Rupa Datta has always had diversity and inclusion at heart. In a workplace, she said, having leaders from different backgrounds can be especially valuable.
“It just enriches the workplace when people have different lived experiences,” Datta said earlier this month.
Born in India, Datta is one of two women from West Warwick recently approached by the Rhode Island Foundation to participate in a new leadership development initiative to prepare Rhode Islanders of color for positions of influence.
West Warwick resident Carla Wahnon, Integrated Health Care Manager with the East Bay Community Action Program and Co-Chair of the Agency’s Justice and Equity Working Group, was also accepted into the program.
A total of 31 people were selected from nearly 100 applicants to participate in the inaugural Equity Leadership Initiative class. They identify as Asian, black, Hispanic, Latino, native or multiracial, and nearly 75% identify as female.
A resident of Rhode Island since 2006, Datta said she felt honored to be part of such a diverse class of leaders in the region.
“I am very excited to be a part of this great group of people,” she said. “They are all leaders in their own spaces… I am very grateful.
The one-year program, which started in September, includes monthly work sessions and regular individual coaching sessions. Participants will be matched with a mentor and will be offered various networking opportunities across sectors.
The Equity Leadership Initiative is just one facet of the Rhode Island Foundation’s three-year, $ 8.5 million plan to promote diversity, equity, inclusion and access.
Angie Ankoma, Executive Director of the Leadership Program and Vice President of the Foundation, said she looks forward to working with participants in the initiative over the coming year.
“I’m excited to get down to work training the next generation of industry leaders – bank presidents, hospital CEOs, academics and K-12 leaders, business leaders, policymakers, judges and more – who are people of color, ”says Ankoma.
Since he left India, Datta has always been the only person of color in his workplaces. She said she was thrilled at the first Equity Leadership Initiative meeting to be among people from such a wide range of backgrounds.
“I just felt like I could relate to a lot of the stories they shared,” she said. “It was something I hadn’t experienced in a long time.”
Datta strongly believes in the power of building bridges between cultures – by teaching Bollywood dance to the people of Rhode Island, for example, she has strived to foster healthy intercultural relationships.
“I think this program will help me do it on an even bigger scale,” she said. “Not just through dance and art, but more than that – through our history, our practices, we can learn to understand each other better.”
This kind of bridge building was also at the center of Datta’s career.
With a PhD in Urban Ecological Planning from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Datta has held positions in several environmental organizations since moving to the United States, including Save the Bay for 10 years. A senior researcher in the Environmental Leadership Program, she has worked with the Nature Conservancy of Rhode Island for the past five years.
As head of the Office of the Director of State and Human Resources Operations of the environmental nonprofit association, Datta works with the management team, directors and staff to create a diverse work culture and inclusive.
She hopes the leadership program will help her develop innovative ideas to incorporate into her daily work.
And, Datta said, she hopes other foundations soon realize the value of a diverse workplace.
“We have to build each other up,” she added.