If you want to understand how to become better allies to people with disabilities, then join us at Embracing All Abilities: Including People with Disabilities at Work.

Hetal Jani’s Edtech Company Speakhire Is Helping Young People Across The Globe

Interview with Hetal Jani, the founder of the Edtech Company, Speakshire, that helps South-Asian children achieve their academic goals.

[ Hetal Jani, is the founder of the Edtech Company, Speakshire, where she helps migrant and South-Asian children achieve their academic goals. As a young entrepreneur, she faces many challenges, in this candid interview she speaks about her goals, fear and future dreams. ]

Every generation blames the one before.

And all of their frustrations come beating at your door.

I know that I’m a prisoner to all my father held so dear.

I know that I’m a hostage to all his hopes and fears.

I just wish I could have told him in the living years.

If you know this song, you know the refrain — say it loud, say it clear. You can listen as well as you hear. This intergenerational struggle is a rite of passage. But speaking your truth is hard. When you still have a lot of growing up to do, how can you possibly know what to say?

Hetal Jani understands that this struggle is especially pronounced amongst the children of immigrant families in America. Many grow up not understanding who they are or where they belong.

Never miss real stories from India's women.

Register Now

Multiculuralism has shaped Hetal Jani’s career

The word ‘speak’ is in the name of her company because she believes that conversations are key to empowerment. Hetal is the founder of Speakhire, a New York City edtech organization focused on connecting minority high school students with powerful, relatable role models.

“Speakhire talks about the multiculturalism that we all live in,” she explains.

“Representation is so key for young people. Especially if you are a child of immigrants. If young people can see that there is somebody successful who looks like them, then they can feel inspired to succeed too. More often than not, there are barriers for these young people that they cannot name. My goal is not to show them the barriers, but to show them the hope of what’s possible so that they can achieve what they want to achieve.”

Hetal first recognized the need to support immigrant students during her undergrad years when she taught standardized test prep to earn extra money. She learned that customized support and advocacy were lacking. This bothered her greatly.

Hetal Jani understood and tried to tackle the issues of a migrant student

“There was this Filipino family in rural Pennsylvania,” she recounts. “My student was the eldest of three daughters. Her two younger sisters were performing better than her in school, and she had been labelled ‘dumb.’

I was there to provide SAT test prep, taking my supervisor’s advice to help this girl get to basic scores. After a couple of sessions, her father ended up crying in front of me. I was only 20, and it hurt me to see this.

He said, ‘I know that my younger daughters are more adept than my older daughter but that doesn’t mean that she doesn’t deserve everything that she can achieve. I can tell that she has a learning difference, and we need to be able to find what her niche is.’”

Stories such as this motivated Hetal to start her first business, focused on supporting families through academics. That was when she had the opportunity to work with a very bright Guyanese girl whose story made her realize the importance of role models.

“I worked with this girl for four years. She had so much potential. She’d received every single award possible in elementary school, including one from the mayor. Then she went to middle school and attacked her first long essay assignment completely on her own. That was when her father decided to meet me for the very first time.

Up the stairs comes this brilliant 12-year-old girl with her father. I sent her to the back room while her father sat down in this pompous way which I now understand was because he didn’t know any other way to be. He slid a crumpled essay across the table. ‘My daughter doesn’t get scores of 80,’ he says. I explained that if she’d never allowed to underperform based on his expectations, then she’d never be able to live up to them either.”

“I went to her, and she fell into my arms sobbing. ‘No matter what I do,’ she said, ‘it’s never good enough. My brother is eight, and he can fail, but I can never do even a little bit poorly.’ She was a very strong person, actually a leader amongst her peers, and she’d never cried this way before.”

“I brought her to her father thinking that this would be a healing moment, but he said, ‘I will send you to Guyana to get married because I have to think about providing for you. If you’re not perfect, then what’s your future?’ I was only 26 and that sat with me.

The next day, her mother came to me and said, ‘You are my daughter’s only role model. You are also someone who has been fighting to carve out your own career. She’ll always see you as inspiration. I can’t speak up because of the situation in my marriage, but you can give my daughter a voice.’”

Hetal Jani uunderstands the burden of parental expectations

While Hetal is a youth champion, she understands that the parents grew up differently  and can only know what they know from their own experiences. She reminds her students that family is in their roots, and that change happens with a little work from the inside — at the dinner table every day.

“From the age of seven, I had this advocacy in me. If someone was being bullied, I’d stand up for them. My superpower is listening. I am often listening to what’s going on when there are a lot of people around. I get moved deeply when people have problems. Not only that, but I want to think about how they can solve them. I build empathy this way.”

Hetal herself is a child of an immigrant family, with conventions impressed upon her. Had someone recognized her interests when she was a child, she may have started down her true path sooner than she did.

“When I was in college, I tried health sciences and then engineering. In my senior year, I randomly took a theatre class to fill credits, and it helped me understand my own mental barriers. Society was sending the message that women are expected to play a supporting role, so I wasn’t really pushing myself. I then switched my major from engineering to behavioural neuroscience.”

While Hetal’s own mindset may have posed a formidable barrier, society was raising hefty ones of its own. Marriage after college was an expected next step.

“I thought, ‘Wait, what’s going on? All of a sudden, I’m supposed to find the right guy?’ It’s not that I didn’t want to get married. I was not finding somebody who valued who I was trying to be. If you are not appreciating me for the simplest things, then why should I give you space in my life?”

At the time, Hetal continued to work with minority students and felt conflicted about their situations.

“I was working with an Indian family whose child was on the spectrum but undiagnosed. It was mind-boggling because he could have got help, but it was kept secret. I was also working with an African-American boy who was put into support services that he didn’t need. I didn’t understand why this boy was being mislabelled.”

Hetal’s need to support these students motivated her to push against ensuing negative voices. She wasn’t sure a master’s degree would be worth the money. Plus, others were telling her that further studies in the education field would be for nought. Hetal since went on to attain not one, but three master’s degrees by the time she was 30.

“I felt that the glass ceiling was always over me about what I should be looking to achieve,” she says. “It was very challenging because the education field was not considered aspirational. Time and again, I was hearing, ‘Why would you need to do all this studying?’ But I love helping the families that I am helping. I am proud to say that I am in education.”

Marriage was not the destination, yet

All around her, Hetal’s friends were getting excited about rings and proposals. She was excited too, but did not want it for herself. She didn’t know when she should be Indian and when she should be American. Only that her American side was telling her that she didn’t have to succumb to convention.

“Every moment, I was uncomfortable. I had a lot of self-doubt. ‘Why can’t I just be a good girl and do what they need me to do? Why can’t I be the typical girl who is eager to please her potential mother-in-law? This really frustrated me. I wanted to be conventional, but couldn’t figure out why.”

“I’m super into Bollywood. I listen to Bollywood music a lot when I’m driving. I was listening to some 80s Divya Bharti song yesterday. She sings, ‘I can’t wait to be your wife. I can’t wait to wear your mangalsutra.’ I love this song because it’s nostalgic but at the same time I’m like, ‘That’s your only hope?!’”

Looking for mutual support and respect in relationship is must

Hetal believes in her right to question what she is and is not able to do. She believes that relationships should be mutually supportive. “There will always be people telling you how to live,” she asserts, and goes on to share a quote by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich: ‘Well-behaved women seldom make history.’

“Since I was a child, I’d jest with my uncles and aunts asking, ‘Why is it such a bad thing to want to find your own way? Why is it better to live in an unhealthy relationship and just get older and die?’ The idea that people are motivated to do that is mind-boggling.”

Self-awareness is Hetal  Jani’s source of power—a means to push against external negativity and to explore what happiness means to her. “People often want somebody else to make them happy,” she says.

“When you are self-aware, you remove mental barriers that keep you from happiness. I do a lot of self-talk. I talk through things saying, ‘If I do this, this is going to happen and this is where am I most happy.’”

“Don’t push against the self-talk. We easily find others inspirational, but we fail to find the inspiration within ourselves. Find inspiration within you, and you’ll have the courage to continue.”

Hetal Jani has travelled across the globe and feels liberated

Travelling alone frees Hetal’s spirit and opens her up to opportunities. At 31, she moved to China for two years to take on a director position in academics. Her parents struggled to understand why she’d want to be alone, but for her, being alone is not the same as being lonely.

“At home, I sometimes find myself in spaces where I feel completely lonely, yet it’s filled with people,” she reveals. “It terrifies me to think that when I’m 80, I may be unseen within my own support system because nobody knows me for my whole self.

I tell people to travel alone at least once. You have to be comfortable with yourself. When I started travelling alone, my mom would call and try to fill my time. I’d say, ‘You do realize that I’m not bored? I am not lonely.’ I love meeting new people. I randomly sit by somebody in a coffee shop or bar and strike up a conversation. That’s where I thrive.

My mission is for people’s free spirits to unfold. A lot of people like to exist in their zone, and they only see and label you for how you fit into it. What if we did not have a woman just go into the kitchen and make tea while others are having a riveting conversation about politics?

There’s so much more she can offer if she is able to have a free spirit that is stable and strong.”

Hetal has often been described as headstrong and stubborn. But it is these very qualities that are enabling her success as an entrepreneur.

“I am at my happiest when I am free, and I am free when I am helping. This Hetal is successful. She has built something that is growing organically, and now she can step back and let it do its thing. As an entrepreneur, I think this is the definition of success – having built something that doesn’t revolve around you and is needed by society.”

Hetal and her team at Speakhire are working hard to connect young people with role models. While she herself has always been looking for a relatable role model, she doesn’t have a clear picture of any one person.

“I have childhood memories of the Food Emporium grocery chain jingle playing during the days when my mother had a corporate job,” she recalls.

“I would wake up, and she would be getting ready. She’d put on lipstick, tie her hair in a bun, and wear a suit. I love that vision of her. My dad would travel to India for business, and it was my job to pack his briefcase. I’d think of myself as a business person. I’d want to carry a briefcase, wear suits, experience the lifestyle and the travel. Pieces of those things from different people are what I put together as my role model.”

A recipient of the L’Oréal Paris Women of Worth award, Hetal has become a force for good, a multicultural woman who serves as a role model for many. She knows the importance of hopes and dreams and the prospect of the possible.

“Speakhire briefly ran a woman empowerment program in India. I met this 16-year-old girl in Mumbai, Shagufta, who taught herself English and was teaching other kids. She was very poor.

She came to me one day and said, ‘Miss, everyone tells me that I cannot come to America but if I really want to push myself then can I figure it out?’ The next thing I heard was that she had passed away from tuberculosis. This girl had the inspiration of a thousand people. She was going to break out of her poverty. I felt terrible. Shagufta is one of the reasons why I do this. If Shagufta can dream, then why shouldn’t we all be dreaming?”

Speak your own truth

If there’s a lesson to be learned from Hetal, it is this— find it within yourself to speak your truth because the truth will set you free.

“I’m most proud of my steadfastness to my own self-discovery. I’ve done a lot of work to cut out the noise and push forward to live a life that is most meaningful for me. That has led to the accomplishments, like building something that I hope will long outlast my tenure. The pride I have in being authentic and honest with myself will never change.”

Shagufta’s letter to Hetal:

Hi Didi,

I am actually writing this letter to you to share a confusion or problem that is eating up my head— I am actually stressed—

Okay, I completely don’t know how you are going to react to this, but I need to get it out of my chest.

I WANT TO APPLY FOR UNDERGRADUATE STUDIES IN THE UNITED STATES.

I went through all the process that is required to apply in any university in the states. I have quite a few universities in my list too. I tried talking about this with my parents, they are all okay. But I really can’t expect any financial help from my family. I had a talk regarding Undergraduate studies with one of the Akanksha’s didi, but they don’t have any tie up, but they can help me with the application process.

The subject choices and the whole teaching process is all amazing there and for me, I want to study while exploring. This ambition of mine seems really funny to some of my friends, but I try my best to ignore them. I already had lots of negativity around me that forced me to question myself that DOES MONEY REALLY RESTRICT SOMEONE FROM DREAMING HIGH?

I don’t know whether I am even right—

But giving it a try won’t harm anybody—

Help me please in whatever ways you can, I am really in a need of true guidance—”

Image source: Hetal Jani’s profile on Speakhire and jajkkaje808 via Getty Images, edited on CanvaPro

Liked this post?

Register at Women's Web to get our weekly mailer and never miss out on our events, contests & best reads - you can also start sharing your own ideas and experiences with thousands of other women here!

Women's Web is an open platform that publishes a diversity of views. Individual posts do not necessarily represent the platform's views and opinions at all times. If you have a complementary or differing point of view, sign up and start sharing your views too!

Comments

About the Author

Sunaina Mehta

Nothing good can be gained without authenticity, empathy, and an enterprising spirit. It is with this ethos that I go to work every day as the Global Head of Insights for the $20B Printing Services & read more...

2 Posts | 1,025 Views

Stay updated with our Weekly Newsletter or Daily Summary - or both!

Women Leaders in Communications Discuss The Responsible 5G Revolution We Need

All Categories