The business world runs on two broad skillsets – Generalists and Specialists. Specialists thrive on suitability while generalists thrive on adaptability. However, in testing times such as today, even specialists would agree that survival depends on adaptability.

Natasha Nargolkar, our next pathbreaker, Cultural Consultant & Anthropologist at Plum Insights, helps a range of organisations understand the finer aspects of culture, human experiences and changing patterns of human behaviour and social trends to align business with human needs.

Natasha talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about pursuing a career in Liberal Arts, combining Anthropology, Ethnography and Economics, after realizing she had many diverse areas of interests and wanted the freedom to explore all of them without getting boxed into a “one size fits all” style of thinking. 

For students, Adaptability is the new mantra for survival. Always keep an eye on the future and equip yourself with broader skillsets.

Natasha, tell us about your background?

Hi, I’m Natasha Nargolkar and I’m a socio-cultural and economic anthropologist currently working as an ethnographer in Mumbai. 

On paper, my hometown is Mumbai, but I grew up travelling across the country with my family, as my father was an officer in the Indian Army. We moved every 2 years and I changed more than a dozen schools until we came to settle in Pune a few years ago. My mother has a background in child psychology and education, but she also worked as a banker and photographer at one point. 

As a child, I was curious about any and everything, and had no singular interest! I used to read a lot and engaged in as many different activities as I could in school – from music to sports, public speaking and even creative writing. I think because of this, I was always a student who was confused about what she wanted to do in life. 

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

For my undergraduation, I studied commerce with a focus on marketing and business administration from Symbiosis College of Arts and Commerce in Pune. At the same time, I also did a diploma in the Liberal Arts from the Symbiosis Center for Liberal Arts at the same college. I had an interest in foreign languages and used to think it would be cool to be a UN interpreter. So, I took up French at Alliance Francaise and Russian at the Ranade Institute of Foreign Languages, University of Pune. 

The Liberal Arts program made me realise how cool it is to be a nerd. It played a huge role in developing my interests in social sciences, cultural studies and economics. The classes were fluidly structured and encouraged a lot of free thinking and offered  unconventional subjects that validated my curiosities to a large extent. I took courses across disciplines – as diverse as critical thinking, 20th Century Wars, west African percussion and short story writing.

After graduating, I joined an MA Economics program at the University of Pune, during which I spent 2 semesters at the University of Gottingen, Germany through a DAAD Scholarship program. While I really liked Economics, I thought it was very technical and rigid with a high focus on numbers and statistics. A government can make better policies if it holistically understands the real everyday lives of the  people it is meant to serve and for that, just relying on mathematical models and statistical data felt like it dehumanized people to a large extent. So during my time at University, I continued to explore and merge economics with subjects across the social sciences in India as well as Germany, and discovered the subject of Anthropology. For me, this was a subject that bridged a lot of gaps. 

I started looking for post-graduate degrees that combined my two interests and found one (MSc. Anthropology and Development) at the London School of Economics, UK. I wasn’t expecting to get admission but was surprised when I did. Before moving to the UK, I spent some time as an Erasmus Mundus research scholar in Germany, where I explored Anthropology as a subject even more. 

Anthropology is like the hipster of social sciences, and the nerd in me was pretty kicked. It is a discipline that studies patterns of human behaviour, societies, cultural meaning and how it is all constructed. Within Anthropology there is Linguistic, Socio-Cultural, Economic Anthropology, business and design anthropology (what I currently engage with) among others. I love it because it is a discipline that covers everything to do with what makes us human. 

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

Every time I tell someone I work as an ethnographer (applied anthropologist)  – they ask me what that even is!

I chose this career because I realized I had many diverse areas of interests. I wanted to study the arts but also policymaking, languages as well as climate change, and Anthropology allowed me the freedom to explore all of it in a certain way. I would say it’s more of a way of thinking than a subject area. It allows you to be fluid and doesn’t box you into a “one size fits all” style of thinking. 

Key influencers – My liberal arts professors were key influencers in my life, specifically Dr Anita Patankar, Dr Hilda David as well as my economics professor Dr Rohini Sahni who always encouraged interdisciplinary thinking and learning, despite rigid organisation structures at the time. They also made me love the subjects they taught. I truly believe the way that you are taught something greatly influences how much of it you want to do in your life. My professors encouraged and motivated me to question and explore the subject area outside of just giving exams or passing the degree in it – truly be curious!

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

While I was passionate about my academic choices, I was unsure of where I could work to best apply it. I thought of doing something on my own in the field but realised I still had a lot to learn before I did so. 

One of the flipsides of studying something unique is that perhaps there isn’t just one job profile out there that perfectly combines all of your interests and expertise – but i see that as a good thing because it means you will spend a career doing very different things from time to time! After studying in an academic setting for so many years, I thought it would be interesting to see different industries in which Anthropology can be applied. I was introduced to Qualitative Research by a friend and found it to be an interesting space, and so as a first job spent some time working for a Qualitative Research agency. 

Applying anthropology in business is intriguing and is a field that’s coming up, because on the one hand you have to decode and analyze consumer culture in the most holistic way possible but at the same time keep a business agenda in mind which is challenging. It’s not very popular for businesses to think about qualitative research, because we still sometimes believe that numbers tell the real story. They do for a lot of types of businesses but qualitative research adds a more comprehensive and wholesome foundational layer to a business. 

Usually a domestic or international brand or organisation (across industries like tech, product, services, FMCG, media, F&B, design, entertainment, e-commerce etc) comes to a qualitative research agency to understand cultural insights for their product category – how their consumers perceive them, what value they bring into their lives and the finer cultural nuances in which they operate among other things. We then have to  come up with the best way possible to conduct the research that’ll give us the best insights to solve the problem. 

As an ethnographer most of the work involves doing fieldwork i.e meeting people and talking to them about their life, the subject we’re researching, bringing back all the rich learnings and  insights from people and putting it together strategically to provide direction for the client. Usually you’re working with a project management team that helps put the whole project together.  

How did you get your first break?

I aimed to initially find a job that combines policymaking with ethnographic research. I  wrote to a lot of companies directly to know about their work and the kind of opportunities they offer. I found my first job at Quantum through a friend, who first told me about how applied anthropology is used in business – where anthropological theories and methods help to identify and solve real business problems in everyday life. This was also where I realized that the applied form of anthropology can be applied in a broad spectrum of spaces – from qualitative research, to development practices, to journalism to the creative arts. Basically you are someone trained in decoding diverse kinds of human experiences and cultures through a very sharp, observational lens – so anybody wanting to know more about this will find your skill useful. In the last few years, the whole revolution around Human centered design has strongly driven this idea of paying attention to  gaining a more wholesome understanding of how people perceive any kind of experience. 

While I was a hardcore academic researcher at the time, I had loans to pay back, and so I thought why not try something different and new. Initially, it took time for me to understand how the private sector worked and how they used ethnography differently than in academia – but now i can say.

What were the challenges? How did you address them?

Challenge 1: Working in a field that is unpopular or unique – you don’t have a perfect job profile in the market that suits your expertise – you will be putting your hands in many different kinds of work and experiences along your career. On the other hand, it’s a great opportunity to be creative and start things of your own and introduce the world to your niche. 

Challenge 2: It is important to continue to experiment and keep up with the latest conversations in your field. This becomes difficult if you’re working a job that is focused on one specific thing (eg., rigid business agendas) and takes up most of your time. I try to tackle this by regularly reading journals, magazines, publications, watching films, attending events and conferences, listening to podcasts, and keeping up with trends on social media to know the latest in culture from time to time! 

Where do you work now? Tell us what you do

I currently work as an ethnographer at a cultural research consultancy called Plum Insights and Strategy in Mumbai. 

What we do is help a range of organisations understand the finer aspects of culture, human experiences and changing patterns of human behaviour and social trends. At Plum, we’re also trying to constantly innovate and be creative in the way we do research, so we’re not really too traditional in our approach to market research. If you wonder why a certain TikTok challenge has gone viral with teenagers, or why people love a reality show so much, or how a small online trend evolves into a global revolutionary movement – we’ve got the answers!  

This job needs a lot of empathy and strong observation skills as it involves spending time with people from diverse cultures and backgrounds and deeply immersing yourself into their culturally specific life contexts. 

A typical day at work involves a lot of interesting conversations with different people analyzing qualitative data, listening to interviews, doing fieldwork in cool places, and coming up with creative ways of solving a problem.

On an average day, we spend time thinking about things like how the Gen-Z is different from the millennials, or what’s cool in fashion in tier 3 India, or how smartphone apps can solve the literacy barrier in rural India, or how public space can be designed to make people more ecology-conscious or even figuring out why a certain reality show is such a hit with urban teenagers. The list goes on. Listening to intimate stories about people’s lives and finding similarities and differences between diverse cultures, it’s all a win-win situation for an anthropologist!

How does your work benefit society? 

I’d like to believe we bridge the gap between organisations and people by making them understand the human experience more holistically rather than just from the lens of business agendas. More human, more compassion, more empathy – less divide. 

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

As part of the UNESCO Sahapedia Fellowship, I visually documented a coppersmiths community (Tambat Ali) in Pune, worthy of being listed as a part of UNESCO’s ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage’. 

Other than that, I’m proud of the research I did for my thesis during graduate school – where I spent time understanding how non-verbal communication is expressed differently across cultures, and even tried to convince the World Bank to read more indigenous poetry if it wants to truly understand communities in North Africa!

A more recent memorable project was when we helped an international shoe company test out their biodegradable shoe prototypes with young people in India – trying to decode what’s “cool” and what’s not with these kids. That was a lot of fun even though it made me feel old! 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Get yourself an education in what you love and what you’re good at. Money comes with being good at your job, no matter what it is. 

Be fluid, explore as many things as you can before making decisions about what you want to do in your life. 

Everything is possible. You don’t have to be boxed into one thing. If you want to be a chef as well as a mathematician- strive to be both! 

Future Plans?

Call me a nerd, but I’m contemplating doing a PhD as it allows you to do some original interdisciplinary research. I’m also thinking about creating an organisation or model that encourages using ethnography in governance and policy making. 

I hope to keep moving between the academic world, the public and private sector, and use Applied Anthropology as much as possible in these spaces in creative ways.

Apart from all of this, I’d love to do something for the environment and contribute towards a more inclusive world that celebrates differences.