According to Yatha Jain, gender and multicultural advocate and public speaker, social impact work has always been a constant in her life for as long as she can remember.
“Throughout university and high school I always did a lot of volunteering and social impact work, and I started doing it without even realising that was what I was interested in. ”
“It was something I did as a teenager and it happened to be how I found my passion.”
But she didn’t always know that this was the space she wanted to work in professionally.
“Once I finished university, I decided to work for a major bank because I studied a double degree, and one-half of that degree was in Project Management.”
“I thought I’d try out the big corporate world.”
“Whilst I learned a lot from that experience, I also learned a lot about myself and that I need my work to align with my values; and if I’m not making a positive impact on people and society I find it very hard to be motivated and excel at work.”
This led Yatha to the difficult, but brave decision to quit and move into a role as a Graduate with the Structural Heart Team at the global medical device company, Medtronic.
This might seem like a world away from the corporate/banking world, but it turns out the other half of Yatha’s double degree was in Biomedical Engineering.
Her team focuses on treating patients with Aortic Stenosis, where patients have a 50% chance of surviving 2 years after the onset of symptoms. Yatha hopes that in the future she can work in this space to improve healthcare for women from multicultural backgrounds.
Yatha joked, “My team looks after a product, which is a minimally invasive heart implant, so it’s much closer to my heart.”
“It’s a job where I actually feel like I’m making a difference, and I know that I am making a difference. Particularly, because I know the product area that I work with is a disease that’s really untreated in Australia. It’s underdiagnosed and it’s something that really helps people. So I’m quite proud of what I do.”
Outside of her professional work, Yatha has done phenomenal work in the community as a Multicultural Youth Affairs Network (MYAN) NSW Youth Ambassador, has consulted with the UN about global refugee youth and its Office of Counter-Terrorism on strategies to prevent youth extremism, Australian Human Rights Commission on anti-racism, government and policy-makers on youth responses to climate change, and roundtables with ABC News on mental health.
Yatha has been a volunteer with St John’s Ambulance over the last 7 years, provided first aid to casualties at 70 major events with up to 25,000 attendees and was a state finalist in National First Aid Competitions. She’s also provided comments for media organisations including, Sydney Morning Herald, Triple J and South Asia Today.
In 2020, at 23 years old, Yatha was appointed to Prosper (Project Australia)’s, community organisation supporting disadvantaged children and families, Board and was later promoted to Vice-Chair in 2021. Yatha’s other social impact projects include working in Nepal with Engineers Without Borders, South Africa with 180 Degrees Consulting and in the Tiwi Islands with Indigenous communities.
This month the Australian South Asian Centre (ASAC) is recognising Yatha as a 2022 Stellar Australian South Asian Women Awardee for her contributions to the community, her work in STEM and intersectional advocacy around multiculturalism, mental health, gender and identity.
Yatha joined Australian South Asian Centre’s Co-founder and Content Editor, Daizy Mann Kaur and me to share about her social impact journey, experiences as an advocate and volunteer, and what she’s learned along the way.
Recognising Everyday Leaders
When asked about leadership and how young people can develop their leadership skills, Yatha reflected on what leadership looks like to her.
“I think people often really narrow the definition of who or what a leader is.”
“People think of CEOs or founders and even though those people are leaders, you can be an everyday person and be a leader.”
“I’d argue that most mothers of the household are leaders because they’re the ones leading the household. They’re often the ones doing the, yes, probably unpaid work, and probably more than their counterpart, but they are the ones doing the work and leading that house.”
“It’s those everyday skills that make a leader and you can do that in any context, whether it’s your family [or] it’s an extracurricular [activity].”
“I started doing that initially through St John’s Ambulance when I was a young teenager. It was because I was passionate and because I cared. I also had support to do that, both, from within the division and in terms of my parents being able to support me. I was lucky in that way.”
“I think there’s a lot of ways that you can develop your leadership skills if you think about the context you’re in, what you do, and how you can step up there.”
“It’s also about changing the definition of who a leader is.”
“Right now, a lot of people just think of old white men, right? Someone who is a bit too confident, someone who knows too much, who has all the connections and walks into the room and takes up all the space, but that’s not what a leader is.”
“There’s room for so much more and, in terms of not only just who you are (gender and cultural background), but in terms of characteristics. You don’t have to be taking up all the space in the room, you don’t have to be the loudest person there.”
“There’s a lot of different ways to influence people. There’s a lot of ways to create change.”
“I think it’s about finding what works for you and what’s true for yourself.”
Finding Inspiration and Role Models Online
As a child and adolescent, Yatha didn’t have many South Asian women role models in Australian media, society, and the community who inspired or helped guide her career. This is an experience not uncommon to many young South Asian women around Australia and is why ASAC created the Australian Stellar South Asian Women Award.
To offer young Australian South Asian women, role models and trailblazers who are doing brilliant work in their respective fields and helping the community, but we might not know personally or had the opportunity to learn of their work from mainstream media.
“To be honest, I think it’s kind of sad because growing up, I don’t think I had many people outside my direct family [as role models]. My older sister was a role model, even though I probably would never have told her that when I was younger, but she definitely did lead the way.”
“It was only during university, where I started seeing more South Asian women [role models] who were [operating] outside [of the traditional South Asian university mindset].”
“A lot of my family friends, they study and they go on to do their good, high-powered careers and jobs and it’s great. Good on them for doing that, but I always knew that I wanted more than just a career and I wanted something where, you know, there was that impact.”
“It was during university where I started being exposed to a few more South Asian women who were doing cool things. But it’s really only been in the last few years where I’ve seen so many [South Asian role models].”
“Particularly on Instagram, it’s a great way to [connect and engage with South Asian women] like Mehreen Faruqi in Parliament. It’s awesome that we’ve got politicians now, to follow.”
And Daizy, the stuff that you post on Instagram, it’s so good to see. Even just normalising who you are, normalising being a South Asian woman, and all the things that that entails. As well as, all the achievements you have, it’s fantastic.”
“It is a small community but it’s growing. It’s already grown so much in the last few years, and it’s going to keep growing so much more. I mean the first stellar woman that ASAC announced is an eighteen-year-old! That’s so cool!”
“It also shows that it’s a snowball effect, right? There’s going to be more and more and more South Asian women who are more publicly doing awesome things because we always have been there, but perhaps, we just haven’t been heard.”
Yatha’s advice on creating social impact
Yatha shared that volunteering with community organisations led her to more opportunities to create greater social impact locally and globally.
“I think some of it has come from the fact that I made the decision to get involved in one thing which led to another.”
“I only got involved in MYAN NSW, who I’m still involved with because I was a part of my local council’s advisory group, and I heard of MYAN through them.”
“It’s one of those things where you’re not going to know until to do something [if you’ll like it or it’s something you want to do]. And at that time, I didn’t know what my local council did, honestly, but I decided to go along [anyway].”
“Even though I’m not still on their advisory group, I definitely am glad that I went because that led me to MYAN and other opportunities.”
“It’s about just keeping your eyes out for any opportunity.”.
“It might not be the UN straight away, but if it’s in the space one thing will lead to another, I can assure you of that.”
Yatha gave the example that her project with Engineers Without Borders came about through attending university events related to social impact and talking to other attendees.
“Engineers Without Borders had a society on campus and I got involved with some of their events before doing that particular program. That meant that I had to put some of my study aside and had to go away during exam period to volunteer, and those sorts of things.”
“It’s about remembering that if you go to [social impact-related events] and are a bit more open to opportunities that might be outside the mainstream (or might be outside the South Asian ‘mainstream’, like purely getting grades) it does lead to some really great opportunities.”
It’s okay not to have all the answers
Yatha shared that her advice for her younger self would be, “Don’t worry, you’ll figure it out.”
Laughing she said, “Honestly, I think eighteen-year-old me spent a lot of time worrying about who I was, what I wanted to do, how I fit into the world and how I fit in with the people around me and all those questions that we ask at a lot of stages of our life. But it’s something I don’t think we can completely answer because it changes. You’re always figuring it out and that’s okay.”
Drawing on culture to inform your advocacy
A central part of what guides Yatha and her journey as an advocate is her South Asian heritage.
She explained, “In terms of my advocacy, all that I try to do is from a South Asian perspective, and I think that’s inherent because I am a South Asian person.”
“But a big part of that is decolonising a lot of advocacy and a lot of what happens in these advocacy spaces.”
“There are so many issues to advocate around, it’s so important that we look at them from an intersectional perspective, and also from a ‘how do they affect us as South Asians?’ perspective.”
“It’s definitely had a big impact.”
Yatha also shared that a cultural practice she’s adopted is honouring cultural and ancestral knowledge and learnings.
“I think we grew up with this narrative around how a lot of our cultural practices were perhaps ‘backwards’ or ‘alternative’, but really it’s about trying to learn from my parents and from my ancestors and from our culture.”
“There’s so much knowledge and strength there. That’s such an important thing to advocate for and talk about because if we don’t talk about our community’s strength and our culture’s strength, who will?
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ASAC congratulates Yatha on being a 2022 Stellar South Asian Women awardee. Yatha’s passion for helping others and advocating for the vulnerable and marginalised groups is an inspiration.
The way Yatha has connected her South Asian heritage to her work and her drive to centre social impact in all that she does is what we, at ASAC, look for in the Stellar Awardees and are committed to uplifting them and sharing their incredible work. We look forward to seeing where Yatha’s social impact projects take her next.
Yatha’s interview is the final instalment in ASAC’s 2022 Stellar series in collaboration with South Asian Heritage Month. In case you missed them, be sure to read Anjali, Sheetal and Ana’s interviews to learn more about our 2022 Australia Stellar South Asian Women winners.