Interview : Rachana Ramachand (CSE- 2012)
Please state your current profile and explain how your profile. If possible help us understand any previous profiles you’ve worked for.
I work in the International Development arm of the British government (the firm is called CDC – Commonwealth Development Council). We invest in businesses, VCs and Private Equity funds in South Asia (largely India) and Africa. I joined CDC after my MBA at INSEAD prior to which I was in impact investing in India.
My role at CDC has given me the opportunity to understand investing from a macro lens – I spend a fair amount of time travelling to emerging markets (this year so far, I have travelled to Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa, and Morocco for work) understanding businesses and the business environment in these geographies. Till now, I have worked on/ managed deals based out of India, Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Somalia. It’s been an exciting journey seeing the contrast in different business environments – and of course, comparing it to what I have seen and experienced in India.
In India, I joined as the first employee of Asha Impact, an impact investing and public policy firm – during my time there, we invested in 9 social enterprises across financial inclusion, affordable housing, energy access, and education. We also engaged in a number of public policy and ecosystem building initiatives (supporting accelerator/ incubator programs, working with ministries/ state government on specific projects). At Asha, I managed our education and energy investments and initiatives, developing our strategies for these sectors. This was an enriching experience where I immersed myself in the social enterprise ecosystem in the country – additionally, as a small team, it gave me lot of opportunities to grow as I carved out my own work streams.
Prior to Asha Impact (and as I was pursuing the Young India Fellowship), I started Niveshi along with a friend – it was a social trading platform to help people make better investments in the stock market. We worked on Niveshi for about a year (built the platform from scratch), raised seed funding, and were in the process of operationalising it but regulatory challenges came in the way. Closing down something that you built yourself from scratch was one of the hardest career (and, in a way, personal) decisions that I’ve had to make.
Why did you choose YIF over other career options? In your opinion, what makes YIF different from other fellowships?
I was an app developer at Oracle before YIF/ Niveshi. The day I joined Oracle I decided that I was going to leave (great start to my job, yay!). I had some ideas in education entrepreneurship (basically, I wanted to start my own “music + math + language” school) and I knew of two exit routes – IIMs and YIF. I prepared for CAT and while I had interview calls from K & I, I decided to pursue YIF. I had the opportunity to study history, philosophy, economics, visual communication, art appreciation, Shakespeare, and so on at a 100% scholarship. It was a fairly straightforward decision at that point in time.
But, what differentiates it:
- Diverse student base, academically/ interests/ career aspirations.
- Unique curriculum and brilliant faculty. Immense exposure to multiple fields.
- A platform that lets you pursue your ambitions (my batchmates have moved fields to pursue entrepreneurship, civil services, policy, consulting, corporates, technology, non-profits, law, design… and so on).
What are some of the main qualities that applicants are screened for?
Please check my post written after I got : http://qr.ae/TUIR2P
What are your main takeaways from YIF? What avenues does a postgraduate diploma in liberal arts open up for you?
YIF is what you invest in it. As mentioned above, YIF provides you with a platform to pursue your career aspirations – it not only has an excellent faculty and diverse student base but a far-reaching network as well. It was because of YIF’s network that I was introduced to my former boss at Asha Impact, Vikram Gandhi. YIF – and for that matter, Asha – provided a massive boost to my career.
What prompted you to seek another degree (MBA) after pursuing one in liberal arts? How do these degrees complement each other?
After a point, I felt stuck in India. I was in this Indian bubble and felt the need to go out and experience more than what I was seeing around me. I was especially curious about investing from a global perspective. Through my work at Asha, I was exposed to innovations in other markets (both developed and developing – from Social Impact Bonds in the UK to the solar and mobile money revolutions in Kenya) and wanted to experience this first-hand. B-school was a good stepping stone in this regard and given my aspirations, I decided to pursue an international business school – INSEAD ranked on top for this.
All three degrees that I have pursued are very different from each other.
- Academically, engineering taught me to think in a mathematical, logical fashion.
- Liberal arts opened my mind to different perspectives and ways of thinking. It made me value other degrees and career pursuits beyond the standard engineering and “management” that I was exposed to.
- The value of an MBA is an interesting one. At the core of it, it gives you the confidence to solve “big problems”. You’re put into a study group of 5-6 people – different ages, backgrounds, nationalities and cultures. And together you solve “case studies” – sometimes it’s solving whether a wine company in Australia should expand to the US, how should an ambulance company in India deal with bribes, or constructing scenarios of Walmart’s merger with Flipkart (not yet a case study, but hopefully soon ). B-school teaches you to thrive in conflict, thus, potentially, making one a better manager/ leader.
You have worked with several socially oriented organisations like Asha Foundation, Niveshi and to some extent even your current employment- as an Investment Professional in the CDC group. How different is the experience when compared to working for purely corporate ones like Oracle?
Asha & CDC have a social mission – both have aims to foster development and create an impact (largely through uplifting the socio-economic conditions of people) through its investments and initiatives. I’ll leave out Niveshi as that was largely driven by myself and my co-founder.
I believe that every experience is valuable. But, I also felt commoditised at Oracle. While it helped me develop certain technical skills, it made me realise that I didn’t want to be a cog in the wheel but drive the wheel. I believe that the moment you feel under-utilised or that you feel that your growth is getting stifled, it is time to move on.
How useful is your technical knowledge in your current career?
Not directly useful, but what an engineering degree trains you to do is how to think mathematically, logically, and quickly. I remember what one of my IIT coaching teachers, Ravi Shankar, said once upon a time (something along these lines) – “While you may not remember the second law of thermodynamics in a decade, what I hope that you get out of it is the ability to think in a certain way and apply that thinking to problems that you are looking to solve in your future professions.”
How permanent is any choice of career? Do you think one should stick to a particular field or keep changing and experimenting as they grow in the industry?
To each, their own. But, in my opinion, in this day and age where the world is changing very quickly (with a lot of former professions being automated), a) adaptability is key (ability to learn quickly and pick up much-required skills), along with b) being able to ask the right questions.
How can one be sure that a certain career path is right for them? What is a good way to make that decision?
The intersection of pursuing what you like and what you are good at. Some of the questions I try asking myself include: are you motivated to work? Do you feel fulfilled? Does your position allow you to grow?
Another piece of advice recently given to me – think about where you want to be and then work backwards. Is your current role providing you with a clear path to your professional aspirations?
What are some things about your career path you wish you knew in college, in retrospect?
To not be afraid of taking risk. As students of NIT Trichy, you are smart and capable.
Grab opportunities as they come (or create opportunities). Don’t be afraid of asking questions. Keep pushing yourself to be better than what you already are.
Complacency is the devil.
Is there something more that the T&P Cell should be doing for students?
- “Treks” to companies. This is something that we did while at b-school – a group of 10-12 of us would spend a day visiting 4-5 companies/ startups in a city. It’s different from campus recruitment because this provides you with the opportunity to have open and frank discussions with specific teams/ mid-level management/ or even with recent NIT Trichy graduates in these places.
- Mentorship opportunities. One of the ideas I have is a mentor-mentee program. There’s a lot that students can learn from alum – both senior alum and fairly recent ones and I’m sure many of us would be happy to give back through such an initiative.
- Entrepreneurship support. Security to come back and sit for placements if the venture doesn’t work out. (is this already there?)
How do you feel time must be utilised in the final year?
Again, to each their own. I’ll add some things that help me (by no means it’s the way one should lead their college lives). The three core elements to how I believe one can invest their time is
1. Learning (and not just academics)
2. Doing (clubs/ projects/ activities)
3. People – they are your biggest resource.
- Spend time with people. NIT Trichy has some incredibly smart and talented people, we can learn a lot from each other. And always remember, you are the average of the 5 people around you. My closest friends – in spite of two degrees and having lived in 10+ cities throughout my life, NIT Trichy friends remain the closest and one of my strongest networks. I am always inspired by the diversity of the students and alum, and by the work they are doing.
- Extra-curricular opportunities – again, with the numerous clubs that we have, there are many opportunities to expand ourselves beyond academics. Take onus and initiative. I probably went overboard with my extra-curricular activities – Balls by Picasso, the core team of NITTFest (Marketing Head), Festember (Media & Content), and Pragyan (GL Head) along with being a CPC coordinator and a teacher at Spirit-ED, teaching lesser-privileged girls twice a week after college.
- Projects – working on projects – academic and non-academic – have been great ways to learn and also to make friends. I didn’t pursue much of these in college but some of my close friends did – Radhika and TR Prashanth worked on a project in computational music; Prashanth is completing his PhD in the same domain now!
- Online courses, podcasts – lots of opportunities to learn.
- Invest in yourself, physically! I regret not doing this in college. But engaging in sport/ physical activity goes a long, long way. While I’m not very good, I personally enjoy rock climbing and recently completed a 65km~ trek in Iceland in 4 days.
Is there anything students can take away from college genuinely on a qualitative basis? What advice would you give to engineering students?
There’s a lot. But, looking back, NIT Trichy taught me the value of friendships. Even though I’m in a different country, I still talk to my NIT Trichy friends pretty much every day. Its vibrant extra-curricular atmosphere gave me the opportunity to learn and explore beyond academics. And finally, don’t be afraid of voicing your opinion or, for that matter, fighting the administration for things that you think is correct (and is worth fighting for). For the women, especially, don’t let roll call limit you in your pursuit of knowledge, leadership, or pursuing new experiences – it may be a bit more difficult to pursue some of the things that you want to (at least, that’s how I felt) and I probably did get into more battles than I should have. But never, ever stop fighting for the things you believe in.