Scholar Spotlight - Priyal Keni

Laidlaw Scholar Priyal Keni on breaking stereotypes in a male-dominated sport and empowering girls and women.
Scholar Spotlight - Priyal Keni
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Priyal Keni, a Laidlaw Scholar at London Business School, on breaking stereotypes in a male-dominated sport and empowering girls and women.

I was born in Mumbai, India in a middle-class family where 12 of us lived under the same roof.  Living in a modest joint family situation, there was no filter or safe space for my childlike innocence to thrive. I grew up listening to stories of my grandfather's involvement in the Indian freedom struggle, watched my dad work super hard to financially support us and I was party to every family struggle. This made me develop a mature perspective towards life very early on.

My mom faced many personal challenges in completing her education and never got a chance to pursue her career. Given her struggle, she always told me that as a girl I will have to work harder to prove myself. “Never underestimate the power of your education and career - it will take you places and make you independent” is one of her golden pieces of advice that I still swear by. 

The turning point in my life came when I started pursuing rifle shooting at the age of 13. Given my background, choosing to pursue a highly male-dominated and expensive sport was a huge leap I wasn’t ready for. But at that point, mom extended her unconditional support, and I knew when she bet on me, I could bet on myself. 

That one decision changed everything and unleashed the fierce ambitious girl that I never knew existed within me. I dreamed big, challenged stereotypes, and won government scholarships. I was only 15 when I made my debut in the international sports circuit by earning a seat in the Indian Shooting Team. 

Clicked during one the of the international rifle shooting competitions where I was representing India
Clicked at an international shooting championship.

Since then I have only strived to work harder, valued my career more, and been unapologetically ambitious about what I want, whether in academics or sports. Along the way, one of the things I have always wished for is to have more female role models to look up to and someday become one myself! 

When I was gearing up for the next big career milestone and working on my MBA application, I first discovered the Laidlaw Women Leadership Fund. Instantly I could connect with their mission of helping women achieve equal representation and power. This motivated me to apply for the Laidlaw Scholarship as it perfectly resonated with my aspiration of becoming a future leader!

What is the biggest life challenge you overcame, and what did you learn from it?

Overcoming stereotypical barriers has been the biggest challenge for me. In a country where sports is not considered as a career option for women even today, at the age of 13 I chose to follow my passion for a highly unconventional sport and established myself at an international level. 

I still remember the first time I won a medal in shooting, instead of appreciation I heard things like "It will affect your academics", "You will have no career," and "You will develop an unattractive masculine physique handling a 6.5 kg rifle". 

Back in school, I was the only girl in the shooting team with 8 other boys. At that tender age I did not understand the terms "gender bias" or "stereotype", but what I did understand was that I had chosen to be different, I had made some bold decisions, and the journey ahead was not going to be an easy one. 

There have been many sacrifices and challenges along the way - instances which only reminded me each day how committed I was towards achieving my goals. Today I thank the 15-year-old me for believing in herself, dreaming big and taking the leap of faith. 1.5 decades later, it is safe to say my decisions did not affect my career but helped me find my purpose in life. 

Clicked during one of the final match rounds of a regional shooting championship in India
Clicked at a regional shooting championship.

What is the best piece of advice you have been given?

Always believe in yourself! You want something - put your head down and work for it like it is the only thing that matters to you. It is okay to fail, but it is not okay to not try. Regret hits harder than failure and you will never know how far you can go till you do not push yourself out of your comfort zone to test the full extent of your potential.

What is the worst piece of advice you have been given?

You are an accidental success - pursuing a career in sport will not take you anywhere in the longer term.

Top 3 tips that will help someone become a better leader

Be Collaborative - never impose authority! Give your team members an opportunity to grow and lead. Respect different perspectives and be open to diverse ideas.

Be Ethical - Make sure strong ethics is one of the core foundational values on the strength of which you build your team.

Be Empathetic - Be mindful that your team members have their own challenges and struggles. Make them feel "inclusion" and "belonging."

Which leaders in the world inspire you the most and why?

Two women leaders that I look up to are Indra Nooyi and Anjali Sud. They both hail from humble Indian backgrounds, built their careers on the strength of their own merit, and were the first in their families to go to business school. I highly resonate with their journeys and look up to them as my role models! 

What does it mean for you to be a Laidlaw Scholar?

I still remember when I hit the submit button for the LBS MBA application, more than rejoicing about crossing the finish line. I was contemplating how I would finance my education. I would spend a few hours daily speaking to current students, revisiting the excel I had prepared for projected costs and in evaluating different scholarships and loans I was eligible for. 

The entire interviews phase honestly felt like swimming in the deep ocean with land nowhere in sight. And then came the day I received the Laidlaw Scholarship - it not only felt like somebody had thrown a float towards me but also a sign through which the universe was trying to tell me that yes this is it! 

Without the support of the Laidlaw Women Leadership Fund, it would have been impossible for me to give flight to my dreams and be the first person from my family to go to business school!

Clicked on my first day at London Business School.

Briefly describe a scene from the future you are striving to create.

I have an innate desire to create an impact in every facet of my life. It is fuelled by this passion that I always go the extra mile. Even in the middle of a competitive global MBA program, I have made a conscious decision to continue to lead my non-profit back in India and also work with UN Women as one of the top 30 individuals selected globally for their 30 for 2030 network. 

As a non-profit leader, I have a deep understanding of my responsibilities and the power I hold to influence the lives of many other girls and women out there who are struggling to make their voices heard. 

My goal is to continue to strive towards building a more equal world through the work I am doing, so that one’s gender, background or financial circumstance should not be a limiting factor to what one can achieve. As a female role model and leader, I hope to leave behind a legacy that will inspire more girls and empower them to achieve their dreams - because I believe empowering girls means empowering half a generation! 

 Clicked during one of the many NGO programs which we run with local schools in India, focusing on girl education and empowerment
Clicked during one of the NGO programs in India.

Quick-Fire Questions

📺 Favorite movie: The Pursuit of Happyness 

🎵 My current anthem: Night Changes 

📚 My top book recommendation: Atomic Habits by James Clear

 🦀 Food recommendation: Ardent lover of spicy Indian food - especially seafood! 

🌈 Something that made me feel joy recently: Recently started working on an interesting campaign as a member of the UN Women 30 for 2030 network which is expected to be launched in Nov’ 22 - can’t wait :)

❤️ A cause I care about: I founded my own non-profit, Play and Shine, in India in 2018 and started working at the intersection of the sport and sustainability - impacted thousands of children and worked with large organizations like the TATA Sustainability Group, Teach for India, Government of Maharashtra, Decathlon, International Olympic Committee etc.

Clicked during my first TEDx Talk titled “Sport for Sustainability”
Clicked during my first TEDx Talk titled “Sport for Sustainability”

🔎 Find Priyal online:

  • Play and Shine website
  • Articles on Play and Shine: Her Story | Hindustan Times | Midday | Idiva
  • 5 - time TEDx Speaker: TEDx Talk on “Sport for Sustainability”
  • You can find Priyal on LinkedIn. She is a top LinkedIn Creator currently funded by the platform (40k followers). She supports women-owned MSME’s in India through the LinkedIn Creator Accelerator Program
  • Priyal was also selected by UN Women India as one of the eight allies to spearhead the generation equality campaign in India. Learn more on Instagram.
  • Priyal was a member of the Indian Shooting Team for 7 years, won +110 medals at national and state level shooting championships and broke 3 national records. She also won the Shiv Chatrapati Award, the highest honour for sport in the state.

Priyal is a Laidlaw Scholar at London Business School. The Laidlaw Women's Business Education Scholarship aims to help build a pipeline of future women leaders through access to best-in-class education, resources and global networks by providing full and half scholarships to women who would not otherwise be in a position to reap the benefits of attending an outstanding school. 

🔦 Discover more Scholar Spotlights:

  • Davinia Cogan on working as a single mother and seeing opportunities instead of challenges.
  • Asha Scaria Vettoor on running a successful social enterprise and empowering rural women artisans.

  • Xuerui Yin on overcoming societal norms, creating opportunities for underrepresented groups, and working with compassion.

  • Paseka Khosa on overcoming financial hardship and advocating for unwavering belief in oneself.

  • Fisayo Adeleke on her mission to increase women's access to opportunities, and dealing with uncertainty.

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