At the core, the challenges our world faces, whether it is related to the environment, climate, food access or natural resource exploitation, have their roots in social behaviour.

Radhika Ralhan, our next pathbreaker, CoRe Program Fellow, collaboratess with an international team of researchers and program experts based in 4 continents towards building capacities of people, organizations, to work on those natural resources that are facing pressure from unsustainable activities to enhance resilience.

Radhika talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about doing her research thesis at McDonald’s based on Sociology of Food which sparked her interest in Sociology, a very rare career !

For students, Sociology is a discipline which requires a strategic, scientific and research based analytical approach to come up with pragmatic solutions to global issues.

Radhika, tell us about Your background?

As many of us take pride in our roots, I too, as a proud South Delhi Indian, was brought up in a middle class family. My mother is a national level NCC gold medalist, a teacher, and my dad, an engineer. They instilled a strong merit based value system in me. I had the freedom to choose anything and become anyone I wanted to be – but with the following grounded values – honesty, passion, and self-efforts, without expecting favors from anyone. I was brought up with this kind of self-respect and value system which, for a girl and a woman, is one of the greatest freedoms cherished since childhood. 

Football was my favorite game and I continued to train with boys. Academically, I was one of the bright students – yet was very poor in Maths!! I was awarded the Best Outgoing Student, and many thought I would pursue natural science as a career. But when I was in Class X, and had to decide between Humanities and Science, one of my mom’s friends, a Professor, told me very openly  to choose a path in which you would excel and not follow a herd mentality. She said that to gain 80 – 90% in humanities is far better than scoring 50 -60% in science ( of course, all of you will now joke that 99% is the new norm even in Humanities).

I still cannot get over these figures, but the essence is, follow your interests and passion, and only then will you excel. I did that, and ironically, Sociology was rarely taught in schools. But my school had it, which paved the foundation of my sociological training. As I continued to pursue sociology in my bachelors from Venkateshwara College, University of Delhi, I was awarded the Silver Medal and stood second overall in University of Delhi. Despite this, when I had to select Delhi School of Economics or Jamia Millia Islamia for my Masters in Sociology, I selected the latter, as one of my Professors very practically told me to enjoy my masters, keeping in mind the commute from my house. Most importantly, the masters in Jamia Millia Islamia had a research project unlike the former. It had an applied method of approach and indeed my years in Jamia Millia Islamia were one of the best periods of my life. I was awarded a Gold Medal and stood First Class, First Position for both the years consecutively. The University awarded me with the Merit Scholarship too which i was awarded at my convocation. Also, while I excelled in academics it did not imply that I was a geek. I was an active debater, took part in dramatics, and participated in all competitions including flower making contests. I also worked at McDonald’s part time during my bachelors and later used my McDonald’s work experience in my research thesis which was on Sociology of Food. During this time, I also learnt French, Spanish and also took up internships. So, you need to be out there, be a people’s person. Only when you have interest in a discipline will you excel. Also, my parents never pushed me over marks and exams, as this is not a criteria to assess excellence in a person. I am a left hander, though I failed in Maths, yet my aptitude was in people, communities, networks, research and collaborations. So, carve your way, as today the world is yours to do anything and become anything you aspire to be.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I did my graduation, post-graduation in Sociology and later on, did my M.Phil from the prestigious Delhi School of Economics. My academic training therefore has been as a Sociologist throughout this trajectory.

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

My mother has been a very key influencer in my life. I was brought up with an independent mindset to choose anything I wanted to be. She has been a very close advisor till date when I was selected for the Atlas Corps Fellow program. Most importantly, to make life meaningful for the society and people, was enshrined in her upbringing, as she ensured that life should be with an aim – An aimless life is a miserable life. Moreover, she never brought me up with the traditional mindset and ensured that career development, the “freedom to choose” held immense value in my life. The reason for choosing Sociology and not Social Work was distinct, as the former discipline is strategic, scientific and has a research, analytical approach. The objective unbiased approach that comes with this discipline is closely associated with the way I was brought up, to be bold, fearless and unbiased, with statements based on facts. I believe there is no turning point in any person’s life, I feel what you are is what you become and I had an inherent sensitivity that defined my principle to make my work and efforts meaningful for people. It is not necessary to do social work or go out there to provide some essential items to people. Serving also means extending your skills, hours, expertise and knowledge for the overall benefit of the ecology, economy and society.  Even through volunteering you can serve the society. For instance, if you have love for the arts – photography, painting, through your expressions, you can showcase the plight of people or even raise awareness on positive stories of community. Use your work to serve society and the environment around yourself  

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 professional Trajectory has been aligned with what triggers, or attracts me the most and this is evident in my academic and professional selection of work, 

So, I envisaged my steps asking key questions which determines your career path, so ask yourself :- 

What triggers you the most?  – I am a people’s person and always had a deep self-realization that any work or career path that I choose should have a defined purpose and should be meaningful for the overall community and society. So, the thought process was to keep discovering these elements of self-realization within yourself. Even if you are confused between two things try to see which one triggers you the most. In my case, I had two – working on issues that hold relevance to society, and of course food was my passion. I was even selected for Institute of Hotel Management (IHM) and then I was at crossroads whether to select Sociology or pursue IHM. I selected sociology, as deep down, I was influenced by my sensitivity towards social issues, urge to creating solutions and most importantly, diversity of our country in dealing with critical challenges such as  –  gender, social inequality, cultures, traditions. Hence I pursued my B.A Hons from Venketeswara College, University of Delhi. I also selected a co-education college as that is something, I feel should be encouraged more rather than specific gender based colleges. My perspective is, it is always beneficial, especially in the coming times, since you will be working in spaces that are gender diversified and it is therefore significant to experience this at the foundational level from school (my parents were particularly keen to send their daughter into a co-education learning and development school). 

Combine Passion with your Discipline – We are living in a globalized and networked world where at every stage of your life, personally and professionally, you will come across a diverse set of people with great talents, skills, and backgrounds. I pursued my Masters in Sociology from Jamia, a two-year course, wherein we were expected to conduct a research thesis based on a topic of our interest or an issue which we would like to pursue. So, while everyone in my class was taking up issues on gender, religion and minorities, youth and so on, I took this opportunity to combine my passion for food into my research thesis – Food as a symbol of society, this was never taken up in India, especially within the discipline of Sociology. I was also working part–time in McDonald’s and hence integrated my work experience to understand the cultural consumption and essence of food. I looked at how culinary food habits, food series, have emerged in the last couple of years in India and in the world. How would you study a culture or society through its food, was the issue that I also took up during my M. Phil work. In fact, I was selected in the Delhi School of Economics Sociology department for the unique nature of my work. The discipline of Sociology of Food and Consumption was established in countries of Europe and in the US and,  during my research, I also made great connections with the professors, researchers, food enthusiasts, fellow sociologists who I found were more encouraging than the Indian counterparts. They contributed to my research and encouraged me to keep pursuing this topic as it will be defining discipline in the coming years. As a result, I also secured the highest marks in the class for my thesis work with a first division. 

Be Unconventional: It was my work on Sociology of Food, that got me into working for the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology Delhi (IIT, Delhi) for a European Commission Learning Network on Sustainability (LeNS) with key higher education institutions based in Italy, Netherlands, Finland, India, China and Thailand. One of the key clusters was on Food, and I combined my learnings on sociology within this project to work on sustainability. At that time, I had no clue about this big jargon word sustainability, but I took the plunge as I always liked to explore unconventional aspects, as it ignites your mind, challenges you to combine your insights and pushes you to work on those issues which will be the new trend and define the future. This was my first work in 2012 and in these 8 years, we know how food, sustainability and now Covid 19 have exposed the fragility of our systems. Therefore to fight issues like climate change and social inequalities, people need to be brought to the forefront of all development activities. 

Try to take routes that are non-traditional and take up those issues, themes which will be more relevant in the coming future – so be far sighted. 

How did you get your first break? 

As i said above, it was my work on Sociology of Food, that got me into working for the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology Delhi (IIT, Delhi) for a European Commission Learning Network project on Sustainability (LeNS), with key higher education institutions based in Italy, Netherlands, Finland, India, China and Thailand. 

What were the challenges? How did you address them?

  • Challenge 1:  Leading a Young Organization and Team – One of the biggest challenges I faced was that I was given the role to lead a young organization GlobalHunt Foundation. It was both an opportunity and a challenge as we had to build the organization from scratch, working on CSR and sustainability within the private sector. But I realized early on that “partnerships”, “innovations” are some of the key lifelong skills. It is important to work in collaboration with your partners, to be able to overcome diverse challenges on ground while executing pan India programs in villages for health, skills, environment etc. We also conducted training for the private sector. I encouraged a young team of professionals and during the course, learnt along the way, especially with my design and communication team. So, it is important to take up early challenges, feel free to do any kind of work and as Jack Ma, Founder of Ali Baba stated, a young person should definitely work in a startup or young organization as it sets your  professional foundations – you gain a 360 degree experience on running a program, leading a team. doing diverse tasks. You learn as you grow in the process. 
  • Challenge 2: Implementing Impactful Programs – As I was working and executing social responsibility programs as a sociologist and a development professional it is important to measure the impact that you envisage before commencing your work. Especially, while executing programs on menstrual hygiene and management and dealing with a patriarchal mindset in the villages of Rajasthan. I was faced with immense challenges while working with rural patriarchal communities in this program, as we were creating women entrepreneurs and creating awareness, accessibility of sanitary pads. Some of the issues were breaking taboos, encouraging young girls for an open dialogue, participation of men and women together in these areas. One of the key solutions we undertook was extensive communication with both internal and external stakeholders. Also, one should have strong conviction that will help in motivating communities and instill a sense of trust in them.  
  • Challenge 3 – Innovative Open Space for Working– I have always promoted innovative, open working spaces which was a huge struggle in Indian traditional spaces. However, I selected organizations, and ensured to interact with my direct reporting line person before accepting a job offer to ensure that the person I will be working closest with will have a flexible and open working style. The challenge was that in Indian scenario, I found such people to be very few in number. However in my work I interact with a network that belongs to a civil society, including those from  the industry, academia, as well as social entrepreneurs, young and old, and ensured to build a strong peer network.

Where do you work now? Tell us about your work

I am in the best space of my life. Given my extensive work, I was selected as a social impact leader for the prestigious Atlas Corps Fellowship program. It is one of the top 10 professional leadership programs where leaders such as me from diverse countries of the world are selected through an intensive rigorous process and are invited by Host organizations to come to the US. It is a mutual learning process wherein we volunteer our skills, professional expertise to the Host Organizations that we collaborate with and in turn, gain an international experience that further enhances our social influence, leadership as a global changemaker. 

I am working for Collaborating for Resilience (CoRe) in Washington DC, an international organization working on partnerships in South and Southeast Asia, Africa, and Latin America. It aims to create resilient communities by strengthening issues on environmental governance, climate change, land rights, people-based partnerships, fostering innovation, and providing livelihoods-based solutions. I work with an international team of researchers and program experts based in 4 continents who are also a part of my dynamic team. Most importantly I work in OpenGovHub which itself is one of the most open, innovative, fun working spaces with people from 50 different organizations working in one space. The Hub itself provides us immense learning, networking, and global exposure from over 100 people from diverse nationalities. 

How does your work benefit the society? 

Given the crisis that we are in today, Resilience of communities and the environment is the need of the hour. My work is directed towards building capacities of people, organizations, to work on those natural resources that are facing pressure from unsustainable activities. Hence my work is more than significant, as the crisis is universal to all countries, especially those placed in rural, village level communities who are most vulnerable to crises – Climate Change or COVID. Therefore, there is a strong need to build collaboration among people to enhance resilience. 

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

One of my most memorable works was the Women Entrepreneurs program that I curated and implemented on ground. It was one of the most enjoyable, challenging and most impactful work that I did in collaboration with talented people who continue to be my very close peers. The feeling of designing a program to implement on the ground as a complete cycle, and then measuring its outcome and impact is one of the most fulfilling experiences of your life. Similarly, I personally initiated a digital campaign in the wake of Delhi Rape 2012 which was covered by the media and we could prove that people leading social media and technology based campaigns have the power to bring people together to work towards an improved society. It was all about citizen-based engagement to raise collective conscience. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

1) Don’t pursue a JOB (Just Over Broke) but Passion  – so if you have a restricted mindset you will think let’s take this degree and get a good job, in this process you restrict yourself from exploring your true potential. So enhance your passion into a holistic career development strategy – think, if you like photography how can you open your own studio, if you are good with technology how can you work as a technocrat with a leading organization or as their advisor, if you love fashion how can you be an adviser or fashion stylist etc. So, working around your passion as a job will only allow you to survive on a monthly “just over broke” monetary satisfaction. If you follow your passion you follow your career as a professional – where you can create something of your own while enjoying the work your love the most.  

2) Don’t Convince Parents, just take up your discipline – So many of my friends wasted time in pursuing a course for the satisfaction of their parents. Do not waste energy or time in doing that, try convincing them, communicating with them and be persistent. Time is critical, so pursue what you want to but don’t pressure them to fund unnecessary demands. If you are talented, apply for funds, scholarships and even pursue courses in India. It worked for me. Through your work and journey you will gain international exposure. 

3) Do Combine Skills with Discipline – So if you are pursuing a science-based course or when you apply for even a masters, MBA etc., try combining it with a skill-based course. In case your degree courses do not provide you with such an opportunity, then pursue parallel training, it is important to combine two disciplines, or imbibe skills for e.g. Communication with Advertising, or Designing. Many of my peers pursuing engineering also did NGO Management, so use innovative combinations. 

Future Plans?

Continue to work with the passion of creating an impact. Also, since I live in the present, so the immediate present aspects I see are the following: –

  1. Work with communities, people and organizations that are most vulnerable.
  2. Extensively travelling to learn new experiences and meet new people. 
  3. Volunteer my skills, expertise to organizations, people who would like to work on pertinent sustainability issues.