New York Woman Empowers Over 100 High School Girls Through Mentorship

Daily Point of Light # 6745 Apr 1, 2020
Hetal Jani Daily Point of Light Award Honoree 6745
Hetal Jani, Founder of SPEAKHIRE, works to provide a network of mentors to disconnected students./Courtesy Nilaya Sabnis for L’Oreal Paris USA

Meet Daily Point of Light Award honoree Hetal Jani, who was a 2019 L’Oréal Paris Women of Worth Award. Each year L’Oréal Paris and Points of Light recognize and celebrate Women of Worth who make a beautiful difference in their communities. Ten honorees each receive a $10,000 grant to support their most cherished cause, and an online vote determines one honoree who will receive an additional $25,000 grant. Nominations for 2020 will open on April 20! If you know a woman who works to create lasting and significant change in her community, nominate her to be one of the 2020 Women of Worth.

For almost five years, Hetal Jani has been working tirelessly to support high school students most in need of support. Her nonprofit SPEAKHIRE works to provide a network of mentors to disconnected students, typically girls who are from immigrant families and marginalized communities. SPEAKHIRE, which stands for Support Prepare Empower Aspiring Kids, connects participating students to professionals around the world who provide them virtual mentorship and career advice.

As the Founder and Executive Director, Hetal has helped over 100 girls so far, all of whom are in high school. Because it is a virtual program, SPEAKHIRE has been able to reach students from New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and is looking to start supporting students in Washington and Texas. The mentors themselves work in fields including law, education, STEM, health sciences, arts, entertainment and lifestyle. The goal is to provide the students with the skills and confidence they need to succeed not just in high school, but when they enter the workforce as well.

Describe what SPEAKHIRE does.

We connect the most disconnected students — so typically students from immigrant families and marginalized communities — to visible role models using technology. This allows them to have the access to not just the network, but also the information that they need, and then develop the skills they need to get ahead not just in high school but beyond high school. We think that is critical because we know this particular population of youth are expected to be the majority of the work force in just a few years, so we’re preparing them for the work force.

What inspired you to start this organization?

A number of different things that happened personally, but then also secondary through friends and others that I know. This one moment that had me reflect on all that was when I was working with a student in terms of academic support. I had been working with her for four years and she was an academically stellar student, brilliant by all means. Part of the work that I always try to do with students is make sure they’re independent, so she had accepted a long essay assignment on her own soon after entering middle school. She was only 12 at the time. She got a not terrible score. It was around an 80 something. After four years, I had never met her father, but he came and he relayed his disappointment. He was disappointed to a level where he ended up threatening her at the age of 12 with being sent to their home country to get married, which I thought was incredibly drastic. It was just a harsh response to something that was a good score. It was one of the top scores in the class, but she was devastated. She relayed to me that no matter what she did, because she was a girl, it felt like she was never good enough, and she had to be perfect in order for her to be good enough. Her mother came the next day. I am of East Indian descent, so she told me because of our cultural similarities, I should be able to understand where she’s coming from and that in her household, she can’t speak up for her daughter. That’s where I started thinking about it — are women in America from marginalized communities and marginalized cultures still facing a lot of the same barriers that they’re facing in their countries of origin, simply as a result of them being women?

Can you describe what the different programs SPEAK offers?

One of our main programs is called our Foundational Year. Through that, we take the girls — and then we also now incorporate boys — to mentor under three different professionals. It is virtual mentoring. The intention there is that three different professionals are matched in careers of interest for the students so they can get the exposure. It’s called Foundational Year because they also start learning some of the foundational skills so they can really set themselves up for success in that future career. Also, with at least one of the mentors, we try to match them on culture, so they can have the conversation around culture and how to address any barriers that are culturally-imposed, specific also to gender. We also have a peer-leadership component, where some of the students in a particular high school will go through our leadership curriculum. They will then guide the other students in our program at that school to utilize the skills that their mentors have taught them over the year to carry out a community project. One of the programs at one of our schools led by the peer leaders was to do a food and clothing drive for a local nonprofit that serves the homeless. [Due to COVID-19] we pivoted that to doing more of a virtual response to the importance of donating, especially at this time, to the hungry.

We have a Speaker Series. The intention of the Speaker Series is to highlight a lot of the hard work that often goes unnoticed by a lot of the people that have been in our Speaker Series … It’s a numbers of authentic stories shared by individuals who have struggled so much. Their work in the workplace often goes unnoticed. The reason we highlight that is because where would they be if we acknowledged them a little bit more? We oftentimes spotlight individuals after they’ve done a lot of the hard work, and we forget the amount of work it took to get to that point. We end up spotlighting people who have been able to more easily get their name out there because they have the right connections and the right network. Then there are a lot of people who we forget that without them, a lot of this work wouldn’t get done. That’s the intention of our Speaker Series, to highlight some of these people who do this critical work without really getting that peer recognition.

Are there any future partnerships, programs, or events that you are excited about?

With COVD-19, we’re hoping things pan out, but we are supposed to be working with IDEA schools in Texas. [We would be] really helping a critical population of girls who, at the border, are not getting the support necessary from their families and their communities. Because the communities themselves are so marginalized and unfortunately under attack in different ways, it’s harder to get them the resources they need to make sure high school is a meaningful place for them. We’re looking forward to really formalizing that partnership and serving that community. Additionally — again, hopefully things can move forward despite what’s going on nationally — we’re supposed to also serve a school in Tacoma, Washington. They’re a gateway to a lot of new immigrants as well because of the proximity to Seattle, so we are looking forward to that partnership moving forward.

On a broader scale, where do you want to see SPEAKHIRE go in the future?

Especially with the response to COVID-19, we see how technology needs to be integrated, especially in schools. Physical schools are a must. I’m an educator through and through. We need to have spaces where our children can learn, but I think what we see now is that learning has to be ongoing. We have to make sure our teachers are equipped and our schools are equipped with additional support, so that our students are supported even outside physical places like schools. Our program can do that. We are supporting some of the most disconnected students. We’re connecting them to physical role models right now because they don’t have the social support at home. We know they don’t necessarily have English-speaking homes, or they don’t have anyone in their home who can really help them connect to technology otherwise. Because of our program, they already have the technical skills to continue working with their mentors. We’ve been completely resilient to COVID-19. All of our current students have connected to our mentors and our mentors have been thinking of a way to give back. This is something meaningful for them to do as well in response to COVID-19. We know this is a proven concept that can and should be in a lot of schools around the nation where students need the additional visible role models to really help them navigate the schools and their career path.

What’s been the most rewarding part of your work?

Every time I get a mentor application that tells me ‘I needed this when I was younger.’ I think the reason I didn’t start SPEAKHIRE earlier, and I didn’t even reflect until that situation happened with that student, is because sometimes you feel alone in that confusion, especially when you’re navigating multiple cultures. I am someone who was born and raised here in America, but I’m born and raised to Indian immigrants, so I was raised in a home that was culturally Indian. But then you step outside your home and you’re navigating a space where you’re supposed to be American, so your identity is clashing at all times. When we do get a mentor application where a mentor really understands the limitations not only faced by a woman, but also faced by a woman of color, a woman of a marginalized culture, or a culture that’s underrepresented — it’s good to know you’re not alone and you’re doing work that’s really meaningful for more than youth. It’s also meaningful for multiple generations. Our goal has always been to make sure we’re empowering girls and women both, and that we are preparing the next generation but at the same time we’re supporting the current generation. When I see the mentors and mentees connecting, I can sense the development of both and it’s a beautiful relationship to watch.

Hetal Jani Daily Point of Light Award Honoree
As the Founder and Executive Director, Hetal has helped over 100 girls so far, all of whom are in high school./Courtesy Nilaya Sabnis for L’Oreal Paris USA

What do you want people to learn from your story?

In doing this work, there’s oftentimes still a lot of assumptions made about what someone should be able to do when given an opportunity, because we think those opportunities are received in the same way. We forget to ask the backstories or the level of understanding or really how they can manage the opportunity. What I mean by that is, we do have a lot of girls who academically can perform. As I mentioned, the student I started SPEAKHIRE for, she was academically a stellar student. She got straight A’s except for this one grade. We just consider that one aspect and think well, she had the education, so she should be able to achieve anything. We miss big parts of their lives where we really could be stepping in and supporting them so they can meet their full potential. We hear often that we’re serving a population of students who are not necessarily vulnerable, but we know from our mentors that these women might be further along in their careers if they got the critical support at an earlier point in time. Just because someone is hardworking, and just because someone is maybe quiet or doing what they’re told to do or obedient, doesn’t mean they don’t need support. If you do support them in the smallest ways, that could have a huge return investment. I would really love for people to know that the work we’re putting in often gets dismissed because the population outwardly doesn’t seem as vulnerable. That’s unfortunate because I think [those people] could make a little bit of time and the investment could go so far.

Why do you think it’s important for others to give back?

If I’m not satisfied in life that I’m actually doing something meaningful with my time — I don’t know how to live any other way. Whatever you have, if you can use that to help somebody else, then it brings a sense of fulfillment. I haven’t felt that kind of fulfillment through anything else. I feel that other people should give for the same reasons, that it brings yourself so much joy and fulfillment. A lot of this work is hard work. There are times where I’m reminded it’s work, but there are oftentimes where it just feels like I’m living life because you know the impact it’s having. I would rather be doing this because it brings me so much joy that it actually oftentimes doesn’t feel like work, even though it’s challenging.

Do you want to make a difference in your community like Hetal? Find local volunteer opportunities.

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