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Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion


Enabling financial independence, breaking poverty cycles, and fostering diversity: the power of holistic scholarships for India’s underprivileged girls 

15 December 2023 in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

All-inclusive scholarships that offer mentorship, life skills coaching, and career development along with financial support can empower girls from underprivileged backgrounds to achieve financial independence and break an intergenerational cycle of poverty....

Growing up with a single mother in a rural community in the south of India, I always knew I wanted to pursue a Bachelor of Commerce degree with the goal of becoming a company secretary at a big corporate firm. My mother did not have the same educational opportunities as I did. Though life was tough for her, she never failed to provide for my brother and me and encouraged us to follow our dreams.

I know I am lucky. Despite making progress to end child marriage, nearly one in four women in India still get married before their 18th birthday. And the odds are even higher if you come from a rural area like I do. Another obstacle is the lack of female role models; many younger girls simply remain unaware of the options available to them.

After graduating from high school, I wanted to move to Delhi to pursue my degree, but I lacked the financial means to live in a big city. Fortunately, my school informed me about the HEMLATA ImpactforHER Scholarship established by Smita Suchde Gruetter, an IMD EMBA alumna. The wonderful thing about this scholarship is that it is all-inclusive: it paid for my tuition, lodging, meals, books, a laptop, and even a stipend for pocket money, which I used to cover everything from bus tickets to sanitary towels, cinema tickets, and cell phone credit. The funding even paid for extra courses, such as the one I am doing to study to become a company secretary.

What’s more, it went way beyond financial support. The program matches each scholar with a mentor outside of India, a kind of personalized support system, and provides training on life skills, covering everything from problem-solving and critical thinking to interpersonal relationship skills, self-awareness, and empathy which helped equip me for the working world, and for life in general. While I had a clear ambition from the start, I was not aware of how to reach my goal when I started the program. The scholarship set me off in the right direction and motivated me even more to work towards my goals. Now, I am confident, I know I have value and can believe in myself.

Another key feature of HEMLATA’s ImpactforHER Scholarship was training in life and career skills. This training turned out to be invaluable when I applied to work at the business consultancy and advisory services firm Deloitte. After passing the aptitude tests, I progressed to the interview stage. Though delighted, I was also quite unsure of how best to present myself. I contacted Smita, the founder of HEMLATA, and shared my concerns. She immediately put me in touch with the head of careers skills who ran mock interviews with me and coached me on my answers. This gave me so much more confidence and enabled me to succeed in the interviews. When I received the confirmation letter stating that I had been offered the job as an audit and assurance assistant at Deloitte, everyone, including my family, my fellow HEMLATA Scholars, and the entire team at HEMLATA were happy and excited for me.

Learning to succeed and give back

My long-term ambition is to complete the remaining four exams of the company secretary course and qualify as a fully-fledged company secretary in the next 3-5 years. Already, by securing this job with Deloitte, I have joined the ranks of taxpayers, supporting society as a whole and am able to assist my mother financially as well as through the health benefits I receive, not only for myself but also for my family.

A striking feature of HEMLATA’s ImpactforHER scholarship is that two-thirds of the scholarship is a philanthropic grant, while one-third is a returnable grant used to support the university education of new scholars. This means once I start earning, I begin to pay back one-third of the total amount invested in me by HEMLATA to support the education of future scholars in the program.

The program matches each scholar with a mentor outside of India, a kind of personalized support system, and provides training on life skills

As the first woman in my family to go to university, I also want to act as a role model for other girls who come from similar backgrounds. Research by the Department of Education in India shows that when parents are involved and well-versed on the benefits of education, they are more likely to support their daughters’ schooling. By participating in awareness campaigns, workshops, and community meetings, I would like to help drive a shift in attitudes and behaviors.

A new generation of young female leaders?

When I started my training program at Deloitte in September, I was positively surprised that there were three times as many women as men in the audit department. According to the All India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE) 2019-20, the gross enrolment ratio of female students (27.3%) surpassed that of male students (26.9%). This indicates an 18% increase in the gross enrolment ratio of female students in higher education from 2015-16 to 2019-20.

But does this mark a new generation of empowered women leaders in India? Not necessarily. If I look at my team, most women are from urban areas and did not have to struggle for higher education. If more women are to be empowered, then educational opportunities also need to be made available to women from rural backgrounds and especially to those who cannot afford to pay for university education.

Having leaders who increasingly come from more diverse backgrounds can only be a positive here. I believe that a good leader must not only be confident and put his or her team first, they should stand in the shoes of those who are below them and consider the perspective of others.

Leaders should further create opportunities that contribute to a more inclusive work environment, especially for those women from rural and underprivileged backgrounds, who despite their unfortunate circumstances have the grit and tenacity to work hard and pursue higher education. Only then, will India and its future workforce be truly empowered.


Santhoshi A.

Audit and assurance assistant at Deloitte

Santoshi A. is a HEMLATA ImpactforHER scholar. She graduated with a Bachelor of Commerce (Hons.) from Indraprastha University, New Delhi in 2023 and is now an audit and assurance assistant at Deloitte.

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