Six years ago, Patti Tripathi, a former news anchor at CNN – the first and perhaps the only Indian American woman to hold that position – launched a radically impactful calendar, ‘Saris to Suits,’ as a tool to empower South Asian women, and to redefine what constitutes a modern-day South Asian woman.
On May 31, Tripathi organized the first benefit event to mark six years of the calendar, which has featured trailblazers like Houston University president/chancellor Dr. Renu Khator, human rights activist Malala Yousafzai, cancer researcher, MIT professor and biotech entrepreneur Dr. Sangeeta Bhatia; and author-poet and Arjun Award-winning shooter Roopa Unnikrishnan.
These empowered role models are also some of the most powerful women who are challenging social norms, and inspiring other women to follow suit. Profits from the calendar are donated to charities such as Sakhi for South Asian Women in New York, Apna Ghar in Chicago, and Raksha in Atlanta.
The inaugural gala, held at the historic Wimbish House in Atlanta, Georgia, was titled, “Saris to Suits – East to West to South: “Women First, Empowerment for All.”
Former U.S. Ambassador to India Richard Verma, the first Indian American to hold that post, joined the event as the charity’s ‘suit’ ambassador. In an inspiring address, Verma called upon the attendees to continue to contribute towards promoting gender equality.
“Pathbreaker, trailblazer are words that fit Patti,” said Verma. “At the time I met her, she was doing something no other Indian American or South Asian was doing (CNN)… She was this incredible role model who was committed to helping other people and very courageous.”
Detailing the trials and tribulations of his mother and grandmother, who lived through a very “tumultuous time” during the India-Pakistan Partition, just like millions of other people, Verma stressed that his mother’s resilience always inspired him.
Some of the earliest memories of his mother, he said, “were of her standing outside in Pennsylvania, in the winter, in blowing and drifting snow and she is wearing a sari, waiting for her bus to take her to her work where she was a special needs teacher. She had a spine of steel, nothing could shake her.”
Verma highlighted that the country had a long way to go in terms of representation of women in every field.
“Forty-eight percent of our workforce is women and yet women are terribly underrepresented especially in the science and engineering fields,” he remarked. “Women get paid 20 percent less than their male counterparts. Only 20 percent of our Congress is made up of women. There are only six female governors in the U.S…We have to do a lot better.”
The first thing one can do, Verma noted, is to support organizations like Saris to Suits. “We’ve also got to do a better job of speaking out…Our silence makes us part of the problem,” he stated. “All of you in this room can be role models and mentors. It doesn’t require writing a big check…what it requires is a little bit of time, commitment, using your place of power and you all have it. You don’t have to be a senator or a governor.”
Other high-profile speakers at the event included Rodney Bullard, author of Heroes Wanted and vice president of community affairs at Chick-fil-A; the first female dean of Goizueta Business School, Dr. Erika H. James; and Hardeep Melamed, a 2017 calendar campaign role model and CEO of PurseN.
Former Fox News anchor Kelly Wright served as the emcee for the night.
Tripathi explained that she was at a crossroads and needed to rally support from male CEOs of corporations, “especially Indian ones, who have not supported women’s empowerment efforts as one would hope.”
“Ambassador Verma was amazing. So were the other men who called on the community to get engaged,” Tripathi told India-West. “I want more South Asian men to be a part of women’s empowerment, not just on paper but in practice, not just at home but also at corporate level #saristosuitsambassadors. I struggled to get my foot in the business 25 years ago when the demographics were not in my favor. It seems still not much has changed.”
Bullard donated $10,000 towards the cost of the venue and he spoke about why he did so when there are so many organizations vying for his attention.
“Patti reminds me of Rosa Parks (an activist in the civil rights movement). In what she is trying to do, she is trying to continue the legacy of Rosa Parks,” he said.
“I encourage you to empower yourself and other women. We need to be seen. We need to be visible,” stated James.
Tripathi has been single-handedly working and self-funding this passion project of hers, with some help from her brother, Pradeep Tripathi, who is the CEO of Nexus Clinical.
Patti Tripathi, who founded the charity in Sarasota, Florida, worked in Atlanta, Georgia, for nine years in her 20s and 30s with CNN and CBS-Atlanta news before leaving the area in 2005 for Washington, D.C.; Dallas, Texas; and Sarasota via Chicago. She returned to Atlanta in 2016. And that explains the title, “East to West to South.”
Tripathi had an opportunity to get back on the air, with PBS. But she decided against it to continue to give the charity her undivided attention.
“I am identifying a more mission aligned board that I was able to put together while living in Sarasota,” she said. “Of course, #metoo, #leanIn, #TimesUp, #HeForShe came after SarisToSuits but they make our efforts even more relevant.”
A bitter personal experience, Tripathi told India-West, makes her feel so passionate about women’s empowerment. She said she draws her strength from her late mother’s belief in her.
“My mother, who passed away at age 56 in late 2004, made me feel I could scale Mount Everest,” she said. “My life’s experiences, work, and the U.S. courts’ lack of understanding our culture shaped Saris to Suits. Education and standing on your own two feet was the intention via inspirational stories of women who pose for a purpose to raise greater understanding of American women of South Asian origin.”
“I can’t imagine what would have happened to another woman without resources in those similar circumstances,” she added.
Since 2013, Saris to Suits has unveiled four calendars, one of which Tripathi worked on while she was in Tunisia, North Africa, on a UN mission to media train women political hopefuls following the Arab Spring in 2014. (See earlier India-West story here.)
The focus of the next calendar, to be published in 2019, will be ‘Woman of Color,’ the nominations for which are currently open. Sponsors are also welcome to contact her.
Expanding her efforts, Tripathi has lined up a service trip to India for December, which will see multicultural volunteers partner and mentor female-run startups to bridge the digital landscape.
Her immediate plans also include a meeting with the mayor of Atlanta to declare a Sari to Suits day, or take the lead on Asian diversity, she told India-West.