Our podcast: Authentic Leadership. Episode 4 - Authenticity and resilience: "You don't want rage to define you"

Head of BBC India Rupa Jha on believing in yourself and knowing when to pick your battles
30th May 2023

In this episode of our Authentic Leadership podcast series we hear from a senior editor in India on how her upbringing led her to find the resilience and self-confidence to progress in challenging newsroom environments. 

The speakers

Host: Ramaa Sharma is an award-winning Digital Leader, Consultant and Executive Coach. Until recently she was the Senior Digital Editor in BBC News, driving digital transformation across the division of 8,000 journalists. She also worked with the BBC News Board to help facilitate a more diverse and inclusive newsroom. Prior to that Ramaa spent a decade of her career presenting and reporting across multiple BBC platforms, before moving into digital leadership. At the World Service, Ramaa pioneered the first ever digital leadership and social media courses for editors and executives on the World Service Board. In her time Ramaa also edited a number of award winning editorial and digital projects.

Speaker: Rupa Jha was born and raised in India and is a highly accomplished journalist and media leader. Rupa is currently the Head of India for BBC News, leading more than 250 journalists operating in seven different languages. She has also worked as the executive editor for BBC Media Action in Nigeria, the broadcaster's international development charity. 

The podcast

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The transcript

Unconfident beginnings | Believing in yourself | Finding resilience | Choosing battles as a woman | Processing rage | Controlling your own narrative

Unconfident beginnings 

Ramaa: You're the woman at the helm of a very big operation, the BBC's biggest [overseas] operation. I should say right now, there's a lot more women leaders in the Bureau than there were at the start. Tell us a little bit about those early days at first what was it like when you started?

Rupa: So I, I'm an accidental journalist to be honest, I never planned to be one. But I was always interested in media. I'm born and brought up in India. And as you know, Ramaa, having your own Indian connection, and having lived here, that it's not easy to be a professional woman in India. It has become a lot better. But when I started, like almost two decades back, it was a very different scene at that moment. And when I joined the BBC, which is a dream organisation, especially for someone like me, who comes from a region in India, where the BBC stood for everything that one can imagine, trust, credibility, news, and the BBC as a brand is still highly respected.I joined under a woman leader, which again was a coincidence, because generally you don't find newsrooms in India even today led by women, let alone 20 years back. At that time in 2001, the BBC in India was a very small operation, a tiny office we had.

My initial kind of, you know, starting as a journalist in BBC, had its own hiccups. I was not very sure, I felt that I was not meant to be here. And I think it came from the fact that women in general are made to believe that you're not good enough to be there. And it is that unconditional training that we give ourselves that we are not so good. And I suffered from that, you know, I suffered from that lack of confidence, lack of belief, that, ‘okay,  for me to become a journalist, to be a journalist, I don't need a degree’. And the BBC never asked for a degree, you know, like that, whether you have studied journalism or not, which I really loved. And I was not a student of journalism, I was doing history, and I did law. But all my colleagues, most of them had come from, you know, a journalism background, they were television stars. So I actually started on an extremely weak front, I would say I was not feeling confident at all. And then I had to come to London, which is again a big cultural shift. But yes, I really can't complain, it has been a great learning experience. And when I look back, I really feel extremely happy for the organisation that it gave me the space to grow and nurture myself, for the kind of people that I met, who helped me become what I am. And I love my current self. I feel that, you know, it has been very fruitful and I'm full of gratitude. So it has been a very exciting journey, to say the least.

Ramaa: So at some stage, clearly, your confidence must have grown. So I'm kind of interested in what helped you grow in confidence. And also tell me a little bit about the barriers that you faced.

Rupa: So as a journalist, as a woman journalist in the BBC, though I must tell you, which you already know, since you worked with the BBC and we worked together, that it is a kind of a bubble that we operate in, than, you know, what we see outside in the world. And that's why it is one of the best places for women in India to work, I feel, because it is a different kind of organisation and gives you that space. Having said that, my initial thing was, again, as I said, I didn't feel that I'm good enough. And I, well, I'll be honest, I was also made to feel that I'm ‘less’ by my various colleagues. And it so happens that it was not done intentionally. So my initial hardship was, again, making people believe that I deserve to be here. Because a set of people hire you and then you have a different set of people with whom you work. So that whole process, I had a different take on news. I have a very different personality as a journalist. I'm not one of those rough and tough, you know, that you want, a news person, journalist. Even today, they are seen with a certain prism. There's a soft news approach, there's a hard news approach. So the whole orientation towards news also has changed. And at that time, it was all about, you are a good journalist, or you are a journalist of any worth, if you really do these big geopolitical stories, so on and so forth. So I think my initial hardship was about acceptance, that I am good to be here, and I deserve to be here.

Then my second bit was that, you know, ‘oh, am I capable to do hard journalism? Do I understand it enough? Do I have the political acumen?’ Because, you know, if you are a journalist, you are only worth it if you understand the geopolitics, as I said. Doing journalism with a small ‘j’, which I really think is extremely important, because, you know, we need to understand what news stands for. And that's why women in general in news, as consumers also, we have a very limited number of women coming to us, because we don't use keeping women in mind. It's all very macho, very manly. And I was kind of an antidote to that. So I think those were my initial things, I'll say Ramaa. ‘Believe in myself, then making people believe in me’; acceptance that I was different from the lot that was working, and that my interest areas were no less important than others' interest areas. So those were the initial obstacles, as I say, in my journey.

Believing in yourself 

Ramaa: Yes, because by the time I met you, were a very established leader and well respected. So I'm thinking about that gap between the work of gaining that acceptance and acceptance of oneself. How did you do that?

Rupa: So I think I had to first tell myself, I had to work on myself. I had to believe that this has happened, this golden opportunity, which might not come to many people has come to me, and I want to make the most of it. I don't want to let go of it. I don't want others to make me feel lesser of myself. So I started working on myself, I think, and it didn’t come easy, because there's a lot of difficulty, you, you try your heart out. I was, I was newly married, I left my husband back in India, shifted to London. It was a complete cultural shock to me. It was my, you know, first time ever in UK. And then, you know, at that time, the BBC was operating from Bush House, it had, it had its own aura. The BBC comes with, it is an intimidating brand to that extent, you know, for a newcomer, that you might go ‘what if I fail myself?’. So I think that transformation happens slowly. But what I really loved about this place, was that there were people who could see what you're made up of, and they believed in you. When I started believing in myself and pushing myself, not letting what people thought of me affect me too much. Of course, it did. But then I, I kind of, I worked through it, I waded through that. And slowly and surely people started, you know, taking notice of me, my work, and what value was I bringing to the table. The differentiated approach that I brought to news, the way I approached the story, or the way I presented it, all of it started getting counted, which gave me confidence. And then I started being more confident. And I also started learning quite a bit.

So I'll tell you at that time, BBC Radio Hindi was really the big platform. Now we have become very digital focused. At that time, it was radio, and then it was online. And I was one of the presenters. I wanted to be so good. And I think hard work really pays. And it did pay in my case, I think, that I used to go back home, or wherever I lived in a hostel, later on in a home, I used to listen back to my programmes, I used to take a lot of feedback. So I think anybody would do that, right? It's not about me being a woman journalist, but I think I had to work harder to get that acceptance. And when I started proving myself in the workspace, and with my attitude of learning and then not getting offended very quickly, not easily, not allowing myself… let people say whatever they want to say, but I'm here and I want to make it count. Slowly, I started gaining the confidence of my peers, of my editors. And yeah, so I think the key factor is how much you believe in yourself.

Finding resilience 

Ramaa: I mean, it sounds like you did a lot of work as well. And, and, you know, you talk very casually about the tears and, you know, the hard work and, and the resilience. I'm wondering where that comes from.

Rupa: I think being a woman, especially anywhere, you know, anywhere in this world, being a woman brings that resilience to you. And when you are in India, from a place which is… I come from Bihar, which is one of the poorest state and you know, you, you grow up, I grew up in a very, very modest family. And then it has been a journey of living with less, always ending for yourself. Whether you're studying in college, so, you know, doing extra work to earn some money. Many people do that. I'm not, I'm not an exception.

I think that resilience comes from your circumstances where you're born, you know, your immediate circumstances, to when you know that when you want to dream big, when you are ambitious, when you have aspirations, then you know that it is not going to come on a silver platter, because it's not. You have to really work hard for it and you have to really make it count. So that resilience came because I didn't want to give up. Because I knew that this is a very important opportunity for me to break that cycle where you could be just married off, because you're not doing anything else or you could be just doing something where your heart doesn't lie. And I loved the idea of being a storyteller. I love being on air. I love being, you know, working on stories. I love being a broadcast journalist. I think that love for the profession and that ambition to be there and not let anything come in my way gave me that resilience. I think it came from there. I've seen most of the women very resilient. So, I guess my gender really acted favourably for me to give me that.

Ramaa: I mean, it's funny you say that, because one of my big takeaways from my time in India was how extraordinarily resilient the women were. And that came from a place of… I grew up in England and of course there's sexism and racism and what have you. But when I went to India, I actually had a lot of sexism from everywhere whether inside or outside the office. And it would affect me and I would look at the women around me and it didn't affect them. It would sort of be like water off a duck's back for all the other women. Whereas if I was like aggrieved by what would, you know, you might call the microaggressions or, you know, things that would be a kind of bigger deal in the UK, say, but weren't in India because unfortunately they're so common and they're so insidious. And, you know, I remember you saying to me is that when you've kind of experienced that your whole life since you were a small child, you know, you're kind of hardened to it.

Rupa: Yeah, you're right, Ramaa. And I think that this is the change that I'm seeing now being in this organisation, working as a woman leader, that how much we gave in as a woman in newsrooms, not only about the BBC, but in general as a woman, you just used to kind of, you know, we used to think, ‘okay, just leave it. It's okay. No, this is how it is.’ As time has gone by, I've seen and I'm so proud to see that young women, how much they have stopped taking this kind of shit. They have started saying no. They said, as you were saying at that time, that ‘no, this is not okay’. I think the environment that I grew up, I saw my mother not saying ‘no’. I saw my, you know, like a lot of women that I saw in my circumstances not saying ‘no’ and just kind of getting on with business, getting things done, getting on with business.

And I'm not at all saying that was the right approach, but because you just have so little time for things to get done and you just want to get on to something  new, you don't want to deal with that. And you feel that, ‘okay, fine I'm going to rise above it and prove myself’. But I am very glad that now I see my colleagues, my juniors here and casual sexism or sexism at workplaces is still quite rampant. It could be a little bit more hidden now, but they take issues and they raise it. And that has been the learning, that has been the journey for women in general. I think in my, when I was very young and I remember, as I said, I saw my mother who got married at the age of 13 and then had six children, though I grew up in a very liberal family, a very supportive father, but at least father was the power centre for everything that happened. When I faced, you know, severe sexual abuse as a child, I remember how much it was about, ‘okay, let's move on’. Of course, people were, you know, my near and dear ones were very concerned and all of it, but it was like, ‘okay, now it's okay. It happens with most of the girls at that age’. And when you grow up, you realise that that is so true. You start talking to anyone and you hear those stories. But we never find the closure because it's always about ‘just move on. It's okay. It's fine’. And that toughens you up, definitely, but it also makes you angry inside.

When I look back now, when I kind of think through it, I remember the moment where I became extremely angry about why I was always ‘let's move on, let's move on’. It's great to be resilient, but it's also very important to start saying ‘no’ to things and to kind of put a full stop in any sphere of life that you are, whether at home or at work as a team leader. Now I am a newsroom leader and I know that it comes with the power and power transcends all kind of gender divisions,  class division. But when I was not, and I think I let go of a lot of things which I'm not very proud of. If I were a 20 year old now, I would definitely behave differently and negotiate my space differently. But yeah, it has been a learning journey and I think all of it has made me the kind of person that I am. I feel extremely empowered now. I feel very confident now. So I think all of it has added to my experience of learning in that sense.

Choosing your battles as a woman 

Ramaa: Yeah, but you know, you shared something really personal and affecting and you're also talking about a different time, right? Like I was thinking about why were some women not, as you said, calling things out or moving on from things. And, despite being in England, I've very much come from the same culture, right, where my family's concerned. It also struck me that women have to make the choice about which battles they pick and how much energy they have in the day. Because I remember my time in Delhi, if I had stopped every single thing or had to, you know, call out everything, A, nothing else would get done and B, I'd be just utterly exhausted. So there is some of that at play as well.

Rupa: Absolutely. I mean, that's what I said that, you know, there's so much on your plate and you think, ‘okay, fine, let it be, let's move on’. Because you want to preserve your energy for things that are extremely important to you. And yes, calling out sexism and calling out things which are not right is extremely important. But sometimes it's just so much that's coming on to you that you just want to duck or you just want to forget and you just want to move on. Every time you pick up a battle, it also wears you down. It also affects you. It's trauma that you live through. And yeah, I agree with you that sometimes you just choose to move and leave it, not pick up that battle.

Ramaa: Like you said, now as a leader, you've got more power, more responsibility, and you're empowering your team to call out things and they are feeling that they can too. So we've kind of moved on in society. Well, hopefully it's a lot less and we've not having to make those kind of choices that perhaps we did 10 years ago.

Rupa: Absolutely. Just one point on this, because this is so crucial that it is also about what is the system that is available for you to fall back on? What is the support that you get? And clearly so, when I was growing up as a young journalist, not only the way society was, but, you know, we also internalised a lot of things and there wasn't so much awareness, proactiveness about dealing with it, which there is now. And in that sense, I guess the support that our women colleagues have right now is much, much, much better within organisations, outside organisations. I think as a society, as a community, we have really moved on and it had to happen with time.

Processing rage 

Ramaa: Yeah, and that is a relief. We still hear instances all over the world of racism and sexism, classism, you know, all sorts of things that are still happening. And it makes me think about this question of rage. You know, you talked about being angry. How have you processed your rage over the years?

Rupa: Oh my God, what a lovely question and it just made me pause. I don't know if I have been, I'll be honest about it. Sometimes I do just because you want to achieve something else in your life. You don't want your rage to be destructive. You don't want your rage, you don't want rage to define you. You want to forgive, forget and move on. Because there's a lot of beauty and strength in doing that. Because after all, it's just one life and you decide what you want to make of it. So, I've realised in my own journey that just holding on to a lot of rage and bitterness and not finding closure of various things within, made me more miserable. Made me more… I didn't like myself in that phase. And therefore, I thought that it is important that I do find that courage from within. I do find that dialogue with my rage that ‘will it make me feel better?’. I mean, I don't want to be a person who's always angry, who cannot see beyond this rage. And I made that choice of not being that person. And I'm glad that I did. Because I have a daughter now, she's 15. And I think if I were just holding on to that rage and that anger, which is important, I mean, I'm not saying for a second that ‘don't have that fire, don't have that rage within’, but it has to be of a balanced approach.

You cannot let that fire or rage burn you down, make you extremely bitter. It's very important that you move on without being timid about it, but trying to negotiate with that rage and come out in a way like winning over that rage. So, finding one's closure is very important. When you talk about your trauma, when you share it, when you write about it, I think I use my journalism to find a way out of my rage, whether it's against the kind of society that I live in. And I find that extremely upsetting, the kind of inequality we have, the kind of gender discrimination, the kind of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and all of it, it comes when you see that. And when you find a way through your journalism to deal with that, it's a beautiful way of dealing with it. And I think I have used that as a tool to kind of come out of that and be at peace.

Controlling your own narrative 

Ramaa: I was going to say it felt like when you wrote about your experiences that you've shared on the podcast and, and that that gave you a lot of power to own your own narrative and your own story. I really saw that. And it also reminds me of a quote, I think it's Brené Brown that talks about that, ‘when you talk about something, there's no shame in it anymore’. Whereas if we keep things hidden, it festers a lot of shame and rage and self-doubt, self hatred.

Rupa: Absolutely, I think, so beautifully you have put it, and you've quoted it, I wanted to say that. To the point that you hide it, you don't talk about it, you are giving the power to someone else to make you feel ashamed of that, to make you feel less about that. The moment you own it up, and you decide to come out of it, you just feel very liberated. And you just feel extremely in control of your own self, of your own narrative, of your own story. And I, I think it's very important that we be the core to the story, we don't let anything or anyone else become the core to our stories. And I always believed in it, that I will hold the narrative of what I am and who I am and what I want to be. And being authentic is extremely important. I know that this whole conversation is around that authentic leadership. I think that has really been the core to what I always believed in, that what kind of leaders inspire me and authenticity came as the top virtue, the top quality that I look for. And I always felt that, there's no two ways about this particular aspect of leadership or a personality, that you be real, you be authentic. And that is so beautiful. That is also very endearing. It also connects you to your audiences and to your team, to your surrounding, to your family. I think that's extremely important.

Ramaa: Well, it feels like, a perfect place to end our conversation. Rupa, thank you so much for being so open and honest and authentic with us today. And we look forward to catching up with you soon in the future.

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