Women who inspire: Q & A with Dr. Geetha Murali
Tell us about your background and the path you’ve taken to becoming CEO of Room to Read?
My professional journey has not been straightforward. Along the way I have worked as a biostatistician, social scientist and academic. Through it all, I recognized that my heart and head aligned when supporting community organizations doing good for society. That recognition led to me to Room to Read. I wouldn’t be the CEO of Room to Read today if it weren’t for my mother who rejected traditional limits and set my family on a new trajectory. My mother was the oldest daughter of seven from a poor family in India, a family in which she was destined to be a child bride. She was expected to end her education and marry at 13. But she was a stellar student who loved learning. There was no Room to Read back then, so she had to make her own way, enlisting in the Indian Army and training as a nurse before immigrating to the US and earning a doctorate. To my mother, education equaled independence. She raised me to believe that as well – which may explain why I collected so many degrees!
What excites you most about the current Room to Read initiatives?
One new initiative that I'm particularly proud of is called She Creates Change – a storytelling project that elevates the narratives of courageous young women supported by Room to Read and inspires girls to see themselves as the heroes of their own stories. She Creates Change is a multi-media initiative—spanning books, audio stories and film—and is foundational for our bold mission to reach girls in all corners of the globe. It is the engine through which our Girls’ Education Program content – and the life skills we teach that are quite literally life-saving – will be provided to young women everywhere.
Who inspired you the most along your professional journey?
There are many students from our girls’ education program who inspire me every day. Take Sapana - her family are part of the Chepang minority population and live in a remote village in Nepal. When Sapana’s sister became ill with pneumonia the family relied on a traditional healing ceremony to cure her, not knowing what else to do. Her sister struggled in pain, and Sapana begged her father to go to a doctor. By the time they began the 4-hour walk to the nearest clinic, it was too late. Sapana’s sister died at the age of six without medical assistance. In that traumatic moment, Sapana remembered learning about Florence Nightingale and made a promise to herself to become a medical practitioner. During the years that followed - using the critical life skills she learned in Room to Read’s Girls’ Education Program, perseverance and resilience, Sapana walked four hours to get to school every day. She then became the first in her family to attend college, and is now a nurse. During the pandemic, Sapana was on the front lines and cared for the sick in her community, even when her parents, fearing for her safety, asked her to quit. She is giving back in ways that honor her sister. She is living a life she chose for herself.
Where is home for you and how do you juggle work and home?
I live in the San Francisco Bay Area in a multi-generational family home, also including our dog and bird. My South Asian family is a special combination of traditional and modern. The seniors help take care of the kids when my husband and I are away, and we all sort of take care of each other, blending tradition with today’s reality. I balance work and home and lead a fulfilling life by defining what is truly important to me and finding the time and headspace to focus on it. I have a hectic travel schedule, but I’m also fortunate to be able to travel with my family sometimes. When I can’t, my children understand why mom is gone or why she’s working so hard. Pursuing Room to Read’s mission has been a collective journey that my family is experiencing with me.
What is the best piece of advice you ever received? / What is a saying you live by?
Passion is great to have, but without functional skills and the foresight to use them your career will have limitations. Keep learning and refining marketable skills. “It’s kind of fun to do the impossible” - Walt Disney
How would you describe your sense of style?
Joyful, timeless, Indian fusion