Technology and Data, combined with the vision to drive change, are powerful tools that can transform society. However the requisite resources needed to make an impact comes from organizations who have the market leadership and influence.

Dipakshi Mehandru, our next pathbreaker, Public Policy Professional at Dell, advocates for necessary policy changes through technologies that can address pressing issues in education, healthcare, cyber security, manufacturing and several other areas that drive human progress.

Dipakshi tells Shyam Krishnamurthy from the The Interview Portal that the huge responsibility to push for changes that help the country and organizations mutually, is something that drives her at work everyday.

For students, a career in Public Policy is an opportunity for you, as a representative of organizations, to work with the government and create an impact, because governments do listen to thought leaders !

Dipakshi, tell us about your background?

I was born and brought up in Delhi, to an Architect father and an Entrepreneur mother. In a family of science graduates, I was an outlier in taking up commerce in high school. 

I was good in academics and spent a lot of my extra-curricular time in debating, dancing and acting throughout school. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I pursued B.Com (Hons.) from Hansraj College in University of Delhi and followed that up with an M.Com. from University of Delhi. Luckily, I could pursue my first master’s degree while working for McKinsey & Company. 

After working for five years, I left for the Philippines to pursue my MBA from Asian Institute of Management, Manila, which included an exchange semester at HEC, Paris. 

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career?

Actually, it was the strengths that I developed along my professional career that brought me into this career. I have worked across industries and profiles in the last 14 years, and it would be wrong to say that I knew what I wanted to do from the very start. 

I started my career at McKinsey and Co. as a researcher and budding consultant – trained in going through copious amounts of data and presenting it in an easily consumable manner. Research has continued to be a cornerstone of every profession ever since – even now. I always considered communication a strength, but it was while working at Penn Schoen Berland and Astrum that I learned to convert research into persuasive narratives. 

Because it is still a nascent field in India, public policy gives me an opportunity to improve what I do every single day. Research-backed arguments distilled into customized narratives for different stakeholders, and the opportunity to learn from experts is what keeps me going about my career choice. 

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

My first job was at McKinsey & Co. through campus recruitment. At McKinsey, I met some of the most ambitious, driven and accomplished people. I was, however, eager to explore how enterprises work by getting my hands dirty. That’s when I joined a friend in setting up an entrepreneurial venture – Pratham (a graduation test-prep brand). The opportunity cost of leaving a promising career with a global giant was immense but joining a startup as a founding member at the age of 22 was an exciting opportunity – both professionally and personally. 

At Pratham, I was leading academics, creating workshops for schools, teaching eight hours a day, and that was on top of being part of a mere four-member team that managed rudimentary operations, as well as the brand’s staggering growth in the first three years. It was a brilliant learning ground. However, I still yearned to work at a global scale and engage with people from different nationalities. At this stage, I chose to pursue my MBA from AIM, Manila (Asian Institute of Management). AIM has a long cherished reputation as a creator of job makers, and set my expectation of focusing on capability building instead of job hunting during the MBA tenure.  

Discussing and deliberating with classmates every day in AIM’s rigorous case study methodology, I grew increasingly fascinated by leaders who steered companies through change and crises. This became my first introduction to the role of communication and advocacy functions in industry. I came across an article about how the term “soccer moms” demonstrated the role of research in Bill Clinton’s political campaign narrative. I decided to take my chance and wrote directly to Ashwani Singla, the India CEO of Penn Schoen Berland (PSB) – the company that created Clinton’s narrative. To my disbelief, and good fortune, I received a reply within twenty minutes! A meeting was set up on the day I arrived back in India. That meeting marked my foray into reputation management and corporate affairs which I have pursued since. 

Reputation is an intangible, yet a very fragile, asset. At both PSB and Astrum (a Reputation Advisory firm that I joined after PSB), the endeavor was to build and deliver on reputation strategies informed by data. Strategic communication spans various elements: What is the purpose of a strategy? Who are the right stakeholders? What are their values/ beliefs/ objectives? What message will resonate with them? What will be the measures of success? Led by the same leadership team, both the firms invested in quantitative and qualitative researches to answer these questions. In the process, I got to work with an eclectic mix of clients and mandates spanning across policy advocacy, social marketing, thought leadership, public affairs, CSR strategy, and crises management. In a way, it brought together research, communication, strategy, and project management under one role. 

It was one of the clients I counselled at Penn Schoen Berland, who introduced me to my current workplace in the process of setting up his team. Dell Technologies presented to me an opportunity of becoming a deep generalist and a proficient advocacy professional. I grabbed the opportunity with both hands and joined the organization as a member of its global government affairs and public policy team. 

How did you get your first break?

My first job at McKinsey & Co. was through campus recruitment. 

What were the challenges? How did you address them?

  • As an introvert, I’ve worked hard to overcome barriers in a world that places a disproportionate premium on extroversion. Investing in knowledge, research and articulation have been my antidotes to this. Despite not being a big fan of self-help books, I must call out “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” for changing my perspective. 
  • The pace of change and continued evolution in technology is disrupting how we work. It is imperative to invest in yourself. Pursuing self-paced courses and MOOCs is an alternative, and I’ve invested a lot of my time in them. Now, though, I am trying to get used to more unstructured, but equally beneficial learning styles.
  • I’d also like to point out a major challenge that I faced – As a hands-on worker, I always found it difficult to delegate tasks to teammates. Over the years, I’ve realized that trusting your team and colleagues is key to the growth of the organization. Today, I count team building and creating a nurturing environment one of my keenest strengths. 

Where do you work now? 

I work at Dell Technologies India as a part of the global government affairs and public policy team. My current role focuses on advocating for necessary policy changes, establishing thought leadership by engaging with various teams and experts, enabling opportunities to support business and operational interests of the firm, and evaluating and mitigating potential risks and crises. This includes, but is not limited to engaging with government, industry, think tanks and subject matter experts.

Research, communication, and emotional intelligence – in my opinion – are all important to excel in public policy. With the accelerated pace of change in the world today, it is crucial to actively look for facts and have the perspicuity to differentiate that from an opinion. It is also essential to have the agility to engage with stakeholders from diverse backgrounds, profiles, and levels of expertise. Investing in continuous and lifelong learning, amidst a dynamic Political, Economic, Social, and Technological environment is an imperative. 

While it is still a nascent field in many countries, the opportunity to work at the confluence of policy makers, influencers, and subject matter experts is immense. To advocate for changes that help the country and organizations mutually is a huge responsibility and is exhilarating. It typically takes long to move the needle in this space, but it is immensely satisfying to see the social and economic impact on the larger ecosystem in the medium to long term. I particularly appreciate that my organization encourages me to pursue issues I feel strongly about via the work I do every single day: future of work and education, environmental sustainability, cultivating inclusion amidst a humbling diversity, being a few among others. 

How does your work benefit society? 

What differentiates the Fourth Industrial Revolution from the earlier industrial revolutions is the speed and accuracy at which data can travel, can be stored, and analyzed. The digital world that the current generation has inherited may pose a lot of threats if the growth is unchecked, but the opportunities it can open up to create a more inclusive, equanimous, and sustainable world is massive too. As a policy advocate, finding my voice in the technology space, I actively participate in deliberations and build multi-sectoral projects and engagements that will shape the world of tomorrow. 

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

I have always been passionate about education and it being the bedrock of growth of civilization in any age, including the digital one. While the paradigm of education has changed immensely over the last decade, and an increasing number of classrooms have been digitized, unfortunately we haven’t prioritized helping teachers cope with these changes. There have been ample studies that focus on how a student learns and therefore what are the right pedagogical tools, however, a mid-career teacher with at least 20 years of active work life ahead of her/ him has been left to individual devices to adapt. 

Digital transformation of education is not just about digital equipment in a learning arena. It is about change management. In order to be successful facilitators of critical reasoning, empathy, inquiry, and curiosity, it is incumbent on administrations to help teachers remain relevant in a digitally-enabled classroom. Over the last few years, I have worked on a platform – Dell PolicyHack – where teachers take the centre stage in voicing challenges they face in the classrooms and hack policy-based interventions that could help them, their schools, and most importantly – their students. At the Dell PolicyHack, representatives from governments, think tanks, edtech entrepreneurs, and civil society experts also participate. They gauge the solutions, add their perspectives on how change can be brought about, and also take back a deeper understanding of teacher issues voiced by teachers themselves. An expected, but unplanned, outcome of the hack has also been teachers finding solidarity in common issues they face and taking back learnings on how technology has helped someone alleviate a challenge. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

We are living in times of excessive information thrown at us from all directions. My advice to a student would be learn how to research objectively, don’t be inhibited in offering an insight that doesn’t match the popular narrative, and have the agility and drive to expand knowledge across subjects. As we explore the future of work, where respective tasks will be efficiently handled by technology, human intervention in addressing design bias as well as asking the right questions on what next will be a critical skill. In your course of life, you will develop many skills, but make sure to mindfully involve yourself in what you undertake and invest deep into the practice. All the best!