Hetal Jani: Founder and Executive Director, SPEAK Mentorship
Meet Hetal Jani, SPEAK Mentorship’s founder and executive director. SPEAK, which stands for Support Prepare Empower Aspiring Kids, has a mission to develop a generation of diverse leaders by increasing self-efficacy and aiding in access to opportunities that can impact success.
What inspired you to start SPEAK Mentorship?
“A few years ago, I had a student by the name of Ashley, who was incredibly bright, hard-working, and a true young leader. Over the four years that I knew Ashley, she had only excelled in school, always ahead of the class academically, making friends easily and always helping others succeed. She was also a daughter of immigrants and I enjoyed watching her bring the best of her Guyanese and American cultures into every situation.
“Soon after Ashley had entered middle school, she received a grade in the 80s on an essay, which was the lowest grade I had ever seen her receive. Her father, whom I had never met before, came to me with this grade and said that he was disappointed and expected Ashley to only get excellent grades. Through the conversation, I realized how much pressure this little girl faced to be perfect and, the second she failed to be perfect, she was threatened with being sent to Guyana to get married.
“Marriage is still a fallback option for so many young women and women, who, upon failing, resort to marriage or a relationship as an option for support instead of learning to overcome difficulties, becoming independent, and supporting themselves so that, when they are in a relationship, it's a true partnership.
“Ashley was devastated, and I had never seen her upset before, let alone crying in defeat. She and her mother came to me the next day, her mother also upset that she could not provide the emotional support Ashley needed because, as a Guyanese woman, she did not have a say in the household. I knew I had to do something and began serving as a cultural translator and broker for youth of South Asian communities—I helped them understand their own culture, the reason their parents do things certain ways because of the culture they had been raised in, and how they can talk to their parents about their lives in America.
“Realizing I could do more by enlisting the support of my diverse network, I started SPEAK Mentorship to mentor vulnerable and under-served youth from immigrant families and ensure their future well-being. SPEAK provides counseling to address the intersectional struggles of immigrant youth like Ashley, making it integral to our community’s fabric. Growing up is already difficult and challenging, with a host of different emotions you experience throughout your childhood and adolescence. Couple that with the feelings of displacement, lack of belonging, cultural confusion, and anxiety of being from an immigrant family and of feeling like your voice has less value as a young woman, and the barriers to feel confident and independent are tremendous. Young women like Ashley should be the leaders of our society, and we need to make it easier for her to succeed.”
How do you strike the right work-life balance?
“’Find a job you enjoy doing, and you'll never have to work a day in your life.’ This Mark Twain quote is a mantra for me because working on a passion and spending time doing what inspires me balances my life. If possible, I encourage everyone to pursue their passion because then your life doesn't start at 5 p.m. and you don't need to look forward to Fridays or lament Mondays. Find the meaning in the importance of the job you hold and any job can become a passion, making your life have purpose and feel balanced.
“Being an entrepreneur isn't easy—it’s isolating and challenging work. But, I work on SPEAK every day because it is what I want to be doing, and SPEAK has opened doors into social circles where, even if I am working to build relationships for SPEAK Mentorship, I am in the presence of people I admire, respect, and am honored to be around. My work has led to incredible opportunities in my life, and this chemistry is the right balance for me.
“Because I'm spending the majority of my day doing something I love, I'm also able to be completely myself, and feel balanced internally—nothing is at odds with how I'm spending my time. This can be really energizing and, being somewhat introverted, I also find time each day to be by myself and time to be with my family or really close friends where I can just be. Finally, if I need some further balance, I travel and seek out new experiences.”
If you could make three wishes, what would they be?
“One wish that needs to be immediately granted is for girls and women to be taken more seriously, and that their abilities to lead with a conscience and to unite people around them be at the top of the list when putting someone in power. Another wish would be to live in a world that is more motivated by morality and less by power and money so that the causes we need to care about as a united front, like equality, climate change, and gun control, get acted on with the urgency and sensibility of a morally driven society. A third wish, and one far less serious than the other two, is to be able to eat what I want without packing on the extra pounds!”
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
“For two years, I had the pleasure of living in China where I was told nearly on a daily basis to ‘be patient'. This is one of the best pieces of advice I have ever received, especially as a New Yorker. I had become accustomed to a fast-paced life, having things done quickly, on my terms, and struggled with inefficiency and wasted effort. But, living in China forced me to 'stop and smell the roses' and learn to be patient with others who do things differently than me.
“Building a nonprofit is incredibly challenging. I can set out on a plan but there is no guarantee that any of my actions will come to fruition. 'Deng yi xia' means 'wait a moment' in Mandarin and has been such an incredibly powerful mantra I learned while in China.
“Now, I set a few plans into motion in the case that one doesn't work out, have the patience to listen to the community, build trusting relationships with people who can help me move that plan forward, and change course if needed to really serve the community effectively instead of simply prescribing my approach. Now I 'deng yi xia' and observe the people around me, how the situation is unfolding, take in the bird's eye view. It's much easier to move past challenges when I can see where those challenges may be and have taken the time to build bridges with others who can lead me directly to my destination instead of having to blindly climb out of the trenches. I went into a new country ready to get to work, and, wisely, China told me to 'deng yi xia.’”
What movie can you quote from memory?
“This one was a hard one for me because I'm not very good with movie quotes, song lyrics, names of things like restaurants; but it was also hard, in particular, because it relates back to what I do. Navigating two identities, I grew up with both Indian movies and American movies. I always loved the song and dance, the traditions, the portrayal of the culture in Indian movies and probably can quote them better than I can an American movie, which I watched more for the cinematic quality and story lines.
“A lot of children of immigrant families share this experience, and we may often hide from this truth. I actually asked someone to suggest some quotable movies and almost even Googled movies that I felt I might quote, emphasis on the might. But, after giving it some thought, I realized I need to publicly own how proud I am of my Indian culture, especially as a visible role model to young women of the South Asian diaspora. It's okay to be proud of the entire you, and if you can quote Indian movies and songs more than others, than good on you! So, to bring it back to the question, two movies I can quote the most are named Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge and Saudagar.”