Rohan Parakh, Director – IIT Kanpur Chapter, 2011-12
Rohan was the head of the founding Avanti Core Team in IIT Kanpur and has been an exemplary mentor and leader – motivating people to not only work for a cause but also identify with it, setting up strong processes and a strong foundation for future teams. He’s just graduated this year (2012) and is off to join Technoserve to continue to work in the field of social development. What follows is the personal account of his journey thus far…
“Having kept this on the back burner for quite some time, I decided it was finally time. There is a mélange of thoughts from personal experiences drifting in my head, and my purpose here is to draw those bits together and share, hoping that some of you may find them revealing or at least reassuring in your own journey”.
“My stint with Teach For India (TFI) usually comes across on my profile as a consciously planned career move taken with a view to step into the development sector. Reality is, there was no such agenda and back then, I had hardly envisioned its role in my career ahead. It was just one of those moments when it seemed the right thing to do, in spite of being advised against by most peers. Nevertheless, I did have an idea of the things that inspired me, moved me, drew me and drove me. Looking into the eyes of kids from the slums around my home, I knew more had to be done. I had always harbored a desire to serve the disadvantaged lot by getting engaged in a cause that I deeply cared about, and education seemed spot-on. The TFI experience got me excited to dabble in the sector further, which is why when Avanti came by, I did not think twice before applying. Such undertakings offered me a low-risk way of testing the waters and exploring what it really might be to work full time in the social sector. My objective in sharing this is to drive home two crucial lessons. In retrospect, much of what have led me to where I am today were fortuitous events that I could have never arrived at by design. But the way I chose to respond to them was in my hands, and that is all that eventually mattered. A key determinant of success is one’s ability to identify and seize these moments of opportunity and turn them into concrete action. Secondly, I have come to appreciate that it is absolutely okay if one is unsure about the career path one wants to take or the right steps toward it. But it is sin to be unaware of one’s truest self. Of course, this is a challenging and lifelong process, but answers to questions about yourself such as “What makes me feel most alive?”, “What are my specific talents?” should get refined with time. Reflection empowers you to find your true north.
The one year I spent leading the Kanpur team for Avanti has, by far, been the single most enriching period of my life. Concurrently, it has also been a journey of personal transformation and profuse self-discovery. The task of launching a chapter from scratch was both staggering and exciting. Being the first year of operations, every process had to be conceptualized and we had to get down to its nitty-gritty during execution. I recall how the core team used to sit for hours on end (once even during Antaragni) discussing at length about a particular issue or roadblock, weighing various alternatives, innovating, criticizing, occasionally arguing as well, but finally coming out with a solution that would work. True, that every so often these brainstorming sessions would extend out endlessly and we would allegedly get stuck with analysis paralysis. Yet, in hindsight, I would argue that it was incumbent we made a one-time investment in setting up sustainable and robust systems for the future teams to have a strong foundation to build upon. A good case in point would be the core team selection process – tedious, drawn-out and ample disagreement. Nonetheless, we now have a team that all of us can rely on; anything different would have been a disaster. And, in my opinion, the multi-step process itself is comprehensive in that it offers the much required end-to-end understanding of the candidate.
With detestable road traffic, wary school authorities, forward coaching partners, students taking us for a ride, and several other unforeseen challenges, Kanpur proved to be an extremely hard nut to crack. The legwork behind fellow selection brought me face-to-face with harsh ground realities. It showed me how essential it is for the upper management in any organization to get their hands dirty in order to keep abreast of what’s happening on the field. We were truly lucky to have a dedicated team that shared a common vision and passion for excellence. Likewise, it was great to have a corporate team working closely to set ambitious goals, push us to challenge and celebrate our successes. And, of course, there were cynics who kept the humor alive. Besides the usual he-is-doing-it-for-his-resume type defamation, I was at the receiving end of some particularly interesting skeptical comments. A batch mate once criticized Avanti on the grounds that it had zero outreach in villages where the real problem lay. I asked him to accompany me in one of our home visits to have a look at the actual condition in urban areas. Rural areas can definitely be on the cards, but there needs to be a starting point plus cities provide us with proximity to our operations. Another friend expressed to me his failure in understanding why I was working for Avanti for free, since I wouldn’t do that for someone like Goldman Sachs, and that, at the end of the day, both establishments are working towards adding value to the world. I pointed out that the benefits of creating economic capital were supposed to eventually trickle down to the Bottom of the Pyramid, but the ‘eventually’ never arrived for most people. So, in a way, Avanti is adding value to a different ‘world’, the Third World, and this world does not have money to pay for the services. My friend had difficulty digesting this justification. These encounters made me recognize that social mindedness is still an alien concept and nonprofit career largely remains part of uncharted waters, at least in the IITs if not across India.
And this realization, in turn, impelled me to explore the sector even further. At this point in time, I was indeed at a crossroads in my career, juggling n different options that lured me. On-campus placements were drawing closer and I hadn’t started preparations, because mujhe koi kinaara nazar nahi aa raha tha (as I once told Vasudha). So, while everyone else around was vigorously preparing for CAT and placements, I shut myself in my room and delved into a heavy self-directed research on the social sector. The next five days went past in a haze, when I used to come out of my room only for meals. I read up books such as “Be Bold” and “Work on purpose” by Echoing Green, “Corporate careers that make a difference” by Net Impact, and “I have a dream” by Rashmi Bansal. These books had shared inspiring stories of social entrepreneurs and nonprofit leaders from across the globes eeking to make a positive impact on the world, and proved to be profoundly enlightening. For instance, I never knew about ‘social business’ and found this model quite invigorating. I found the nonprofit sector growing at a faster rate than the government and private sectors. Furthermore, along with a friend in a similar situation, I went through the ‘About Us’ section on the websites of numerous NGOs, nonprofit consulting, social enterprises, Fellowships and even social venture funds to look at the landscape of career opportunities available. We immediately realized that the breadth of the sector is much wider than one would imagine, and the perks are many too. The development sector offers you the opportunity to serve the society professionally. It lets you add your voice and devote your talents to a sector that collectively cares for the community. The work is highly challenging, remarkably diverse and above all, immensely satisfying. The deeper I dug, the more convinced I became that this is where I want to be, at least for a while.
In a month or so, we put together a database of over 75 organizations in this space we found appealing. Each was assigned a rating out of 10 based on our level of interest. We had also subscribed to relevant blogs and newsletters like Acumen Fund, FSG, Stanford Social Innovation Review, Social Innovators Collective and Net Impact. Regularly, we used to check job boards meant specifically for the development sector. We gathered from our study that to succeed in this field or even to get the first job, we need to build good connections. These organizations have neither the want nor bandwidth to proactively look for entry-level guys and hardly any take in graduates without experience. Besides, this space is very collaborative in nature and firms like to work collectively. So, we started doing what all IITians are notoriously famous for – cold emailing people. Look up the Linkedin profiles of guys in the ‘Team’ section on the website, select someone who appears accessible (preferably IITian), scan Google for his/her email address, personalize a cover letter, drop him/her an email, and flag it for following-up a week later – this was the procedure we followed mechanically 24X7 for about three months. Undeniably, there were times when we felt as if we were chasing a rainbow, but the snail pace and low output-input ratio were anticipated, so we kept our cool. The pleasant surprise was that a lot of them did reply back, happy to have heard from us, and we obtained quite a few interview offers as well. Skipping on-campus placements was certainly a decision taken after a lot of deliberation, but it was natural fallout of the circumstances. For me, career is more than just a job and should reflect my personal values and what truly matters to me. To be frank, I was barely attracted to any of the conventional options available on campus. I would’ve tried consulting, but only for it to act as a springboard for me to get into the social sector. Friends urged me to pocket at least one job; however, I knew this would make me tired, complacent and lose focus. Moreover, I couldn’t afford spending more years doing something I wasn’t passionate about. My solid research and decent profile made me confident that I would at least not be without a job after graduation. As a caveat, I would say that this decision was a highly personal one, and one must take into consideration not only one’s professional background, experience and ambitions but also family, lifestyle and financial needs/goals, and the trade-offs one is ready to make. At the same time, learn to trust your instincts and do your homework well as you navigate your career path.
By February, I had unbelievably given interviews at all my dream firms including Technoserve. A major part of my interview at Technoserve hovered around my experience in Avanti, and thus I was in. But just as in any other sector, to be able to make it big, you have to prove your worth in the nonprofit sector too. So we began looking for part-time roles wherein we could contribute while being on campus. We secured an internship opportunity with Social Enterprise Associates, a US-based consulting firm, to share publication credits for co-authoring a White Paper on the Quadruple Bottom line. We were also able to become remote team members for the Mumbai chapter of Acumen Fund, a leading social venture fund. We stumbled across the StartingBloc Fellowship on the last day of its application period. We applied and got through but the fee was high and we were not sure if it was worth the amount. I remember sending emails to more than hundred StartingBloc Fellows asking them about their experiences and also fundraising tactics. In the end, it was still a gamble and we had to shell out a small fortune, but I think such steps often become necessary when your career has just begun. Also, if you have enough data to back you, it doesn’t become too difficult to persuade your parents. Having said this, one has to accept that one cannot please everyone. As an IIT graduate, long back I was pigeonholed into the your-son-is-a-blank-cheque-ready-to-be-cashed-out category by family. And on things turning out differently, they painted me a black sheep. Hence, someone aspiring to move into this sector must be ready to let go of everyone else’s expectation except their own. Keep in mind that the starting salaries (in India) can be expected to be modest to low, typically in the high 30s.
A careful look at the unsettling disparity in the community and barriers to its progress makes it seem to me nothing less than obligatory for every individual to be invested in some or the other form of public service, however small, at all points in their life. Inaction is as much a choice as action. So, we must make what difference we can, at whatever level we operate in life. As Jung observed, “In our most private and most subjective lives we are not only the passive witnesses of our age, and it sufferers, but also its makers. We make our own epoch”.
We wish you all the very best, Rohan, may you continue to make an inspiring epoch.