Monica Kumar was born in London, England, where she attended law school and practiced human rights and immigration law. She also worked as a commercial lawyer in the Turks and Caicos Islands. Building equitable communities and creating opportunities for people to inclusively engage in hard conversations and experiences has always played a central role in her life and work.
Monica co-founded Race Around NWA, which focuses on exposing and challenging historical systems of racial inequity to build more systematically equitable regional institutions. She consults and coaches on creating belonging and bridging, building inclusion and equity, and uplifting diverse teams and leaders working with organizations such as Engage and the NWA Council, INTERFORM and Havenwood. She frequently speaks and presents on inclusion and equity practices and also leads customized workshops and trainings. She previously served as the director of diverse social networks at the Excellerate Foundation and was the executive director of Downtown Bentonville Inc. She founded the punktuary, a coworking community culture house in Rogers.
Monica lives with her family in downtown Bentonville where they enjoy the myriad of incredible parks, trails and unique arts experiences. She serves on the executive board of the Greater Bentonville Chamber of Commerce as the 2022 Chair, the advisory council for the Bentonville Film Festival, the board of CACHE and the Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Advisory Board for the city of Bentonville. She was recently awarded an honorary associate degree in educational service from Northwest Arkansas Community College for her work in DEI, mentoring and supporting young adults across the region.
As a successful woman in leadership, what experiences most shaped your career and philosophy?
There have been lots of experiences that have supported my understanding of my work and career development, but I think the most deeply ingrained experience was actually during law school. I worked for about a year every Sunday from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. as a nurse aide in an elderly residence home. It was a long day, and we were expected to pitch in with everything including helping to bathe, feed and entertain the residents. It was a physically and emotionally heart-wrenching demanding job. That experience changed my entire understanding of what it means to be successful and live a meaningful life. It also helped me re-evaluate what I wanted to do with life and what I wanted in my future.
What advice do you have for keeping a team focused and motivated in challenging times?
Focus on building connections with every member of your team and collaborating to build community together. I would also say that it is in the most challenging situations that we are called to learn and grow, so take those times as a gift of an opportunity to discover what makes you excited and what brings you joy. Find ways to get to know your team in ways that extend beyond work and also share about yourself. I think that our best work often comes from building team connections that have little, if anything, to actually do with the work itself. When we make time to get to know our colleagues and understand them better we become invested in their success and supporting their dreams. As a team, if every person truly did that, then the focus and success of the team are almost inevitable. I would also say that the counterbalance is also true: if you find yourself disinterested in your teammates, then that may be your instinct telling you something about your interest in the role and the work.
What has been the highlight of your career so far?
I'm actually living the highlight of my career right now! I am doing the work I love in a community that has welcomed me and my family in so many ways. I am building a small business that is deeply interconnected with my values about equity, community, inclusion and belonging, and I get to work with extraordinary organizations like Havenwood and INTERFORM to positively impact our community every day. I have never worked harder, and I have never been happier!
Who has been the biggest influence on your life and career?
I have been unfairly lucky in this aspect in that I have had the opportunity to be mentored and supported by outstanding community leaders like Claire-Baineaux-Fontenot, Ben Hasan and Sonal Shah. They have had an indelible influence on my work and understanding of social justice. I would also say that the two leaders who have taught me the most about equity and humanity are Bryan Stevenson, the executive director of the Equal Justice Institute and Deena Hayes Greene, the director of the Racial Equity Institute.
But the one person who has had the biggest personal influence in changing my life and career is my husband, Kabir Kumar. Kabir has the incredibly rare quality of being a person who is exactly the same in public and in private. In his work, his focus is to support his team, work as hard as possible, never quit, always give away more than he keeps for himself, listen more than he speaks and center kindness in all he does. At home as a partner and a father, he is exactly the same, and I am so grateful to call him my best friend and my life partner.
Tell us the most meaningful piece of career or life advice you have received.
I would say the most meaningful piece of career and life advice I have ever received is also the advice that has paid off the most in my life: be the kind of giver who gives away time, work product, resources, focus and energy with the same dedication and hard work as if you were being paid hundreds of dollars for it. I think of this as a combination of grit and giving and learned this instinctively at a very young age. However, it was only when I read Adam Grant's book "Give and Take" that I realized how powerfully transformative intentional giving could be in my career and life.
How do you like to de-stress after a difficult day/week?
I have a list of de-stressing techniques that are tried and tested and, depending on the week /day/circumstances, any one or combination works perfectly. I will just share my general list: go for a hike, curl up with a book and a cup of tea, take a bath, light candles, watch a movie with Kabir, get a Thai massage, go to the library or Once Upon a Time bookstore, go out with my girlfriends for drinks and dinner, go to the lake, eat Indian food or snack on cheese and quality sourdough, and clean. Actually, I have to clean first before anything else because organized spaces make me feel calm and grounded.