When Mathuri Santhi-Morgan’s daughter was three years old, she made a comment about not fitting in with other children because of how she looked.
Mathuri, who was born in Malaysia and has Sri Lankan heritage, says it was a shattering moment to realise that her daughter, still so young, already felt like she was being othered because of the colour of her skin.
“Everything that I had achieved in life, everything that I worked for, came crashing to my feet like glass and I was devastated,” she tells Kate Mills in the latest episode of The Leadership Lessons.
“But I had a choice in that moment; I asked myself, do you want to be devastated by this or are you going to be part of the change?”
It was the catalyst Mathuri needed to launch GIRLS (Global, Intercultural, Resilient, Loud and Strong) Rising Up, a movement to give intercultural women and girls visibility in a media landscape that so often leaves them underrepresented and ignored.
We all know the oft-quoted phrase ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’, but Mathuri likes it better when it’s turned on its head. For her, it’s about ‘you can be what you can see’.
Through GIRLS Rising Up, Mathuri works to change the narrative, telling the stories of intercultural women who’ve overcome adversity and are doing amazing things with their life.
“Where we need to get to is normalising the concept of diversity, because diversity is society,” she says.
For Mathuri, an intercultural society happens when there is a deep understanding and respect for all cultures. It’s a society where no one is left unchanged because everyone learns from one another and grows together.
And while Mathuri has a clear vision of this kind of society, she isn’t blind to the systemic issues that need to be overcome, and the seemingly growing chorus of people willing to push back.
“With the rise of Trumpism, I feel like band aid has been ripped off the world and people are feeling increasingly able to be vocal about this divisiveness and polarisation,” she said.
“I can put up the most innocuous Facebook post and I will get a troll who will write paragraphs about me, saying the most horrendous things.
“But I think we have to keep saying these things…. polarisation, divisiveness, it’s not getting us anywhere. If we don’t come together as one society, we are never going to be able to address the bigger threats out there like climate change and inequality.”
In the podcast, Mathuri explains that there is sense among some that if we allow more people to the table, then our seat can be taken away.
“That isn’t the case, we need to make the table bigger,” she says.
“There is a huge degree of fear and protectionism that we’re seeing at the moment, and I understand it, and I think it’s where the real shift in thinking needs to occur but that’s so much easier said than done.”
In terms of leadership, Mathuri says during the pandemic we have organically seen the most effective style of leadership blossom.
“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that countries that were led [through COVID-19] by toxic masculinity – Trump, Boris Johnson – faired a lot worse than countries like New Zealand,” she said.
“What we’re seeing now is the qualities that we need in our leadership are clarity, empathy, collaboration, inclusion and resilience.
“Because women have experienced this to a larger extent, just in their everyday challenges of being a woman, I think they embody a lot of this and know how to handle something like this far better.”
The Leadership Lessons podcast series, hosted by Kate Mills, is a set of interviews with brilliant female leaders across industries, sharing their perspective on the critical decade ahead.
The Leadership Lessons is supported by Salesforce.