By Sara Courtemanche
December 7th, 2023
A couple of months ago, while scrolling on LinkedIn, I came across a post from Queue Associates’ managing director and co-founder, Jeffrey Goldstein (who you may know from our viral “Where on Earth is Jeff?” series). Three phrases – “United Nations”, “Youth Event”, and “Janani Shivakumar” – all seemed to jump out at me from the sea of congratulatory verbiage. Within seconds my connection message asking Janani for an interview was sent; I was inspired by Janani before I had met her and knew utilising my job for journalistic advocacy was almost a moral obligation as a privileged young woman with a voice.
Janani Shivakumar is a sophomore at the University of North Carolina (UNC) studying Business and Economics with a focus in Data Science. Only eighteen years old, Janani is the most accomplished young women I’ve ever met. She already has two internships in Policy Research and Finance & Accounting Automation, a position at AKD as the Director of Finance, and a voluntary position as the Investment Analyst for the UNC Impact Investing Club under her belt. However, Janani’s most impressive feat might just be her non-profit organisation, Girls Play Global, which she established nearly five years ago in June of 2019.
As a child, Janani often travelled with her family and was an eyewitness to disparity. Her empathetic nature allowed her to appreciate the importance of advocacy (especially for young girls), and Janani’s connection of empowerment to sports sparked an ember of opportunity. Janani knew that learning outside of the classroom was just as, if not more, important for young girls. Along with her strong sense of connection to her native country, India, Janani expressed her passions to her parents. With their support, as well as her school’s athletic department and her community coaches, she established her organisation and began to donate unused or old equipment to underprivileged schools.
Girls Play Global is focused on community team building through soccer for underprivileged girls in rural Indian communities. Janani’s focus is to empower young girls through soccer by providing a safe, all-female environment to improve self-confidence, physical fitness, and mental wellness. The non-profit’s main goal is to support Sustainable Development Goal 5 (SDG 5), Gender Equality within the set of goals established by the United Nations (U.N.) in 2015. The goals were written to encourage members of the U.N. to foster positive actions by balancing social, economic, and environmental sustainability within their societies.
Janani’s confidence grew synonymous with her organisation, and her love for sustainability and advocacy in business became her passion – something that she had always known was her life’s calling. Just two years after establishing the non-profit, Girls Play Global established an annual tournament bringing Indian girls from schools and rural-based soccer clubs together to support the sustainable development goals (SDG’s) of the U.N. Each year the tournament’s themed after one of the 15 SDGs to raise awareness and educate girls about topics such as sustainability, health, and wellness.
This year’s tournament – appropriately titled “Match for Millets” – focused on SDG 3 (Good Health and Well-being) and SDG 13 (Climate Action) to raise awareness about Millets, an ancient and highly sustainable Indian grain, and celebrate the International Year of Millets. The event would be the largest to date, with 130 females from 13 schools in Tamil Nadu competing in the tournament, and would include millet-based meals to promote the environmental and health benefits of the superfood as well as expert guest speakers to further educate the young girls on the importance of sustainability.
Janani has learnt a lot about herself and has matured her self-confidence through her advocacy. She’s learnt to appreciate the balance between speaking and listening, understanding the importance of moral and social maturation. Janani’s latest opportunity – her presentation on Match for Millets at the 2023 International Day of Peace Youth Event hosted by the United Nations – has specifically sparked a new love for public speaking, as well as a deeper appreciation for edification and its direct positive correlation to personal growth. The primary goal of the event is to recruit youth, honouring five students’ global peace projects. Janani mentioned that two of the five presenters were female and hopes to see the ratio grow in the coming years. Janani also joked about the detriment of burnout, understanding that professional growth often lies hand in hand with personal growth.
When I asked Janani to describe the experience of speaking for the U.N. at such a young age, she expressed her astonishment, “…from the minute you step into the walls of the U.N., it’s extremely surreal.” She emphasised the diverse global representation in the room and the overwhelming support she received from the audience during her presentation.
Janani is prepared to continue her “tournaments with a purpose”, and expressed her excitement about the rapid growth of Girls Play Global – growing from 50 to 300 girls in just four and a half years – as well as the increase in funding to sustain the organisation. She’s beginning to think about her future in business sustainability using her love for public policy, psychology, business, economics, and gender equality to establish herself as a pioneer within the industry.
As our interview ended, Janani and I spoke about the importance of being a privileged woman in a society which allows for freedom of advocacy, and I was truly impressed by her eloquence when discussing the matter. Paving the way for future women, Janani continues to inspire and lead not only her own generation, but older generations who are just now learning the importance of true feminism and advocacy as adults. Girls Play Global’s continuous effort to make change in India, and soon around the globe, is solely fuelled by monetary support from local companies and individuals. If you are inspired by Janani Shivakumar, as I was, I encourage you to connect with her on LinkedIn and support Girls Play Global by heading to their website and learning how to join the organisation in active advocacy for gender equality. I also encourage you to support and foster a safe environment for young girls to speak their mind and pursue their passions, as Janani’s community did for her and as she is doing for hundreds of young women throughout India.
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