Hetal Jani, founder of SPEAK, a mentorship program for immigrant girls, proudly represented Queens as one of the 10 honorees at this year’s L’Oréal Paris Women of Worth Awards, which honors “extraordinary women who selflessly volunteer their time to serve their communities.”
“I love Queens,” said Jani, who was born and raised in Flushing. “My Queens accent even came in a bit when I was speaking at the event.”
Jani was presented with the prestigious award by Academy Award-winning actress Helen Mirren at the Women of Worth ceremony on Dec. 4. Before introducing Jani, Mirren mentioned the importance of giving opportunities and how immigrants have played and continue to play an important role in the United States.
“Obviously, this administration is being unspeakably cruel and unconscionable resistant to this fundamental truth of America, which is immigration,” Mirren said. “In a country as young as the United States, especially a melting pot like New York City, it’s important to remember where we came from. Too often we don’t consider the struggles of immigrant youth and how those struggles are limiting the social integration and the academic achievement of these young people who stand straddling a vast cultural divide. But thanks to the brave and compassionate work of Hetal Jani, perhaps we will consider them in a different light.”
Jani began SPEAK (which stands for Support, Prepare, Empower, Aspiring, Kids) in 2015, after hearing one too many stories from girls who weren’t allowed to make mistakes due to certain cultural barriers they still faced in the U.S. As the daughter of Indian immigrants, Jani said she understands these cultural barriers from her own bicultural experiences.
But it was one story in particular that inspired her to dedicate herself to young women. A 12-year-old girl once confided in her that if she received an 80 percent grade point average, her family would get her married.
“The barriers that they face are invisible to so many people,” Jani said. “Because immigrant girls, especially, are often the cultural brokers — they’re the ones taught to uphold language, culture, tradition — but at the same time they want to live out the American dream.”
Jani, who has three master’s degrees from Harvard, IE Business School in Spain and Queens College, felt that the education system doesn’t truly address the social and cultural issues some students face every day — especially for those students who have no choice but to excel in school.
“We’re only looking at their grades. But what does it mean when they get a bad grade?” Jani said.
At the Women of Worth ceremony, Jani mentioned another girl who wanted to apply to SPEAK just a month ago but, after Jani and her team did their best to accommodate her schedule, were told by the girl that she couldn’t participate in the program “because her husband expected her home at 2 p.m. to cook dinner.”
She was in the 10th grade.
That’s why SPEAK was modeled as a mentorship program that connects girls to professionals in order to show them what they can do without the gender expectations or norms they’re often faced with, on top of being immigrants. They have several programs with a mix of virtual and in-person opportunities that allow them to work directly with high schools as well as students in three different states and two cities in India and Ghana.
Their “Pillars of Development” are designed to develop individuals and their communities to “provide technical and career focused skills,” “enhance social and cultural capital of youth that allow them to explore and confirm their cultural identity” and “promote civic engagement to help uplift the communities they come from.”
With their motto, “Empower a Girl. Empower the World,” they have impacted the lives of more than 100 girls and their families. And since they adopted their “Pillars” in 2017-2018, SPEAK conducted over 400 mentoring sessions with 75 girls, with 94 percent identifying as immigrants.
Now, thanks to the $10,000 grant provided to them by the L’Oréal Paris Women of Worth Award, Jani said she doesn’t “have the words to say how much it’s already changed the scope” of what they can do for young girls.
The 36-year-old is also grateful for the bond she created with the nine other remarkable women leaders she shared the stage with at the ceremony.
“Sometimes you think people aren’t noticing the work, since a lot of this work is often in isolation and you feel you need to do it because no one else is seeing it,” she said. “I see these young women and the invisible scars, and I need to help them, but in helping you often feel invisible as well because the work is incredibly hard and underfunded. But being a L’Oréal Women of Worth, I was able to share the stories of these young women and bring a spotlight to this work.”