Menaka Iyengar Cooke is a woman with great personal drive, a force that has kept her going through periods of adversity.
She is a highly qualified professional who continues to work as a change management consultant, skilled group facilitator and mentor.
Her own experience of dealing with racism, sexism and age discrimination has motivated her to strive to improve the lives of women.
I had to break through barriers; I had to have courage and strength to be bigger than myself sometimes to make my voice heard because I knew I would just be the dregs at the bottom of the fish-tank and it was not easy
In the ‘third age’ of her life, she wants to give back and play her part in social activism with the wisdom and compassion she has gained over many years.
Menaka moved from India to Australia in January 1973 but, on arriving in her adopted country, found that her academic qualifications were not recognised.
At the age of 27, Menaka had to leave her marriage, with her young daughter.
Left with ten dollars and two suitcases, she had to find accommodation and a job.
Already traumatised, she faced the additional stress of a lack of services, and was told to look after herself.
From this low point, she eventually found a clerical job. Menaka worked hard but couldn’t get a promotion.
She needed a local qualification so she decided to study again at the University of Western Sydney, where she was exposed to the ‘triple whammy’ of racism, ageism and sexism.
Menaka studied at night and worked full time in the day, sharing a house with a woman who could look after her daughter.
She recalls that she was often put down, mocked and questioned for her decision to attend university as a mature woman.
She persevered, graduated and went on to work in Human Resources. Her firm’s CEO offered her a role as an Organisation Development Consultant on a team of six, and she finally felt recognised.
Menaka went on to succeed in a number of high level roles with large Australian companies.
During that time, she completed a degree in psychotherapy and counselling, and subsequently started her own business called Iyengar Consulting Services.
She now has two Masters degrees – one in Commerce (Employment Relations) and the other in Applied Psychotherapy and Counselling.
Menaka continues to work as a change management consultant and as a Group Facilitator.
As well as OWN, she’s a member of the Women’s Electoral Lobby, the Aboriginal Land Corporation in south-west Sydney and CRN (a multicultural referral network), and she is Vice President of Sydney Zonta.
She is a past President of the NSW branch of Women Chiefs of Enterprises and a member of the Economic Security for Women group.
She has experienced the disadvantage that women of colour face on a daily basis. Her achievements have been won through relentless struggle.
‘People would ask where I was from and I would say Australia; then they would ask again, “No, where are you really from?” They would continue to ask and refuse to truly get to know me as a person, as if identity is based on my colour and ethnic background’.
Based on her experiences, Menaka has a particular interest in housing and economic security for older women.
‘I joined OWN because it allows me to understand what other older women are experiencing, and to see what commonalities we have and how we can progress’.
Menaka tells her story in her book, Monsoon Woman, a cathartic account that took seven years to write.