Inspirational Woman Interview: Shelly Govila

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Shelly Govila is a 23-year old Indian communicator and marketer based in Hong Kong. She is an Account Executive at Ruder Finn and the Co-Organizer and Head of Marketing at TEDxWanChai, one of the most well-established TEDx chapters in Hong Kong. Prior to this, she has worked at the National Basketball Association (NBA), a boutique hospitality firm in Hong Kong, and a national newspaper in India. Shelly has been organizing large-scale TEDx events in Hong Kong since 2012, and holds a Bachelor of Business Administration degree in Marketing and Operations Management from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

What is your background?

Shelly Govila: I grew up in a military family in India, and came to Hong Kong to pursue a bachelor of business degree in marketing and operations management at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. This is when I discovered TEDx events, and today, 6 years later, I’m a part of a team of volunteers that organizes among the most ambitious TEDx events in Hong Kong. In addition to that, I work at Ruder Finn, a dynamic global communications consultancy, where I get to work with teams across the region to offer our clients exciting and innovative communication strategies. I get to sharpen my storytelling, communications, and marketing skills every day, at both Ruder Finn and TEDxWanChai.

You are the Co-Organiser and Head of Marketing of TEDxWanChai, a TEDx series based in Hong Kong. Can you tell us more about TEDxWanChai and some of the initiatives you’ve led here?

Shelly Govila: TEDxWanChai was launched in 2012 and is one of the most well-established of the independently organized TEDx chapters in Hong Kong. We are a team of about 12-15 volunteers, working to build a community that fosters an atmosphere of learning and initiating conversations that matter, because of our need to stay curious and inspired. Every year, at least one large-scale main stage TEDxWanChai conference is held, usually with a large overarching theme that covers a wide range of subjects. Since I joined the team in 2014, we have held 3 main stage events themed ‘Ripples’, ‘Momentum’, and ‘Crossroads’. Usually 12-16 speakers deliver 10-15 min long talks, and over the years, we have tackled topics on the meaning of identity, the, the beauty of symmetry, the future of urban planning, the reformation of terrorists, gender equality issues in the media and in the workplace, our role in ending modern-day slavery, our relationship with Hong Kong’s biodiversity, the role of artists and unconventional thinkers in the future of financial technology, citizen scientists, etc. This is what makes TEDx events so unique – there is always something for everyone, and more!

We also organize smaller and more focused events called the TEDxWanChai salons which focus on specific subjects. In 2015, we initiated a program called the Youth and Diversity Scholarship program, which offers select young Hong Kong students a scholarship to attend TEDxWanChai, giving them access to mentors and leadership activations, private audiences with our speakers, a backstage pass to see how large-scale events like ours are organized, so they too can launch such programs in their own schools and communities.

Can you tell us about some of TEDxWanChai’s previous marketing campaigns, and the thought processes and rationales behind them?

Shelly Govila: TEDxWanChai is very much a community-driven initiative and all our marketing campaigns and strategies are similarly focused. We try to make them as relevant to the people of Hong Kong as possible. For instance, in 2016, we explored our event theme of ‘Crossroads’ by working with Brandon Li, the visionary creator of the viral video “Hong Kong Strong”. We wanted to show Hong Kong the way we see it, through the various intersections of the lives of people living in this city. Brandon was the perfect person for this – he did an incredible job of capturing the voice of our city, it’s vibrant energy, and its people. This slice-of-life video became the core of our campaign and was very popular in HK. In general, through our social media, website, newsletters, and others promotional and PR activities, we try our best to spark connections in the community and start conversations around topics that matter locally. We share content from other events (TEDx or otherwise), and we work with people and companies that are vocal and significant change-makers in Hong Kong, all while making sure that we are not being driven by a single topic or an agenda. My team and I try to make sure that we bring to our platform TED’s spirit of introducing big ideas through rich storytelling, and shining the spotlight on ideas that can change thought-process and attitudes.

Can you tell us more about TEDxWanChai Women and TEDxWanchai Salons? How do these TEDx initiatives aim to address lesser known social impact issues?

Shelly Govila: In 2015, my co-organizer Martine McKenna (who is our Head of Events and the perfect yin to my yang at TEDxWanChai) and I made it our mission to dedicate a main stage event to the power of women across fields – from small, local solutions to big, global movements. Our incredible team worked tirelessly to make this happen, and our very first TEDxWanChaiWomen event was held at the same time as the global TEDWomen conference in California, and it felt like a truly global initiative as more than 150 TEDx events around the world were holding similar local women-centric events. Hong Kong embraced our mission and the theme of ‘Momentum’ with open arms. We were amazed at how much buzz was created – before tickets were launched, over 3000 people had pre-registered for a 500-person event, and we were sold out in under 15 minutes! It was an inspiring day filled with inspiration, and now we know there is a clear demand for it. We have every intention of exploring another TEDxWanChaiWomen conference very soon.

The salons, on the other hand, run on a very different format than a typical TEDx conference. I love these events, because the small, intimate gatherings allow for actual exchange of ideas to take place between attendees. Our first salon was entitled “Levelling the Playing Field: Democratizing Education”, which led to a fascinating debate on what it really means to “democratize education” and whether we actually need more education or if we just need to change the way we relate to education. The second salon was inspired by the groundbreaking TED talk given by activist and fundraiser Dan Pallotta at TED in 2013, and it allowed people to challenge the basic way in which we look at charity, philanthropy, and leadership.

With the current uncertainty in the political and social climate of Hong Kong, we are noticing a genuine thirst among people for new ideas. They want to push the envelope, address new or lesser known social issues, and they want to challenge others – and be similarly challenged – in the way they think. Through all our activities and initiatives, we want to create as many opportunities for discussion as possible, which is why we will be holding more salons in the coming years.

What have been some of the main challenges you’ve faced in your career in marketing, and how have you sought to overcome these challenges?

Shelly Govila: Personally, as a non-local in the marketing and communications industry in Hong Kong, my greatest challenge has been to understand the diversity of people in Hong Kong so I can curate content that matters to them all. Understanding people’s likes, dislikes, and fields of interest is something we, as communicators, have to actively stay on top of, and this is best done through interaction. At TEDxWanChai, we have built a vast network of people, and we often hold less formal events to enable conversations across cultures, disciplines and fields, through events like our open mic nights (where people pitch their TEDx-worthy ideas), speaker welcoming receptions, after-parties, etc. You never know when you might meet someone who can open your eyes to a whole new way of thinking about an issue!

In your opinion, what are some concerning aspects of the media and marketers’s depiction of women’s issues? Why do you think these problematic representations exist?

Shelly Govila: The pressure on women to look and behave in certain ways has become deeply ingrained into our culture, largely led on by the media and advertisements. Without a doubt, this has had a detrimental effect on women, especially on young girls. Su-Mei Thompson, the CEO of The Women’s Foundation of Hong Kong, succinctly laid out some of the root causes behind gender biases in her talk at TEDxWanChaiWomen, discussing how the media promotes the thinness ideal and the impact this is having on eating disorders and girls’ self-esteem. However, because of the growing level of awareness around this issue thanks to eye-opening and often shocking documentaries like Miss Representation, Girl Rising and The Women’s Foundation’s She Objects, I do believe there is a change, albeit a gradual one, in the way women are now being portrayed in popular culture. These problematic representations have been fueled on by a culture of not speaking up, and that, too, is changing. Very recently, we saw hundreds of thousands of women around the world speak up for their rights with the incredible global Women’s March. Sexism in advertisements is being called out on social media every day. We need continuous efforts like these, and we need to show girls of all ages that the media’s representations are not the norm. We need to point out the many amazing female role models out there so they can be inspired by the possibilities their own futures hold.

On a personal level, why does women’s empowerment matter to you?

Shelly Govila: I have been very lucky in my upbringing. My parents always pushed me to pursue my goals and never, for a single moment, led me to believe that my gender limited me in any way. However, I did grow up in a society that is very male-dominated. In India, women are born into a world where they face issues of social inequality, ranging from gender-specific abortions, violence from spouses, eve-teasing, childhood marriages, and lack of access to education because of their gender. This is unacceptable. Changing mindsets starts with education. It is the best tool to arm oneself with to fight against misogyny and to demand equal rights. Reducing sexist portrayals of women in the media is another vital step. I believe the quote “you cannot be what you cannot see” is very true. Giving girls more than damsels in distress to look up to is extremely important. We are making progress, but there is a very long way to go.

Can you talk about one woman who has impacted your life?

Shelly Govila: There are many – women like Chimamanda Adichie, Gloria Steinem, Maya Angelou, Malala Yousafzai and Emma Watson, among many others, have been a constant source of inspiration to me. But foremost among them is my mother. A physics major in university, she sacrificed her own career goals to teach in army schools while our family moved from army base to army base. She raised me and my sister while our father served the country from remote parts of India. Today, she runs a successful financial services company along with my father, helping military families secure their financial futures. She constantly reminds us of the importance of education, and pushes us to be strong, independent, self-sufficient women. I wouldn’t be the person I am without her.

What are some of your favorite books, websites, films and resources related to women’s empowerment and/or the media?

Shelly Govila: This list could go on forever, which is a good thing because it means there are a lot of motivating resources out there. As an avid consumer of fiction, my go-to feminist-fiction novels all have strong female protagonists – The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley, A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Chimanda Adichie’s Americanah, Toni Morrison’s Home, and Anita Nair’s Ladies Coupe.

TED.com and the TEDx Talks channel on Youtube have a large number of talks worth watching like ‘A Girl Who Demanded School’ by Kakenya Ntaiya, ‘Why We Have too Few women Leaders’ by Sheryl Sandberg, and ‘We Should All Be Feminists’ by Chimamanda Adichie. From the TEDxWanChai stage, I would suggest watching ‘Dying to be Thin’ by Su Mei Thompson and ‘Why Asia Needs More Tiger Women’ by Marie Claire Lim Moore.

Brainpicking is one of the best websites on the internet, in my opinion. It has beautiful prose on every issue, and expresses topics like women’s empowerment and their rights through the voices of authors and poets throughout history. In addition to must-watch documentaries like Miss Representation, Girl Rising and The Women’s Foundation’s She Objects, there are popular new movies coming out every day with strong female characters, like The Hunger Games and Mad Max.

Lastly, I also believe it is important to subscribe to blogs like The Mary Sue, Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls and Refinery29. These websites critically analyze the pop culture we consume every day, be it movies, books, games, comics, celebrity culture, etc., and they help us stay aware of the issues around us.

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