Advancing Leaders by Celebrating AANHPI Heritage Month-Ishrat Jahan, Dir. of International Programs

May 30, 2024

In honor of Asian American, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we are doing a series of interviews with our Senior Leaders. Hear how their cultural experiences have informed their leadership and how they are innovating across our global programs.

Ishrat Jahan, Director of International Programs

Ishrat Jahan is our Director of International Programs. At Nomi Network, Ishrat merges her passion for service with her experience in program management. She oversees Nomi Network’s Workforce Development Programs in India and Cambodia and the Adolescent Girls Empowerment Program across India.  

How has your heritage shaped you as a leader?

When I was ten, my family immigrated to America. Moving from a homogenous community to the diverse environment of New Jersey was a significant change. I had to learn how to navigate interactions with people from various backgrounds. This experience also deepened my appreciation for my Bangladeshi heritage. I often draw on cultural elements such as stories, songs, and the rich history of Bangladesh to shape my perspectives and opinions.

This journey has profoundly shaped my outlook on people and leadership. I strive to understand individuals’ professional and personal backgrounds, recognizing how their unique experiences and heritage influence their perspectives and actions. By harnessing the diversity within my team, I aim to create an environment where everyone feels secure, valued, and empowered to share their insights.

Who are the AANYPI leaders who’ve inspired you?

Indra Nooyi, the former CEO of PepsiCo, is a significant influence. She is a South Asian-origin woman in corporate leadership when such roles were rare for women and people of color. During her career, I saw her as a role model and the possibilities ahead as a South Asian woman. After Nooyi’s retirement, she reflected on the reality of balancing work and home life, which resonates with where I am today. 

I appreciate Nooyi’s perspective that “having it all” as a woman is unrealistic. She talked about having help support systems and combating guilt. She also shared insights on prioritizing what matters most each day, each hour. It was such an “ah-ha” moment when I started my leadership journey and became a mother! It gave me a sense of relief.

How are you innovating in your leadership?

I’ve realized that I don’t always need all the answers and that overcoming imposter syndrome is crucial. Leading international teams of subject experts with advanced degrees can be daunting when I only have an undergraduate degree. I’ve often questioned how to lead individuals with more knowledge and experience than myself.

Effective leadership involves mindfulness and embracing a true diversity of thought—acknowledging differences in education, culture, background, and lived experiences. I choose to show compassion to myself and others, striving to understand my team members and what drives them personally and professionally. I wouldn’t label it innovation, but clarity in acknowledging and accepting that not everyone responds to the same leadership style. Individuals have different learning styles, values, and aspirations that motivate action. At the heart of it, I aspire to get to know the individuals on my teams and make each feel seen and truly heard while creating a safe space for their thoughts and ideas.

How are you helping others to innovate or advance in their leadership?

In many countries, language, identity, and culture are firmly established, but these aspects are still evolving in Cambodia. For decades, the country has been grappling with the aftermath of a devastating regime that caused immense national trauma and led to the loss of countless lives, ideas, and identities. Foreign governments and businesses hold significant influence, often prioritizing their profits. Meanwhile, well-intentioned non-governmental organizations (NGOs) outside the country provide services.

At Nomi Network, we are fortunate to have a Cambodian country director who plays a crucial role. As one of the few Cambodian leaders engaging with high-level decision-makers, foreign-led businesses, and service agencies, he is uniquely positioned to create opportunities for his fellow Cambodians by leveraging foreign resources and connections. This approach strengthens our organization’s credibility within the government and among key stakeholders. He and every woman who generates their own income solutions embodies the leadership and role of the Cambodian people in building their communities where everyone can thrive.

Despite the gaps in knowledge and capabilities that outsiders have historically filled, Cambodians possess invaluable insights into their communities’ challenges and opportunities. The challenge lies in creating a shared language of programs, services, and leadership when some perceive themselves as incapable or unprepared to lead.

To address this, we continue to foster self-agency and connect individuals to opportunities within our framework, tailored to Cambodian culture. This requires ongoing education, dialogue, and collaboration committed to cultivating leadership from within. Our goal is to innovate leadership at multiple levels simultaneously, supporting Cambodians in taking charge of their own development and building a sustainable future rooted in their unique context.

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