Is Culture and Gender Equality in India Still a Far Cry? Parmesh Shahani, Head, Godrej India Culture Lab talks about gender diversity at workplaces

By Sanchita Dash

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Entrepreneur India

Open any social media platform today and every day, a new issue is being discussed. Questions are raised, anger is expressed and the promise to act is taken. But what if we move beyond the realm of social media platforms and build a space to actually talk about issues that matter?

This was the thought that came to Parmesh Shahani's mind seven years ago which led to the foundation of Godrej India Culture Lab. With the idea to have a place that cross-pollinates conversations on contemporary India, they invite experts from different silos at the culture lab - be it academia, business, creative industries like film, theatre, artists, policy or even activists - all of whom in their own ways are working on understanding the beauty and magic of contemporary India.

Entrepreneur India caught up with the enthusiastic and free-spirited Shahani as he spoke about issues that matter and how companies need to stand up for them.

'Crazy' For the Issues That Matter

Shahani, who is a TED Senior Fellow, Yale World Fellow and even a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader, looked at the different subjects that are important to India and thought of how they can make them talk to each other. Being a TED fellow, he wanted to imbibe a similar culture in India where different topics come together for a healthy discussion. "I met a lot of people and most of them failed to understand what I was talking about. When I finally met Nisa Godrej, something just clicked. We are both passionate, argumentative and crazy. We spent the whole day brainstorming, after which she believed I'm crazy but said let's do it," said Shahani.

Talking about how Godrej as a company has been reinventing itself, Shahani said that the company is connected to young India and the lab was one part of what Nisa imagined as a transforming process for the whole group. Having said that, he added that there's no direct connection to the business.

Last August, they created a mini partition museum in collaboration with India's best designers like Sabyasachi and Tarun Tahiliani, artists and students. They also had collaborators from Pakistan who skyped in and even, Bangladesh. "With 14 exhibits and 20 talks and performance, we spoke about the ramifications of the partition that are still felt 70 years later," he said. They also focus on (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) LGBT rights, organizing a pride march in Mumbai with plays and dances, along with an installation at Lakme Fashion week called queer fashion now. "We have four broad rules - everything we do is completely free, open to everyone (public space), goes up on the internet as a free resource and of course, it is followed by a fun party," he said.

For a Company to Survive, it Needs to Be Meaningful

Today's youth is not one to keep quiet. Be it on social media or open platforms, they are questioning the very functioning of the system - be it the government or the corporates. Ask Shahani about why it's important for companies to have an institution that looks at solving issues that the country is plagued with today, he is quick to answer, "Not just companies, it's fundamental to people's existence."

Shahani goes on to explain that services and products today have become ubiquitous and even our move to being an experience economy has become standardized. In the times we live in, Shahani believes that companies should roll up their sleeves and stand up to talk about the problems that exist in the country. "What do you stand for as a company if not your values and your commitment to larger issues in the society? If you look at the people in India, they are asking questions - are you sustainable, what are your values, do you treat your LGBT employees as you treat your straight employees?" he said.

Companies need to work on these issues, not just for people who work for you but also for those who consume your product, as the future customer is changing. Therefore, you need to engage with them and be understanding of these changes while also being a good and responsible stakeholder, believes Shahani. It's important to be meaningful as a company, he added. "To survive and thrive, understand the world you are living in and not just that, participate in those issues, you can't be alienated from issues that matter. Governments, NGOs, citizens and companies need to come together," he said.

Gender Diversity at the Workplace

An active LGBT rights spokesperson, Shahani is not one to shy away from talking about why it's important to have gender diversity at the workplace. While the Culture Lab wasn't designed to bring insights into Godrej, it's incidental that it has managed to bring about a change. "We have the most progressive HR policies when it comes to LGBT issues, from non-discrimination to same-sex partner benefits. The fact that we are talking about these issues has led to some of these being absorbed into the larger group even though that wasn't the intention," he said.

He added that he likes to be defined as someone who pushes for change, where he also works with senior leaders for the same. "We do a fun take on serious issues, talking about a range of issues through a lens of positivity," he said.

Sanchita Dash

Entrepreneur Staff

Former Senior Correspondent, Entrepreneur India

In the business of news for 5 years now. Making my way across India thanks to my career. A media graduate from Symbiosis, Pune, I have earlier worked with Deccan Chronicle (South India's leading English daily), T-Hub (India's largest incubator) and Anthill Ventures (a speed-scaling platform). 

Stories, movies and PJs are my thing. 

If you hear 'The Office' opening score randomly, don't worry it's just my phone ringing. 


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