Anika Rahman – President & CEO, Ms. Foundation for Women
Justice For All
By Caroline Cox
Anika Rahman has one mission, and it’s a big one: universal gender equality. She’s president and CEO of the Ms. Foundation for Women, a leading organization (founded in 1973 by Gloria Steinem and three others) advocating for women’s rights and health. “Women and social justice are in my DNA,” she’s said, and it shows.
Before heading up the Ms. Foundation, the Bangladeshi-American and former practicing lawyer founded the International Program of the Center for Reproductive Rights – though it meant a 70 percent pay cut and longer hours. She helped propel the organization to an international scale before going on to become president of Americans for United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the world’s largest funder of reproductive health programs.
She now manages a $10 million budget and helps women every day through meeting with donors, stakeholders and organizations, launching fundraising and awareness campaigns and building a national voice for women.
Here, she talks to Little PINK Book about her upbringing, her passion for women’s rights and the legacy she hopes to leave.
PINK: What’s your success secret?
Anika Rahman: My idealism, philosophy and belief that the ideas [about universal equality for women] are achievable. I spent my career focused on rights for women and I’m passionate about the cause. I genuinely and sincerely believe we can achieve it as long as there are many of us working on that goal.
PINK: Where did you get your drive to help women?
AR: I work in a field that’s about idealism, and trying to achieve those ideals through practical measures. I graduated law school and started out in a Wall Street law firm, but I always knew I wanted to work on human rights and social justice issues. I worked for that law firm for about three years, then I made a career switch and founded the international program at a nonprofit organization for women’s reproductive rights. My passion and commitment to this idea of a world where all women are equal caused me to make changes, take action and realize my dream.
PINK: Is there a woman you’ve met through the foundation whose story resonated with you?
AR: Last year, the Ms. Foundation honored a young woman named Priscilla Rorie who embodies the Ms. Foundation’s belief that those who experience a problem have the perspective necessary to solve it. Priscilla’s personal experiences with sexual assault and violence led her to create Close to Home, a youth literary magazine that helps teens impacted by violence heal. Copies have been disseminated throughout the community and are used in trainings and in schools. Most importantly, the young people who contributed their stories to the journal were able to begin healing by sharing their experiences. Those are the types of women who inspire me every day as the Ms. Foundation works to improve women’s lives and communities.
PINK: What was your upbringing like in Bangladesh?
AR: I was raised by my grandmother. There was a war between Bangladesh and Pakistan and so, for a couple of years, I lived in Pakistan. But I returned a few years after to Bangladesh, which became an independent nation in 1971. I grew up with an awareness of what war means and how a new nation emerges from another.
PINK: As a child, you watched your grandmother, mother and aunt struggle against the institutionalized sexism. How did that affect you?
AR: It was fundamental to the development of my passion for women’s rights. I was raised by very strong women. I knew these were highly educated women because I could see them running the house and doing so much. My grandmother ran all the finances, she made the business decisions [the family bought and sold property], and even helped build houses, yet she couldn’t have a job. In the outside world, I saw that people didn’t treat them as equals and wouldn’t give them the respect that their intellect, values and hearts merited. They were judged entirely on their gender. That gave me the drive and the passion to correct that. I saw it as an injustice.
PINK: Is there a particular experience with sexism that stands out to you?
AR: My grandmother was a very smart woman, but in her time and at her age, most women didn’t work outside the home. My mother got divorced shortly [after marrying] my dad. He went on to remarry easily, but my mom was stigmatized. In those days, they still called divorced women “divorcees” and viewed them as second class. It governed my life because I was a child of that divorce.
PINK: What’s one of the biggest issues for working women today?
AR: I believe there are three major issues. The first is remembering our workforce remains highly segregated. Women are overrepresented in low-paying jobs, especially jobs that are a part-time. Plus, women earn 77 cents for every dollar earned by white males, and women of color earn even less. That’s a huge problem. The third thing is that professional women are often forced out of the workforce because we’re not provided the support necessary to succeed. We don’t have affordable child care, many don’t have paid maternity and sick leave. We need to be bold, ambitious and to understand the problems we’re facing are not individual. These are structural and societal problems all women face and we need to collectively address them.
PINK: What is the Ms. Foundation working on now?
AR: We’re launching a new advocacy and policy division. I’m thrilled about that. We’re creating our first fellowship for leaders in women’s and gender issues. We’re working on building a national voice for progressive perspectives of women and gender. We’re also undertaking initiatives to address key issues for women such as child care, child sexual abuse, reproductive and sexual health rights. It’s a great time to increase visibility of women’s issues because we’re being pushed back on so many fronts. The Ms. Foundation is unwavering in our commitment to creating a world in which women are treated equally. We stand behind that, even at the risk of alienating those who believe otherwise.
PINK: How big is your team, and what do you look for in a hire?
AR: I currently have a team of 35. The first thing I look for is commitment to the mission and the values of the Ms. Foundation. My team is committed to our mission – to building the collective power of women to tackle injustice. Without that, there’s no match. You could have a great skill set, but the difference between a great organization and an OK organization is the team’s commitment to the core values. I also look at their [resume] to see what they’ve done how that indicates their commitment and values.
PINK: Tell me about your tenure as president of Americans for United Nations Population Fund.
AR: One of the exciting moments at that job was the restoration of our government funding when President Obama came into office. It was exciting to see one of the first acts he undertook within two weeks of his presidency was to pledge to restore funding for this international agency that helped women all over the world. That was great because we had been working so hard. It was a great time, and I’m very excited to see a secretary of state that is so committed to women and the United Nations.
PINK: How did you effectively grow that organization?
AR: The thing I did most effectively was to ensure I projected the vision and values we were working on. That’s what drew people to the organization through donors and other stakeholders and political activists. People want to get involved when you can present a clear vision and method for how your actions can benefit somebody else and why you’re doing what you’re doing. The other part of it that’s really important is having the right team in place. That’s critical.
PINK: How do you balance life and work?
AR: I work hard to make sure I have time for my daughter [Amani, 8], my husband [Jeff] and my family. I also take all of my vacations. That’s helpful because it rejuvenates me. Most recently, my family and I traveled to Istanbul and Thailand, where we did a lot of cultural sightseeing and enjoyed local cuisine. When I’m on vacation, I get a fresh perspective on life and I have these ah-ha moments. I really focus on my time with my daughter. I make sure that I’m present and there for her in all the moments she needs me – school and all the important things.
PINK: How do you rejuvenate yourself?
AR: I do Pilates twice a week. I take care of my body. I release my mind and forget about work. It’s really relaxing. I love to look at art – it just has so much beauty. I love contemporary art, European and Asian art and political art that makes me think. And I love good food – I have a massive sweet tooth. I love all desserts.
PINK: Who is your heroine?
AR: My grandmother was a huge influence in my life and my personal heroine, I just didn’t know it at the time. It’s something that I learned later on. She took care of me, she raised me and she did a wonderful job. I didn’t understand what a great job she did and how much she gave me until I was older.
PINK: What book are you currently reading?
AR: I’m reading River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh. He’s a South Asian who lives in Brooklyn. It’s about these indentured servants who have been sold from India to the Caribbean. It’s an amalgamation of how people moved around the world, and how cultures interrelated and interacted with each other. It’s a great book; he’s a great writer.
PINK: What’s one thing most people don’t know about you?
AR: Most people don’t know I love Star Trek and Sci-Fi [laughs]. Most people wouldn’t guess that about me. I’ve been a fan of fantasy and sci-fi since I was a child.
PINK: What professional legacy do you want to leave?
AR: : I see the Ms. Foundation being a critical part of my legacy. The foundation will bring national attention to the challenges women face and the solutions we’ve developed to achieve equality. Our mission is to break away from structured gender discrimination and allow women to be who they were meant to be. I hope the foundation will continue to be a national voice for women and work with students and organizations. Having a strong foundation that continues to be a voice for the women’s movement is a legacy I would like to leave.
PINK: What does success mean to you?
AR: Professional success would be a world where women are truly equal. Where women and men would be free to live life that evolves from their skills and desires, not society telling them what they should do, how they should look and what they can or cannot do. It’s going to be a challenge. I hope that by working at the Ms. Foundation for Women, I can help take a giant step towards that. Then, hopefully others will take up this path so one day we will achieve this success. Personally, success means happiness and living a value-driven life that I’m proud of.