She picked up the title ahead of the editorial director of Film 4, editor of the Sunday Women Magazine, the programme director of Henley Business School, the CEO of Redleaf Polhill and head of digital media at Telefonica.
Rai Dhillon said the award had “massively changed my life” as, up until that point, many of her family members didn’t actually know what she had been doing for the past 20 years.
“It’s never really been known about because of my culture and background. We don’t really talk about ourselves,” she explained, reflecting on the modesty she still maintains – despite her solid stack of achievements. It was her mother, though, who instilled Rai Dhillon with the belief you could have it all – both as an attentive mother and an ambitious professional.
Interestingly, while she established a pedigree as a BBC and Reuters journalist before her work with Creative Visions, Rai Dhillon initially entered the world of work through banking.
“It suited my skill sets. I was good with people, knew lots of languages and at that stage, you’re thinking where you’ll fit best and it just seemed to be the obvious choice,” she explained. It also enabled her to live in London, which she was determined to do at that stage in her life.
However, she soon realised that the direction banking was taking her in wasn’t necessarily where her interests lay. “I always knew I wanted to make a positive impact and I became more interested in JP Morgan’s charitable arm – they asked me if I was more interested in sustainable investment,” Rai Dhillon said.
When the company merged with The Chase Manhattan Corporation in 2000, Rai Dhillon took the opportunity to step back and “do a bit of soul-searching about what I wanted to do”.
She took a sabbatical and fell into journalism, seeing the opportunity to make an impact. Rai Dhillon cited the example of a story she covered about the Himalayan state in India, which banned polythene bags as pollution was a real problem. She said the story heard in Ghana made the country seek out a similar principle there. The incident confirmed to Rai Dhillon that media could be a useful tool for influencing, though at that stage “it seemed indirect” for her.
She decided to look towards development as a potentially more direct route, so studied for an MA at LSE, and worked with various NGOs and the UN. Rai Dhillon soon realised much of her time was spent chasing funding rather than being able to implement change there and then, “which was frustrating”. The impact from journalism was more immediate, so she returned to ply her trade there.
The interlinking of business and media, which has formulated much of Rai Dhillon’s life so far, came to its most significant precipice yet when she was asked to go to Abu Dhabi for a project Reuters and the BBC were collaborating on – as well as the government. The organisations wanted to present a different perspective of Islam to the one that was currently doing the rounds, and at the time, essentially only had Al Jazeera reporting on the area. “They wanted more of their own stories and for the world to be able to get to know them,” Rai Dhillon explained.
She was given a job at the newly-formed twofour54, along with the task of setting up a media venture capital fund – the first time she had been in control of such an initiative. With £100m to deploy into talented people and organisations across the media spectrum, it was a big opportunity and the first time in the Middle East such a scheme had been implemented.
For Rai Dhillon though, said she felt slightly out of her depth. “I didn’t know the vernacular and didn’t feel I had the rigour in business, so I started an MBA at the London Business School,” she added It proved useful as Rai Dhillon realised business was similar to media in the way it could make a very direct impact – and had the advantage of allowing Rai Dhillon to make changes herself rather than being a cog in a corporate wheel.
She feels there has been a positive movement in this direction across the world and that we’re increasingly seeing more examples of people realising how business can be utilised. “We’re hearing more about social entrepreneurship which is great,” she said.
Rai Dhillon’s journey though, had only really just begun. She also embarked on a trip through Central America, from Panama to Mexico, and had set herself the challenge of being a Cuban in Cuba. “I wanted my Spanish to be good enough.” Deciding at the airport she’d never achieve this with her heavily branded clothes and Puma trainers, Rai Dhillon decided to leave her luggage behind.
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“I asked a random woman if I could leave my stuff with her and she said yes after I had explained my story and asked her to leave it in lost property in LA, which I would then collect after my trip,” Rai Dhillon said.
The woman in question did more than that, however, and brought home the luggage to keep it safe, telling Rai Dhillon she would have to come and visit her to get it back. It turned out this was Kathy Eldon – a well-connected media figure who has worked as a magazine editor and film producer.
Eldon said she had seen “the same energy and chutzpah” in Rai Dhillon at that airport, as she had seen in her late son – who had died while working as a photographer for Reuters. Dan Eldon was just 22 when he was stoned to death by a mob when working in Mogadishu. Prior to that he had been nicknamed Warsame, Mayor of Mogadishu by locals as a nod to his friendliness.
When Rai Dhillon visited Eldon she was asked to work on the Global Tribe series to educate the US youth and encourage them to get involved with international social affairs. The project developed into Creative Visions, which Rai Dhillon is now on the board of. She said that initial meeting “shaped the next 17 years of my career and made me realise anything is possible”.
Her work now involves setting up Creative Visions Global and growing the base outside of New York and LA. “We’ve done over 200 projects so far, including Invisible Children,” Rai Dhillon explained.
The project came about after three filmmakers were travelling East Africa in search of a story, discovering a war in Uganda where child soldiers were being used in the Lord Resistance Army’s rebel war led by Joseph Kony.
They made numerous films in an effort to raise awareness to the conflict and created a Legacy Scholarship Program to help students affected by the war access secondary education and fulfil their potential. Legislation was also passed – The LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act in 2010 as well as the Rewards for Justice expansion legislation in 2010.
“This is what I always wanted to do – make a positive difference in some way. I had thought I might end up at Amnesty or something like that, but during my career I saw the power of media as something to be used for the power of good,” Rai Dhillon said. “You can utilise everything.”
For those hoping to progress their careers in a similar way, or take Rai Dhillon’s route through media, she advises “being true to your own values” as of fundamental importance. “I have been asked to cover something that wasn’t factually correct – to sensationalise it,” she admitted, and said it can be difficult to say no at the time, but will lead you to a more fulfilling career in the long run if you do.
She left us with this sentiment. “Be sensitive to others, but yourself too. If you miss that you can become indecisive which will make it much harder to navigate your career from that point.”
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