Business Today

The Social Detour

Increasingly, young professionals are seeking out the social sector to broaden their horizons, gain experience and beef up their CVs.
twitter-logo Sarika Malhotra        Print Edition: July 21, 2013

Cherian Joseph's career path has been anything but straight and narrow. The Pune-educated mechanical engineer's first job was at Tata Motors in 2004. After another stint in school - this time at Georgia Tech in the US - he got a masters in industrial and systems engineering in 2009. He remained in the US for two more years, working at Capgemini, where he focused on due diligence for post-merger integration for its health-care and retail clients. But his sights were set elsewhere. "I was eager to apply my knowledge and skills in the social sector," says Joseph, who is now 30. His long-term career goal was to help micro, small and medium enterprises grow and be sustainable. "I believed that an opportunity to work hands-on with leaders in the social sector would give me a practical sense of what works well and what does not in this field," he adds.

 
Ankit Durga, Executive Director, LEAP Skills Academy
Ankit Durga, Executive Director, LEAP Skills Academy Photo: Aditya Kapoor

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He quit his Capgemini job when he got selected for a one-year fellowship from the Acumen Fund, a venture capital fund that focuses on critical services such as water, health, housing, energy and agriculture in India, Pakistan, and East Africa. He was drawn by Acumen's philosophy of using market-based approaches to invest in companies that catered to low-income customers. As a full-time fellow of the fund in 2012, he worked with Ziqitza Health Care Ltd, a private ambulance company in Mumbai that serves middle- and low-income customers. He spent hours travelling in the ambulances to better understand the patient's experience during an emergency, and designed a marketing and operations strategy. "I assisted the company in a scale-up plan through a partnership with the National Rural Health Mission's emergency care initiative. This experience helped me appreciate the potential of public-private partnerships in India and understand the immense challenges in this approach."

After completing the fellowship, Joseph joined McKinsey & Company in November 2012, as consultant. Here, he works with Indian agriculture and energy companies on strategic initiatives, efficiency improvement and large-scale transformation programmes, drawing on his social-sector experience of looking at issues from the perspectives of investment, entrepreneur and consumer. "This combination is invaluable and helps me think of problems not evident to others in my current role," he says. "This experience has built empathy and keeps me grounded when I design solutions."

The social sector provides learning opportunities and experience across a range of organisational functions. This is why there is a growing trend among young professionals to add such experience to their CV.

Even MBA aspirants have jumped on to the bandwagon. For example, 24-year-old Ankit Durga joined LEAP Skills Academy in May. LEAP works in rural Haryana to bridge the gap between students' abilities and the demands of industry. Durga says he sees this experience as a stepping stone to an MBA, as it lets him work across functions and interact with people from diverse backgrounds, and tests his leadership and operational skills. "Business schools like diverse classrooms where collaborative learning forms the basis for interaction," says Durga. "Leading complex teams, taking risks, hands-on operational experience, thriving on dealing with unfamiliar situations and working on teams with people who may be innately different from you are all attributes that leading business schools look for in prospective candidates."

 
Cherian Joseph, Consultant, McKinsey & Co
Cherian Joseph, Consultant, McKinsey & Co

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The trend is by no means limited to India. Increasingly, professionals and students worldwide are seeking out opportunities in the development sector in emerging economies, to work on some of the most pressing problems of the world, broaden their horizons and be ahead of their peers in terms of exposure and experience. For example, 27-year-old American Dan Giuffrida is a Lok Capital Fellow with Suryoday Microfinance in Navi Mumbai. Lok Capital is an investor in the social sector, and Suryoday is a microfinance institution that lends to women in India. Giuffrida leads a project on strategic initiatives. After getting his Masters degree in sustainability management from Columbia University in New York, Giuffrida wanted to work in the social sector in another country, and for an organisation with a triple bottom line - financial, social and environmental. He attended an event at the Rockefeller Foundation in New York City, where a panelist encouraged job seekers to gain experience with social enterprises. "His view was that these opportunities provide insights and a detailed understanding of the customers of social enterprises that one would not get as an investor, and that this experience would be invaluable as one transitions to an investing role."

So Giuffrida zeroed in on Lok Capital for a fellowship of 12 to 18 months. Lok Capital recruits professionals with experience in commercial environments - for example, operations, consulting, investment banking and marketing - to work with one of its portfolio companies as consultants, analysts, researchers and advisors. Giuffrida had previously worked as an analyst at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, advising energy and utility companies on mergers, acquisitions, and debt and equity capital transactions.

Giuffrida says Suryoday gives him an opportunity to gain experience that would have been nearly impossible in a big corporation. "I lead a project for Suryoday where we will partner with a large foreign bank to offer savings accounts and cashless loan disbursements to our clients," he says. "This project provides security and financial inclusion benefits to our customers while providing us an opportunity to more cost-effectively grow our business. While the experience and training gained at a large corporation are tremendous, I would never have had the freedom to take the lead on the number of projects that I have while working for Suryoday." In the future, he plans to seek an investing role with a social sector fund.

Besides social impact funds, job aspirants are increasingly seeking out corporate-backed not-for-profit organisations for such experience. Sapna Moudgil, 45, who heads the NIIT Foundation, says: "We get four or five requests every month - people looking for jobs in the foundation." She says most of them want to make a difference. "Corporate life is all about numbers. Sometimes we lose sight of why we do what we do. Working in the social sector reminds us of the important things by showing the interconnectedness of life." She adds that she highly recommends that professionals look at the social sector as a means to become better at their jobs. "Working for a cause that improves someone's life makes you a better manager, a better parent."

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