Manita Ray has worked in social impact and sustainability for almost 20 years, and believes it is one of the most rewarding career paths someone can take. Her roles have included CEO of YGAP (renowned for its global campaign, Polished Man), National Manager at Pollinate Energy, and Director and Chairperson at Asha Global Development Organisation.
In this interview, she shares why she has committed to a career in social impact, her experiences with burnout, advice to those considering a social impact career, and her approach to leadership.
- What drove you to build a career in social impact, and how has that drive changed over time?
My family are from India and came from poverty so I saw poverty and injustice from the day I was born. We went back often to visit our family so I grew up seeing very clearly how different my life outside of India was compared to those who are exactly like me, but continue to experience poverty. Having a really deep lived experience in this also showed me the power of entrepreneurship, social impact and innovative thinking – because when systems and structures fail to protect communities, they must survive and are natural entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurship is survival there.
What drives me is my lived experience and knowing that I wanted to leave the world in a better place.
What drives me is the adversity that I have personally faced and see so many around me face and knowing that I have the power to change this.
What drives me every day is knowing that I can make a difference and I cannot look at my family and what they and so many others have gone through and continue to go through and know that I did not do everything in my power to change it.
After I had children, this drive increased 1000 fold – I had to keep going as their future depended on it.
Once I became a CEO, it was an incredible privilege to be able to act even more boldly and lead a team towards significant impact – this was yet another driver.
- What have been the biggest highlights and lowlights of your career so far?
It is difficult to think of the biggest highlights because honestly, even through tough times, I have learned and gained so much from each of my roles. There are many. But three key ones are:
- Impact – without a doubt, being able to enable change, see impact, see the faces of those we serve and enable systematic change (even if it is slow sometimes!) gives faith that this work is making a difference and will continue to do so well beyond my role
- People are caring more – it has been so great to see the growing volume of both younger and older generations caring about impact more. I remember when I was singled out as the ‘tree-hugging hippie’ but now working and striving for impact is no longer laughed at but seen as damn good business.
- What next – I’m super excited to map out the next stage of my career in the gender, climate and investment space in Australia. There is so much we have the potential to do here and I cannot wait to climb up this big scary mountain.
Low lights – without a doubt one thing that I remember and has been the biggest lesson is burnout. When you work in the impact space, you devote your life to it. I found it impossible to switch off because I knew the work that we had to do to serve those who needed it the most. But burnout does not help anyone and not only does important work stop when you burn out, but it affects your health, your family and everyone important to you. I’m very aware about this now and while still susceptible – I have wonderful family, friends and mentors to call me out and vice versa.
- What’s your advice to anyone considering a career in social impact in 2020?
Do it. Dive in head first and don’t look back.
- What are the biggest challenges you foresee for professionals in the social impact space this year?
We have a lot of work to do. There is radical uncertainty in both our short and long-term future. We simply do not know what challenges lie ahead and their complexities. Nature is far stronger and more powerful than humans and we cannot rely one traditional, man-made thinking – we need to innovate boldly as future challenges will not be prevented or solved with conventional thinking.
However this should not scare us. This should drive us to work harder together. To lead with integrity. And just as important – work together across the globe because as we see with climate change and the current pandemic, every issue and impact is connected.
- What is your advice for other professionals of diverse backgrounds when looking to build their career in social impact?
Again – DO IT. Start small or big but do something.
Every professional and every industry can (and will one day) drive, enable and achieve social impact. Success will be when social impact is everywhere – in every system, process and product – and we actually stop using the words ‘social impact’ because social impact is good business.
- How have your own personal experiences impacted the way you work and lead?
In such a mammoth way. I throw myself into what I do and as mentioned, I have learned, and continue to learn every single day how to work and lead. I learn through all the good and most importantly all the pain.
A lot of how I lead is based on two key principles:
- Am I leading to create the greatest impact?
- Am I leading to support my team to become leaders?
I have had some incredible managers and CEOs. To this day I still remember how they led and showed me how to lead with integrity and humility despite whatever was thrown at them.
I have also worked with and had some awful managers – and to them I am SO thankful because they have given me what I might say are the best lessons: what not to do as a leader!
About the expert
Manita Ray (MBA &; B. Eng): The immediate past CEO of ygap, with over 22 years experience across the private and not-for-profit sector. At ygap she was responsible for raising over $3M of annual operating and investment capital, leading a global team of 29 across multiple countries. She led ygap’s work as a lead implementation partner for DFAT’s InnovationXChange’s Frontier Incubators Program to design and deliver capacity building for over 30 intermediaries across APAC, including supporting impact investors in implementing a gender lens across their investments, leading the design and implementation of the Gender and Power curriculum for over 30 intermediaries and market actors across APAC, and was the lead designer, developer and advisor for the ‘Gender Lens Incubation and Acceleration Toolkit’ (GLIA) for intermediaries across SEA.