Updated: Nov 19, 2020
About the guest: Bindi Dharia, Deputy Director, Centre for Social Impact and Philanthropy (CSIP) at Ashoka University
Before joining CSIP, Bindi worked with the Tata Trusts for Grant Relationships Management. She has also worked at the Piramal Foundation for Education Leadership as their Program Director for Technology. She holds a master’s degree in engineering from the University of Michigan and an MBA from Harvard Business School. Her earlier experience is in the space of engineering and operations with ArcelorMittal.
Highlights of the conversation, edited for length and clarity, follow.
Why did you decide to work in the social sector?
I grew up in a Gandhian household where my grandparents were actively involved in the Independence struggle and thereafter in social endeavors. Since childhood, I was raised with the belief that giving back was a no-brainer. This was almost ingrained into my value system and got me interested in the social sector.
I had the chance to meet a lot of people working in the field of education, at the grassroots, for an internship during my MBA at the Harvard Business School (HBS). Through this experience, I realized that this is what gives meaning to my life. It was then that I decided to start working toward building an impact-driven career in the social sector. This might be a non-logical answer, you can call it a gut call, but this is what gets me excited when I wake up in the morning.
How did you get started on this journey?
Picture credits: Bindi Dharia (Graduation, HBS; Boston, USA)
“I wanted to go west to the Silicon Valley. As an engineer, who doesn’t want to do that, right?”
After completing my undergraduate degree from University of Mumbai, I was admitted to the University of Michigan to pursue a master’s degree in engineering. After working for a few years, I applied to HBS. In my time there, I returned to India for an internship at the MIT-based organization, One Laptop Per Child and decided to build a career in the social sector.
]While I was in business school, I was convinced that education was the answer to several problems in our society. As an engineer, technology was a no-brainer for me, and there was an edtech bubble growing in the United States which further piqued my interest. My time at One Laptop Per Child gave me the chance to deep dive into the education space. This is when I learned more about the education system in India while interacting with a number of schools and colleges.
My first boss, Aditya Natraj, Director at Kaivalya Education Foundation, told me to spend time working in Rajasthan to get a good grasp over the ground realities and unlearn everything that I learned in B-school. Most of us don’t do this and it is absolutely crucial to interact with your community to understand the difficulties and challenges that they face.
“A lot of us come with this idea or the romantic notion that I can solve the problem for them. The truth however is far from that.” - Bindi
After a series of conversations with Aditya, I was convinced that the child is not at the core of the problem. If one were to dig deeper, it was the adults who were at the center.
I spent the next three years learning to understand problems on the ground while working at Piramal Foundation for Education Leadership (or KEF) as the director for technology. I built tech solutions, set up the data and tech systems, and designed the initial frameworks for the organization. This was an immense opportunity to grow with the organization and do something different.
Picture credits: Bindi Dharia (Dean’s House, HBS; Boston, USA)
What happens when you spend a lot of time at the same organization?
Given the flat structure of the organization, I was already at a senior level. This was the point of stagnation for me. In a conversation with my mentor, Amit Chandra, the Managing Director of Bain Capital and a philanthropist, we discussed the next opportunity for me to grow and diversify my skills. My journey took a turn and I started to work with Tata Trusts. Even though I initially saw myself working in operations, I ended up on the fundraising side.
“I had never done fundraising in my life and never sold anything to anybody, I was an engineer.”
I did some really interesting work at the trust. I worked in their internal process system, setting up their complete annual reporting system, which they refer to as their annual working plan processes. I then worked with the CFO of Tata Trust on donor relationship management, handling almost 90% of the money coming in and figuring out where it will be allocated, to what projects, and sorted the process of reporting and handling each of these relationships.
“Very interesting work, but what I realized was big philanthropy was not my thing.”
What I wanted was to be close to the ground and to work around nonprofit organizations.
This search led me to a conversation with Ingrid Srinath, CSIP Director, and I eventually joined her team here as a Deputy Director. I realised there was a large gap between nonprofits and big philanthropy and there was a huge opportunity for me to work in it. I proposed the role to Ingrid, and she designed this position for me. I have been at CSIP for almost two years now, and have spent seven years in the sector post my graduation in 2013.
What does CSIP do?
Picture credits: Bindi Dharia (CSIP Team at offsite; Haryana, India)
The Centre for Social Impact and Philanthropy works in ecosystem building, across three verticals: Research & Knowledge, Convening & Facilitation, and Leadership Development. We conduct research across different thematic areas, support India Development Review (IDR) in an advisory role, run various fellowships — including the Mother Teresa Fellowship with Ashoka University — organize strategic nonprofit management programs to build capacity, and strengthen the social sector’s collective voice.
Note for students: I would recommend you look at CSIP’s research and publications, visit our website and follow us on social media (@AshokaCSIP) for student engagement opportunities and timely updates that could be helpful for your learning and professional journeys. If you’re interested in exploring the intersection of the technology and social sectors, and how technology can help civil society address challenges (including the impact of COVID-19), our upcoming Social Innovation Summit (Nov. 18-19, 2020) may also be of interest.
How does an MBA play out in the social sector?
An MBA is valuable no matter what sector you go to. It teaches you to lead, build an organization and think strategically. Each of these skills is required to plan for an organization. It teaches you to think from a macro perspective, work with people, and be a good leader. Most importantly, it helps you look at the fundamentals and build to address them. Somewhere down your career path, it will help you think like a CEO and become one.
Since I did an MBA, however, at times I feel that I do not have the best understanding of the social sector, which can be built by studying the theoretical aspects of it. Such courses can be found at TISS, APU, etc. — but that ship has sailed for me. Instead, I am now building that theoretical understanding by reading books like The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid or the Harsh Mander series that gives the reader an understanding of work/data on the ground. Reading the right books and online publications like IDR, PARI can help in developing an enhanced understanding and closing any knowledge gaps. This is critical if you choose to work here.
“Reflect on what you want to do after and plan backwards.”
If you look at different organisations, there are plenty of MBAs in the social sector. There is really no barrier to being in any role or function provided you are willing to learn. You can move around and find all the areas that suit your strengths.
Is an MBA the right fit for you?
If you want to run organizations in the social sector, then it would make sense for you to have an MBA degree.
It really gives you an edge over the others, to move ahead and build. Not everyone has the logical reasoning skills necessary to synthesize information sensibly and use it. The degree helps you build and acquire that skill set and put it into practice. It definitely helps.
Getting an MBA experience is the best thing that could have happened. In my case, I was an engineer, a core operations person. The MBA helped me in making the jump to leading an organization and being in a senior leadership position; it opened several doors for me. It really gives you an edge to think differently, regardless of whether you are pursuing it from the best schools in the U.S. or India.
MPP vs MBA?
The decision really depends on where your career trajectory is going and how much clarity you possess.
If you see yourself as someone who wants to get into core policy work or work with the government, then it makes sense to pursue an MPP (Master’s in Public Policy).
But if you want to run or start organizations, an MBA is a no brainer. It really does open a lot of options for you. Especially if you want to work across multiple areas, even in the social sector An MBA trains you for everything from impact investment, impact consulting, to running an NGO. Obviously you need to get the ground level experience after that to ensure you know the real issues in the field.
If you can get a joint degree, that is probably the best option. This is broadly speaking, to put things in perspective and not create circles of mutual exclusivity.
(This is the first half of the conversation with Bindi. Read the second part of the conversation on sectoral skills/ generalist vs specialist, fieldwork, networks and mentors, careers, reading recommendation, and comment on sectoral payoff.)