An alumna of Indian Statistical Institute, Sinjini Sengupta is an erstwhile Actuary turned an award-winning writer, columnist, public speaker and social entrepreneur. She is the founder of LIghthouse where she leads online courses, masterclasses and experiential programs to leaders, founders and changemakers across the globe. Sinjini has won several national and international awards and accolades as a writer, speaker and influencer. With 12 years of rich corporate experience, several years of liberal arts and an active study of philosophy and Buddhism, her work integrates interdisciplinary tools of Creative Writing, Storytelling, Conscious Communication, Emotional Intelligence, Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) and socio-psychological insights and serves the mission “to bring hearts to work”.
But probably very few people know the story of making the Sinjini Sengupta that we know today. The story of the conflicts, confusion, pain and tears of a young mother trying to balance motherhood and a corporate career, the inner turmoil of a woman to fit into a system and culture made by men for men, during the most vulnerable period of her life. This part of her story is very similar to the guilt, shame and a sense of failure experienced by working women all over the world – for not being there when their children need them, for having to miss work to take care of a sick child or missing promotions for not being able to make their presence felt at work.
Except in Sinijini’s story, she was not only able to turn her life around in a few years but also used her experience and insights to address many systemic and cultural problems of the society.
In her own words “We need to have this conversation essentially with all the people, not just with the women because having these conversations within the echo chambers of women groups can only take us this far. It is very important to get the men into the room to evoke that father, evoke that sibling, evoke that elder brother.”
Today, Sinjini teaches personal growth and leadership programs to both men and women using conscious communication and storytelling as critical tools. Her programs aim to reconcile our internal and external worlds, shift our sense of self and shift the power, ability and possibility we hold inside us and outside.
In this candid yet extremely insightful conversation, Sinnjini shared from her early career, pregnancy, having to leave her job post-diagnosis of a chronic illness to rising as an award-winning writer, public speaker and social entrepreneur!
Sinjini, what were the initial days of your career like?
I studied MS in Quantitative Economics from Indian Statistical Institute, a premium institute in India, got campus placement in a leading private insurance company and cleared my exams to qualify as an associate actuary.
In a way, I grew up on the great Indian myth that if you study hard, everything in life falls in place. Coming from a middle class traditional Indian family, I worked hard, toed the line and received abundant validation and recognition.
It often works like that, especially in the first 5 to 7 of your career, that is until you arrive at major life events such as motherhood. it is easy to assume that if it is all right now, it will be all right through the rest of the professional journey.
However it – well – depends.
In our career, and also as individuals, we are taught to cross the bridge when we come to it. But the trick is that when you come to the bridge, it’s too late to build the bridge. And you can’t see in that darkness.
How did pregnancy and motherhood affect your career?
While I went through the regimen and routine for my infertility treatments, I realized the culture goes absolutely silent and hush hush about this. Your colleagues may never know what’s going on, or even feel any kind of empathy towards it until when you are fairly close to the second trimester, it shows up on your body and you break the big news. And even then it is not so good news at your work, but still, there is some kind of recognition. But before that, there is an entire silence around a woman’ life, pregnancy, the regiment, routine and treatment to get there.
And that is exactly when equality versus equity comes in, because a woman needs their space, voice and validation. It would be very stupid of us to pretend we don’t need that space or we are exactly similar to men because we are not, especially during the vulnerable phases of pregnancy, motherhood, etc. Not to even mention the differential parenting duties which is another story altogether.
By the time I was planning my pregnancy, I was four years into my existing organization. I was one of the founding members and had ticked all my boxes – being long enough in the organization, having made my presence felt, having been a part of the team and having contributed in bad times and good times.
Around that time I had a threatened abortion and I had to be hospitalized directly from work. People at work got to know sooner than the golden threshold. A senior person in my organisation had told me ‘it’s like a parasite to try to extort maternity leaves from work.’ I remember there was this time when I would just not be able to sleep for nights together. And my doctor told me that there is a human being developing inside of you. Are you sure of what risk you are taking, given not just the work stress but also the emotional stress?
I can blame my manager for everything but that would not be fair. There are so many other forces. What was the motivation of that manager? Does a manager get some leeway with the HR or his superior based on how he treats his subordinates?
Is there an overseeing, empathetic voice in the company? In mainstream corporate culture other than some selected organisations, we are not taught to prioritize well-being, personal, emotional over external success. And we breed that behaviour. That’s why I believe that going through the system, any person in his place would also turn out to be similar.
I continued to have severe body aches and several other symptoms after childbirth. I was starting to have blackouts and tremors.
I went from one doctor to another doctor, one speciality to another, and went through a series of clinical investigations and expensive diagnostic tests before finally being diagnosed with Fibromyalgia. I continued taking a whole lot of analgesics, antidepressants, nerve relaxants and muscle relaxants.
Around this time, I was working as a Group Leader and we had to work with US overlap. And my work hours were 1 to 10 PM. I would typically come home by 12 at night. All through her toddler years, my daughter and I hardly saw each other eye to eye 5 days a week. I would get up and go to school before she woke up. And when I would be back at home at 12 in the night, she would be fast asleep. I just didn’t see her for days together
Externally I was getting the promotions, appraisals, and it all looked socially validated. But every time there would be a new project, would I put up my hand? Perhaps no. But, the truth is, in professional life, your basic existence and survival are judged on your proactiveness. There is no space for you to be vulnerable or for you to take a little back seat with a sense of trust and safety that nobody would do anything against you behind closed doors or to have people back in favour of you.
Also, in order to thrive in the corporate world, you need to network, you have to become a part of the inner circles. As a mother, sometimes it is difficult to become a part of the inner circles of a male dominated work-culture. You can not go to booze or party after work. Even employee engagement programs or team outings usually happen in the evening, after the office. You just don’t have the time to be able to invest in those things, or to be able to find your way through.
This struggle between my personal and professional self continued until I started having black outs, tremors, emotional meltdowns and was diagnosed with fibromyalgia – a psychosomatic disorder. The doctor told me, ‘you are one step away from quadriplegia. How bad do you need to work?’
I wasn’t quite ready for that. I haven’t grown up with that mindset that it is even an option to not work in a job. My parents always prioritize my studies over everything. So it was a very hard decision for me to put in my papers. It took all of me to arrive at that decision, and for that time I assured myself that it is going to be just a brief break.
How did that experience help you transform and evolve into the Sinjini Sengupta we know today?
Once I left my job, I spent the next four/ five years very actively trying to understand what happened to me, because I refused to believe I was the only one who ever went through this. What happened to me happened rampantly, I was definitely not the odd one out here. I was sure there were many who went through the same dilemmas, same conflict or anger, but somehow no one talks about it at all.
More in light of my experience, I also realized it’s not easy to spot and put your finger on the exact factors that lead to burnout or an overall disillusionment. It’s unconscious bias. It’s unsaid. It’s the lack of belonging, of not being included in closed groups or being seen and heard for who and how you are, that goes beyond the policies. It’s cultural. And it feels personal, even shameful. So often you end up with deep self-doubt rather than doubting if the system is broken.
In fact, when I left my job, I remember on my last day the HR handed me the exit form which asked me to fill in – “reason for exit” and I wrote “personal”.
I now realise the personal is indeed political. And almost universal!
I was just a normal person at twenty-eight or twenty-nine nine years old, several years into my current job. What really happened to me happens to so many other women, but we don’t hear this narrative. No one is even ready to talk about it. We are brainwashed to talk only about the glossy stories, not about the struggles, difficulties and hardships. So we all paint that photoshopped picture of happiness.
I spent this awful lot of time trying to understand it from many perspectives, did deep dive into inner work, and evolve my understanding of the problem and the possible solutions. I read up a whole lot about gender intelligence, gender studies and gender injustice. I studied Buddhism. I studied writing. Around that time I also discovered meditation. I did Vipassana for the first time and came out a different person.
Around the same time I used to conduct discussions to talk about everything under the sun, bystander responsibilities, wearing or not wearing symbols of marriage, What is a sexist joke, What is not? What is abuse? What is not? What is emotional abuse or negligence abuse? What are our emotional needs? What are the structural gender needs?
Then something really dramatic happened. I started to write short pieces and I discovered my creative side. My husband has always been an amateur theatre playwright and director on the side. He read one of my stories and got very moved by it. And he said: I want to make it into a short film. We broke some of our fixed deposits. We crowdfunded some money from our friends.
We made Elixir and the next thing we knew, things went off the roof.
It got selected to be screened at the 69th Cannes Film Festival, 2016 at the Short Film Corner. We were invited to walk the red carpet. The film also got selected and screened at the Kolkata film festival and won the best short film at Boston Film Festival. For me, this experience was one big turnaround that I was worth something beyond my corporate job.
Then I signed my first publishing offer to write a book. I wrote my first book. I wrote about emotional loneliness and womanhood which is no surprise, from the story you just heard of me.
So the book grew its own wings like bliss, frankly, picked me up and flew with it.
It was named among the five best fictions in 2017 by Gurgaon Literature Fest. In 2018 I was interviewed and the book was reviewed by most of the mainstream media houses such as the Hindu, HT, Asian Age, The Statesman, etc.
Incidentally, the same month Elixir came out, I also was invited to speak at my first TEDx where I spoke about gender-neutral parenting, culture and bystander roles. Soon enough, I had my second TEDx where I spoke on women in workplaces, the unconscious bias and the need for equality beyond equality.
Around this time, I also was very honoured to receive a whole lot of international and national recognition for my writing and speaking. I was writing columns for India Times, Huffington Post and many other leading platforms. I was a Distinguished Toastmaster and a District finalist at the World Championship of Public Speaking, 2017.
Coming to now – I don’t identify with the illnesses anymore. I have been very lucky to be able to turn the tables around on that one. I think what happened to me happened for a reason. Because it happened to me, I now have the voice and a purpose towards which I use it. I hope that voice reaches a few others who can get a sense of self and power and a sense of priority and look within for the inner light.
I think we need a few people who are willing, to tell the truth. Because I feel that if somebody told the truth when I needed it, I would have got the strength to navigate this better.
How did your venture Lighthouse happen?
I founded my venture, Lighthouse, In 2020. Lighthouse was incubated at IIM Bangalore which was a very gratifying and assuring step for me.
Over my last many years of trying to make sense of my personal and political, I realize it is the fault of not so much the people but the system. It’s easy to say we should teach the women how to voice up, how to stand up, how to represent themselves at the table, etc. But that’s partially victim-blaming. I feel the onus cannot be on them. The onus is on the system. Women are not broken. The system is broken. And that is why we need to fix it.
My professional and personal experiences made me realize the importance to look at the systemic, structural and cultural barriers beyond policy. I feel that we have to balance the policy and the culture. There is a whole lot of stuff that can happen if we teach people to bring their hearts to work.
In Lighthouse, my mission is to bring hearts to work. I have begun teaching personal growth and leadership programs with the tools of conscious communication and storytelling. The online courses and masterclasses help the participants discover and explore their authentic voice and to know the craft, how to tell their stories so that it is not a victim story but a story of hope and resolve. Our ideas need processing so it is rich with perspective. It is rich with insight. Our stories are not just personal stories, but also documentation of our time, narratives and impact. At a collective level, they have it in them to compel, validate and shift human narratives.
Through the programs at Lighthouse, I also bring in personal growth and character-building, self-exploration, joy, imagination, creative exploration, free flow and develop them into a functional application.
It helps that I have twelve years of a corporate career. I have several years of very rigorous liberal arts practice through my multiple formats of writing, speaking, studying and performing arts. And I am also an ardent Vipassana practitioner and draw heavily from my spiritual practice of discipline. I bring these three things together and help people to come home to themselves and bring hearts to their work, both for corporate as well as entrepreneurs.
I’m very excited about the work that I am doing in Lighthouse. I’m doing a whole lot of collaborations with entrepreneurs, social founders, social enterprises, corporates and incubation centres, storytellers, thought leaders and influencers. I see that as being one of the solutions that can really help us reconcile our internal and external worlds, shift our sense of self and shift the power, ability and possibility we hold inside us and outside.
Where do you see the gap in our current system where women are still struggling to make it to the top, to win professional success and sometimes even just to thrive?
I feel that one of the major problems in how we work out the equation between women and workplaces is that we try to bring up the women or the girls to be ready for the workplace, and we try to adjust them or develop them according to the existing culture, existing notion of what success looks like, or what professional versus personal looks like. I think we should stop bringing up women for the workplace and we should start bringing up workplaces for women.
That is something that we grossly miss out on, by toeing the lines of existing culture without evolving them with more informed and empathetic needs of its people. We look at gender representation in terms of “Diversity and Inclusion” without bringing in the 3rd essential element – “Belonging”. We do headcounts of women and chase that metric but we do not capture their original voice at the table.
We typically celebrate women who have been successful in certain masculine workplace culture terms but we do not shift the culture in favour of nurturing their natural strengths that are often greatly emotionally intelligent and favourable for the new age of economy.
If you look at any workplace, the gender sensitization process among men is just maybe one or two hours of training on the prevention of sexual harassment, nothing beyond that. But I believe that that sense should come from within. How can we make workplaces culturally inclusive, not just policy-wise, inclusive?
We need to have this conversation essentially with all the people, not just with the women because having these conversations within the echo chambers of women groups can only take us this far. It is very important to get the men into the room to evoke that father, evoke that sibling, evoke that elder brother. At the moment, we just look at professionalism to be the nine or 10 hours of clocked in-office time, but we do not evoke that humanity.
It’s not just one gender that is suffering. We are suffering from a lack of perspective, lack of voice at the table. There’s a whole lot of work to be done, but I feel that we need to talk about conscious leadership. We need to incentivise collectivity and collaboration, and that needs major work in self-awareness and conscious communication.
Feminine traits of character are a great source of strength and not weakness. We should be able to create an agile ecosystem so a mom who would have to leave work on some days at three pm. because these are child’s play at school or a sick child at home is not shamed and targeted. She should be able to walk through the central hall and not try to sneak out from the back door when the manager is not looking. The entire paradigm of shame, guilt, secrecy out of basic social duties needs to be dismantled.
Somehow these ideas become visible only when we arrive at this point, and no ones talks about it openly or warns you ahead of time. At that point you are alone and ashamed. Your only way out is in martyrdom or defeat.
This cannot be solved at an individual level, and especially when we are facing the raging high tides in our personal path.There is no bridge to cross, often, and the trek wears us off more than we deserve. We have to create the bridge much ahead of time so we have it to cross it when we arrive at it. So I believe people who are senior, people who are junior, should come together with the people who are at the center trying to cross the bridge.
I think that is the biggest takeaway from my own experience that we have to sensitize people fresh out of college as well as people at the top.
At the center of it, people are suffering. We cannot victimize them anymore and we can blame them, saying that you don’t have a voice, you don’t know how to lean in, and you don’t know how to speak up.
As I said, gender intelligence is at the heart of it. We need the strengths of the different kinds of personalities, gendered and otherwise. Right now we spend a great amount of attention on fixing the women. Women are not broken. The system is broken. We must shift that attention to fix the system. To bring hearts to work, so we are safe and trusting in a shared ecosystem that helps us hold space for each other and nurtures our goodness, creativity and productivity in the true spirit of diversity.