Meet the Vice Chancellor of the ‘University of Women’- Dr Harbeen Arora

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Dr Harbeen Arora- Vice Chancellor Global University of Women
Dr Harbeen Arora- Vice Chancellor Global University of Women
In her first exclusive interview in Nigeria, WEF founder Dr Harbeen Arora shares the vision of WEF with Ebun Feludu, partner, Plug Media, and why a partnership between Nigeria and India is necessary for to the global networking of women.
Dr. Harbeen Arora is the Founder and Global Chairperson of the ALL Ladies League (ALL) and Women Economic Forum (WEF). With a network of 100,000 inspiring women and 800+ chapters worldwide, ALL & WEF are amongst the largest women’s networks with the widest outreach, empowering women’s entrepreneurship and leadership at all levels. WEF is held annually in India and regionally in different parts of the world.
Dr. Arora is also the Chancellor of Rai University in Ahmedabad, Rai Technology University in Bangalore and Jharkhand Rai University in Ranchi, India. The universities focus on educating youth from underserved sections of society especially in fields of farming and agriculture, empowering local livelihoods and capacity building. She is also the author of three books: on higher education, human values, & creative living.
Dr. Arora is the founder of BIOAYURVEDA, an organic health and wellness enterprise. She also leads ventures in hi-tech agriculture, organic farming and sustainable living.
Dr.  Harbeen Arora holds a Bachelor’s degree in Economics from Delhi University, a Masters from King’s College, London University and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA), and PhD from Sorbonne Nouvelle, University of Paris III.
When was the All Ladies League founded and what inspired you to set it up?

ALL Ladies League or ALL as we refer to it, was articulated as a result of my continuing engagement with girls’ education. I have seen at our Rai University that I lead as Chancellor the incredible impact the scholarships have had on girls’ empowerment and their vivid transformation through greater confidence, esteem, ideas, and talents unleashed.

However, we soon realised the need to have further support systems, especially for mentoring, connections, exchange and collaboration toward building sustainability in personal, professional and business growth. Therefore we started creating circles of sisterhood in local communities that would become enabling structures and inspired spaces of sisterhood where women could express, engage and derive support on social, emotional levels.

ALL began to informally articulate itself in 2011; not just for women from underserved communities but for ALL women across ALL countries and ALL strata; as the issues remained the same.

The vision was to create a seamless space for women, a ‘country of women’, an alter-family, a sisterhood, beyond caste, colour, creed, ethnicity, in a space of inclusiveness and inspiration, where we could be ‘Soul Sisters’ engaged in connecting and collaborating as a community.

We began inviting members by reference and expanding the circles. We used online media to start the connections and offline events to cement the bonds. Membership soon came to be completely free in our bid to include ALL the inspiring women. We simply wanted women to be invited by reference of our sisters based on universal and life-enriching values like helpfulness, sisterhood, sharing leading to creative exchanges and innovative collaborations.

Your background is so diverse, from Economics to Dramatic arts-why the focus on women? 
Diversity is the best University ! Exploration, Curiosity, Outreach and Openness serve as windows of learning and thresholds of opportunities.  The Acronym ALL is itself so inclusive and diverse ! And so are Women !

ALL gives us our eponymous ethos of connecting ALL women and creating on-ramps for ALL to access opportunities, networks, learnings, and manifest one’s latent potential and leadership, individually and collectively. Together, aligned, collaborating, we can really do it ALL. For us this ethos or spirit of ALL continues to be most sacrosanct. We always say “spirit before the size.” We knew from the start that we didn’t want another “club”. While in pursuit of excellence, we didn’t want to reduce ourselves to an elite few. We wanted to constantly reach out, include, and be always chasing inspiration and new learning. It’s the best antidote to entropy and stagnation that risk stymying one’s growth.

Therefore, we embedded Inclusion in our very design. Each woman who comes in as a member is asked to refer other inspiring women; in a chain of change. To make the most of the plurality and diversity that comes along with Inclusion, we needed a ‘fire’ so to say of harmony, responsiveness, curiosity, and encouragement, that would make the most of these vital ingredients. Thus the second tenet of Inspiration is what we kept as the only rule. That no matter where we come from, whatever we do, we must ALL bring in the flame of positive energy. It’s the only capital required to unleash the creative capital innate in our plural matrix. Innovation, then, our third peg, is what will naturally flow and follow from the above and foster incremental value every day in our lives, personally and professionally.

Which childhood experiences inform your view of women and their role in the world?
We were two siblings, my brother and I. Our parents have always raised us as equals. Both of them were working, and we always saw them share the load of work and responsibilities at home most naturally. So we were blessed to be raised in a very equal household with sharing and support. That fine example has surely groomed our values and vision of a gender-equal world, and where we can celebrate one another in mutual respect and togetherness.

You and elder Vinay Rai are some of the most enlightened and giving people I have come across. You spend millions of dollars every year hosting the WEF events around the world, what inspires this sacrifice? 
ALL Ladies League (ALL) was set up as a public charitable trust and the family foundation decided to support it fully as their contribution to society.

My partner is the most amazing man I know. He is my role model in terms of his inner strength, forward thinking, straightforwardness, self-discipline and spirit of service. He is a fearless and tireless crusader for what he believes in. It was he who had more faith in me than me in myself. His unflinching support, unconditional love and utmost generosity helped me at every step to make that journey from me to myself.

In fact, one of the teachings that inspires us and bears resonance with our work is Love ALL, Serve ALL.

The teachings help me strive for inner equilibrium, peace of mind, purity of heart, clarity of purpose, spirit of faith, attitude of forgiveness, and conviction and determination to go on doing my humble bit. So whatever we do is with deep humility and in the sense of being blessed channels for the force.

Frankly, I often a powerful field that uplifts and energises our humble efforts, making the outcomes manifest as far greater than the sum of the parts. You can feel that X factor vibe in our local chapter events as well as international WEF conferences.

More than a chamber in the traditional sense, ALL is thus a movement, a culture, an ethos and a force of change for infusing more feminine wakefulness in All aspects of our life and leadership.

For those who don’t know, can you share with us how far reaching the All Ladies League and WEF are in India and across the world?
It has exceeded ALL expectations ! We have now 100,000+ members and connections across continents, countries and cultures. We aim to reach a million by 2022.

We have today over 800 ALL chapters or circles of sisterhood worldwide and are soon completing 25 editions of the WEF conferences in April.

Chapters mostly use messaging groups/social media to stay connected and coordinate their online and offline activities. The tenure of a chair is a year and then another one takes over. For funding chapter events and activities, members use their ingenuity to pool in skills, connections, networks, innovative ideas and resources, like a ‘picnic-model.’ Member profiles include entrepreneurs, solopreneurs, businesswomen, professionals, educators, corporate leaders and women interested in a variety of fields like arts, health, sports, homemakers, all age groups. We make an effort to include the youth and senior people.

The Central Secretariat that my office supports lends full and free administrative support for all chapters in terms of starting-up kits and collateral, designing for posters and invites, as well as social media publicity and promotion. We want every woman to know and feel that she has full administrative support and her focus should simply be to grow and galvanize local networks and sisterhood, grow herself personally and professionally and be able to dream and do. We also support and coordinate the WEF conferences. We also work with multiple stakeholders in the corporate, government, universities and other sectors to advance women empowerment.

With so many women connected in different parts of the world, there came a time when everyone wanted to meet the others. Since these were diverse groups from different countries and culture, we had to find a common ground to bring them together. And that was – a shared aspiration to advance economically and grow our voice, wealth, influence and leadership.

So the structure had to respond to our diverse membership base, the wide variety of fields sectors in which the women were working; the soulful spirit and seamless approach of ALL; and invitees and attendees who understood that this platform was much more than the usual business conference. We don’t pay speakers or participants for any fee or costs, as we were an NGO ourselves and don’t charge any membership fee in addition to supporting as we do. So we needed spirited women who would understand and appreciate the importance and need of coming together thus for our individual growth, collective empowerment and making a difference. And it was just amazing to us how MANY responded to that call with love, enthusiasm and goodness.

So the Women Economic Forum has elements that bring out the best in each and ALL. In the annual event, there are 500+ sessions across 50+ sectors, where you can learn from industry experts, have peer sharing, speak about your work, find mentors and mentees, connect with collaborators and investors, and overall find fabulous women from all over the world. It is both humbling and energising. It’s like a university for women for the six days (or two days in case of the regional events). It’s also like a carnival as there’s this spirit of freedom, celebration, sisterhood, beauty and bliss. The awards at WEF are there to make the invisible efforts and achievements of women more visible so that we all have more role models in every walk of life.

At the WEF conferences, you can learn about the recent trends, update your skills, meet achievers from all backgrounds and continents, open your mind, expand your vision, and foster friendships and lasting bonds with other women so that we can help each other in our businesses and collaborate on ventures and initiatives.  So if ALL is the Soul; WEF is the blood.

At our Women Economic Forum events we have a large number of sessions so that each member and participant gets a chance to not just be a delegate but get to speak and express and share their stories, their experiences and their challenges and their successes. They call it these days tapping into the “human library.”

The format is interactive and lot of time is dedicated to Q and A in each of the parallel sessions. WEF is a platform for peer learning and mentoring, and so people will also share in authentic spirit personal stories and experiences on a range of subjects including the very personal ones. For us, there is no dichotomous between work-life or personal-professional. They are in a continuum and one affects the other.  

The goal is empowering women in every way by creating an enabling and celebratory space of learning and networking to expand our business opportunities and increase our global influence. 30% of our speakers and 10% of our delegates are men as well.

WEF is a platform where every individual is given equal opportunity to express and share their thoughts and ideas, where none are denounced or treated less than equal and where the environment is one of positive, encouragement and upliftment in an all binding spirit of sisterhood. It’s a celebratory space; enabling women to be more of who they are and not confine themselves to customary notions of how to be. We’ve found this energy to be most liberating for the men too who form a part of our forums, as we work with All. Also the vibe is one of warmth and of being in a safe space where women also feel nurtured, honored and valued. Plus the networking is massive with both women and men in business and enterprise in various walks of life. Women have told us that they have made connections for a lifetime!

Dr Harbeen Arora- Vice Chancellor Global University of Women
Dr Harbeen Arora- Vice Chancellor Global University of Women

There are so many women’s groups how is the All Ladies League different and what does WEF hope to bring to the women’s empowerment discourse that is different from other groups?
The simple thumb rule that runs across our Code of Conduct is a persuasion to Be Positive and Bring Positive Energy. And everything else is derived from that need to foster positive energy and inspiration in our midst. By extension, we insist on no negativity and no arguments on divisive topics, like religion or politics as we understand them today. Sadly, these two fields that could have been pivotal in bringing people together, have created the greatest schisms and also pushed out the worst in the human spirit instead of the best. We wanted to focus on encouraging the best with each and ALL from a creative standpoint. Thus ALL is non political, non religious and non dogmatic.

This rule of Positivity was also derived at a time when we were making the membership free and needed some sort of eligibility criterion that would automatically sieve the entrants and also strengthen what we were attempting to achieve. I knew we didn’t want a ‘monitoring’ and ‘controlling’ approach. I have personally always shied away from that path as I feel it reduces your own positive and creative spirit, and does not do much either for people who are being monitored.

We wanted this movement to spread from an inspired consciousness and a self-regulated space where each one was conscious of one’s respective role in the whole. So we began the reference model, where each member had the full liberty to refer another woman as a member who she found to be positive or simply liked. No judgement was being placed; our simple brief was that if you would like to be with her, then we would like her to be with us. So it became like a chain where each element of the chain was tied together by some relation and was thus sieved through to an extent by virtue of that connection.

The free membership brought in speedy inclusion; the reference brought in an element of security and like-hearted spirit; and the code kept us aligned and inspired.

There was another aspect that we were mindful of. As ALL signified a place for ALL and by ALL, we wanted least hierarchy and greatest movement and manifestation of ideas and initiatives. Therefore, another code was to not have elaborate or top-heavy bureaucratic procedures. Even in the structure of chapters and chairs across the world, we follow a distributed leadership model with multiple chapters or circles of sisterhood driven by our belief that everyone who wants to lead can lead. We do not promote hierarchy. It’s more like a web of inspiring initiatives uplifting one another. The only permission or approval we urge you to seek is from your own better self.

Each chapter or self-help circle is run by a chair who is the champion for that sector or city with a group of people. However that does not exclude another woman to lead in the same city or sector with another set of people. As an internet of women, each member, chair or not, has full independence to initiate activities and bring in new members and ideas; as long as it’s done with a positive spirit and intent to help and expand opportunities for ALL. There’s decentralisation and an environment where people work with more trust, caring, dedication, low-ego, & with joy and enthusiasm.

Developing and implementing ideas together also help each one to feel invested in the process and emboldened by its success. There’s a mindset shift from a more passive standpoint of “how do I do it” to a more inspired and active one of “I will get it done.” This process of empowering our self-belief, self-reliance and self-fulfillment are at the core of unleashing the potential of ALL.

Of course, with so many chapters, some baseline policies and systems do exist in terms of our communications to stay aligned.

Ultimately, whatever we value will become our ‘values.’ And we value helpfulness, exchange, encouragement and inspiration; all of which build trust and community.

The Nigerian delegation is looking forward to much talked about WEF experience and the trade visits. How are you preparing for them?
We are delighted to receive 20+ business and youth delegations for Annual WEF 2019 from different countries, chambers, associations, universities and chapters. We are grateful to our Soul Sister Ebun Feludu for coordinating a delegation of 15 empowering sisters from Nigeria. Ebun has been actively connected with us since a few editions and knows the kind of exponential personal and business growth this unique event brings. We are greatly looking forward to welcome our sisters from Nigeria to India and strengthen our bilateral as well as multilateral bonds.

Co-ordinating a conference for over 2000 delegates from 150 countries is no small feat. How do you manage all the details?
The co-ordinations and logistics are all taken care of by my partner Vinay as he’s quite a master at it. And of course, I have a great organising team plus such amazing supportive sisters from everywhere in the world who keep up the spirit and energy with their support, encouragement and participation.  In fact, for the annual event in India, it takes us a whole year to organize. So we are already working on the next year’s annual edition. In addition to 12-16 regional events of course. Plus there are ALL chapters that are supported and initiatives shared. We also keep developing new chapters and circles as there are so many women we still need to connect with!

For international regional WEF events, we do have collaborators and local partners for the venue and logistics. However all coordination and organization is done from the central secretariat.  We manage it ALL with the credo – the More we do, the More we can!

This will be the 25th WEF meeting. What will distinguish the silver celebrations from past WEF events?

Time flies ! The Annual WEF is always a most unique happening every year, and indeed in 2019, it coincides with our 25th global edition. We are very excited and have made it more like a family celebration: with so many diverse delegations participating and curating their own sessions, this edition would be all the more celebratory than earlier ones as there is a palpable excitement of having reached a milestone. And this strengthening of community connection across countries and renewal of our purpose is also important as we move toward our Mission Million in 2022.

There is a long history between Nigeria and India. Nigeria is host to Indian families that go back up to four generations. Even as host the two nationals are largely fundamentally separate, yet there is a great opportunity for a mutually beneficial relationship. How do you think we can make this happen through WEF?
Indeed, many lifelong connections have been made at WEF events, which have stimulated new businesses, new partnerships, new ideas, new realisations, and renewed understanding of oneself and one’s calling. India and Nigeria have great possibilities of partnership, especially in the fields of education, agriculture, entrepreneurship and movies and entertainment. At our event, there is a substantial participation of Indian leaders from the private and government sectors, who come in with an understanding of the importance of engaging with women entrepreneurs.

The past 25 WEF events have been ground breaking, what do you have planned for the next phase for WEF and the All Ladies League?
Over our editions worldwide, we have had the good fortune of being addressed by thought leaders from the world including Heads of States, Nobel Laureates, Royalty, Ministers, Mayors, Businesswomen, Judges, Industrialists, Film and Sports personalities, and of course inspiring women entrepreneurs and leaders from a wide variety of fields.

We hope to continue our work in this direction and deepen our engagement with more thought leaders and global icons on the one hand, and more grassroots networks on the other. We wish to strengthen our She-for-She spirit, with outreach toward She-for-He and She&He-for-ALL.

 

Many of the Nigerian delegates are coming to India for the very first time. Do you have a special message for the Nigerian delegation as they prepare for WEF2019. 

The dream for us, was and is that the presence, positivity, sisterhood and the enabling ecosystem that we are co-creating should be easily accessible to ALL women; to the extent that no woman anywhere in the world should ever feel alone. So to paraphrase Rumi, I’d say, “Come, from wherever you are, whatever you are.” And let’s together make our unity and diversity the most powerful engines of change.

Join us and help us to transform the proverbial adage that “women are women’s worst enemies” to an inspired experience of “women are women’s best friends.” Let’s dream and build together safe and supportive spaces of sisterhood for our sisters and our daughters. And let us empower ALL to lead with empathy, vision, fearlessness, strength and compassion.

At a subtle level, the dream is to enable every woman to feel like a true Queen of the inner empire – where faith in oneself reigns supreme. Where every woman can unapologetically be herself and bring forth her uniqueness, voice and purpose.

Dedicated to this path and vision, we would want our vision of Oneness and ethos of ALLness to grow much larger to touch and uplift every aspect of our lives – social, civic, cultural, spiritual, economic and political.