09/28/2007 06:41 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Balancing Your Life: Why Women Helping Women Makes a Difference

We often take for granted our right to vote, to work, to speak out and even to wear the clothes that we do. In many countries around the world that isn't the case. Kavita Ramdas, who heads up the Global Fund For Women, explained to me how and why her organization is making a difference.

Kavita Ramdas: The Global Fund For Women is a publicly supported grant making foundation, which means that we raise all of the money that we give away. We are the largest foundation in the world that exclusively supports women's human rights in 160 countries all over the world. And we try to advance the opportunities that women have in all aspects of their lives to be full and equal citizens in their own societies.

Ellen Susman: You grew up in India as one of three sisters, and your parents were activists. Tell me a little bit about your background.

MS. RAMDAS: I think in part what made our upbringing so interesting was the interaction between these two very strong forces in our lives. My father was profoundly in love with my mother, but also constantly bewildered by her. So I think we had an opportunity to see this sort of tussle between what was considered the accepted and traditional way of doing things and in my mother's desire to see us as a family having a responsibility to something larger than ourselves. Most Indian middle class families are not that different from middle class American families. We'd rather not see the poverty and the inequality that is in our own world. And in India that's much harder to do than in the United States because it is actually all around us.

MS. SUSMAN: What did your mother do to build your involvement?

MS. RAMDAS: She pointed out to the three of us, who were going to a very good school in Bombay, that we had opportunities that 80 percent of Indian children did not have the opportunity to have, which was access to education. And we became involved in a program that helped teach young children who came from slum communities. And that was just a huge eyeopener for us, to sit on the ground with kids who thought that having a pencil and a book was the greatest gift of all and for us to realize that all our cribbing about school just seemed ridiculous in the face of children who couldn't wait to have the opportunity to go to school. I think that's really what began to shape and transform us in terms of our own choices in the future.

MS. SUSMAN: Let's talk about your relationship. You're a Hindu woman married to a Pakistani man. When you talk about bridging cultures, you're doing that in your own life.

MS. RAMDAS: I think the great gift of my father's career to us was traveling to so many different places. We were in a different town and different city and sometimes in a different country every two to three years. And our ability to see human beings for who they were- as human being's first and then Germans or Burmese or English or Indian was a very important part of our upbringing. And my parents were very clear about the fact that people were people first. So when I met my husband three weeks after I arrived at Mount Holyoke College at a dance, it never occurred to me to question where he was from. So when my father said, well, of all the 192 countries in the world, did you have to pick a Pakistani? I said to him, "It's your fault. You told me that you told me that nationality really didn't matter." So I think we were we were fortunate.

MS. SUSMAN: Years ago I spoke with Indra Nooyi, who is the CEO of PepsiCo at a Yale conference and she said the biggest challenge in the 21st century is balancing work and life. Why is it so difficult for Americans to understand that it's okay to balance life and work?

MS. RAMDAS: I think that's a really good question. But I also think it is in part because we have not as a society moved to a place where instead of the word balance, I guess I would use the word integrate because life is about family ,but it's also about work, it's also about a sense of personal fulfillment as well as a sense of social obligation.

MS. SUSMAN: What can employers do and what can employees ask for that creates a more seamless work environment?

MS. RAMDAS: Well, the Global Fund just went through a process that produced this wonderful employee handbook that has sections with hearts on it that particularly address the issue of family and work balance. In many places you hear about the struggles between working mothers and single women at an organization. I think we've tried really hard to say having a work life balance is not only about children, it's also about being able to have time for yourself, to nurture yourself as a human being. This is especially difficult, I think, in an organization where all of us feel that our work is advancing a larger cause.

MS. SUSMAN: As you raise your daughter what are your dreams for her and for other children?

MS. RAMDAS: My dream is that Mira and her classmates will grow up and that the opportunities to be who you are, a full-time parent, a full-time musician, an artist, a painter, a politician, that those will be options all our children will have. I hope our children have the possibility of envisioning and imagining a world in which we can resolve our differences with words, not bombs and bullets.