student leader

When we think of how women can maximise their international education, we think of Riddi Viswanathan.

After high school in India, she moved to the University of Manchester to pursue a bachelor’s degree in business studies and economics.

This was where Viswanathan stepped out of her comfort zone to become a student leader representing 400,000 students from 192 countries.

Today, she is an award-winning active advocate for equality, diversity and inclusion, having been featured on several news channels such as BBC, the Guardian and The New York Times for her amazing work.

Even after all she has done — and it’s a lot — Viswanathan is only just getting started – and she’s excited to do even more.

On this special International Women’s Day episode of Extra Credit, we learn about Riddi’s experience advocating for diversity, and how she’s actively supporting students and young entrepreneurs from underrepresented backgrounds. 

Listen below, and wherever you get your podcasts:

The transcript below has been lightly edited for grammar, spelling and clarity.

Lee Lian: It’s International Women’s Day today — a very special day that calls for a very special episode. This year’s theme is “Inspire Inclusion” and it’s about truly understanding and truly valuing women’s inclusion. It’s about women themselves being inspired to be included and when that happens, they feel belonged, relevant, empowered. 

The sad thing is the world is not there yet — in India, women make up 46.2% of students in universities but only 7% of Vice Chancellors are women. In the UK, 43% of 18-year-old women compared to 32% of men of the same age, are admitted to university. Globally, a quarter of the top 200 universites have female presidents or vice-chancellors. While it’s great that there are now more women in university, the number of women leaders remains far, way far from ideal.

The good news is today we’re speaking to someone young, someone female, and someone who wants to change this trend. Riddi Viswanathan was a student leader at the University of Manchester where as she was completing a BA in Business Studies Economics, she was representing 400,000 students in the UK. Today, she’s an entrepreneur and fintech professional — an award-winning active advocate for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion who has been featured in BBC, the Guardian and The New York Times. Welcome, Riddi it’s great to have you here with us today.

Riddi: Thank you – thank you very much.

Lee Lian: Let’s start from the beginning. You chose to pursue a BA in Business Studies and Economics at the University of Manchester. What was that like? What was the top challenge you faced as a woman in that course?

Riddi: To be honest, the course in itself was amazing. I must credit the University of Manchester, as well as my department for making it engaging. It was a very flexible course I could experiment with modules from business to politics, and economics and philosophy. With regards to being a woman on that course – I think the course was gender balanced. I had male counterparts and women friends. 

But I think you nailed it in your introduction about women in leadership – in terms of women putting themselves out there for leadership positions, be it whether becoming a representative for the faculty, or representative for the course, we found very few women put themselves forward for that position. And initially, because you don’t see role models, it kind of holds you back from taking on those responsibilities. But I think I had some great women who led by example, who inspired me to take up those student leadership positions within my course. And I think that kind of played out well to my advantage to my advantage in my career going forward.

Lee Lian: Challenge or not, you certainly persevered to complete that BA in Busines Studies in Economics. And not only that — at the same time, you were the student ambassador and coordinator for the University of Manchester’s Student Union. You did a lot, including leading a team of 50 mentors and 6 junior coordinators who in turn are in charge of a group of 10-15 freshers. You also delivered talks to hundreds of students. What were these two years like? What do you think women students stand to benefit from taking on these same roles?

Riddi: I think it’s definitely challenging – it’s not as easy as it sounds. Because two years, sometimes you have to give up weekends to make the change that you want to bring about. Sometimes it’s about going into those rooms with confidence, knowing that your voice is not going to be accepted or your opinion is not going to be put forward. But I think I believe and I live by the principle of doing your best and surrendering the rest – and that’s what I did throughout those two years. And I think with regards to the outcome and the change, I saw an immediate change. 

I was the first Indian international student – or perhaps any international student – to put myself forward for a student leadership position in the union. The other day, I went to the Union after five years – I was invited for a talk there – and I could see almost 30 to 40% of the student body being international. And the year I graduated, we had 30+ candidates putting themselves forward, and 50% of them were women to contest for the role of a sabbatical officer. So I think the aspect of being a role model plays a very, very important role. And I think it just takes that one person to put themselves out there, and there’ll be so many other people inspired to follow. 

But I must also say that, as a woman, there are a lot of threats that particularly come about, especially, you know, when I had to represent the university, to media outlets, and so on. It’s unfortunate that I received a lot of death threats, rape threats, and so on. But I think I want to credit my union, and my CEO for being absolutely supportive, and providing me with the right kind of support security and counselling to calm me down.

Lee Lian: What sort of challenges were those? Like, why were you facing so much opposition?

Riddi: This is a very particular section of people so I don’t want to generalise this,but I think I started receiving a lot of threats once I was vocal on media. Whether it was going live on the BBC to speak about world issues, to speak about inclusion, to say how international students and immigrants need to be represented more than the economic as well as the political landscape of the country. That’s when I felt like some of those radical extremists, and those are very small sections of people who couldn’t tolerate these inclusive ideologies. I used to get letters and documents returned to me, and messages on social media, and so on saying, you know, that I should go back to my country and that I wasn’t an adult of this society, which was a little… I was 18 or 19 at that age so it was quite hard for me to take, but I think I’ve matured now.

Lee Lian: I think that was something really courageous – you stood on the same path, and stood your ground. That was great – big up for you! I’m glad that you stayed on at the University of Manchester Student Union after graduating.

Now for those who don’t know, this is no mere student club. The SU is a multi-million pound charity overseen by a 14-member trustee board who have the ultimate responsibility for the organisation. You were one of its student leaders and a full-time Diversity Officer for University of Manchester and you co-led the organisation with 400 staff with oversight over the governance, financial sustainability and overall organisational performance. In this role, you represented over 40,000 students from diverse backgrounds and actively worked with the uni’s senior committees to convey student interests. How did it help you understand diversity and inclusion better, particularly among female students?

Riddi: So as an international student who had come from India, my exposure to diversity was very limited, because I come from the southern part of India, where it’s a little cosmopolitan in a way like the city that I live in. It’s not as diverse as Britain, London, Manchester – I was surprised to know we have students from over 192 countries studying here. Even within Britain, it’s a multicultural society, and everyone has their own needs. So initially, when I entered, I was alien to discrimination – what that meant, you know, like, what is racism? What is microaggression? What can be an offending comment? I was very naive. 

But I think just getting into the Students Union, even as a student, the union very beautifully taught us what can you say, what can you not say to, make sure everything is in everybody feels included. In terms of women as well –  I didn’t know the rights. Of course, I knew concepts like consent and so on, but I didn’t really know how to draw the line, or how I could help victims who have gone through some traumatic incidents. So I think the union alerted us to all these facts. 

I want to particularly bring out an event that really inspired me. Every March during Women’s Day, there is a night that Manchester organises called Reclaim the Night, where we have like over 3,000-4,000 students – young people, women, and men who support women’s rights – march with us on a mile-long walk. It’s that time when the whole city comes together and cherishes what women are, and who women are. I think that’s really something that’s opened my eyes to it. And it is during this very same march that we’ve seen some men who are not particularly interested in women’s rights, also kind of misbehave. But we’ve had the security of the Manchester police and the staff of the society at large. It was the best experience, and the best job that I’ve had to date to represent those 400,000 voices on campus coming from 192 countries.

Lee Lian: Coming up, we’re going to talk about how Riddi went from a student making a positive difference to a graduate making a positive difference. 

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Lee Lian: Riddi, before the break we talked about your time at the University of Manchester representing the wants and needs of thousands of students from 192 countries. That must have been a big experience for you – you were 18, first time out of the country, dealing with so many new concepts, new people. I’m guessing your time at the university built a solid foundation for you to dream bigger and to start Generation Purple.

Now, Generation Purple is Riddi’s platform that she founded to support students and other young adults advance in their careers. I see that it’s won several awards — but before we go into that, can you tell us more about what it was like to be a young woman? At this point, you’ve gotten a lot of experience from the years in Manchester. But still, you’re still a young woman setting up a whole new venture by yourself in a foreign country. What was that like?

Riddi: For me, the transition was very organic. Because post-graduation I was the Students Union president and leader, and I also had the chance to represent 400,000 students internationally as the international officer at the National Union of Students. During this time, I had the chance to meet with a number of policy heads to speak about the employability of students and so on. I particularly identified a gap where students from diverse backgrounds – which included women and international students – were underrepresented in the workforce. So I kind of started with the idea of trying to make the representation of these diverse student groups into workplaces, like corporate organizations. 

I started out in 2019, and just when the product was about to launch COVID hit us. So it was very unfortunate – me being all alone in Manchester locked up in a room trying to fix this, burning money here on one side, investors money not coming in on the other side because of COVID – so it was quite a challenging period. But I think it’s all about pivoting and dynamically changing – for me, it was like saying: “Okay, this is going to take some time because employers are not hiring, so what can I do?”

At that time, people were losing jobs, people were getting sucked out of jobs, and they really needed career guidance to switch. That’s when we pivoted and said, okay, instead of making tools that are inclusive, can we use this instead? Can we devise a tool that relies on psychometrics and scientific approaches to help students with career guidance? So that’s when we came up with a product called the Career Launchpad – now it’s called the Career Igniter – which supports students with understanding their personality, their emotional quotient, interests, and making the right choice of career course for the path they want to walk. And that’s what Generation Purple does. 

Till now, we’ve impacted about a few hundred students, but definitely, we have thousands of students we want to impact on our target. And I’m very sure we’re gonna go strong on that. In a foreign country, I must say that universities play a very important role. But unfortunately, not many students – are not many women – tap into that support, because, unfortunately, in the cohort that I was in, I was the only woman who was leading an enterprise as opposed to a lot of other men in the business space. So, whenever I get a chance, I’m happy to mentor women, and support them to start their own enterprises, because I need to see more women when I go to co-working spaces in my office. And that’s something that I’d like to do.

Lee Lian: So tell me more about this Career Igniter. Let’s say I’ll give you an example – I’m 34 years old, I have a law degree, and I want to use the Career Igniter, how do I use it? Where do I go?

Riddi: We give you access to a particular portal and you sign up using your credentials. After that, we give you a very small, pre-brief, which tells you how you should approach that psychometric test, which is to choose an option through your instincts. Start by focusing on hoe to choose your answers in terms of getting the best outcome out of the test. After that, it’s followed up a 30-40 minute test which is composed of 50 questions. Again, you can take it at your own pace, there is no right or wrong answer. Once you complete that particular test, it assesses you on various metrics, your emotional quotient, your personality, your interests, your passion, your team dynamics, and so on.

I think I’m proud to say that we are one of the very few tools that give an automated report –  we’ve used AI and machine learning algorithms. Once you complete the test, there is a report that you can automatically download, which is followed by a debriefing session which entails understanding your report, and actually mapping out your short-term goals, long term strategies, along with a list of career options.If you’re pursuing law, how can you advance in your career, but also if you want to make a shift – what are the alternative options that you can consider given your current experience? So that’s what the tool does.

Lee Lian: Wow, I can’t imagine how useful it is. I remember I was 23, fresh out of university, I had no idea – okay, I’m done with university, what do I do? I knew I could become a lawyer, but I didn’t know other options for me. Well, if I had used it back then, I would have known more. And I guess, because our early careers are so important to defining where we act, and how we actually progress, I could use it to know more about my options, and negotiate better pay – all of these would have a rolling impact on my career in the future. So it’s really amazing that you have developed something like this.

Riddi: Yeah!  The other day, I was speaking to a student who was pursuing zoology, and she said, “I don’t know what careers to go into, because, you know, pursuing zoology doesn’t mean I really want to go into working for Nat Geo or something.” And I said, “Your degree is just your degree, and it’s about the skills you craft around your degree.” 

So now, after counselling, she wants to pursue an academic degree in zoology where she can then go and teach zoology in various universities. This kind of opens up options, like legal tech, not a lot of people are aware of the integration of tech and law. So those kinds of evolving careers are what we try to suggest, and hopefully, students will make use of it.

Lee Lian: You too, have a career that sounds slightly different from your degree. You studied economics, but you’re a tech professional. How did that switch happen?

Riddi: So, as I told you, my life has just been going on in its organic path – but in the right way, I assume! – because when I was running my startup Generation Purple during COVID, we were taking various projects that were not within our remit. One of the projects that we did was for an Indian bank, called ICICI Bank, who wanted to recruit students to promote their bank accounts as student ambassadors. So we did the recruitment campaign for them.

The Marketing Director, as well as the Chief Commercial Officer of ICICI, were planning to start their own Fintech startup, and they wanted students to be the main focus of that startup. So when I told them what was going on with Generation Purple – and at that time, we were licensing out our tool to a major player – and we couldn’t really go to market for two years because of that licensing arrangement. So I was telling them about how I was exploring in Fintech, and he’s like, “Listen, this is a perfect match made in heaven! We’re starting a company – come join us.” So it just came about organically.

That’s why I tell a lot of young people; try and use the transferable skills from what you study to the current professional world, because I did a degree in Business and Economics then I went on to do a special degree in politics, philosophy and economics from Oxford. And then, I’m working in banking and fintech. So you know, it’s just that you need to keep your options open.

Lee Lian: Yeah, you may say is organic, but I feel you do have some supportive figures that may have helped you along your way. For me, you know, what my mom taught me when I was five just lingers on until today. What about you? Who were your female role models growing up? 

Riddi: Oh wow – when you say that now, I’m just reflecting and I would like to take back my statement. Yes, it was organic, but through the divine support of mentors and role models, and so on, I would say. For me, growing up, it’s always been like, I’ve seen my mum, but not on the professional front, where she can kind of balance out work and family. I’ve definitely seen my aunt – she’s she’s done some great work in her career of being one of the very few Asian women leading organisations in the US. So I think my aunt’s definitely a woman role model to me. And there’s Amal Clooney, for how she conducts herself and champions humanitarian issues. So when I see them, I try and draw inspiration.

Lee Lian: Yeah, I love Michelle Obama and Amal Clooney. You’ve done a lot, you know, you know, you’re just getting started.

Riddi: I’m just getting started, yeah!

Lee Lian: In just a few short years, you’ve done a lot, from studying at the University of Manchester onwards to your career. What would you say was the turning point in your journey from student to female leader? What was the turning point?

Riddi: So I think the turning point is that one decision that I made to put myself forward for the position of the diversity officer. And I would want to credit, the former diversity officer, who actually encouraged me to do that, because I was resistant. At the university, I founded something called the International Student Network to represent more international students, and I knew a lot of people who wanted to contest and who wanted the support of the current diversity officer. All of a sudden he said, “You know what – you’ve done great work in championing this cause, and this is what the union needs to have an international student like you.” I think the support that he gave me really gave me the confidence to go for it. I never thought like, you know, 5,000 students or 6,000 students would ever vote for me and when I saw that on the board, it just felt like it’s a surreal feeling. I really want to go back to that and live that moment again and again.

Lee Lian: Absolutely inspiring. And I guess you’re not done yet in creating impact. What’s next for Generation Purple and what’s next for Riddi Viswanathan?

Riddi: So the next step for Generation Purple is definitely expansion, because the product is ready, and we’ve received some amazing feedback. So now, it’s about tying up with more educational institutions, and study abroad agencies – take it as we want to impact as many young people as possible. With regards to Riddi Viswanathan, this has been a project that’s been in the pipeline for a long time, and this year, I’m just pushing myself to not procrastinate and start earlier.  I believe in holistic education, and I want to set up a foundation that advocates for the rights of young people and holistic education topics like emotional quotient topics, such as health and well-being in general, mental health and anti-discrimination are some topics that I would really like to facilitate through my platform. So yeah, that’s something on the pipeline. Definitely hoping to make the world more inclusive.

Lee Lian: I wish you only the best and shall be following your story closely. My final question to you: for those female students listening to your story and wanting to follow in your footsteps, whether it’s taking an economics course, studying in the UK or leading thousands of students, what advice would you give to them?

Riddi: I think it’ll be the advice that I’m giving to myself – never settle for less. Because I have – many times – not understood my self-worth in a lot of situations.  I’m learning to understand my self-worth and negotiate better. So whether it’s applying for university, if you think you are in the Oxbridge League, definitely go for it – of course, have your safe options. But definitely don’t doubt yourself, because I think a lot of women around me have somewhere doubted themselves, but when they put themselves out there, they’ve only emerged successfully. And today, I see a lot of more young women breaking those glass ceilings and entering rooms with that confidence. So I would just say be confident in your approach and never settle for anything less, whether it’s an employer, whether it’s a university that you’re applying for, or whether it’s a man that you want to have a relationship with – never settle for less.

Lee Lian: Well said, well said. Well, thank you so much Riddi! This has been a blast having you here. I wish you all the best, Happy Friday and have a good weekend.

Riddi: Likewise! I just wanted to give you a compliment  with the research that you’ve done in terms of the numbers with University of Manchester. It’s just phenomenal – like I don’t know how you managed to put all that together, but thank you for such a lovely chat.

Lee Lian: Yeah, yeah, it was just our job. But thank you so much for being here with us. You know, 30 minutes, loads of inspiration from Riddi – can’t ask for much more on a Friday. 

Riddi: Thank you, thank you. 

Lee Lian: And if you want to read or listen to more inspiring stories like this, head on to www.study international.com. Thank you for listening. This has been Extra Credit.