Lyla shares her story of her older brother’s influence, protecting her from an arranged marriage and encouraging her service as an active duty as a Navy Surface Warfare and Intelligence officer. She currently runs a non-profit dedicated to leadership of both women and men in the U.S. Special Operations community.

  “My family emigrated from Afghanistan to the U.S. in 1982, a few months before my third birthday. I grew up in a conservative Sunni Muslim home. When I turned 12, my father planned to take me from our home in Springfield, Virginia to Afghanistan so he could arrange my marriage to a man in his 50s.

My older brother Bashir, an enlisted U.S. Navy Corpsman in San Diego at the time, convinced my father to allow me and my mother to move in with him so I could continue my education. When my father was killed during his trip overseas, a 19-year-old Bashir legally adopted me since my mother did not speak English. In addition to working long shifts at the military hospital and making very little money as a junior enlisted sailor, he worked weekends at a civilian clinic so he could afford our spartan two-bedroom apartment. After years of us living off mainly beans and rice, he fought to get into a Bachelor’s program so he could become an officer. His commitment to taking care of me and our mother was his primary motivator to work harder and reach higher.

As an officer, he volunteered for multiple deployments to Afghanistan. I followed in his footsteps by joining the Navy but he insisted I become an officer as well. He helped me prepare for college interviews and complete my applications. He also said he would take on additional jobs in order to pay for my college education.

Thankfully, I received a Navy ROTC scholarship and graduated from Penn State in 2001. I served on active duty until 2007 as a Surface Warfare and then Intelligence officer, completing a deployment to Afghanistan as a counter-terrorism analyst. Since leaving the military, I continued to serve as a counter-insurgency analyst, instructor, and advisor.

I’m graduating in May with a Master’s from Georgetown University and will apply for Ph.D. in 2018. I’m the first woman in my family to earn a high school diploma, attend a university, join the military, and open a small business. None of these achievements would have been possible without my brother’s encouragement and support.

My brother has been my role model, my mentor, and my champion my entire life. He is, without a doubt, the most selfless man I know. He taught me to respect myself so I could demand respect from others. He’s now retired after serving 22 years and is married to a successful Naval officer. As a stay-at-home father, he makes a very conscious choice to teach his young son to respect all women (including his baby sister) and to stand up for anyone who is mistreated.

I have personally felt the effect strong male mentors and role models can make on a young woman. I recently co-founded PROMOTE, a non-profit addressing the challenges women face as aspiring leaders in a predominantly male military. We connect junior female service members with mentors — both men and women — and provide professional development education to retain talented young women. Our mission is to transform how military leaders mentor the next generation of leaders, ensuring cross-gender mentoring becomes the norm and not the exception.

As with all my life’s endeavors, my brother is my biggest champion and I know I can count on him every step of the way.”

– Lyla, Diversity & Inclusion Strategist
Washington, D.C.

This story was first published on Facebook and at The Corner of the Court Project.

Lean In Power Women NYC: An Evening of Design Thinking and Your Career

I spoke at a recent “Lean In: Power Women NYC” circle, which was an evening presentation to a group of women entrepreneurs and business leaders.

Design Thinking and Your Career:  The Presentation

I provided a tailored session to introduce Lean In Circle members to Design Thinking and practical ways to apply the five stages of design to critical points in one’s career.

I illustrated these examples using three “Journey Studies” (my term for “case studies” which reflect personal and pivotal career maneuvers).

We covered topics like how I landed in my career, transtioned to a foreign management consulting practice in Austria/Switzerland/Germany as a leader, found passion for psychology through design, and built a program around my master’s research — men and diversity — while working full-time.

A Summary of Key Takeaway Points

– In design thinking for business, Ideation often happens purposefully, in a room with team members, post-it notes and desired outcome.  In design thinking for our own careers, Ideation really happens organically — in the shower, at 2am when we awake from a dream, while commuting.  Breakthrough ideas are going to happen!

– The Empathy stage allows us the space to “make sense of the mess” when we are looking at changing a career or making another life change.  “The mess” may indeed feel messy, but it really is an opportunity to gather data about what’s happening and how it sits with us.

Prototype and Test phases allow us to “just try it out.” We don’t jump careers if we feel burnt out; rather we explore different environments to really understand where the source of our burnout might be.  Similarly, if we’re passionate about something, we try it out, test it, and see what feedback we get; it need not be perfect (e.g. the perfect manuscript, the perfect website), as long as we are getting feedback and informing our next decision.

– Metaphors are a quick way to reframe and ideate!  We use metaphors to reflect our current situation, so that we can assess it in a new, fresh way.   I had each woman think of her own metaphor to describe her career at this moment, and then network with a partner to share and get an added perspective.

My personal metaphor?  A box of Nerds. (See: footnote)

At the end of the session, each woman walked out with her own box of Nerds, as ongoing inspiration to apply design and metaphors to creatively think about her various life journeys.

Evening Reflection

Though I was the speaker, my own journey has been memorably influenced by being part of this evening.  The room — a beautiful space hosted by Oracle, on the 26th floor of Park Avenue — was buzzing with new connections, shared ideas and buoyant laughter.  I was also deeply touched to see so many of my own personal “tribe” of women join:  close girlfriends, professional colleagues, my executive coach, my fashion designer, even a LinkedIn contact who I’d never met, but runs in similar circles.

Lean In circle host, Monica, has done a wonderful job creating a place for women to really discover new perspectives, creatively brainstorm, and network — which, in no uncertain terms, truly embodies the human-centric spirit that lies at the heart of design thinking.

For more information about applying design thinking strategies to your career journey, contact Rachana.

* Footnote:  Box of Nerds metaphor — like all metaphors — is open to your own preferred interpretation.


Leadership and Change at Columbia University

Guest Lecture: An afternoon with master’s students at Columbia University teaching about leadership, change and the future of strategic human resources.  

The entire presentation was told through a journey of pop music to build engagement and personal commitment.  A truly memorable experience with the future leaders of HR!

“Thank you Rachana for such an insightful and engaging conversation with our Columbia TC grad students – you were not only speaking about HR but also gave some valuable life coaching!” – Professor Sam Liu

Article | Unconscious Advocacy: The Inherent Allyship of Male Champions

By Rachana Bhide

Who is the Unconscious Advocate? What does this term mean? Unconscious advocacy is a term I have adopted that reflects a powerful finding from my recent research on male allies (also referred to as male champions, advocates or mentors). It is this: when it comes to promoting gender equality and displaying a voice of feminism, some men display ally behavior that they are not readily aware of.

I created the term to reflect the triggers that humans (men) have when dealing with key relationships; it is of similar spirit to the well-established concept of unconscious bias. With unconscious advocacy, there is something about a male and how he positively supports and champions an individual female — through a family relationship, professional relationship, etc. — in an inherent way, unknown to him. For example, the father who may never call himself a feminist, but has coached his daughter’s sports team because he deeply believes in teaching her resilience and competition; in turn he leaves lasting impressions on her that she will carry forward in her life. It is the male boss who may not have influence on systemic change or diversity recruiting targets at his company, but who willingly engages in conversations with his wife about her career and encourages her to boldly self-promote her accomplishments. It is any man who has naturally supported and championed a woman, but may not realize the impact he has made, often because his efforts would not be formally branded as feminist or seemingly moving the needle.

I see such examples all the time in The Corner of the Court, a program where women choose to share a story about a male ally who has influenced her career and life. Many of these men, when acknowledged, had no idea they were making such a strong impact; most men will react with “Wow… I had no idea.” While others may acknowledge they are “good at mentorship” but don’t actually realize they are doing something out of the ordinary by mentoring a woman.

As a researcher on the importance of developing men as individual male allies, the Unconscious Advocate concept provides us a very strong outlook on the inherent capacities men have within them to be champions for change. Let us acknowledge, nurture and leverage these capacities to make men the strong diversity leaders and allies they are fully capable of being.