Those who’ve interacted with Gina Parekh, whether in a professional or personal capacity, know her to be unapologetic, strong-minded and diligent—character traits that have served her well in her life and career, and helped her overcome some seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Empowerment for women is a grounding principle in her life, and her approach has always been to teach by example.
Gina first connected with GW4W through Nancy Board, one of its Co-Founders. In a previous role, Gina had pitched a project to Nancy, who was working for a large corporate bank. Around the same time as Gina was looking for more meaning in her life, Nancy, remembering her contact from the corporate world, reached out to Gina on LinkedIn. When these two successful women connected for a longer conversation, they bonded over similar experiences in life, love and women’s empowerment.
To the GW4W team, Gina brings her tenacity and keen business acumen, as well as a unique perspective, coming from the ‘other side of the world’, that is, far removed from the USA. Born into a traditional middle class family in Mumbai, India, Gina’s environment never let her forget her place as a woman in a man’s world. Her early childhood was marred by a freak accident at the age of two that left her with serious burns all over her body, causing her to be hospitalized for a year. Her mother stayed by her side through her long recovery, even as others gave up hope. “This incident triggered off my resolve to help people in need of healing and from very early on I knew I would choose a career path that would enable this” Gina says. Hence the pursuit of medicine, where she became a doctor and surgeon.
Listening to her recount her experiences, it’s clear that her world-view is moulded as much by soaring highs as well as crushing lows that she’s encountered. Whereas society taught Gina that a woman’s place was as a mother and wife, she juggled a husband and newborn baby while still in medical school, studying to become an ophthalmologist. It was a challenge and many times, she was tempted to give up and prioritize family life over career.
Gina was always determined, with every success, to raise the bar for what she could achieve. She spent less than three years in private practice before exploring alternative careers in healthcare management and embarked on a decades-long journey in the corporate world. As Gina climbed the rungs of the corporate ladder she was often acutely aware of being the only woman at her level, and as her work took her outside India, subsequently being the only person of colour. She struggled with the weight of this responsibility, perceiving herself as a mouthpiece for all women and a representative of diversity. There were times when she found herself adopting an arrogant, stereotypically ‘masculine’ leadership style, and wished there had been more female role models that she could have taken cues from.
Becoming a good manager took time and a great deal of empathy. Initially Gina focused on doing a good job above all else. Employees either loved or hated her no-nonsense style, but after receiving feedback from them and professional coaching over the last ten years, she began to come into her own and inspire those around her. She started to become one of the role models she had sought when she was younger.
I don’t think that this is what I want to do with my life
At 50, she started to have inklings of “I don’t think that this is what I want to do with my life” and even considered going back to medicine. A year ago she quit her job as Director of Health & Corporate Wellness, Asia Pacific at Willis Towers Watson where she had helped build the healthcare and wellness practices to boost the company’s presence in the Asian market. Her decision might be seen as the onset of a midlife crisis, but it was also a step towards a new direction in Gina’s life. After so many decades focusing on a career path of traditional growth and success, Gina stopped to ask herself – Is this what I really want? Does this make me happy and fulfilled?
Her quest for the answers has led to a great deal of introspection with the help of yoga and meditation, and a conscious effort to become more mindful in her thoughts and actions. She has spent the last year discovering what brings her joy. “I’m telling my CEO brain to shut up and let this new voice make decisions,” she quips.
Gina carefully planned her exit and found and trained her successor. Upon leaving she has dedicated herself to her own wellbeing with rest, physical fitness and personal projects. She hopes to start GW4W in Singapore and take it throughout Asia. Elaborating on her goals for the organisation, Gina emphasized the importance of reaching out to girls and women in high school and college—when they are “the most vulnerable”—and teaching them to be resilient and think boundlessly. Gina also recognises the importance of mentoring women in middle management positions who have reached a point in their lives when marriage and children start to take precedence over work. Through mentorship, Gina hopes to demonstrate that “If I can do it, so can you.”
Gina offers the following advice to women: Break the mould, don’t be afraid to dream big. When in doubt, collect data, analyse with your head but listen to your heart. Own your choices and decisions, nothing “just happens”. Be self-aware and think before speaking, sometimes it’s more important to be kind than to be right. Live your life as a role model for others. A story that you can be proud to tell.
Gina has started working with children from under-privileged homes – teaching them mindfulness as a coping tool. She also volunteers with the Singapore Council for Women’s Charities (a consortium of women-focused charities), and has transformed her bracelet-making hobby into a small charitable business called the PoP Strings Project (PoP – stands for Power of Positivity). One aspect of the initiative is creating the bracelets – an activity that she finds therapeutic. She imbues each bracelet with good intentions that she dedicates to another person. She then sells them and donates all the proceeds back to the women’s shelter of her choice. The other aspect is educational; once a week she teaches other women at the local shelter and contributes all the earnings from a sale to the woman who made the bracelet. “It’s my way of combining my desire to give back to the community and effecting positive change in the world”.
-Interviewed by Sarah Taylor