“When you are the first woman of colour around the table, it can be daunting”: Sadhana Smiles at #ColourFULL

Sadhana Smiles

Real Estate Industry Partners chief executive Sadhana Smiles.

Women of colour face a “double-triple” glass ceiling in their professional lives, and as Sadhana Smiles puts it, will need to work twice as hard to get half as far.

Sadhana Smiles is the CEO of Real Estate Industry Partners and the official ambassador of #ColourFULL 2020, a conference designed to be an immersive leadership and entrepreneurship experience for women of colour, as well as allies who are working to advance women of colour.

Sadhana Smiles kicked off the conference, hosted and run by thought leader Winitha Bonney on Tuesday morning, with a keynote that addressed her early years growing up in Fiji, and her journey to executive leadership as a woman of colour in Australia.

In her address, Sadhana explained that at every conference she is asked to speak at, women of colour come up to her afterwards and share how wonderful it was to have somebody they can relate to speaking.

In a world of panels filled with white men and white women, Sadhana often finds herself as the lone person of colour at speaking events. And as she explained on Tuesday morning, she’s almost always viewed as the “risk presenter”, with organisers often asking, “will her story be enough and will people connect with her?”

“When you are the first woman of colour around the table, it can be daunting,” Sadhana says, having detailed her extensive experience in business and corporate environments.

There are assumptions and biases to overcome, and the constant question of whether you are just the token woman, or person of colour. There’s the labelling of being a “mouthy woman of colour” and the difficulty of overcoming interruptions from others to get your voice heard.

“You will have to work harder than anybody else in that leadership role and have the confidence to have a strong voice,” she said.

“I have a degree in street smarts … in experience and hard work.”

After a long career in leadership positions in the real estate industry, Sadhana is at a point now where she knows she’s earnt enough respect to overcome the fear of being a “token” addition.

“As a national CEO, I sit around meetings, board room table … where I am the only woman, and the only woman of colour, yet the respect that I have … I know I’ve earnt it. There is not tokenism there,” she told Winitha Bonney in a Q&A session.

“If we are going to be walking out the door and pretending to be white people, that is not diversity and inclusion.

“We need to be ourselves … and bring our difference to the table.”

It’s Sadhana’s value sets, derived from her family, as well as her Fijian and Indian backgrounds that drive her approach to leadership.

“I took the best of both of my cultures and became the leader I am today. That’s what makes me a different leader,” she shares.

Sadhana often takes risks and encourages other women of colour to do the same. For her, it’s where personal growth and leadership development comes from.

At this point in her career, Sadhana is comfortable setting boundaries in professional environments, and knows she is the best at what she does. So, she’s working to make sure other women of colour can get to a similar place.

“I often say to people: ‘You see my colour, I don’t see my colour’,” she says.

“I am the best at what I do and I have worked really hard to be the best.”

This article was first published by Women’s Agenda.


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