Engineering a Better Future for Women

Photo: Toni Gauthier

A Canadian citizen, Hemangini Raina was born in Oman, spent half her youth in Bahrain and now returns to the United Arab Emirates to see her parents, who are Indian. So maybe it’s not surprising that she sometimes slips and calls Stanford home.

Sure-footedly she declared her major: management science and engineering. She didn’t anticipate her minor, South Asian studies. “I was raised in a community where being non-Arab or being white immediately meant that you were inferior,” she says. “I actively repressed my South Asian identity for 18 years of my life.” Raina, now a junior, credits Stanford with awakening her interest in her Indian roots, a reformation that led her to take Hindi classes, to join the South Asian culture student group, Sanskriti, and to study Indian cinema, history and politics.

Her professional goal is to use social entrepreneurship to empower women in the Middle East and in Asia. To that end, Raina is service director for Stanford Women in Business, a pre-professional organization, and press director for She++, a nonprofit that helps women and minorities advance in the tech sector. Never idle, she recently signed up to be a resident assistant in a freshman dorm, and, as part of the student group 5-SURE on Foot, she spends 3½ hours every weekend walking other students back to their dorms, whether they are intoxicated or simply feel unsafe walking alone. “I feel like I’m the kind of person that, unless I’m juggling too many things, I’m not happy,” Raina told Stanford in a recent interview. “I love feeling engaged. I love feeling useful. I never want to be sitting on my hands, saying, ‘Well, nothing to do today.’”

“My impression was that it’s the zany, eccentric kids that go to Stanford. I’m not one of those kids. I’m the business type. I’m going to get a degree in economics and engineering, and then I’m going to try to help women in Asia and the Middle East. When Stanford accepted my application, it was kind of crazy, because for the first time I thought, huh, well, maybe I am one of those zany, eccentric type of kids capable of achieving all this other stuff. I don’t have to necessarily follow the traditional route.

“I took a political theory class?—?it changed my life — on Gandhi and his policies and ideologies and how they relate to the politics of India today. I’d never seen myself as the history-class-taking kind of gal; I’m much more of a p-sets and tech kind of gal. I took this class — literally, our reading list was 10 chunky books, one for every week, plus extra reading, plus section, all of this other intimidating political stuff — and I loved it. I have never been in a class where I actively wanted to go to a 9 a.m. lecture. And I went to every single lecture that this man gave.

“My mom, she’s this incredible woman who has somehow managed [in the Middle East] — and I don’t understand how — to juggle full-time work, raising two kids and home, and that is an incredible amount of responsibility to put on someone’s shoulders. So, you have women like my mom, who a) have the opportunity to work, because sometimes that’s not allowed, and b) are able to shoulder that burden and carry it off really, really well. I have a tremendous amount of respect for her. But then you also have situations where even the moms of kids in my own school [a British international school] are told, point-blank, ‘You are not working. You’re married. You’re going to take care of the house. That’s your entire job now.’ Which is not inherently bad if you choose it for yourself, but it’s bad if someone imposes it on you, which I found really problematic, just seeing that around me.

“I was very convinced that I was going to move back to the Middle East [after college]. But I was there this summer, working in financial services for PricewaterhouseCoopers, and it was the smallest thing, but it kind of changed my mind about [moving back]: I was earning an income, and I wanted to open up a bank account so I could put my money in there, because I wanted to save it. When I went to the bank, they said, ‘I’m sorry, ma’am, but you can’t do that because you’re under 21, you’re unmarried, and your father isn’t with you.’ Instances like that — I was working in a consulting firm, and I was the only woman on my floor who wasn’t HR or a secretary or an executive assistant. I don’t necessarily see myself being happy there anymore.”