Pathways to Impact: Suhani Jalota

Conversations with data for social impact leaders on their career journeys

Suhani Jalota
Suhani Jalota

Pathways to Impact is a series of conversations with data for social impact leaders exploring their career journeys. Perry Hewitt, CMPO of, spoke with Suhani Jalota, founder of Myna Mahila Foundation. She spoke about her passion for increasing women’s agency through systemic change and strategic use of data.

What led you to do this work? What did that career path look like for you?

I grew up in very small towns in the state of Maharashtra India, and we moved about every two to three years. My childhood exposed me to some of the social challenges these semi-rural areas face, including people who were victims of floods and earthquakes or struggling as subsistence farmers. I didn’t fully process it at that time, but looking back I see the effect that my upbringing had on me. My father came from a low-income community in North India and worked his way up to become the most educated person in his family. He joined the government, where he has been serving now for almost 40 years. My mother has also been working at a large private corporation in India with their Corporate Social Responsibility wing for almost 20 years. As a result, dinner table conversations addressed India’s development and raised questions of why such stark inequalities persist.

During high school, I lived in Mumbai, a city where these inequalities are very evident. Near my high school, there were urban slum communities where people lacked access to toilets and many other necessities for a basic, dignified life. In these communities, it was common to see women being harassed on the long way to use a public toilet. Combined with child marriage and domestic abuse — there was widespread resignation to this treatment of women as the norm. I was about 14 or 15 years old and I was angry to see other girls and women around my age in these communities who had such a different life.

I was volunteering with a women’s self-help group called Mahila Milan when a woman came in crying. Her daughter had stopped eating, and she wanted me to convince her to eat. It turned out that she had told her daughter that she must choose between going to school or having food on the table. The daughter’s stance was that she would give up eating because she so desperately wanted to go to school.

It was an awful situation, but it was also inspiring. It made me think: there are people here who truly can create a change in their own lives, but they need systems to support them. I’ve seen countless women get discouraged after having stood up for themselves only to realize they have no support — and then they just give up.

I became engaged in activism through a range of projects — including building safer public toilets. Eventually, I came to see all these problems as systemic and requiring broader support. Before starting my undergraduate studies at Duke University, I began talking to these women a lot more to understand what kind of support would help.

Duke was the first place I’d ever been where there were such unbelievable resources and a mindset of abundance rather than scarcity. Considering what you could do with all the resources in the world was very different from thinking about how you survive and run something daily. Duke really shifted my mindset toward how to influence systems, and that eventually led to the founding of Myna Mahila.

Basic statistics showed that women were using multiple products at the same time, which told us that these women were probably not aware of the benefits of using a single product and how they should actually use it. We needed more data!

Suhani Jalota Suhani Jalota Founder Myna Mahila Foundation

Where did you start to see that data and bigger trends that you could observe? 

My first community projects were focused on research before shifting to implementation. Data is critical to understanding what’s happening systemically at the community level. Stories are compelling and inspiring, but the data helps us dimension and address the problems.

Looking at data we collected at the household level alongside national statistics showed us that most women in India have used sanitary napkins, for example. The problem was not the supply of sanitary products but that usage and education about these products were lacking. Basic statistics showed that women were using multiple products at the same time, which told us that these women were probably not aware of the benefits of using a single product and how they should actually use it. We needed more data! We created a vertical in our organization called Myna Research. Myna Research helps us to collect data and build public data sets that can then be used by other researchers. 

A lot of our focus has been on primary data collection, and over the years we’ve even run randomized control trials. That’s been very important. Now we’re exploring training data sets for AI models, and trying to create these public goods that are beneficial for communities while localizing them to specific use cases using their own data. 

Part of the Pathways to Impact series

Curated conversations with data science for social impact leaders on their career journeys

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What problem are you trying to solve with data? 

Our overall mission is to increase women’s agency so that they have more decision-making power by giving them financial independence and keeping them healthy. We recognize that health and employment really go hand in hand with increasing a woman’s overall agency. So today, we have three verticals: Myna Health, Myna Employ, and Myna Research. 

Determining how to measure the change in women’s lives is where data is extremely important. How do you measure women’s agency? How do you measure if a woman is actually healthy and how do you measure women’s financial independence, especially when much of the self-reported data may not be accurate? Those are some of the key metrics that we track, and we’ve been creating our measurement and evaluation strategies to capture those in ways traditional surveys may miss. 

Measuring women’s agency is not like measuring household income or labor force participation. It is much more subjective; it can be tailored for different communities differently and the standards may differ. To achieve this, we’ve been piloting different tools and developing our own tools. 

We use data to measure this in different ways. Within Myna Health, we’re trying to measure knowledge shifts around the sexual and reproductive health of women. We’re trying to shift women’s behavior and practices around sexual reproductive health including shifting their product use to be more effective. We need to measure changes in attitude shifts and behavior change around these issues. We have this new AI LLM bot that we’ve been working on where we are trying to shift women’s family planning practice, particularly to be able to use more contraceptive methods as needed, as well as to be able to space their births and understand the advantages and disadvantages of getting pregnant at different times. At the same time, we need to help women clear up misconceptions about women’s sexual and reproductive health.

It’s extremely important for us to create primary data sets to understand the basic misconceptions in these communities. Often these are oral traditions that have never been recorded anywhere. We have the ability to bring together a very diverse data set of voices, perceptions, and misconceptions that people have about their sexual reproductive health. 

This work links to the Challenge project with Microsoft and many of the people getting employed in roles providing these query and generation databases come from our initiative called RANI. Rani means queen in Hindi; we’re trying to develop these women to really build their own kingdom, earn money, and be financially independent.

With Myna Employ, we are now creating a database of workers, cataloging skill sets of women to potentially match with available local jobs. This aligns with work in Myna Research, where we are creating survey data sets where we’ve listed households to understand the basic demographic. This work acts as a census of the slum and slum resettlement communities and particularly focuses on women above the age of 18 who are employable, and we track these women over time. This research is especially helpful where secondary data sets are incomplete or problematic. 

What have been some of the blockers to your career progression? 

Gender and age matter. Early on, most of the people that I was dealing with were middle-aged men and they would not take me seriously. I started at 19. Now I am 29, but look younger and still constantly need to prove my credibility. 

One of the motivating factors to get two degrees at Stanford was to build credibility beyond the topic of gender and women. In India, if you’re working on a women’s topic, people just dismiss you immediately as a feminist who is focused on a charity cause. We need to point out that women’s issues are serious and affect the entire economy.

For example: Do you know we could increase our GDP by $700 billion by bringing 30% more women into the workforce? This has a real impact, and yet people are dismissive of women working on women’s topics. Closer to home, I was constantly told I’d never ‘find a guy’ if I got a PhD because then you have to find somebody who is more qualified than that. Luckily, my parents have been very supportive of my education and work. My mother is a complete rebel, and she has protected me from many of those attitudes. As for others, I’ve found ways to use them as motivation for my work!

Which community of people or resources bolsters your work? 

I have a great board of advisors at Myna Mahila. Right now we’re trying to tackle some structural questions about the organization: Should we branch off a vertical separately? Should we keep them under the same structure? 

For my own personal decisions, I consult what I refer to as my board of personal advisors; my parents play a big role there, as do other trusted friends and mentors.

I’ve been fortunate to have been a part of several leadership groups like Glamour or the Queen Young Leaders Program, Asia 21 fellows, and Knight Hennessy Scholars. They’ve all been really helpful in some ways, particularly the Baldwin Scholars at Duke and the Knight Hennessy Scholars at Stanford. The MIT Solve cohort also had a big impact. We won one of their challenges and they assigned us an executive coach, which was very helpful. 

For inspiration, I always turn to my girls and women — the women who taught me and welcomed me into their lives. If I’m questioning whether I should do something, I think about these women and ask if it could change their lives, and usually, my heart knows instinctively whether I should do it.

We have the ability to bring together a very diverse data set of voices, perceptions, and misconceptions that people have about their sexual reproductive health.

Suhani Jalota Suhani Jalota Founder Myna Mahila Foundation

Are there any other specific skills that have enabled your contribution to be able to lead a data-focused organization? 

Relationship management has been an important skill. For example, technology development at Myna Mahila has required skills in vendor management and building relationships because we hire product managers and work with separate teams of software developers, UX designers, and now ML engineers.

Getting into this more technical space within the organization helped me strengthen relationship management and know how to get products built within a timeline. My time at Stanford has also helped me develop this. But most importantly, our team in Mumbai is learning by doing every day. We have an excellent team who weren’t data experts to begin with but have slowly gained an incredible amount of knowledge in this space. This ability to upskill quickly, adapt to new technologies, and continue to learn has helped us get to where we are.

A lot of success comes down to people management skills, relationship-building skills, and being able to think about the big picture while managing the everyday day to day. We are able to ensure that the fires every day aren’t overshadowing what’s really important to accomplish by certain milestones.

If you met someone new who’s interested in doing data for social impact work, how would you get them started?

I think the key is finding the right fit to get them started. Which problems do you want to solve and how do your skills realistically match up with the need?

At Myna Mahila, we get a lot of outreach from people interested in the work we do, and many of them are remote. We try to identify opportunities to match skills: for example, we have a list of technical challenges, and then we try to assign them based on their interests and their skills. 

Some of that support has been mentorship and coaching. We’ve had good experience with coaching that upskills the team on the field so we can take it forward even when the volunteer is not involved anymore. 

What do you see as the next big thing?

The key right now is figuring out how technology is actually used by first-time online users, by people who currently don’t know how to interact with it. 

GPT-4, for instance, is well utilized by only a very small fraction of the world, and there is huge value in unlocking the benefits of the existing technology to the broader community. I don’t see this as a technical challenge alone; it’s more a challenge of understanding how people think and behave with technology. It’s more of a human-computer interaction (HCI) problem to really resolve. We need to determine what the technology brings that can be beneficial and how we then create further applications that can really help people engage. I can’t predict new technology over the next two years, but what’s going to be exponentially beneficial is figuring out ways of disseminating this to people in a way that maximizes its benefit.

What’s your don’t miss daily or weekly read? What keeps you current on data for social impact? 

There’s no single source! I draw from many WhatsApp groups: We have a lot of these Stanford GSB entrepreneurs groups where people are constantly asking a lot of good questions. That keeps me up to date as to what types of things people are still concerned about or if is everyone having struggles with hiring right now. 

LinkedIn is my place to go for grant applications — because we are constantly fundraising — and to see new projects that people have launched or come up with. There’s a lot of activity in this sector — and always a lot to learn.


Pathways to Impact

This series interviews leaders in Data Science for Social Impact with a lens of how they got there, as well as the skills and experiences that have fueled their career progression.

See all Pathways to Impact