By Susan Hitchcock
Founder & Host Emerita of Women in Leadership
There are a myriad of ways to describe Ayesha Khanna including innovator, problem solver, continuous learner, advocate for women, Leadership Atlanta and Leadership Georgia graduate, social entrepreneur – and – one of 2016’s “100 Global Thinkers.” But even that doesn’t do justice to the truly unique set of abilities and insights Ayesha brings to the business table, the community and ultimately, to the world.
Perhaps the best way to understand how she developed her unique skill set and perspective as a person and as a leader is to learn more about her early life.
Life directing / life altering influences and experiences
One major influence in Ayesha’s early life was within her family. She’s a proud first generation American who grew up outside Philadelphia, but her heritage includes two other countries, India and Ireland. Her two grandmothers – one Indian, one Irish – were Ayesha’s personal “SHEroes.” Even though her grandmothers lived in India, Ayesha was very close to them and their impact on her is undeniable. She explained, “They were strong and courageous women who had none of the privileges and advantages that I have had. My Irish grandmother’s family disowned her when she fell in love with my Indian grandfather, and my Indian grandmother was held at gunpoint when her family was forced to leave Pakistan for India as part of the British Partition. Today, as a constant reminder of each of them, I wear two rings on my fingers. My wedding ring was my Irish grandmother’s and the other ring, a gift from my Indian grandmother.”
There were other role models in Ayesha’s life as well, a broad range of highly accomplished professional women on her mother’s side of the family. “I’m so appreciative of all of them and I know I stand on their shoulders today.”
Ayesha’s under-grad experience, especially what she learned about herself, also helped shape and direct her life choices. “My interests in college were always very broad and while I started out in biology and geology, I ended up with a double major in English and Psychology. I wasn’t really focused on one particular career path. What motivated me were challenging issues and solving complex, multidisciplinary and ‘intersectional’ problems.”
That’s exactly what has motivated Ayesha throughout her professional life and continues to define her approach to getting things done. And, she would add, “Working with good people.”
After college while working in India with the nonprofit Adapt founded by her aunt, Ayesha had a truly impactful experience which she calls “seminal and life changing.” She was teaching and conducting research in a small village outside Delhi. “I was immersed in every aspect of the village culture and came away with tremendous insight about, and respect for, how a small, scrappy group of people can make big. bold changes. This of course is the essence of entrepreneurship.”
One part of her research involved adapting the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale to school age children in the village to be used in the healthcare center. “What I encountered first hand,” Ayesha said, “was testing bias. Bias exists due to cultural, environmental and other differences and I saw up close how that effected the children in our research. At first I was stunned when the youngest children failed to answer an age-appropriate question involving sorting colored blocks (with which they were not familiar). But, when they were shown leaves with different edges (with which they were familiar), they had no problem performing the task!” This profound insight is still with Ayesha today.
There was another interesting aspect of Ayesha’s time in India. “For the first time in my life, I was surrounded by people who looked like me! The entire experience gave me a totally new way of looking at the world, and seeing things through a different lens.”
A multifaceted career and leadership journey
Preparing further for her career, Ayesha received her Master’s Degree in Organizational Psychology from New York’s Columbia University. Since then, Ayesha has had several opportunities working with both for-profit, nonprofits, and grassroots organizations/coalitions. She has led several regional nonprofits, while she also became a member of Andersen Consulting’s strategy group in NYC.
Prior to her current role as Managing Director of CARE Enterprises, Ayesha made significant contributions as the President, Civic Innovation, Points of Light; Founder of the national Civic Accelerator; member of the Acumen Fund; and Co-Founder & Board Member – FUSE Corp.
In March, 2020, Ayesha joined CARE Enterprises, Inc, a for-profit subsidiary of CARE USA. She oversees creating blended finance impact models focused on women’s economic empowerment with its first initiative as the CARE SheTrades Impact Fund in South and Southeast Asia. Ayesha explained, “We’ve created a $75M gender justice fund working with our partners Bamboo Capital, the UN agency, the international Trade Center SheTrades initiative, and various individual and institutional investors. This fund aims to invest in small businesses to economically empower women owners, workers and consumers to help achieve deep and sustainable gender equity.”
This exciting and extremely important undertaking involves tapping into CARE’s gender expertise around the world and capital markets in a way not done before. Ayesha believes it has the potential to change lives for women around the world and to influence the impact investment field.
On the personal side
It’s clear that Ayesha loves her work. “I’m constantly inspired by the opportunity to take on big challenges and by the people I work with every day across multiple sectors.” While her busy schedule includes serving on several boards, e.g., ChildFund International and the Atlanta Civic Circle, Ayesha prioritizes time with her family, her husband and 17 year old daughter.
Asked about advice she’d give her 21 year-old self, Ayesha said, “Appreciate everything as it’s happening, take it all in.” She also said today’s 21 year-old women are savvy and many of them are focused on leading change and giving back. If she offered any advice to them it would be from her own experience: “Take time to figure out who you are, don’t take things (like rejection) too seriously, and do the important things.”
We can expect a lot more from Ayesha as she has a long runway left in her career. She seems ideally positioned and has the perfect profile for today’s world – a seeker of diverse perspectives and new ideas, not afraid to take risks, passionate about women’s empowerment and able to solve complex problems wherever they may be.
Interview & Profile by: Susan Hitchcock, Founder of The Age of SHEroes