As the social sector starts opening up more opportunities for corporate talent, I speak to few women who have traded in their successful corporate jobs for careers with social purpose.

“I sometimes wonder how in our pursuit of that elusive cosy corner in life, we keep getting disconnected from everything natural in and around us, only to walk back to the same fork in the path where we parted from our true selves. Sooner or later everyone reaches a point where we ask: what is the purpose of my life?”

After close to two decades in the corporate sector, with a satisfying career and rich experience behind her, Bengaluru-based Vyjayanthi Mala found herself asking this question. Her pursuit of purpose-led her to setting up a venture with a social angle, which brought with it a lot of new learning and also a desire to delve deeper into the social development space. “I realised that I had only touched the tip of the iceberg and wanted to learn more,” she says.

Gurgaon-based Deepti Beri, a chartered accountant by training with a corporate career of around 18 years in consulting, operations and executive roles in technology, media and internet industry, recalls how she started looking at her career “differently” sometime in 2017 when she was working as a Chief Commercial Officer at a venture. “My earlier experiences had prepared me for problem-solving across diverse functions and industries, but I had never had any experience of working on problems that impact human lives, communities and nations. In fact, I had a very limited perspective of the landscape itself.” The next destination for both Vyjayanthi and Deepti was a programme designed to help corporate leaders like her develop a better perspective on the social development sector and enable them to apply their skills and experience to solving some of the most complex challenges in that space.

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In pursuit of purpose

“It can be quite overwhelming to begin the second innings of one’s career in unknown territory. When I attended a leadership program almost two years back, it opened doors to a new world for me. It busted many myths about the development sector, it deepened my understanding about the sector and the opportunities it holds,” says Vyjayanthi, who recently joined Societal Platform as Program Manager.

Reducing inequities and bringing socio-economic changes is also the responsibility of individuals and corporates and can’t be just left to the government and non-profit organisations. – Deepti Beri

“One thing that stood out for me during the nine days at the program is the power of network and the network of networks. I landed my first role in the social sector, with an organization called Agami, owing to this network of networks that I started mapping for myself. An extension to that understanding is also the power of collaboration and co-creation that I apply at work every day now,” she says.

“Working on social development issues is not a choice anymore, but a compulsion. Reducing inequities and bringing socio-economic changes is also the responsibility of individuals and corporates and can’t be just left to the government and non-profit organisations,” says Deepti.

Last year, she followed her passion for education and her great faith in the Internet to set up Curious Times, a news and information content platform, exclusively for children. “It is my honest effort at bringing about social consciousness, general awareness and empathy among children through content and communication.”

Having long nurtured a desire to work in the education sector so that children in India’s government schools get a quality education, Ritu Arora Jain also has a similar story to tell: of looking for meaning, trading in her corporate role for a stint as a school teacher and then finally signing up for a leadership program to get answers to some of the questions she still had about the social sector.

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Ritu is now Director, State Transformation Program, at Kaivalya Education Foundation, a non-profit with the mission of transforming education in India’s government schools. “Through this crossover I have met the greatest number of inspiring people, across age groups. Among these there is 69-year-old Jo Chopra, the director of Latika Roy Foundation, 25-year-old Sunil, our program lead in one of the districts in Haryana. They both work with an equal sense of rigour and urgency which stems from deep passion and belief in the work they do. I find this very admirable and inspiring,” says Ritu. “If there is one thing that has been common across the work I have been a part of in this sector, it is the sense of purpose.”

Learning, unlearning, re-learning

Even as more corporate executives in their mid-30s, 40s and 50s start looking at careers that give them a sense of purpose and an opportunity to play a role in creating social change, there are plenty of questions related to how easily and successfully they are able to navigate this new territory. How easily, if at all, can they transfer the skills and experience acquired in their corporate career to the social development space? What do they need to learn to be effective and to find fulfilment in their new roles as change leaders?

I have come to realise that my journey in the social sector did not really start at ground zero. I do come with some capabilities and skills I have acquired during my corporate days that are quite useful in the development sector. – Vyjayanthi Mala

“What I got from my corporate world was an ability to have a very common-sense approach to problem solving and bringing multiple stakeholders across a table to find solutions and, honestly, that has been extremely useful in this new journey. Especially when I don’t have any research or social domain expertise to fall back on,” says Ritu.

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Used to working with clear business plans and fairly predictable results in their corporate avatar, these women leaders are now also learning to perform in a space where the results are difficult to predict, and where performance is often difficult to measure.

“There are two things that I am actively working on learning. One, I am trying to get the real, practical view of things rather than a theoretical and prescriptive approach. Thinking from the point of view of real people who are at the center of my work is something I am trying to cultivate. Two, cultivating the habit of taking a step back, start at the big picture, imagine multiple audacious possibilities before diving into the tactics,” says Vyjayanthi.

“I have come to realise that my journey in the social sector did not really start at ground zero. I do come with some capabilities and skills I have acquired during my corporate days that are quite useful in the development sector. I believe the rigor in setting up processes, internal controls, protocols to manage teams, the discipline and urgency that I tend to bring in implementing these, is a great value addition,” she adds.

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“If I have a message for people considering the social sector, it would be to just do it. The world needs us now more than ever. The development sector is evolving very rapidly and the opportunities to make a meaningful contribution are growing by the day. Sooner or later, with the diversity of opportunities, you will certainly be able to land in a place where you don’t have to let go of your existing skills and experience and can instead use them to complement the work that you take up- of course, with that sense of purpose driving it,” Vyjayanthi concludes.

Radhika is a development communications professional, who spends her time dodging and occasionally bungee jumping on patriarchy. She likes to breathe when not drowning in anxiety.
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