S. Mona Sinha ’93 was in the midst of a career transition, questioning what to do next, when she found herself stuck on some praise she regularly received. At the time, she was an active board member of a human rights nonprofit, and she remembers noticing how, in response to nearly everything she said, her fellow board members replied, “That’s brilliant!” And while her input may well have been, Sinha is gently self-deprecating in recalling this. “It wasn’t brilliant,” she says, cracking a smile. “It was just basic business sense.”
Much of the insight she offered to that organization — and to the many other nonprofits, advocacy groups, and individuals she has advised over the years — originated from the set of core business fundamentals she learned at Columbia Business School. Particularly relevant, time and again, were the lessons from a class called Turnarounds, which covered, as Sinha puts it, “how to take a messy situation and turn it around.” Sinha had loved the class and had been skilled in applying its real-world tenets, especially as the manager of a restructuring project at Unilever. Over the years, Sinha began to understand, and then fully embrace, how deeply valuable her business acumen could be to the purpose-focused organizations whose missions she cared most about: the ones fighting for gender equality in business and society.
“I thought to myself, maybe I can use all the skills I’ve learned over the last 12 years to make these organizations sustainable,” Sinha says. “Whether a business is for profit or nonprofit, you’re still paying people, you still need to run the organization, you still need to have a strategic plan, you need to have governance and a board. There are lots of similarities, but I think somehow organizations in the nonprofit sector are not looked at as businesses.”
Sinha’s dedication to seeing purpose-focused organizations succeed — and maybe even change their corner of the world — traces back to her childhood in Calcutta, where, at 12, she began volunteering in one of Mother Teresa’s orphanages. It was in that setting that Sinha grew attuned, early on, to deeply ingrained gender injustice — for example, when she noticed that all of the babies and children in the orphanage were girls and considered second-class citizens from the start.
Sinha began her college education in India, but it was a time of political upheaval and classes were largely suspended, so she applied to colleges in the United States. She gravitated to all-women institutions and decided on Smith College, in Northampton, Massachusetts, on the strength of its financial aid package.
After graduating from Smith, Sinha took a job as an analyst on Wall Street. “I had all these loans to repay, and so I always saw it as a temporary thing,” she says. “But I actually really liked the work.”
When Sinha began her MBA at CBS, she saw it as a step toward securing a future career path in finance. But some of the classes exposed her to skills — and aptitudes within herself — that made her start to question that path. One of them was a marketing class, which was where a friend pointed out to Sinha that maybe she wasn’t all about the numbers, after all — she was actually very creative, too.
Sinha took a summer job in marketing at Procter & Gamble in Cincinnati, and indeed, it clicked. She left her Wall Street job to work at Unilever in new product development and marketing, where she developed a reputation as a product person with a fluency in numbers. Before long, Sinha was tapped for a restructuring project, which, as it turned out, combined both of those proclivities.
She was tasked with restructuring the Asia-Pacific operations of Unilever’s Elizabeth Arden brand. The project involved establishing country-specific strategic plans, introducing new products, and cutting costs.
“I learned so much about markets, about the importance of having a global strategy but implementing locally,” Sinha says. “That job was a real pivot for me, in terms of understanding the different issues around business.”
By the end of the successful restructuring, Sinha was excited about how she might parlay her new insights — but she was also burned out. She decided to leave Unilever and, at that point, pursued a career path distinct from most with her experience: She began to volunteer her time and expertise. She joined the boards of organizations she believed in — almost all of them focused on women and girls. Sinha has sat on the board of Apne Aap International, an anti-sex trafficking nonprofit, and Breakthrough, which seeks to make violence against women and girls unacceptable. She was also a vice chair of the founding board for the Smithsonian Women’s History Museum and served as board chair of the ERA Coalition Fund for Women’s Equality, which seeks to codify the 28th constitutional amendment of equal rights on the basis of sex. In addition, Sinha has served as a mentor and a financial advisor to women-led businesses and is currently the board chair of Women Moving Millions, a community of women who make big investments ($1 million and more) for gender equality.
As Sinha tapped into the nonprofit sector’s hunger for her business expertise, she looked for ways to make her insight more widely accessible. In 2017, she co-founded Raising Change, a platform to coach mission-driven fundraisers.
“We started Raising Change because fundraising is something these organizations have to do, and they hate it — they see it as a real burden,” Sinha says. “I decided to teach people how to fundraise, in part by changing the language. Call them ‘mission makers’ instead of ‘fundraisers.’ They’re not just looking for people’s money; they’re looking for their heart and their connection to an issue.”
Along the way, the people Sinha has gotten to know in the fight for gender equality have admired in her the unique alchemy of skills and passion she brings to the movement. Among these close observers is Gloria Steinem, Sinha’s friend and fellow women’s rights activist.
“Mona brings wisdom and the world together as she spans two continents to change women’s lives,” Steinem says. “She is unusual in having experience both in the financial and social change sectors, and navigates both with ease and confidence. On both continents, she has been an example and a support to other women who are in this global struggle for equality.”
For over 20 years, this was how Sinha worked: building a portfolio of organizations she partnered with to empower women. But recently, she decided to pivot again, taking another full-time job as global executive director of Equality Now, a large legal nonprofit that works to change laws that enshrine equality for women and girls.
“Joining Equality Now feels like a culmination of all these years of experience,” she says. “I’ve always come in to fix organizations that are in trouble. Here, I was being presented with an organization that has a 30-year history of having made change. And now the challenge is, how do I help it to be better known?”
Something she hopes to do in the new role, she says, is draw from models across the world in elevating the message and work of Equality Now. “There are many things that I think the Global South is doing in a much stronger way than the United States,” she says — citing the example of how seamlessly she saw coalitions working together in her recent trip across Africa. In her new role, as ever, Sinha will be looking for ways to combine skills and models with an eye toward more just societies.
“Mona brings her full self to every task she undertakes,” says Kathleen McCartney, president of Smith College. “From her business training, she brings leadership, strategic thinking, and the ability to bring teams together. From her global experience, she brings perspective-taking and empathy. And from her heart, she brings a commitment to make the world a better place for all.”
Named for Ray Horton, the Frank R. Lautenberg Professor Emeritus of Ethics and Corporate Governance, who established social enterprise as a program at Columbia Business School, the Horton Award recognizes individuals or organizations who are dedicated to social or environmental causes and have used management skills to benefit society.