Since the theme for international women’s day is Be Bold For Change, I thought I’d speak on taking risks and what that has meant for me.
The final few weeks of college were mentally exhausting for me. It was not just because the mega earthquake had happened back home and I was in the United States. It was not even because my finals were coming up. I was stressed because I had a tall order. I had a difficult decision to make: whether to live and work in the United States after graduation or return home to Nepal to work at an NGO. I used to take long walks by myself very often, thinking about my life and why I was where I was.
Like many Nepalis, I had worked hard to come to the United States. Like many Nepalis, my parents had worked awfully hard to make sure that happened. I had done well academically and, upon graduation, had a job lined up in Washington DC at a social impact consulting firm. It sounded exciting: I had an opportunity to consult on how to make international development projects more impactful – a topic I had critically studied during my college years. Plus, the prospect of living in DC – a cosmopolitan city with many of my friends already there.
Yet, something was amiss. The young, DC crowd, the ‘work hard and play hard’ lifestyle, the mentorship and international development exposure I would gain, the boost to my resume – it was all too … desirable. Maybe it was all too predictable, too stable, too comfortable.
Back home in Nepal, a young, talented group of Nepalis at an NGO called Daayitwa were beckoning. Come work for rural entrepreneurship and leadership in Nepal, they were saying, that too in collaboration with the government of Nepal. It all sounded ridiculous. Nepal was – is- fraught with instability. All my friends were steadily losing hope that anything substantial could be done here, and many who studied their Bachelors in Nepal were actively trying to apply for Masters abroad. My parents, of course, did their duty and reminded me that the pay would be bad and work would be slow. Wouldn’t it be a waste of your talent? They said.
During those long walks across campus all my myself I thought maybe. Maybe yes, it will be a waste of my talent and time to go back to Nepal. Maybe I will not be able to do impactful work. Maybe the opportunity cost of the network and experience I would give up at DC would be high.
But isn’t that what my twenties are for? There was a lot of uncertainty in Nepal, but the prospect of traveling to parts of Nepal I had never seen was also exciting. There was not a lot of prestige to come back home, but there was meaning in doing work that would impact fellow Nepalis.
We are often taught to be risk-averse. We are often taught to strive for a stable, comfortable, financially sound lifestyle, preferably abroad, with milestones to mark every success. Especially as girls and women, how many times have we been taught to prioritize safety over adventure, family name over freedom, productivity over exploration?
In my work with rural women entrepreneurs in Palpa, Gulmi, and Ramechhap I uncovered other gendered dimensions of risk. For women in Kathmandu, family and marriage are generally periods of taking breaks away from work and career. But for many women in rural Nepal, having kids to take care of, especially with minimum husband and family support, are often catalysts for taking financial risks to start businesses. One of the many inspirational women I have had the honor of meeting is Rupa Hitangi from Palpa. Before she became a micro entrepreneur, she had an alcoholic husband, two small kids to support, and employment in someone else’s land. Because her children’s future were at stake, she convinced her husband to go abroad and, the money he earned and sent back, she invested in goats and a small plot of land and started her own business. Today, Rupa finances her kids’ education and lives an independent life. She is one of those women who have struggled and lived the theme ‘Be Bold For Change.’
Rupa’s story also highlights the work still left to do. If her family responsibilities propelled her to start her business, it may also work to hinder her risk-taking ability to grow her business. What can you, and I, and the government do to enhance and enable the risk-taking ability to women entrepreneurs like Rupa?
For women like you and I in Kathmandu, we generally do not experience our twenties like Rupa did. But perhaps what we can learn from her story is that risk-taking is a combination of both contextual catalyst as well as our own mindset. Let us not always seek comfort, stability and conventional success. If I had not returned back home to Nepal, I would not have lived through the excruciating fuel crisis, I would not have struggled to understand the identity and governance challenges of my country, and I would not have met and learnt the pain of women like Rupa. I would not have been able to test my values of gender justice and equality. Let’s be comfortable with discomfort, let’s learn to manage loss so that we can take some risks. Let’s be Bold For Change.