Dr. Geetha Murali, CEO of Room to Read
Meet Dr. Geetha Murali, biostatistician turned non-profit executive. Geetha is CEO of Room to Read, a leading non-profit transforming the lives of millions of children in low-income countries by focusing on literacy and gender equality in education. Under her leadership, Room to Read is working to solve illiteracy and gender inequality in education in our lifetimes. Geetha has made waves in the non-profit sector with her determination, dedication, and passion. She is truly a trailblazer in every sense of the word. Her story reminds us all of the power of making an impact in everything we do.
“I’m an only child and was born in New York City. My mom had me when she was 38 and my dad was in his 40s, which at the time was on the older side for Indian parents to have kids. But that’s not surprising, as my mom has always been a bit of a revolutionary. Her family had a tradition of early marriage – my grandmothers were married by 2 and 14, but my mom refused to get married too soon. She graduated high school at a young age and was pushed to get married but resisted. Instead, she eventually joined the Indian army and trained as a nurse, paving the way for her to move to the US and support the education of my aunts and other family members. Over time, her family assumed she would never get married, but she got married at 32 in an apartment in New York with shlokas playing on a tape recorder!
I grew up between the East Coast and India. I went back to India in the middle of my childhood and learned to speak Tamil fluently there. I then came back and finished high school and college in the states. I grew up learning Bharatanatyam as well and performed my arangetram when I was 12. Dance has always been a large part of my life. I performed for Aretha Franklin’s birthday and was on my college bhangra team. To this day I still dance when I can and enjoy garbas and Bollywood parties!”
“My mom put herself through school to become a statistician while doing night duty as a nurse. Her background was all math and statistics, so she raised me to have an affinity for math. I knew my multiplication tables at the age of three and went all the way through school with math being pretty easy for me – it became a given. My mom’s background meant that education meant everything to her and that thinking really became the foundation of my life from an extremely young age.
I skipped 1st grade and finished college in three years. At the end of those college years, I found myself at the age of 22 with my master’s degree and a great job as a statistician. However, I hadn’t been exposed to other options besides math and statistics. I knew I was good at math and statistics, so those were the classes I took and the career I prepared for.
When I finished my master’s degree, I got married. Even though my mom had fiercely resisted her early marriage, my larger family still had pretty traditional views around marriage – don’t wait too long! My community tried to set me up with guys once I graduated high school, but I resisted, feeling I was too young and not ready. However, when I started college, I met the guy who would eventually become my husband. He was also quite resistant to the arranged marriage process, but our families ended up meeting each other and connected well. We stayed in touch throughout my college years, and through our collective resistance, saw common ground and got married 4 years later!”
From Statistics to Social Impact
“I never had specific ambitions about leading an organization. To be completely honest, when I was young, I didn’t even know that being the CEO of a non-profit was a job to aspire to.”
“After getting my master’s and starting a job at a pharmaceuticals company, I got a good sense of what a career trajectory in statistics would look like. I kept asking myself if I really wanted to do this for 45 more years, and I realized I wanted something different for my life.
I was living near Berkeley at the time, so I pursued classes in South Asian studies and ended up turning that interest into a completely new graduate career. It was exciting to see how my skill sets in data and statistics could be used in the social sector, and I started working with election data in India and voter surveys to observe what communities seek around the world. As I came to a decision between pursuing academia or another path, I realized that the organizations I had the most respect for were community organizations that were trying to help uplift society. That started my exploration into the non-profit world.
Through a colleague at one of my past jobs, I was introduced to Erin Ganju, co-founder and former CEO of Room to Read. Erin then introduced me to the American India Foundation (AIF), which happened to be funding Room to Read’s expansion in India.
“I started out as a volunteer at AIF, transitioned to a paid consulting position and then to a full-time program officer position. As I progressed at AIF, I had an itch to work more globally at scale. At the same time, I also wasn’t 100% sure I could fully use my skillset or get the job satisfaction that I was seeking in the non-profit space.
So, I spent a couple of years doing other things – I taught at Mills College and joined the founding team of a startup (it is Silicon Valley after all!) as I figured out what I really wanted to do. Room to Read was expanding their organization significantly, so it felt like a good time to jump in. I started out working on corporate and foundation partnerships, moving up to lead the revenue and marketing functions for the organization and ultimately created a long-term career.
I never had specific ambitions about leading an organization. To be completely honest, when I was young, I didn’t even know that being the CEO of a non-profit was a job to aspire to. But this is where I am now, and where I want to be. Looking back, I think it’s incredibly important to build functional competencies. Once you have cultivated marketable skills and you can apply them, more opportunities and choices emerge for your future. That was the lesson I learned as I built my career.”
Integrating Work and Family
“I had my first child in 2004. It felt like the right moment for me, as I was just finishing my dissertation and had a little flexibility between school and my next job. After having my son, I went through a personal struggle around whether I should have my second child biologically or through adoption. Through my work, I’d seen so many children already in this world without parents to guide and nourish them, which really made a lasting impression on me.
I ended up taking my family through a journey towards adopting our second child. It took us three years, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that we needed to do this. That’s how our family was formed. My son is 14 and my daughter is 9 and adopting her is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
As far as work-family balance, all South Asian families handle this differently. My family is a special combination of traditional and modern. My in-laws and my mother live with us, so we are a family of 7 right now. The seniors 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’m not sure that I would define my approach as seeking balance, but I subscribe to the notion that building a fulfilling life is about setting your boundaries. You’ll realize what’s really important to you, and you’ll find the time and headspace to focus on it. That’s the way I’ve managed my life. 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 definitely been a collective journey that my family is experiencing with me.”
Lessons from a CEO
“I’m very empathetic to my parent’s generation and the decisions they made around my life and the foundation of our family. They were extremely focused on my future, especially in relation to education because they knew what hardships I might face without an education. I had a charted path and their focus on my future governed every decision I made. My parents didn’t come to the States with a lot of money, so there was a constant fear of what would happen if we lost our ability to support ourselves. Now with my own kids and today’s changing landscape, I’m more concerned with equipping them with the hard and soft skills they need to assess and take advantage of all their opportunities, instead of charting a path right now or worrying about a specific career. I think about their current moment and current experience. I had no idea that my life would turn out this way, so I know firsthand that being resilient is about adapting to the environment and maximizing your potential along the way. Don’t lock yourself in!”
ON GENDER DIVERSITY AT WORK…
“Room to Read has done a really good job of ensuring diversity across the management team. We continue to evolve towards a similar range of voices at the board level too. I believe that the only way to make workplaces and spaces relevant to all individuals is to put diverse individuals in decision-making roles. The culture and direction of the organization has to be shaped by different perspectives. My transition to CEO is an example of that belief.”
On BEING A CEO…
“When you’re a CEO, you achieve a true recognition of the phrase, ‘the buck stops with you.’ You are accountable for the entire direction of an organization, its successes and challenges, its impact and its people. To truly feel that responsibility and wake up every day knowing you owe the organization your best because of it, is quite a different perspective from other positions I have held. I’ve always found myself to be a fairly flexible contributor, but as a CEO, you are jumping between entrepreneur, implementer, and relationship builder in a way that’s not as predictable.”
ON GENERATIONAL GAPS…
“You’ve got to live your own life and be you. But at the same time, the best way I’ve found in addressing the gap is with a level of empathy for why the generation before you sees the world the way they do. With empathy, understanding and communication, the ground will soften over time.”
ON PURSUING A CAREER IN NON-PROFITS…
“Look at it seriously and as a long-term career. Sometimes, there’s a perception that the non-profit sector is somewhere you go if you want to slow down as if it requires less professionalism or drive than a for-profit job. I would instead encourage you to look at it as a career that you can give your all to. We run Room to Read as a full-fledged multinational organization with 25 legal entities operating in 19 currencies. We must hire the best talent and manage our work with incredible professionalism to pursue this mission with credibility.”