Priyanka Sinha ’00
Armed with her “secret power,” Priyanka Sinha ’00 offers advice to the unemployed, the President of Oman, and Stuart girls.
Speaking to us via Skype from her office in Washington, D.C., Priyanka Sinha, Stuart Class of 2000, is engaged, and happy with the opportunity to connect with the Stuart community. She is unhurried, and gracious with her time, at once speaking with authority as well a sense of calm—both qualities which, no doubt, serve her well in advising heads of state on nation-building.
Priyanka Sinha ’00 is a policymaker who consults with presidents on national policies of growth. With The World Bank Group, she is currently advising the President of Oman on the country’s 5-year Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises (SME) Growth Strategy, aimed at stimulating a strong, national entrepreneurial ecosystem. She has also recently worked in Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan, Lebanon, and Egypt where she has supported client governments in reducing unemployment, creating jobs, building their private sector, and supporting their growing entrepreneurs, post “Arab Spring” protests and demonstrations.
The Start of Her Personal and Professional Journey
You could say that Priyanka’s career path and her life journey are one in the same – one in which Stuart played a key role, and Sacred Heart Goal Three, a social awareness that impels to action, continues to resonate. Priyanka came to the United States from India when she was nine years old with her parents and two older brothers. She was a curious child, gravitating towards books that might answer some very personal, and deep questions she had on development, international affairs, how societies are built, and even existentialism. She fondly recalls, “I had complex questions about how people and societies work, and I loved reading, learning, asking questions, and making sense of the world around me.”
Priyanka was always interested in international affairs and development and as she got older “wanted to understand how nations are built.” She grappled with questions such as: Why are some nations poor and others developed? Why is there income disparity? What are the root causes of poverty? How can development and policymaking be more inclusive?” Priyanka could not ignore the stark differences between her new life in the “developed” United States and the still “developing” India. Traveling back and forth between the U.S. and India made her more intellectually curious, and emotionally empathetic, to the plights of the “have-nots.”
Though her time at Stuart was short – she was in the Upper School at Stuart for the last two years before graduation–she credits that, “Stuart beautifully and brilliantly offered an empowering space and environment, to feel comfortable and confident in one’s own skin.” According to Priyanka, “It allowed me to feel stimulated enough to speak up, share my thoughts, and engage in conversation, in a very free, safe and intimate environment.” As she went off to college, Priyanka was able to use this confidence to approach her teachers with ease, recreating the comfort she had established at Stuart. She says, “This for me, has been key to my growth. To this day, what I cherish the most about Stuart is the comfortable, intimate, and open bond I was able to build with my teachers and staff.” She says that along her journey, her teachers, mentors, friends, and confidants, many of whom she keeps in touch with still today, and whose brains she picked, and asked a thousand questions, have been her “secret power.”
Priyanka spent much of her early twenties seeking the answers to questions of: How do countries grow, and why do some grow fast and others slow? To help her understand the fundamentals, after finishing her undergraduate studies, she stepped out of her comfort zone, devoting the following few years to working with NGOs, civil society organizations, activists, and community organizers. She sought to understand poverty and the poor by finding out how they lived, who they interacted with, in what way, with what challenges. She recounts, “I used India, my home, where I had a head start in understanding the socio-cultural fabric, as my canvas to understand the world. I then spread out, traveling to Latin America, South America and Africa. I lived in villages across Mexico and Sierra Leone where I slept, ate, and lived like the poor. I lived on one meal a day and one glass of water, often sleeping on the floor, drinking out of wells that were too often unhygienic and unsafe.” Priyanka came to learn the intricacies–the desires, opportunities, hardships, and grave challenges–of her future “clients.”
The time Priyanka spent living with the poor was, “an enriching, empowering, and informative experience,” which eventually gave her the “confidence and ammunition” to apply and be accepted into the Master’s in Public Policy Program at Harvard University. It was at Harvard that Priyanka found things got real very fast; where she had to put her experience at Stuart, from undergrad, her travels, and learnings to the test. She found herself surrounded by highly passionate, talented, knowledgeable, and ambitious change-makers: future presidents, diplomats, princes, and heads-of-state. She says, “Whether I truly felt ready or not, I had to take all the learning and turn it into gold very, very quickly.”
We asked Priyanka about some of the many real-world “invisible issues” she has worked on, which may feel familiar to Stuart seniors, past and present, who tackle invisible issues in their senior Social Justice Class each year. Her impactful work has crossed regions as well as issues, and is rich in insight.
Priyanka with the founding team of “GYIPS,” Global Young Indian Professionals and Students, a group aimed at stimulating young professionals across the world to commit to India’s political, social, and economic development.
Priyanka recalls the work she did in her early twenties in Kamathipura, the notorious and second largest red light district in all of Asia. She says, “I went there because I had come to learn that many women are lured into thinking they could find work and a better life in this area, only to be sexually exploited.” Priyanka found the women faced poverty, inhumane conditions, violence, and often raped by those who they should trust the most—police officers.” Priyanka worked with activists to educate prostitutes in the area on how they could protect themselves, and fight for their rights as citizens. She also worked with Prerana, an NGO, who provides free education, food, and day care to children of sex-workers. She recalls being asked continually by friends and family if it was safe for her to be in the area with pimps, thugs, and such violence and crime. She recalls, “Fear was not part of my vocabulary in my 20’s. I wanted to understand, and I wanted to serve.”
In 2008, the financial recession that gripped the U.S. had a massive global effect and Priyanka returned home to India to provide agriculture-business training and advisory support to literally hundreds of thousands of diamond workers who had lost their jobs, and were looking to transition to the more stable, agro-business sector, in the state of Gujarat. She worked hard for eight months to bring loans, training, advisory support, and access to markets for these new farmers, and business owners. In India, in 2010, she helped to strengthen the largest national healthcare program for women and children under the age of five, and in 2011, in Sierra Leone, she helped launch the first free, national healthcare program after a 11-year civil war. She has also helped to bring financial literacy, savings, micro-insurance, and micro-pension programs to hundreds and thousands of women entrepreneurs.
Monitoring the “Midday Meal Scheme,” a school meal program run by the government of India, designed to improve the nutritional status of primary school (and upper primary school) children nationwide.
More recently, as a policymaker, Priyanka has been working in MENA, the Middle East and North Africa region—a region in turmoil and distress. She worked as part of a team with six or seven countries to help governments solve their high unemployment rate following the devastating “Arab Spring” anti-government protests and uprising. Much of the discontent, she explains, was rooted in unemployment and citizens’ (particularly the youth) frustration with corruption and the lack of quality public services. “This was an incredible experience, challenging, and in real time,” Priyanka relays.
Priyanka has worked alongside entrepreneur Mr. Vikram Akula, founder of SKS Microfinance, and one of TIME Magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world, on launching a $300 million financial inclusion/mobile banking startup in India. She is proudly passionate about and committed to women’s economic empowerment. She co-designed and co-led the negotiation of The World Bank Group’s global flagship women’s entrepreneurship program called Womenx. She ensures that a portion of her policy work always focuses on improving job opportunities, income, access to finance, and access to markets for women in the developing world, who, to this day, remain more marginalized than their male counterparts.
From One Stuart Girl to Another
When asked what advice she can give young women today, Priyanka responds, “To all young people I would say, follow your intellectual curiosity, and stay true to it. When you follow something that really drives you, excites you, and makes you leap out of bed, you will inevitably find excellence in what you do. And I think striving for excellence and being the best at what you are, is perhaps one of your greatest contribution and value-add to society and humanity.”
To young women in particular, Priyanka advises, “Become intellectually aware and emotionally prepared that even in 2016, in a developed nation like the United States, you can be treated “differently” as a female. This is often a really hard topic to talk about. The truth is that some of you may be very lucky to never experience gender discrimination in your lifetime, whereas others may have to sadly experience it during college, your first promotion, sometimes even in your home, or at a very young age.” She continues, “When you reach this fork in your life, where you do experience gender discrimination–although I hope you do not–I think it is very important for you to know your rights, your power, and how you want to proceed/make choices.”
Priyanka playing with children in the streets of Gujarat, India.
Priyanka brings to light the gender pay gap here in the U.S., where full-time women workers still only earn 78 cents to every dollar that a man makes (according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics). She explains that women are often surprised to learn that even in a developed nation, women are not offered equal pay. Tragically, women are often their own victims due to lack of awareness or poor confidence: they do not ask for what they deserve. To young women she says, “Knowledge is your power, always. Educate yourself, so when the time is right, you are able to negotiate and maneuver through these workplace challenges with confidence, strength, and wisdom.”
On Financial Literacy and Savings
Our conversation concluded with a discussion of the Stuart Institute for Finance and Economics through which financial literacy and economics are woven into the curriculum at all levels, beginning in junior kindergarten. We asked this powerful, confident advisor to nation states on economic policy, if she had any financial advice for our young women at Stuart. She says, “Oh my goodness, yes. I would advise all young people to become financially literate and financially savvy, from as early as your undergraduate years. It is so important to know up front a) how much income you need to generate to make you happy and comfortable, b) how much you want to save for your future, c) how much you might want to invest, if you do want to increase your savings, and d) how much you want to spend based on the lifestyle and priorities that make YOU happy.”
Priyanka speaking to Stuart students at Alumnae Career lunches.
To young women, in particular, she stressed the importance of being financially self-reliant as a means to maintaining freedom of choice. Connecting her life experiences, she says, “As part of The World Bank, whose mission is to end extreme poverty and promote shared prosperity, bringing income to the hands of women is critical. This has intrinsic value of gender equality, but is also key to ensuring women have a greater chance to freedom of mobility, freedom to choose whom they marry, freedom to start their own business, and freedom to live where they want--regardless of gender norms that might dictate otherwise. I would urge Stuart women to become financially self-reliant so you, too, always have this freedom of choice.”
Great advice for anyone at any age.