Name: Dr. Sonali Kataria Sirohi
Title: Founder Head of Special School
Organisation: SUNRISE LEARNING FOUNDATION
Dr Sonali Kataria Sirohi, a Medical Doctor, an ex-AIIMS Consultant, is the Founder of Sunrise Learning Foundation,
SLF is a non-profit Non-Government Organization, dedicated towards providing empowerment, employment, education, vocational training, inclusion and support services to children and adults with Autism and other special needs, and their families.
As of now, this organization runs several programs for families that are directed towards INDEPENDENCE & DIGNITY of persons with special needs.
Besides being a senior doctor, a social activist, an autism professional, a special-school head, a 2-times TEDx speaker and an autism parent, She is extremely passionate about INCLUSION OF DIFFERENTLY-ABLED PEOPLE (neurodiverse people) into the mainstream society by bridging gaps through INFORMATION-AWARENESS, ACCEPTANCE and CREATING INCLUSIVE SYSTEMS in health-care, educational institutions, and all public services. Currently, she is a member of the panel of doctors at IMA who are fervently involved in modifying the systems at OPD level & Hospital services, to ensure that they are more conducive for managing children & adults with autism. She is also on the advisory board panel of mainstream schools in Noida - Greater Noida - Ghaziabad & Meerut for creating inclusive set-ups for students who have unique needs.
In this journey of empowering families, she has shared the stage with Vidya Balan, Shabana Azmi, Sania Mirza, Smiriti Irani, Saima Nehwal, and been invited to Dr Subhash Chandra Show, trying to create every possible opportunity for these influential people to understand the challenges faced by special families, and working towards creating more & more INCLUSIVE SYSTEMS at a larger level.
Some recent awards & recognitions:
• Nominated for Sofy Women’s Awards in Social Excellence category 2015 (conducted by Zee News)
• Received 19th Stree Shakti Award 2018 (Gantavya Sansthan), awarded by Shri Sunil Shastri (s/o Late Shri Lal Bahadur Shastri) for remarkable work in the field of women empowerment
• Received PNI achievers award 2018 for outstanding work in the field of empowerment of persons with special needs.
• Received International School Award 2019 at Dubai (Amity University), for phenomenal parental engagement
• Received Forever Star India Awards (FSIA) The Real Super Woman 2020 in category Doctors in Social Achievements
• Nominated for “Rashtriya Gaurav Puraskar” 2014
• National School Award 2021 (Best special School in Uttar Pradesh)
• Bharat Shiksha Gaurav Puraskar 2021 (for her outstanding performance in the field of Special Education Leadership)
• KTK FOUNDATION Education Excellence AWARD 2022 (for academic research in the field of Special Education)
• Women Leadership Award 2022 (for exemplary leadership in the field of Special Education)
- Featured in the FOX INDIA STORY MAGAZINE as one of the 50 women changemakers of 2022-23
Email: [email protected]
Thank you to the 2,000 leaders who’ve generously done the 7 Questions on Leadership!
I hope Sonali's answers will encourage you in your leadership journey. Enjoy!
1. What have you found most challenging as a leader?
To inculcate the same "energy" "passion" and "fire in the belly" as I feel, to make a positive difference in people's lives.
2. How did you become a leader? Can you please briefly tell the story?
One fine day in 2011, I resigned from my dream job, as an Assistant Professor, at AIIMS New Delhi, and started a new journey, to look after my 2-year-old toddler who had just been diagnosed with Autism. As autism was also my field of medical study & specialization, I was extremely drawn & fascinated towards understanding my child & his autism, at a deeper level. Very soon, I found my love for working with him. I had started entering into his bubble and could see a small bridge towards his heart. In 2013, I tried to admit my son in schools around me, but 17 schools across Delhi NCR were not able to accommodate my child with all his special needs. All that I had was one on one therapy sessions. And it dawned on me that my little child will never be able to go to a real school with assembly, picnics & sports ! He will not be able to participate in games & events, with many other children ! And that shook me. Coincidently, in 2014, I did a small training program from the USA, that literally brought the leader butterfly out from my cocoon of solo motherhood. It brought out the fierce mother-leader in me, and I decided to “create” a social environment & learning platform, that my child was missing ! I decided to work towards empowering these special lives, as an autism specialist, a fellow doc in Pediatrics and most importantly, as a special mother. And that’s how my 3rd child, SUNRISE LEARNING was born, with a clear vision & mission to provide a safe happy social environment to children on the spectrum & their parents.
3. How do you structure your work days from waking up to going to sleep?
On weekdays, From 5 am in the morning to 8 am, I complete all my creative thinking, planning and content writing work. Then I take my son for a sports class, and I also complete my morning walk of 5 kms. Then we get ready and go to school, from 9 am to 6 pm. In school, I do hourly school rounds, and respond to questions & queries, in the first hour, conduct classes in the first half, do meetings with the team of all departments, one department everyday, in lunch time, meet faculty & staff in the post-lunch time, conduct interviews for new applicants, and make presentations for upcoming workshops & trainings in late afternoon. After 6 pm, I play carrom & other games with both my sons, watch Boss baby at dinner time with them, and narrate 1 story each day to both of them at bedtime.
4. What's a recent leadership lesson you've learned for the first time or been reminded of?
Start where you are, Use what you have and Do what you can, NOW. Get bigger than your circumstances.
5. What's one book that has had a profound impact on your leadership so far? Can you please briefly tell the story of how that book impacted your leadership?
I found the 5 am club super powerful ! It helped me reinforce my belief in the power of waking up at 5 pm, and making the best of the magical hour ! I loved the way Robin Sharma brought out the beauty of each ritual that we can inculcate into our morning through the 20-20-20 principle that says - once you wake up at 5 pm, ypu can divide the holy hour into 3 parts of 20 mins each, where you should run / jog / workout for the 1st 20 mins, reflect or write a journal for the next and learn something new for the last part, of that magical one hour.
6. If you could only give one piece of advice to a young leader, what would you say to them?
If you wish to see your dreams unfold, Don't create followers, Create more leaders !
7. What is one meaningful story that comes to mind from your time as a leader, so far?
In 2020 February, when lockdown was declared, and schools were closed, many organizations had to lay off team members to sustain themselves. I felt something tearing me apart with the thought of dissolving that beautiful team that I had built by investing & infusing love, energy, trust, faith and passion. I did not want to lose them or their morale, at any cost. One fine morning, I sat down to think, and asked the Universe for direction. Just then, I got a message on my phone - an advertisement to buy a virtual platform for conducting trainings. I took that as a hint from the Divine power. That day itself, I announced that we will start our work on a digital platform. Though we did not have any experience of conducting classes on an Online platform, especially for people with special needs, we started with faith and a bang ! Not just classes for our students, but also trainings for parents empowerment. Since then, there has been no looking back ! Our virtual outreach platform has grown to a phenomenally large family now, with over 3,500 families connected to us from India & abroad, and people wait for the announcements of our twice a year Parents Empowerment Programs.