How Neela Kaushik made 33,000 women in India visible again

How Neela Kaushik made 33,000 women in India visible again
Neela Kaushik

Just a month after two moms over 40 – Shakira and Jennifer Lopez – made history when they performed at the Super Bowl halftime show, Elizabeth Warren, a top Democratic contender for the US presidency and a mother of two, had to step back into the shadows like many before her to leave the stage once again, it would seem, to the last man standing.

The euphoria of 2020 becoming the year of the power mom was short-lived, or so many thought.

Unbeknownst to them, seven thousand miles away, a group of moms are keeping the flicker of hope alive, one social media post at a time.

With 33,000 members, Gurgaon Moms, founded by Neela Kaushik is the largest women forum in the National Capital Region (NCR). Since its inception in 2008, the group had been instrumental in changing the lives of women in Gurgaon and beyond.

For her efforts, Neela was recently lauded by MyGovIndia, the Government of India Twitter account dedicated to citizen engagement, ahead of Women's Day.

The beginning

It was the year 2008. Neela Kaushik had just moved to Gurgaon after long years abroad. The city, which had barely existed a decade ago, was being portrayed as the symbol of a rising new India. Women, we were told, had already secured corner offices in tall buildings here. Equal rights and parity were said aplenty and it all seemed alright.

Yet, Neela was unimpressed. For young mothers like her, the sprawling metropolis offered little.

The problem was further compounded. With her family back in Chennai, and her having only just moved here, Neela had no one around to help answer the pressing questions that motherhood posed – where can she get organic food for her child, what are the best schools here, the best paediatrician.

That's not all. There wasn't an avenue where Neela could be herself again. Not Ms Kaushik or Aditya's mom (though she enjoys these labels very much), but just Neela.

Neela knew she had to find a way to connect with the city, its many and diverse inhabitants. She also knew that there were many like her who, after becoming a mother had found themselves distanced from everything, and who were seeking something similar.

Putting her media background to good use, Neela sought to bring them all together, dispel the idea that women with children were less able, less fun. Thus, Gurgaon Moms was born.

“Gurgaon Moms was started with the idea of creating a support and networking group for moms. We organized 'me-time' for them through workshops and parties. It was, for us, an opportunity to be amidst friends,” Neela told Onmanorama.

Crowdsourced mothercraft

While the early conversations on the group were around children – what to get them, what to do in so-and-so situations, they gradually turned to motherhood struggles and how to overcome them.

“As more and more people started sharing their stories, it became clear just how unrecognised motherhood struggles are. Our problems are very real. They are also sadly overlooked, But not in Gurgaon Moms.” Neela said.

Postpartum depression is a very serious problem. Yet, there are hardly any conversations on it in regular media platforms, Neela points out.

Onmanorama learned that many young mothers are suffering in silence. 'How can I tell anyone that I am sad when I have just given birth to a beautiful boy, my bundle of joy?' asked a young mother who wishes to remain anonymous.

“The main mission of Gurgaon Moms is to facilitate conversations on pressing topics. Members are encouraged to talk about anything, ask for any information, share their feeling or opinion. They will be heard,” Neela said.

The group also has a Ms Anonymous program wherein members can get advice for very personal conflicts or struggles without revealing themselves. There are lawyers, doctors, psychologists and professionals from almost all backgrounds in the group to lend what two-cents they can. Every discussion is a constructive one, and Neela likes to keep it that way.

Corporate moms are torn, outnumbered

Young working mothers, perhaps, face the full brunt of the problem. Compelled to follow the Sheryl Sandberg's 'lean in and lead' model to succeed, these women are torn about how the demands of their job conflict with their desire to get back to their child.

In the stay-busy age of today, hardly anyone's ever afforded the 'lie down' time to recover from the rigours of juggling work and home, child and boss.

Many, fearing this, decide against going back to work after childbirth. The glass door of corporate-dom is slammed shut at their faces. And even if they do the impossible of breaking in, these women are often passed over at opportunities, even laughed at.

This leaves us with fewer mothers around the big table, in a room where women are already outnumbered by men. The cost of this to society, to the environment, and even future generations is evident already.

“Gurgaon is not like your other cities. You have a highly-educated crowd here, women who've been in jobs and who hold top corporate positions. Yet, our struggles persist,” Neela points out.

“In Gurgaon Moms, we are slowly but surely addressing a lot of these problems – faced at home and workplaces. And all of this is done in a non-judgemental way. I think that's also what helped transform Gurgaon Moms, the group, into a full-fledged community that it is today,” Neela added.

That's not all. Each discussion on the group gave birth to new arms of Gurgaon Moms. One such discussion a few years ago paved the way for the Opportunities column on the group's website where vacancies are listed. It has been a big cup of comfort for many. For the others who prefer the entrepreneurship route, there is the Marketplace Friday where ideas are shared, experiments made, products tested and launched.

Over the summit

Something this big could only have remained small for so long. The big breakthrough came in 2014 when Neela formed a core team and launched the Mom Achiever Summit. It propelled the group into unprecedented territories.

“For many, we were until then just a kitty party. Not that there is anything wrong with kitty parties, but it was labelled on us in a very frivolous tone, dismissing us as ones looking for just fun and entertainment. Though fun was on our agenda, there were also a lot of other projects aimed to bring about social change,” Neela said.

That notion was quickly erased with the Summit. Gurgaon Moms had become a social venture, a brand. Corporates were soon lining up for their endorsements, for possible collaborations.

Onmanorama also spoke to Upasana Luthra, who oversees the PR, events, and book club arm of Gurgaon Moms to glean an insight into what drives these projects to success.

“It is again that same sense of community. There are not many avenues like this one for mothers, so our summit is a big hit. For brands, it is a rare opportunity to get connected with a very specific target audience. We had Horlicks Women associate with us not too long ago.”

“The summit has also paved way for our new Mom Influencer Program which is gaining a lot of recognition amongst prominent brands,” Upasana said. “We are, I am told, the Google of Gurgaon.”

A proud mom of two, Upasana says there are many success stories from the community. She too is one among them. “I have learned so much. I have rediscovered myself. My creativity, ability to organize and multitask have all increased.”

A pair of mothers who could not find organic food for their kids have now started a business which is now an international brand – Slurrp Farm. Another young mom, who started making hair oil and selling from home, now has two stores in Gurgaon.

“This was all possible through the guidance of the Gurgaon Moms group,” Upasana said.

Born of passion, built on trust

“Nothing is impossible for a woman. When I first started Gurgaon Moms, I had the vision that the community would soon grow to be this big. Otherwise, I would not have done it,” Neela said.

What had kept it going, however, was trust. “We are very selective about who joins our group. One, they would have to belong to NCR. That's the only way we can keep this relevant, for now. Two, they must understand the culture that we hope to instil. Three, young mothers first. Gurgaon Moms must be a safe place for women to share their stories. That is of utmost importance,” Neela said.

“I am not worried about the numbers. We are already 33,000 strong. But more than that, what I would like to highlight is the engagement rate that we have – it is about 80-90 per cent. This means that even when our members are not posting as much, they are consuming the content,” Neela added.

Motherhood struggles are a very unrecognised problem in our country. In trying to help bring it to light, help others overcome some of them, Neela has built a community, a home – the very thing that prompted her to start the group in the first place.

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