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Leadership Worth Sharing: Raakhi Shah, CEO of The Circle

Welcome to Leadership Worth Sharing, a podcast in which ACEVO chief executive Jane Ide chats with civil society leaders about their professional experiences, challenges, wellbeing, and their journeys in the sector.

In this episode, Jane talks to Raakhi Shah, CEO of The Circle, a global feminist organisation that fights for the rights and supports the safety of the most vulnerable women and girls across the world.

One of my pieces of advice (…) is about bringing your whole self to your workplace, to your leadership position. So whilst we talked about myself being a woman of colour as a CEO, I’m also a mother, I have got caring responsibilities, I come from a working class background, there’s all sorts of identities that are really important to people. And I think increasingly, it’s very important people do bring those and feel comfortable with those

Raakhi Shah


Jane Ide  00:00

So, Raakhi, tell us a little bit about The Circle, first of all, the organisation that you lead, the work it does and your own journey to becoming its chief executive.

Raakhi Shah  00:10

Jane, thanks so much for inviting me on to this ACEVO podcast first of all. So obviously, I can talk about The Circle nonstop. The Circle is a global feminist organisation that supports and empowers the most vulnerable and marginalised women around the world. We particularly focus on economic empowerment and ending violence against women to huge issues. And our focus is particularly on these groups in the global south and in the UK, I guess particularly the intersection of sort of international development and women’s rights. We do it in three ways. We fund and support grassroots women led organisations on the front line. And there’s this incredulous fact that only sort of 1% of funding globally goes to gender justice and grassroots organisations. So we’re on a mission to change that. And through, you know, the network of women and allies that are part of The Circle, we also give sort of non financial support that’s driven by them. So for example, we’ve recently helped them make videos to showcase their work, social media, sort of skills, workshops, and support with legal advice. So that’s one way. The other way is around advocacy and amplification. So advocacy for long term structural change under those two pillars I talked about. So one of the great examples we’ve got is our living wage project, which has been developed by our lawyers’ circle networks, we’ve got an incredible group of lawyers who are part of The Circle and activists who advocated for living wage for garment workers. So 80% of garment workers around the world are women and many working on poverty wages. So they drafted, draft legal frameworks to take to the EU. So it’s part of their third report. So that’s one way. And then the other way around, amplifying the stories of those in the frontline with lived experience, is also really key to us as an organisation. And we’re on a path to centering the small so for example, the majority of our events in our decision making, obviously, this sector is changing lots. So this is really critical for us. We’re doing all of this, I guess the USP of the organisation is we’re doing all of this by building a network of global feminist changemakers. Anyone listening invited to be part of it. So we’ve got stars, lawyers, students, women leading partner organisations. So yes, anyone can come and join.

Jane Ide  02:31

It feels like a particularly current and relevant issue that you’re working on. One of the things I’m particularly interested in listening to you talking about the work that The Circle does is many of our members at ACEVO, many chief execs obviously in this country are exactly that, they’re working in a UK or an England or a local context, you’re obviously working across multiple different cultures and political systems. And with a global perspective. How does that feel, what does that feel like for you? And what’s your experience with that?

Raakhi Shah  03:08

I’m a global feminist at heart so it feels very natural to be in a context where you’re connected with women across cultures. I’ve worked in international development for a long time. So I can talk about my journey as a CEO as well. But I think in this day and age, that phrase, now more than ever, we need to be connected globally and supporting one another, and not just in the context of our own national or local issues. And as we’ve seen, we’ll talk about later, you know, the issues at the weekend, around Roe x Wade kind of just shows the impact and fearfulness that can come from changes, that can happen overnight. And it’s a real time to show solidarity across borders. So it’s a great role to be in.

Jane Ide  04:01

So tell me a little bit more about how you came to be there. What was the journey that brought you to this?

Raakhi Shah  04:07

So I’ve had I’ve had over 16 years experience working in international development. So previously at large NGOs, such as Oxfam and UNICEF UK, and those covered a breadth of areas from fundraising, communications, advocacy, campaigning, much of this time has been focused was focused on partnerships with high level names, so stars, CEOs, politicians and more and how how best to utilise their support. So that range from everything from developing fundraising galas to their involvement in global events, such as G7, G20, campaigns, and also overseas trips. So I’ve I’ve undertaken sort of over 30 visits to countries such as Bangladesh, Lebanon, Jordan, Pakistan, and more, so bringing the voices of those with lived experience to the forefront. So it does it has really covered a breadth. And that sort of fact lends itself to a CEO role because it intrinsically you have, it has oversight of, of all of those areas of an organisation. So, yeah, really, I guess not a traditional route, potentially. But when you think back on it, it does sort of make sense.

Jane Ide  05:22

Yeah. So there’s a, there’s a thread that runs through things that somehow coalesces when you when you come into these sorts of new sorts of roles. You joined The Circle in 2020, your first chief exec role. And as I think everybody knows, as soon as you mentioned the year, we were all slap bang in the middle of a pandemic, I think was a very tough time for so many people generally, and particularly for leaders in our sector facing all sorts of challenges that none of us had actually really got on our risk register. What do you think stepping into that role in the middle of a pandemic has taught you about your leadership, given that you didn’t have the specific experience of being a chief exec in the sector prior to that to compare it with? How much do you think the pandemic experience changed your approach to leading the organisation and what did you have to do to adapt around that?

Raakhi Shah  06:14

You’re right, Jane, I did join during the pandemic, in fact, was the first week of lockdowns, March 2020, so it couldn’t have been more untimely, maybe. So and I just finished my second maternity leave as well. So just getting back into the swing of work as well. So the role was always going to be home based, which I think was incredibly rare at that point. But look, now, you know, everyone’s doing it. And you asked about what it taught me about my own leadership. I mean, I think it reinforced that I’m actually naturally resilient person. In fact, our founder said, I should have a t shirt made with unflappable on it, but I mean, every, everyone has their moments, of course, I’m also quite a creative and agile person. So I think I was, you know, able to utilise that to pivot the organisation. So it’s sort of remain sustainable at a critical period. And I think test and innovate on new things. So you know, not being afraid of that, whilst also sort of putting strategic changes in as a new CEO and wanting to take the organisation to the next level. But I think like everyone, you know, the world over your your resilience gets tested, has been tested, and I’m sure yours has, as well, Jane. So I’ve been really careful to try and focus on r&r, ensuring weekends are kept clear as much as possible. Exercising, being okay with not being able to do everything and the age old, you know, when you’re on leave, try and be on leave to avoid burnout. And we aim to do that as a team and cover each other. So I think some of those things have been really important and, and just adapting and taking those moments to kind of step back and relook at everything afresh. But it’s certainly been interesting being the CEO coming out of the pandemic and remembering to, to sort of do it in that way, as well. And then shifting gear again.

Jane Ide  08:15

Yes, yeah. So somebody said to me, not that long ago, the whole, the whole role is about spinning balls and juggling plates. And I think, you know, I think the pandemic just exacerbated that 10,000 times for almost everybody, certainly. And I’m curious as well, to just explore with you a little bit in terms of, you know, we all know going into a new role, going into new leadership role. One of the key factors is how you land in that organisation, how you build your relationships, and your networks internally and externally. And I know, I know, from my own experience, and I know from many of other chief execs that I’ve spoken to about this over the last two, three years. Again, landing in the middle of a pandemic, whether you’re working locally, nationally or internationally, had a real impact on the ability to build those relationships. And that point of being able to move at the speed of trust, how did you tackle that, particularly given the nature of your organisation anyway.

Raakhi Shah  09:14

Well in some ways, everyone was at home, everyone was at home. So we’re all in the same place sort of virtually. So in some ways that made diary coordinations easier to kind of connect with people so yes, while you weren’t doing it, in person, and there are obviously challenges with that. It wasn’t actually as difficult as I imagined to meet with people. And and, you know, talk about the organisation and what’s been working, where the opportunities are, and I think there’s always that part when you start any new role of just listening and taking it all in and our chair, was really good about you know, reinforcing that. And also the fact that things are going to take time and I’m quite a speedy person and so want to make changes and, you know, things that are really working kind of reinforce them and she was right particularly in a pandemic, things do take time. And that’s okay. As long as you know the path of where you’re getting, trying to get to.

Jane Ide  10:20

So Raakhi, you, you’ve been at The Circle, just over two years now then. You’ve survived the pandemic, at least in its first iteration, I think we’re all working through what the long term consequences of it are, but it’s probably too soon to be able to tell properly. But one of the things I think that was quite striking for me, when I was looking at the organisation before we spoke is you’ve stepped into the leadership role of an organisation that is still relatively young, in sort of chronological terms, and has obviously a very high profile celebrity founder. And I’m really interested to understand, I’ve always been interested in this in terms of how, chief execs with quite nearby founders actually manage this. How do you balance the need to respect the founder’s intentions, and their vision for that organisation and what they set it up to achieve, with the needs of the organisation to evolve and to develop and to be responsive to what’s actually happening around it on its own terms? That must be quite a challenge sometimes.

Raakhi Shah  11:18

The Circle has, and for those who don’t know, The Circle’s founder is Annie Lennox. So the singer, songwriter and activist, the most incredible founder in terms of, you know, a women’s rights activist and of course, been doing it for a long time, we’ve got other founders such as Livia, Firth and Melanie Hall, who’s one of the leading QCs in the country, and, and it was built from an informal gathering back in 2008. So, and I’ve got long, you know, for many years, those six years worked with high level people. So in that sense, it hasn’t been much of a change, to work with people like that. But I think the main point is that, you know, we’re all on the same page that the organisation must evolve regularly and develops first and foremost in lines with the needs of women globally, which is an approach fully supported by our founders, ambassadors and board. So that as a starting point, has been really positive that I found, and we’ve all taken as a as a global feminist organisation would take a feminist and collaborative approach to all of our work. And that runs throughout the organisation as in inclusive to all our stakeholders, and it helps we have very regular open, honest conversation, sometimes that’s very blue sky thinking. And I’m a creative person at heart. So I can, most times be throwing in ideas, but other times it’s about bringing those ambitions, plans, you know, sort of back to pragmatic level about what’s going to have most impact. So our founder and founders are brilliant, extraordinary, very motivated, very passionate, but also pragmatic. And and if, if, if that isn’t, you know, isn’t there for any reason, that’s also my job to help kind of guide that to Ok, that’s what we want to do, how do we make it work? How do we make that most impactful? So I think that’s really important. And I think I’m also really lucky that I’ve got, The Circle got the most wonderful board and all women LED boards. They’re brilliant, they’ve been very good level of hands on and not at the right times. And I think we’re all in it together. And that is the ethos of The Circle. We are a network of women allies wanting to make change. So I think that’s the very core of the organisation.

Jane Ide  13:45

Yes, I think that thing that you actually have to live your own mission, don’t you, in that sense, and put it to put into the proof of this is how it can work and model that for other people as well as educating and supporting other people to understand it, which is, which is always a fascinating thing to see happening. And you mentioned, obviously your trustees there, we all know in our sector, how crucial a good trustee board is and the relationship between board and chief executive can make such a difference in the impact that an organisation is able to deliver. You yourself are also a trustee, as well as being a chief executive. How does that help you in your chief exec role and vice versa? Does it does it change the way you practice your leadership role?

Raakhi Shah  14:30

I love being a trustee. I’m a trustee of Reclaim which is an organisation focused on empowering working class young people to be the leaders of tomorrow and I love that. Their HQ is in Manchester but reach nationally and they do really inspiring projects and campaigning work led by young people. So big shout out to them, but it’s it’s invaluable when you’re a CEO to sort of also be on a board of another charity I’d say because you obviously really see things from both sides. It obviously makes me more empathetic to my board, but also to the Reclaim team. Obviously, it can be challenging because it can’t, it does take up time. So you need to be aware of that when you take a board role, but you know, you can be upfront and have those discussions. But it’s also great fun, because you get, you get some really interesting diverse people in your fellow board members. So there’s others from the charity sector, but we’ve got brilliant Monica, who works the nuclear industry, and Kathy works as a lawyer, and Bruce who works in the wine and beverage industry. So it’s, and we all bring something different to it. But I guess, you know, united by the same mission of it. So I do think it’s really important, you know, from a practical sense, you know, there’s so much you can learn about how different organisations do things, how they present stuff. And I think as a CEO, you know, you can also being on a board, hopefully gives support to the chief exec as well to have some empathy and guidance in what they’re doing.

Jane Ide  16:03

Yes, yes, I would recognise that having served myself, as a chief executive with boards made up of chief executives and being a trustee myself, I would agree with you, I think there’s something about that empathy that you get on either side, you know, and the understanding of the reality of what is being asked of you, as a chief executive can be really, really valuable. I have to say, I love the idea of the sort of over the sandwiches chat between somebody who works in the nuclear industry and somebody who works in the wine and beverage industry. That’s, that sounds very entertaining. I have to say, sounds really good. I think as well, the other thing I wanted to sort of just explore with you though is, is in terms of your own leadership development, you are actually one of ACEVO’s cohorts of women that are working their way through the Jane Slowey Memorial programme, which was created in memory of Jane who herself did a huge amount to support younger women in their leadership journeys. You’re halfway through the year on this, how are you finding that experience? What is it that you think you’re gaining from it most do you think? And how would you describe it to others who might look to perhaps putting themselves forward for the next cohort?

Raakhi Shah  17:16

So the, it’s been brilliant, obviously, it’s been challenging through COVID. So that, you know, first year we started last year was in the midst of it. But we have tried to create time as much as you can when you’re a CEO, especially with small organisation, we met up in person a couple of months ago, and I think we didn’t stop talking the whole time and the poor facilitator of that day… As you mentioned, the programme’s about bringing together sort of new female CEOs, women of colour, and it’s a two year programme of peer support training and insights from more from other more experienced CEOs and the cohort is brilliant. I’m gonna give them a shout out: Arti, Benaifer, Lorraine, Marchu, Afrah, Colina, they’re all probably as small charity CEOs are tearing their hair out trying to buy printing paper or celebrating large funds are coming through the ups and downs of a small charity CEO… But it’s been really valuable to have a peer network, going through similar experiences, that’s been the kind of most valuable and to just call upon them for conversations often when you need it. But also having the space created for training. And I think also, those questions of what you don’t know you don’t know, is always quite tough when you’re starting out in a new role, so it’s been really good to have time with other charity chief execs. And the programme also, you know, as part of your ACEVO membership, as you know, having a coach, having a mentor, all of those invaluable to making, you know, CEO role work and progress. And so I definitely recommend it to anyone listening, I’m really happy to have a conversation with anyone if they’re interested in it as well.

Jane Ide  19:12

Well, thank you. Thank you Raakhi. I think we very much appreciate your your advocacy for the programme and I think it is an important one it’s so much part of what we’re here to do is to support people stepping into their leadership roles, people developing their leadership roles, developing their practice and helping them to be the best they can be because that’s how we help make the world a better place really here at ACEVO, so it’s great to hear that you’re getting so much out of it. And I think as well, I’m sure you’re contributing a great deal in that group. I know how these things work, and I’m sure it’ll be invaluable for everybody that’s there.

Raakhi Shah  19:47

You know, most people listening will also already have their ACEVO membership, but if they don’t, I found membership in itself hugely valuable and do recommend it to so many people… You know, there’s training, there’s peer networks, but it’s also all the policy templates and the crisis helpline, I haven’t had to use it yet, but you know, you never know. And all of that in and yourself and Vicky Browning before was on hand and all the staff you know, to take calls, so… It is really, really a brilliant organisation.

Jane Ide  20:21

Well, thank you, I should make it clear to everybody listening: we haven’t paid Raakhi to say this, is genuine from the heart. But I I’ve been saying to people recently, having fairly recently arrived to ACEVO in this role, but having been a member myself for the last five years, I think what we offer is a pick and mix. And different times, you will need different things from us. And I always love it when people say they haven’t needed to use the chief exec in crisis service, because we really hope nobody ever needs to, but it’s there if people do. And as you say, being able to, I think that thing for most of our members, the key thing is being part of that wider community. And knowing that you’re not alone, because whatever it is you’re dealing with, somebody else, somewhere in the membership will have been there, done that and got the t shirt and will be very happy to step up and give you advice and support. So it’s great to know that you’re finding the value from that. However, we’re not here to plug ACEVO membership. So I shall I shall move on from that, if I may. But I suppose there’s a fairly obvious question really, in the sense that you’re a woman of colour. You’re a chief executive of an organisation that is run by women, and I was particularly struck by your comment about your all female board. You work, the whole work that you do is about empowering women and girls. So what advice would you give to a young woman, perhaps somebody who’s, you know, going to face some of the systemic barriers that we’re all very familiar with in our sector, who might aspire, or should aspire to be a chief executive one day, what would you give them from your, the benefit of hindsight from where you’ve come from, and how you’ve achieved what you’ve achieved.

Raakhi Shah  21:57

So, one of my pieces of advice if people feel comfortable, and they should, is about bringing your whole self to your workplace, to your leadership position. So whilst we talked about myself being a woman of colour, as a CEO, you know, I’m also a mother, I’m have got caring responsibilities, I come from a working class background, there’s all sorts of identities that are really important to people. And I think increasingly, it’s very important people do bring those and feel comfortable with those. And so whilst, you know, there may be barriers, I think, pulling on those and feeling comfortable, you know, is a really important part of your journey to the next level. I also think, you know, we absolutely need more women in leadership position. So I’m, I’m always happy to meet with people, andanother bit of advice maybe it’s about finding your own board, your own personal board. So a network of peers or senior staff you can turn to for different advice and guidance at different stages in your career. I’m a huge fan of intergenerational friendships. Older, younger, I think it’s really important to kind of draw upon those and what you get back. And I think the other bit is around getting that breadth of experience. There’s things you might not be interested in… finance, accounting, I don’t know. But they’re going to be invaluable later as you progress, especially if you aspire to be a CEO. So I would have a think about those to some of the people listening or women who are considering more senior positions.

Jane Ide  23:37

I love that very practical points at the end there. I do wish somebody had said to me a few decades ago, learn how to manage the finances, learn how to understand the balance sheet and those sorts of things. Because I think too often, especially for women, who traditionally perhaps have tended towards, should we call them the softer career paths, do find themselves excluded from those opportunities or feel that they’re excluded from those opportunities, because they don’t have that sort of financial background. And I think that’s, that’s a very, very wise piece of very practical advice there.

Raakhi Shah  24:09

Or make sure you’ve got  a really great treasurer like we have. Lizzie, who we’re gonna hang on to forever.

Jane Ide  24:17

Yes, huge, huge shout out to every brilliant treasurer in the sector, because we could not manage without you and there aren’t enough of you around it has to be said. Yeah, no, that’s that’s that’s very true, Raakhi. Thank you for that. I just want to pick up something and you mentioned this right at the beginning of the conversation, and I think it’s very, very current, very relevant in many ways. We’re recording this. It’s just a few days after we heard the news from America Supreme Court’s decision about Roe versus Wade. That so many of the things that are happening to women and girls around the world all the time, whether it’s young girls in Afghanistan being prevented from having their education, whether it’s women and their children being displaced from their homes by war, or by famine, or by oppressive regimes, domestic violence, the whole range of things that happen for women, I know from within my own networks, that particularly for those who work very specifically in those spaces, and who are trying to change the world and trying to make the world a better place for women and girls, but also for many, many others who just feel deeply committed to that sense of justice, and fairness and equity and inclusion that would underpin all the work that you do, that it is incredibly difficult sometimes, and there’s a very real sense of pain and grief around the failure globally, and, you know, within society to actually address those issues and to and to bring that fairness and justice into play. You clearly are a very positive, very dynamic, very outward looking and very outward facing woman. What what gives you hope, what is it that helps you stay motivated and positive about the work that you’re doing?

Raakhi Shah  26:06

I think it’s an incredibly difficult time. I think the news of the weekend about Roe versus Wade was a massive gut punch to all of us. And, you know, I felt incredibly angry, incredibly sad. So whilst being a positive person generally, I think it’s really important for all of us to feel our emotions, and whether it is angry, sad, and live in that space for a while. And then it’s important to recollect ourselves, and I guess, continue to strive for change. So I think that’s the biggest motivator for me. That change is possible and driving those emotions into action. I think whenever I’ve been on any sort of field trips to conflict zones to see women who have faced incredible atrocities, of course you’re going to feel pain, like you can’t be a human being and you don’t know when it’s going to hit you. But I always think from that, what can I do to make change, and I think it’s the most important thing is you can harness that, that power that you’ve got and one of the things we’re doing in The Circle, we often do things that we call safe spaces for our feminist supporters so to convene, you know, after Roe vs. Wade, to convene, share their reactions and talk about what action they can take. We did that after Sarah Everard’s horrific murder, we did it after George Floyd’s death. They’re just short, you know, sort of half an hour drop-ins where we give space for people to kind of just share how they’re feeling. They don’t have to talk about their experiences, but people find it incredibly helpful just to be in that collective space. That might be something others want to do. Motivation, I mean, meeting inspiring women, you know, wherever I go, my job on the frontline, fellow peers, making change, being part of a team, that we’re all aiming for ambitious change, those are all motivators. A friend of mine, Kirsten McNeil, who many might know, has great thread on Twitter that she regularly updates about campaigning wins in the year. So it’s always good one to look out for motivation. And I think, again, it sort of goes back to the r&r as well, you’re not going to achieve anything from an empty cup. So you’ve got to be fulfilled yourself, you’ve got to be energised. And I mean, as I said, for anyone listening, and they sort of identifies as feminists, and that’s anyone interested in women’s rights over global lens, you know, come and join us, you can just hopefully come and have your cup filled, and we can give you a framework for action.

Jane Ide  28:57

That’s brilliant. I think you may have answered the last question I was going to ask you Raakhi, which was actually if there was one thing anybody listening to this can do to support you and your mission to support the achievement of justice at global level for women and girls everywhere, what would it be? Is there anything you’d like to add to what you’ve just said?

Raakhi Shah  29:20

Well, I think as I said, The Circle is an open network of anyone that cares about women’s rights globally, and even if you work in the sector and can feel like you’re doing this day in day out. We want to be a home for you as well, that you might drop into events every now and then, be inspired by meeting women around the world. You might just want to donate yourself, you know, there’s all sorts of ways to support but if you’re interested definitely come join us in The Circle. You’re very very welcome and I’d love to meet you all!

Jane Ide  29:57

Thank you so much Raakhi, it’s been absolutely brilliant talking to you. I certainly feel much more positive than perhaps I did previously and I’m sure many many of our listeners will be wanting to engage with you and the work that you’re doing so thank you very much for your time. We really appreciate having you join us here.

Raakhi Shah  30:14

Thank you Jane

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