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Jillian Haslam: “We all have it within us to be great and to excel.”

Jillian Haslam

No one achieves success without paying a price. The real story is always what came before. When you see Jillian Haslam on stage speaking, read her books, or give to her charitable work, what you’re seeing is a testimony to resilience, to never quitting, and to passionately pursuing a better world, especially for those in great need.

But what you don’t see is how she got there. Born in Calcutta to parents with British ancestry in post-colonial India, Jillian faced a bruising childhood of extreme poverty, malnutrition and disease. She lived through the deaths of four siblings and some appalling instances of racist abuse. Her rise from the depths of despair and misery to wealth and international celebrity status is an inspirational story of vindication and coming home.

Today, she travels the world speaking to businesses, universities, and anyone else who wants to be inspired to keep moving forward. In these challenging times, Jillian’s brand of relentless determination is an inspiration more than ever.

Cover of Indian.English. by Jillian Haslam

Her book Indian.English., a haunting memoir, tells the story of her dark childhood growing up in extreme poverty and fear, yet drawing strength from parents who gave everything for their children, and from the timely generosity and kindness of strangers. It walks you through her ascension in the Indian and British corporate banking sector and how she later became a motivational speaker, author, and philanthropist you see today.

The book’s greatest strength comes from the lessons Jillian learned during her hardest times that still shape her life and drive her ambitions to this day. These moments are poignant, visceral, and universal to the human condition. The book is an international bestseller that has received rave reviews in Indian and International press with her being dubbed the “Real Slumdog Millionaire” and is in the process of being turned into a Hollywood production.

We ask Jillian a few questions:

Tell us about your dream job as a child?
Since I was a little girl, I wanted nothing more than to be able to reach out to hundreds of people in order to alleviate some of the sadness and the despair that is caused by abject poverty. I grew up facing it and I lived by the Eli Khamarov quote: “Poverty is like punishment for a crime that you didn’t commit”. I grew up not being able to smile and was asked many a time, even by my bosses, if I ever did smile. I had an impossible dream (coming from an extremely deprived background) and not knowing how I was going to accomplish that dream was a worry that never ever left me. It was impossible to smile but today, I do nothing but smile all the time, only because I now have six teams of people who work to change lives every single day (three huge food-banks for the poor and the disabled, five study centres for street children, a team that works for women in need, the youth, the disabled and for people with serious illnesses). Am I living my dream; I most certainly am. Go to find out more.

Jilliam Haslam interacting with school students in Kolkata

What is the one emotion that kept you going at the time you were living under the stairs or in the Kidderpore slum?
It has to be perseverance, something that I like to define as “An Irrepressible Mind”. It’s not just resilience but it is about developing a will that is unwilling to relent until and unless the job at hand is accomplished. In most cases, we accept our circumstances and our fate. My father, my mother and even my siblings had accepted their fate and were grateful for the same. But, it only takes one person or one child, to stand up and say, ‘I refuse to accept this as my fate, I can do better’, but in order to turn things around, you’ve also got to take a decision to be willing to put in the hard work and commitment that goes with it — this is easier said than done!

Jillian Haslam receiving the Mother Teresa Memorial International Award 2017
Jillian Haslam receiving the Mother Teresa Memorial International Award 2017

When did you believe that you could find a way out of your circumstances?
Our first home was under a flight of stairs. Our second home was in a room 8×10 feet in a slum. We didn’t have a television, we hardly had any electricity, we filled water from a tube well, had no access to the internet or to a telephone. We went from boarding school to this little room in the slum. My biggest moment of triumph was when I decided that I had to find a way out. At 17, I finished school and went to Delhi and took a few small jobs. I understood by then that my hands were tied without money. It was this time that I applied and was selected to work at a branch of the Bank of America. I took up two jobs. I wanted to give myself the best shot I could in life, so I put in all the hard work I could. In return, the only thing I sought was mentorship. I went to the CEO and asked him if he would mentor me. Surprised as he was, he said that no one had asked him for mentorship before. He put a few conditions like I had to get his kids to do their homework and in return, he would stay back at the bank and mentor me for an hour or so. I found it in me to ask for help from the people who had what I didn’t.

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Abhijit Ganguly is a journalist based in Kolkata, India.

Abhijit Ganguly

Abhijit Ganguly is a journalist based in Kolkata, India.