Rupa Datta has always held diversity and inclusion close to her heart. Within a work setting, she said, having leaders who come from different backgrounds can be particularly valuable.  

“It just enriches the workplace when people have different lived experiences,” Datta said earlier this month. 

Born in India, Datta is one of two West Warwick women tapped recently by the Rhode Island Foundation to participate in a new leadership development initiative aimed at preparing Rhode Islanders of color to hold positions of influence. 

West Warwick resident Carla Wahnon, manager of integrated health care at East Bay Community Action Program and co-chair of the agency’s Task Force for Justice and Equity, was also accepted into the program. 

In all, 31 people were selected from nearly 100 applicants to participate in the Equity Leadership Initiative inaugural class. They identify as Asian, Black, Hispanic, Latino, Indigenous or multi-racial, and nearly 75 percent identify as women. 

A Rhode Island resident since 2006, Datta said she feels honored to be part of such a diverse class of area leaders.

“I’m very excited to part of this great group of people,” she said. “They’re all leaders in their own spaces… I feel very grateful.”

The year-long program, which kicked off in September, features monthly work sessions and regular one-to-one coaching sessions. Participants will be matched with a mentor, and will be given various opportunities to network across sectors. 

The Equity Leadership Initiative is just one facet of the Rhode Island Foundation’s three-year, $8.5 million plan to advance diversity, equity, inclusion and access. 

Angie Ankoma, the leadership program’s executive director and a vice president at the Foundation, said she looked forward to working over the coming year with the initiative's participants. 

“I am excited to get to work to cultivate the next generation of industry leaders – bank presidents, hospital CEOs, leaders in academia and kindergarten through 12 education, corporate executives, policy-makers, judges and more – who are people of color,” Ankoma said.

Since leaving India, Datta has always been the only person of color in her places of work. She said she was thrilled during the first meeting of the Equity Leadership Initiative to be among people from such a broad range of backgrounds. 

“I just felt I could relate to many of the stories they were sharing,” she said. “It was something that I haven’t experienced for a long time.”

Datta believes strongly in the power of building bridges between cultures — by teaching Bollywood dance to Rhode Islanders, for example, she’s striven to foster healthy cross-cultural connections.  

“I feel that this program will help me to do that on an even larger scale,” she said. “Not just through dance and art, but more than that — through our history, our practices, we can learn to understand each other better.”

That kind of bridge-building has been a focus in Datta’s career, too. 

With a PhD in urban ecological planning from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Datta has held positions at several environmental organizations since her move to the United States, including at Save the Bay for 10 years. A senior fellow of the Environmental Leadership Program, she’s been working with the Nature Conservancy of Rhode Island for the last five years.

In her position as manager of the state director’s office and human resources operations at the environmental nonprofit, Datta works with the leadership team, trustees and staff to create a diverse and inclusive workplace culture.

Her hope is that the leadership program will help her develop innovative ideas to incorporate into her daily work.

And, Datta said, she hopes other foundations will soon realize the value of a diverse workplace.

“We have to build each other up,” she added.

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