I’m Sucheta Pal, International Zumba® Education Specialist and Master Trainer for India, and this is how I Lead from Within
Sucheta Pal, recently awarded for being a “First Lady” by the Government of India, is the woman responsible for pioneering Zumba® in the country – and for making it a phenomenal success across the nation. This is her story, and how she leads from within…
I always say I’ve made this dress of dreams and I fit perfectly into it. I envisioned it a long time back and I didn’t know how to get to it. Today thanks to the company that I work for and my role that I’ve earned to have today as a brand ambassador for the largest branded workout in the world which is Zumba Fitness I’m hoping that I have inspired thousands by now. The defining moment in my life was when I was an engineer. I was in corporate for a long time and I felt really, really sick because of my lifestyle and bad life choices. That drove me towards my passion, which was dancing, and I used to teach Bollywood dances to aunties of my society before I started my career. When I saw those aunties in that society feel happy after the classes, I could feel that I’ve given them something and added some value to their life – that is what changed me completely. I knew that I had to be a mentor, I had to be a game changer for people.
The second defining moment was when I quit my job and I had to work three part-time jobs. I used to travel from morning till evening by train, traveling from one corner of Bombay to the other just to do my rehearsals, then go and talk to my students and take calls and then teach in the evening, you know, a dancer’s life generally. And I was very old for a dancer, I was 25. And I was working three part-time jobs. I used to wear sarees and travel by train and bus to NGOs, to sell books for an NGO to municipal schools. I did all of that because I had to earn something just to make sure that I can follow my passion. That was my second learning. I tell this to my young followers – don’t feel that you’re privileged, we are born privileged. Following your passion, what you’re good at, requires a lot of sacrifice at a personal level. Forget the money, but you have to let go of your ego. It taught me to quit my privileges. I had a good salary, 50K a month. At that time, ten years back, that was a lot of money. I quit all of that to get INR5000 a month. I had to sell books to municipal schools and just get 5 percent commission, I worked for a fashion house and sat with karigars to make sure that they’re making leather bags properly and then put them on a truck at 1 O’clock at night. I was a transcriber. It’s the most irritating job ever, but I had to do it to survive.
The third thing which defined me is when I shifted to the US – that’s where I discovered fitness and that’s where I discovered Zumba specifically. Zumba really caught on to me and I stuck to it for two and a half years in U.S. I became a licensed instructor there, and you know that you have to be licensed to teach. And Zumba wanted to launch in India. So in 2012 I auditioned, they selected me to be the Zumba education specialist, which is a fancy name for a master trainer. And they wanted me to relaunch it in India and my role was to train the trainers.
I got carried away with a little bit of importance – suddenly people start recognizing you and you feel that you made it all happen. But we tend to forget that oh no, there were ten more people in your life who let you have that opportunity – they gave their time, and effort to make you who you are so you better respect that. That is a big learning in my life. Now I never forget my mentors or my family. I’m always thanking my instructor community because ultimately nothing is done alone.
On Fitness and Leadership
The beautiful part about India today is that people understand that every age group needs to be fit. Women, especially, understand that you have to be functionally fit. What’s the difference between being healthy and being fit? Healthy is when you’re devoid of diseases; being fit is if someone asks you to go down on your knees and take the vegetables out from the lowest-most shelf of the fridge, can you do that without an ache or a pain? Can you, at 65, still put the luggage on to the overhead cabin without the help of the airhostess? At 65, you want to watch your grandkids or do you want to play with them? That is fitness. So, especially for women, we are running the world literally – we need to be fit. But our ageing process starts at 25, this is scientifically proven, and we should start training from as soon as 13 or 14 and at 16 we should definitely hit the gym, but we don’t know this. It’s not about six pack abs. Stop looking at other women’s pictures, which are photo shopped or people with six pack abs. It is their goal, it cannot be your goal. Fitness is their life, for people who have six pack abs, it’s their livelihood. Many of us have a family, have work, have a personal life. So as long as you feel healthy and don’t have diseases and you’re functionally fit, your goal is achieved.
Second, fitness has become the next biggest alternate career for people, especially for women, and in what I’m doing. Just in the beginning of this year I went to Jammu and Kashmir where I was invited by the army wives to train them to become instructors. I had the privilege to train 12 of them in Jammu, at the army cantonment. Now they’re situated in different parts with their husbands and they’re training the army wives. They’re teaching Zumba to the army wives. Imagine where we’re going. And they were maybe moms and they cannot work, they’re taking care of the family, being the man of the house. I have hundreds of these examples across the country, I have housewives from Gujarat who come to my training who tell me “we couldn’t even tell our families that we’re going for this training, they want us to be in the kitchen. We want to prove something to them that we can go out and – we can work in the kitchen and spend two hours a day and go and teach outside and come back and contribute”.
The first and foremost is I have immense will power. If I know that I have to do this I will do it no matter what. I’m practical, I know what I can’t do and I know what I can do and I know what I can achieve if I really push for it.
Second, if someone has to define me, they would say I’m a tough mom. I’m like a mom to my community and I’m not the sweet love mom, I’m the tough love mom. I will scold and push people, not the sweet way because anyone can be sweet. I know how to motivate people, and I know what can motivate people so I’m a people person. I like to see people reach their potential but I do it with my tough love.
My third super-power is that I’m extremely emotional. I used to be afraid of it, I used to be embarrassed about it. Not anymore, because that is something that comes naturally to me as a woman and because of it I’m compassionate. Being emotional is not about crying. Being emotional is about being sensitive. It’s about putting yourself in the other person’s shoes and having that compassion for people.
My Role Models
I recently met Kiran Bedi in Pondicherry. She’s 60 now and she looks the same. Every day she assigns one hour where anyone can come and visit her in the Raj Niwas. It used to be closed to the public, but the moment she came in, it became an open house. She’ll meet anyone in the morning; you can do a tour of the Raj Niwas, it’s like a palace, and then she spends five, ten, fifteen minutes and in the evening she’ll have a open durbar kind of a thing. Everything is digitized. So she’s going with the times. Before she came to meet us she randomly went to a hospital and one of the doors of some compound was closed. She said no problem I’ll jump the wall, climb the seven feet wall. She just went over the wall. She’s a woman, she’s a rebel, and she’s creating change. She doesn’t compromise in her integrity and life – that is what inspires me.
On Facing My Fears
I suffer from social anxiety disorder. I have been struggling with it for the last ten years. It was very acute before; that’s the reason I quit my job. I also suffered from a very acute case of irritable bowel syndrome, which one out of five women face. It’s very embarrassing, it can strike you at any time and you just have to use the restroom, there’s no option. I speak openly about it. I didn’t for a long time and it caused me social anxiety. I couldn’t face people – if I have to enter an elevator and was a single person in that elevator I used to take ten slow stairs down. In a meeting, if it was an appraisal or even if a reporting had to happen, I just couldn’t sit. I would take four breaks in between just to use a restroom because I would be so tense.
Today, I travel the world and I train. Just recently, I was in Japan and there were 1500 people in the training. I carry a mini fan with me till today, because when I’m in a small closed claustrophobic room, or in a meeting and it’s very quiet, I cannot sit. I used to be embarrassed about it. I used to apologize again and again to take out that fan in meeting rooms. Today I say, “Sorry guys, this is my fan, if you like it I’ll buy you one”. I use it and I’m like unapologetic about it because I’m at a position where no one will question me. Out in the world, I’m a presenter for Zumba. I travel to the U.S. two times in a year. I’m a speaker; you have no idea how much it takes out of me to do that.
So, it’s been a journey of self-confidence, being comfortable with my fears, and telling myself it’s okay. I have visited psychiatrics and psychologists, I’ve done hypnotherapy, I’ve done everything. From where I started, I feel like I have a second life now as I’ve come out of many of my fears. I still fear going on stage or talking to people. But I also know that if I don’t do it I will be caught on to that fear, and I don’t want that.
On Finding the Right Mentor
A mentor is someone who’ll just do it for you. They don’t have a secret agenda. Second, they should be a good listener. If I, as a mentor, just give my suggestion without listening to their side of the story, I’m being high handed – I don’t know their life. Find someone who is a good listener first. Third, you have to ask if this person giving you advice is giving you a perspective which will take you not just to the next level, but three levels up and is also giving you a path to get there. A mentor will not tell you and hand hold you and you cannot expect them to give you the opportunity, but you can expect them to give you an idea of how to get that opportunity.