Smita Tharoor, who lives in London, is a motivational keynote speaker and thought leader exploring unconscious bias and how it influences all of us. She is the co-founder of Culturelytics, a company that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to understand work cultures and the founder of Tharoor Associates, a training, coaching and organisational development company.
In her podcast series, Stories of Unconscious Bias, which she started amid the pandemic last year, she has interviewed people around the world to share their stories and life lessons, on how they manage their unconscious biases. The podcast series currently has the global ranking of being in the top five per cent of podcasts listened to, out of 1.8 million podcasts.
Her experience working in the UK, the US, India, Europe and Asia gives her a unique advantage in understanding the expectations and needs of different cultures. “We take our upbringing for granted and it was only with the benefit of hindsight, I realised how lucky I was,” says the sister of Indian politician and member of parliament Shashi Tharoor. “Growing up in pluralistic India taught me the value of tolerance and the appreciation of accepting differences. We are defined by our narrative, our personal story, our experiences. Just one particular experience can lead to a lifelong belief. By having a podcast series, I was hoping the listener would realise they, too, have similar stories. By hearing others share their stories, we can reflect on our own stories and hopefully challenge our own unconscious biases.”
She recounts how she got started on the podcast journey and Indian actor Vidya Balan being the first guest in the launch episode. “In April 2020, while I was stuck in Delhi because of the nationwide Covid-19-induced lockdown restrictions, I read an interview with Vidya Balan in a newspaper. She was talking about lockdown and lessons learned during this period. She said she hated cooking because she always felt that the chore was demeaning and not part of being a successful woman. I didn’t know Balan. But the interview got me thinking about why she had felt that way. She had unconsciously believed this and had fought going into kitchen all her life. Now during the lockdown, she realised that she could cook if she wanted, and it did not demean her. I reached out to her to ask if she would allow me to interview her, which I did and I decided to launch the podcast interview. There was no looking back since then,” she says.
Three seasons down, the series boasts 33 fascinating interviews. “I don’t know half of my guests. The interviewees are varied,” she adds.
For instance, Nandita Das, Indian film actor and director, talks about skin tone. Sydney-based Neena Bhandari, a journalist of Indian origin, talks about having poliomyelitis at the age of three and self-belief. British photojournalist Giles Duley speaks about losing his limbs in a landmine blast in Afghanistan.
Lemn Sissay, a poet of Ethiopian origin and chancellor of Manchester University, talks about identity and race. “The ordinary stories are powerful primarily because they are ordinary, and it could be us,” she says.
S.P. Rawal, 80, shares his story of India’s partition in 1947, while Naira Manzoor, 24, shares her experiences growing up in Kashmir. Anna Harrington’s biological parents were Pakistani and English, while she was adopted into a White family where she stood apart.
Aditya Atri, who lives in Delhi, talks about living with fourth-stage cancer and asks, “How should a cancer patient behave? Are you defined by your cancer?”
Kate Nicholls, the author of Under the Camelthorn Tree, talks about other people’s unconscious biases when she was attacked in Botswana.
“So, unconscious bias is fundamentally about our life experiences and how we are influenced and make snap judgements, based on our personal stories,” she says.
How can unconscious bias training be imparted? “It should be offered for the right reasons, not just to tick a box. Unconscious bias is much more than discrimination. Its training should address our stories; how we have biases sans the realisation and how our narrative influences us in ways we didn’t even realise,” she adds.
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