Finding Her Voice
Sonakshi Kapoor was told a girl couldn’t join the family business—so she became a lawyer instead
Published in 2021 Northern California Super Lawyers magazine on July 7, 2021
As a young girl, Sonakshi Kapoor loved hanging around her father’s agricultural-sales company, watching traders haggle over the local sugar cane crop.
“It was fascinating to me. I didn’t understand the exact details, but I saw the transactions,” she says. “There was all this energy. It was a world where everybody would be so passionate about sugar or another agricultural commodity.”
She assumed that she, too, would someday join the company. But when she mentioned this to her father, she was told it was no place for a female.
“It was a very genuine fatherly concern,” she recalls. “But for me it was like, ‘What does this mean? I love this energy and what’s happening. Why can’t I do it?’”
Most women were at home doing domestic chores while men worked. Kapoor didn’t have the words to describe her feelings on gender roles, but she went on to read books about women’s rights, which sparked a general passion for human rights. She told her family she wanted to become a lawyer.
Today, Kapoor is an associate at DLA Piper in San Francisco. Dual-licensed in India and the U.S., she litigates family and business conflicts, often for international clients. She has also done a two-year fellowship with a member of the Indian Parliament, stints at the U.N., and pro bono work helping refugees seeking asylum in the U.S.
Kapoor grew up in the agricultural hub of Muzaffarnagar, India, where her father ran the family’s 80-year-old business and her mother was a homemaker.
Her mother insisted Kapoor get a good education, and her parents sent her to boarding school.
“I believe they did not think it all the way through,” Kapoor reflects. “Once I was educated, they hadn’t thought about what they wanted me to do.”
The percentage of women participating in the workforce in India was low, especially when it came to professional careers.
When she decided to go to law school, her parents were baffled. But to Kapoor, the choice was empowering.
“That exclusion from a business triggered a thought process in me about what discrimination can be for women in the professional space,” Kapoor says. “I think that’s why I chose to study law. It just made sense to be equipped with a tool that would help me advance myself and give voice to the experiences that I had.”
Her first breakthrough came in 2014, just after graduating from law school in Pune, India. Encouraged by her professors, Kapoor won a competitive fellowship to work as an assistant to Indian Parliament member Shashi Tharoor, a former U.N. under-secretary-general. She assisted him in drafting bills aimed at liberalizing India, including reforms to juvenile justice, refugee protection and foreign policy—and an initiative to decriminalize homosexuality.
“Seeing him make these decisions opened me up to look beyond just the legal system,” Kapoor says, “to allow myself to be influenced by guidelines and laws that existed outside of India.”
She decided to get her LL.M. at the UC Berkeley School of Law, where she joined the California Asylum Representation Clinic, a student organization that helped with asylum cases for low-income people and families fleeing violence and persecution.
After graduation, Kapoor snagged two U.N. postings in Southeast Asia: one with the organization’s Commission on Human Rights and the other with its International Labour Organization. The work included studying the impacts of businesses on local communities. For Kapoor, two worlds had come together—her love for her family’s business and her interest in human rights.
Over the years, she has traveled to Bangkok, Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Nepal and Sri Lanka, collecting works by local artists along the way. “It’s a way of giving back to the community,” she says. “And an art piece is always a good keepsake.”
Today, when she’s not handling business law, Kapoor stays up to date on developments in international human rights. In 2020, she was named a Global Shaper, which is the young professional’s arm of the Oakland chapter of the World Economic Forum—an international group that meets to discuss ways of improving the state of the world.
She also works with colleagues from her U.N. days to manage the Young Professionals in Business and Human Rights LinkedIn group, which discusses U.N. progress on the responsibilities of governments and companies when it comes to business-related human rights impacts. In March, she organized and moderated a U.N. South Asia Forum on Business and Human Rights, on the topic of “Human Rights Impacts of Social Media Platforms.”
Kapoor’s world isn’t the only one that has changed. At her family’s company, for instance, women—including her younger sister—now play key roles.
“It may not sound revolutionary, but when you grew up in an environment where that’s what you see constantly—women not working—it’s easy to keep that status quo. This is a big step.”
As for her parents’ view on the direction Kapoor has taken, she says, “I think they’re very proud of me, having come from a place where they didn’t know at first what to expect. Even now they don’t know what will happen next. They say, ‘With you, we’ve learned to just roll with it.’”