She recalls being at a holiday party with Nayak and Sankaran where they invited local South Asian-owned businesses to showcase their products.
“We did an amazing “rah rah” speech introducing Neythri, and the energy was really palpable,” Ramaswami said. “It was an amazing moment to bring so many South Asian women together for this cause. I want to recreate moments like this.”
Looking to the future, Nayak, who is focused on scaling the organization, said Neythri is “continuously evolving.” But most importantly, she emphasized that they are focusing on how to “preserve the quality” while expanding the organization, as they hope to create chapters in various countries as they go global.
“The question when we scale is: how do we take this to other geographies but have elements in place to preserve the quality?” Nayak said. “People come in with a lot of passion, there’s a lot of very smart women, so it’s up to us to provide enough structure but still enough freedom.”
Interested South Asian women can sign up at neythri.org/join, and, as Ramaswami said, “you’ll start to feel the power of the network from there.”