Driven by diversity: Sydney’s Sonia Gandhi

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From Bollywood Balls to Diversity Day events at offices, Sonia Gandhi helps companies in Australia celebrate their multiculturalism

Australian companies are celebrating cultural diversity in the workplace like never before. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself sharing the delights of golgappa with Bob from accounts and learning about lederhosen from Ada the comms manager during a Diversity Day event sometime soon.

The dramatic turn from ignoring culture at work—or the politically correct version of sweeping it under the carpet—to celebrating its richness and potential is largely thanks to one woman: Sonia Gandhi. Sure, in India this name brings to mind the Congress Party’s reigning queen, but down under it belongs to Australia’s queen of multicultural events.

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Since founding Gandhi creations in 2007, Gandhi has pioneered cultural events from modest community-minded Bollywood nights to innovative tailored Diversity Day packages for major corporations. This is the future of corporate thinking. With research showing a diverse workforce is critical to drive innovation and succeed in the global marketplace (Forbes Insights), Australian companies are beginning to twig. A recent TV advertising campaign developed by the Migration Council of Australia showing the biggest names, like Optus and Commonwealth Bank, talking up the benefits of a colourful workforce, shows the message is getting through. Which, party-popping fun aside, is why Diversity Day events are so happening.

So how did a commerce graduate from Hyderabad come to be at the forefront of multicultural events in Australia?

Gandhi told The Indian Sun it happened almost by chance, after she came to study at the University of Western Sydney in Parramatta. Feeling “quite Indian” in a strange new land, Gandhi initially sought out familiar comforts, “wanting to know and only hang out with Indians”.

“Any Indian I would find on the street I was like ‘oh my god, you’re my best friend! I’m from Hyderabad, where are you from?’” she recalled. “And then I started to understand that you begin to belong somewhere when you’re not resistant to change.”

After that point Gandhi decided to approach life with an open mind and try to understand other cultures. She got involved in the student union and wound up becoming a women’s officer, and then the international student’s officer for the Council of Australian Post Graduate Associations (CAPA), which represents 36 universities across the country.

As part of her role at CAPA, Gandhi found herself organising events for the Department of Immigration, including workshops to advise international students on the Education Services for Overseas Students (ESOS) Act, which was being formed at the time.

“When I was organising those events I used to do it so well that slowly down the track I decided this is something I enjoy and I could actually get paid for,” she said. “Even though I was paying $25,000 to do a degree and masters in commerce and finance, which I think was really boring at that time, I was sort of being driven to a completely different career.”

Gandhi founded Gandhi Creations in 2007 with a vision to throw events that would bring culturally diverse communities together. “I realised there was just so much in common with culturally diverse communities,” she said. “There is something there that can be tapped into.”

Her very first event was a Bollywood Ball, with dinner, drinks and cultural entertainment. Over time this model of a fun, networking event for young professionals from diverse backgrounds evolved.

“When you start doing events like these, they’re sort of a fun thing.” Gandhi said. “But now they’re more educational—there is a lot of benefits for businesses in recognising cultural diversity.”

Businesses with culturally diverse employees enjoy a more diverse client base, broader business networks reaching new markets, and more productive staff, Gandhi said. “There’s a full range of skills and talents that employees have, which include language and cultural skills… organisations can capitalise on those skills and really improve the quality of services to diverse consumers,” she added.

Nowadays, corporate events account for a sizable part of Gandhi’s business—she’s most proud of developing the Diversity Day concept as an event package for companies two years ago. “You see people from different backgrounds coming together and sharing the food that comes from their part of the world, showcasing their culture by wearing a national outfit, ensuring that their allowed to speak on the stage and talk about their migrant journey,” Gandhi said.

“You’re basically increasing cultural awareness,” she explained. “You know if you see someone in a sarong, you want to know where they’re from, it really creates that healthy dialogue.”

Gandhi also organises events for the state government, including lighting up Sydney’s parliament house on Macquarie Street for Diwali. “For Indians they look at it and know straight away ‘oh my god that’s parliament house, that’s being lit for the festival of lights, for Diwali,’ while for a non-Indian they’re trying to figure out why it’s being lit,” Gandhi said. The impact of this event on the community becomes clear simply by logging into Facebook or Twitter around Diwali time, and scrolling through the numerous photos of a glowing Parliament House and reading the comments—the initial confusion followed by realisation captured for all to see.

So, as the woman responsible for getting parliament lit for Diwali, what’s guided Gandhi’s success? It’s not just an uncannily lucky name. “To be able to successfully deliver any project,” she explained. “To be able to successfully deliver anything in life really—it’s very important to understand the other person’s perspective… that’s the mantra that I live by.”

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