My career taught me to engage in and focus on meaningful work: Deepa Menon, Founder Head, PVR Nest
In a conversation with HerStory, Deepa Menon, Founder Head of PVR Nest, talks about the work the organisation has done during COVID-19, why it is focusing on women and children, and her personal learnings from the pandemic.
Friday February 18, 2022,
8 min Read
Deepa Menon is the Founder Head of PVR Nest, a CSR initiative focused on promoting education, healthcare, nutrition, and at-risk children’s rehab in urban areas.
She began her career with Katha, and went on to work with Heinrich Boll Foundation. She also worked with the US Aid Agency for a year as a senior program associate. She has been a part of PVR since 2006 and has helped grow and strengthen the company’s CSR initiatives.
In a conversation with HerStory, Deepa talks about the work PVR has done during COVID-19, the growth the organisation has seen, and her many learnings from her career.
HerStory (HS): Tell us about your early life and background.
Deepa Menon (DM): Growing up, I was privileged to travel across the country because my father was in the air force. This experience gave me a unique perspective as I was able to interact with people from varied backgrounds and cultures.
My family is a big part of my life and has made me who I am today. I have to begin with my father because he has always been my inspiration and is the most grounded person I know – he is a gallantry awardee in the air force and, at 80 years now, continues to work for the welfare of the community.
My mother modelled humility and kept me on my toes. At the same time, she taught me to face every challenge by keeping my chin up. The support I receive from my father, husband, daughter, sister, son, and nephew keep me going
HS: Tell us about your journey from an NGO to the corporate world.
DM: I come from a time when skills and career paths weren’t clear or discussed widely; this made us all quite vulnerable. However, this gave me an opportunity to learn experientially. I must say my first job with a non-profit organisation was not planned, but it turned out to be the beginning of a journey of acquiring skills and knowledge.
In my initial years, my vulnerability was evident, especially because I was not from the field. But this opportunity helped me develop resilience and the desire to learn from everybody, especially the community I worked with.
The field had many inspirational people, and rubbing shoulders with them helped me grow. I was also gifted with amazing mentors – Geeta Akka at Katha and Mukul Sharma, from Ashoka University, who provided me with insights and context to the sector.
These experiences led me to step into the larger corporate world as Manager - CSR at PVR, which was a dream come true! The CSR management committee included Ajay Bijli, Sanjeev Kumar Bijli, and Gautam Dutta, and they liked my work, passion, and commitment. They asked me to launch their - and my - first CSR campaign.
They were actively involving me to take on other organisational responsibilities to get a better understanding of the company. It was a new world for me.
HS: Tell us about your PVR journey and the different things done there?
DM: My journey at PVR has been nothing short of a dream. However, it has been extremely competitive for me to get where I am. One of the best things about my role is to have gotten to know the amazing Bijli family.
Every member is unique. But at their core, they are extremely philanthropic – this has made me cherish these relationships and my role at PVR.
Everything significant I learnt professionally, I learnt at PVR – my space, identity, and trusteeship. The directive of the management is to work for issues that matter to the company. It is very humbling to think back on where it all began and the present form the work has taken.
The management always believed in empowering the disadvantaged, especially women and children. We have a range of programmes run to support them. Suraksha Centres, our flagship programme, provide a safety net to communities, women, and children by providing health and nutrition programmes for women, drop-in centres for children, and sanitation services for women and the community.
HS: What kind of work was PVR Nest involved in pre-COVID? How have things changed?
DM: Our focus since the beginning has been on creating safe spaces in the city and making them accessible to women and children. For this, pre-COVID, we were engaged in a lot of activities that ensured safety to vulnerable sections of society.
We used to engage directly with the community, understand challenges in their day-to-day lives, and address them accordingly.
The activities we do now are largely focused on filling the gaps widened by the COVID pandemic with a special focus on health, hygiene, education, communication, and awareness around the same.
These include Aanchal Childscapes, which provide care and protection to children; child-friendly railway stations, operated with an aim to ensure child rescue, safety and rehabilitation; and Pink Toilets, which uphold a woman’s right to safe sanitation.
These initiatives have helped women and children access safe spaces, leading to their overall empowerment.
HS: What has been the impact of the pandemic? How are you working around that?
DM: Cinemas were the first to be closed by the government and the last ones to open during the pandemic. However, PVR went ahead to ensure that cinemas are safe in every possible way, for both guests and staff.
Through an inclusive COVID Care Package under the PVR Cares programme, PVR not only aided its own employees but also supported the film fraternity by providing free vaccination to marginalised daily wage workers such as spot boys, light men etc. who were registered with the Federation of Western India Cine Employees (FWICE).
Various PVR Nest initiatives were hampered by the lockdowns and restrictions, but this brought awareness of evolving needs and how we could help. We used the time for reskilling, reworking, and re-strategising.
We conducted a series of online meetings with various government departments, deputy commissioners of Municipal Corporation of Delhi, and organisations such as UN Women, UNICEF India, Swachh Bharat Mission, Department of Women & Child Development, National Commission for Protection of Child Rights etc.
In association with the Delhi Government, we contributed to programmes like Paalan, designed to provide safety to children impacted by the COVID pandemic. Recently, we also launched #YouForYouth campaign, a platform for youth to share their ideas of a safer future.
HS: What shifts did you make?
DM: To prevent the spread of COVID, the need of the hour was to provide safe, clean, and hygienic sanitation spaces to women and children.
We earlier had just four Pink Toilets, but we added 16 more safe centres to this list. We ensured that COVID-appropriate behaviour was followed by users and staff at Pink Toilets. We also equipped the staff with sanitisers, thermal scanners, etc. Several capacity-building workshops for staff on leadership, self-defence, menstrual hygiene, etc. were held, to empower them and develop their personality.
The pandemic highlighted the importance awareness and information can play in the community. Due to a lack of information, many people were reluctant about taking vaccines. To address this, we made active use of social media to reach out to people. Not just vaccine awareness, we now use our social media for education-linked communication on several issues through campaigns and initiatives like SDG Expressions.
HS: Why these specific initiatives? How do they help?
DM: The majority of PVR Nest’s programmes are women-centric because we believe that women are the most vulnerable sections of society. They face a range of issues in their day-to-day lives - not just inside their homes, but also in public spaces. Lack of access to safe and clean toilet spaces is one of the most common; this needs to be addressed as it affects a woman’s health in many ways.
Our Pink Toilets programme, which is being run across Delhi in association with the MCD, addresses these challenges. These centres are much more than toilets; they are multi-utility facilities run by women, for women and children.
We conduct meetings and on-ground surveys to get feedback and know the impact our programmes are having on society.
HS: Tell us about your personal learnings from the pandemic.
DM: The pandemic, unprecedented as it is, has taught me to work in adversity. Professionally, although a lot has changed, as a leader you continue to provide direction and a vision that factors in and addresses evolving needs and changes in the world around you – this remains constant.
One of the lessons I have learnt is that the highest points teach you that success is always being backed by the lowest points (the challenging times we face). This has been true in my career. It’s the best way to face your lowest points - recognise that what is important is what you learn and what it makes you.
HS: How do you deal with conscious and unconscious biases? What advice would you give women leaders?
DM: As human beings, we are all plagued with biases. It’s important to identify and work on erasing them, and resolve to positively develop ourselves and the people we cross paths with.
As a woman leader and as one who works to empower women, I believe every woman needs to work towards staying independent always. If there is one thing I have learnt in my career, it is to constantly stay engaged in and focused on meaningful work, and I will continue doing that.
Edited by Teja Lele