'The Right Time to Make a Difference Is Now'
- Simran Oberoi has been able to turn her personal passion for healthy baking into a global initiative to address poverty and help victims of human trafficking.
- Although a single individual can make a difference, Oberoi says, human beings can achieve far greater impact working together in communities based on shared goals and visions.
- She calls on business schools to integrate societal impact throughout their curricula and to encourage students to view their jobs not just as ways to make a living, but as opportunities to contribute to society.
When Simran Oberoi first decided to pursue her MBA degree at the Goa Institute of Management in India, she did so because “it was a great way to start one’s career in the corporate world.” After graduating in 2003, she took on a series of roles in human resource management, before reaching her current position as the South Asia sales account manager for the London-based global financial services firm Aon.
But her focus shifted once she became a mother in 2013. At that time, Oberoi—who works in Bengaluru, the capital of India’s southern state of Karnataka—decided she needed to do more for the world. In a 2017 Ted Talk, she explains coming to the realization that she had a “big responsibility of leaving a beautiful planet for my children, and an even bigger responsibility for leaving sensitive, caring children for my planet.”
In 2014, inspired by the birth of her son, Oberoi founded the Ovenderful Mom Bakers Community (OMBC), as a Facebook group for home bakers. Working on the OMBC in the evenings and on weekends, Oberoi has grown it into a global community of nearly 40,000 members dedicated to supporting low-income communities and rebuilding the lives of those rescued from human trafficking.
OMBC members achieve societal impact by distributing their “healthy bakes”—home-baked goods made from wholesome, sustainably sourced ingredients—to underrepresented and marginalized communities across India and throughout the world. They also conduct bake sales to raise money for philanthropic causes. Through the OMBC, Oberoi has raised awareness within low-income populations of the importance of a healthy diet. Most important, she has mobilized OMBC members, many of whom are mothers, to amplify their impact far beyond the OMBC community.
In 2018, Facebook created a short film documentary on the OMBC. That same year, Sheryl Sandberg named Oberoi one of the eight most influential Asian women leaders on Facebook.
Today, Oberoi hopes to inspire other business leaders to join charitable communities dedicated to causes they care about—or to create those communities if they don’t yet exist. By tapping into shared passions, whether for baking or other pursuits, Oberoi says, human beings have great power to transform the world.
What inspired you to found the Ovenderful Mom Bakers Community?
In 2014, when my son was one-and-a-half years old, I noticed that he enjoyed baked goods, so it became critical for me to find recipes for him that were both delicious and nutrient-dense. When I browsed for healthy recipes online, I realized that most of those recipes would not apply for us in India, because many of the ingredients were costly or had limited availability.
So, I started experimenting with healthy baking—avoiding sweeteners and using indigenous flours instead of refined flours. I founded the OMBC community to share my knowledge and experience of transitioning to healthy baking. I felt that by sharing my own journey, I could reach a wider audience—especially parents who wanted to do the same for their children.
When did the OMBC shift its focus from sharing information about healthy baking to also achieving societal impact?
In 2015, I wanted to assess how we could evolve beyond being a knowledge-sharing platform. So, I reached out to all the community members with the idea to initiate a healthy-bake distribution.
The response was overwhelming—bakers from across the world wanted to join. We created a program called “Bake a Sunshine Cake,” and we began distributing baked goods to eldercare homes and orphanages in various cities in India, the U.S., and the U.K. After that, our community continued to focus on in-person distributions of our healthy bakes across urban slum communities, serving underrepresented segments such as children living with HIV/AIDS, children who are severely disabled and abandoned, or children of ragpickers.
Simultaneously, we were asked to set up a fundraiser bake sale stall at some corporate organizations and educational institutions, which made OMBC more visible. That visibility led to The Freedom Project—India reaching out to us in 2018 to check if we could train some women they had rescued from human trafficking to bake. That was the first step in our journey to help women impacted by trafficking, so that they can become financially independent and restart their lives.
Motherhood should not stop the life we had as working women or leaders. Rather, motherhood adds an additional, meaningful dimension to our lives that enables us to evolve toward bigger roles.
You’ve noted that you have been influenced by Sandberg’s book Lean In. Which lessons have inspired you the most?
I have been guided and inspired by three primary lessons from Sheryl’s “lean in” philosophy. First, women can be strong allies for each other across different spheres of life and work. But for that to happen, we must ask for help and reach out, and those in roles of influence must learn to provide support without having to be asked for it.
Second, when we experience something that is missing and needs attention from a wider audience, we should voice our concern about it. The final lesson is that motherhood should not mean that we must stop the life we had as working women or leaders. Rather, motherhood adds an additional, meaningful dimension to our lives that enables us to evolve toward bigger roles.
Why do you place such a high priority on building community?
An individual can be passionate about how an idea can make an impact on society—and that is not insignificant. But I have found that while most people want to contribute, many don’t know how. If we want to amplify that idea and create a long-lasting and sustainable ecosystem, we need to create communities that have clearly defined goals, provide people with opportunities to contribute, and bring people together with others who share their vision of a better world.
How do OMBC members choose what causes to champion?
Members reach out directly to me with suggestions, and then I evaluate every option by approaching each nonprofit’s founder or team. I review their past activities and initiatives, their history, and the impact they have had so far. I try to visit each nonprofit in person to be certain about its operations. In the interest of transparency, I also ensure that the nonprofit will share all details with us after we have transferred the funds we raise to them. Once I approve a cause, I share all details with the community, so that members can ask questions or raise any concerns. Over the last eight years, we supported at least 15 nonprofit organizations.
You have said that you focus on measurable goals with the OMBC. Which achievements are you most proud of?
There are many. Each year, our healthy-bake distributions reach more than 20,000 children in slum settlements, government schools, and rural communities. Each of our bake-sale fundraisers raise money for worthy causes, from 30,000 INR (364 USD) to the CARE Animal Shelter to 32,500 INR (nearly 400 USD) for Make a Difference Dream Camps.
In addition, we have worked with the Desire Society to help meet the nutritional needs of children affected by HIV, and with Let’s Educate Children in Need (LECIN) to set up the first village library in Nala Village, Uttar Pradesh. We have sold copies of the Healthy Baking Book series, splitting the proceeds between Swabhimaan and LECIN. And we have collaborated with the Karnataka government on a skills development project that empowers women rescued from trafficking.
Simran Oberoi dances with an eldercare home resident during an OMBC "Bake a Sunshine Cake" distribution.
What did you learn in your MBA program that has helped you most in your career?
In my first year, I decided to specialize in finance, so I did my summer internship project in that area. But I returned from that project with more clarity—I decided to specialize in human resources instead. Experiences like that shaped my ability to take risks and be open to new areas of learning, even if it means making a complete paradigm shift.
I also learned to be resilient—to not lose focus or get overwhelmed, even when experiences become challenging. I learned about the importance of teamwork as I worked with different team members from across the program, each with different skills and traits. I learned how important it is to respect people with divergent thought processes, even when we don’t agree.
What experience, during your MBA or career, opened your eyes to your potential to effect change?
About 15 years ago, while I was working in a corporate organization, we received some Diwali gifts from a nonprofit organization. I decided to visit the place, since it was close to where I lived. During my visit, I saw the work they were doing to train children from villages across the region in vocational skills that would make them employable. And my conversations with the founder inspired me to volunteer to offer baking classes on the weekends. By training 12 girls from rural communities to bake, I gained a deeper sense of the changes that learning this skill could bring them.
You took a break from your career to raise a family, and now you are outspoken about the bias mothers often face in the workplace. What challenges have you faced as a parent? What changes would you like to see in the workplace?
The biggest challenge that I have faced as a parent was the lack of awareness and empathy within organizations at that time. Becoming a mother was associated with losing out on promotion opportunities, not being added to great assignments, and receiving biased performance ratings. Organizations offered little support for women employees during that crucial life phase.
There has been significant progress in the last few years, but employers need to start thinking of more sustainable and long-term measures. As a starting point, they should create organizational cultures that do not penalize motherhood, such as strengthening leadership buy-in, providing sensitization programs for managers and leaders, and recognizing employees who have the courage to share their own journeys of bias awareness. With these fundamentals in place, we can plug the leaks in the talent pipeline that happen when mothers are forced to drop out of the workforce due to the absence of a supportive ecosystem.
How can business schools encourage students to view their future careers as ways not only to make a living, but also to leave legacies of societal impact?
First, business schools should build corporate social responsibility, sustainability, and accountability toward the world into the curriculum. Second, they should encourage students to treat their roles in organizations not as jobs to do, but as opportunities to contribute to society. Third, they should empower students to use their voices responsibly and consistently for causes they believe in and enable them to become inclusive of the causes of others. Finally, they should model that behavior by encouraging faculty and staff to make a difference to the world.
Business schools should empower students to use their voices responsibly and consistently toward causes they believe in, and they should model that behavior by encouraging faculty and staff to make a difference to the world.
The world faces such grand challenges today. How did you keep a sense of overwhelm from keeping you from taking action?
This question takes me back to a conversation that I had with the founder of Swabhimaan. During the pandemic, we distributed healthy bakes and homecooked food to migrant laborers and daily wage earners who had lost their jobs and had no means of feeding themselves or their families.
While discussing what we planned to send the next day, I mentioned what we could send was sometimes such a small quantity—perhaps one bun a day per person. His response was, “That bun might be the only meal that person got for that day.” That put a lot of things in perspective for me. It showed me that nothing we do is small. We just don’t know how big it is until we see it from the other person’s eyes.
What advice would you offer to business students who want to make a difference, but do not know where to start?
Choose a cause that resonates with you and find out more about what is being done in that space already. If there are others working in that space, aligning with them is a good place to start. If no one is working for that cause, that is an even better place to begin. Start with small steps—they will add up to big change later. Do not wait too long or for the right time. The right time is now.