The plethora of social problems in India, be it the economic disparity or illiteracy or unemployment, require professional approaches to problem solving, because they hinder the bigger goal of economic development.
Anirudh Menon, our next pathbreaker, works with the Tata Trusts within their Policy and Advocacy team, conducting policy research, building coalitions and influencing decision makers in areas such as education, water, sanitation and hygiene, and elderly care.
Anirudh talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about his vision to equip organizations to break away from the traditional role of grant giving to that of enabling solutions with a focus on social and economic empowerment.
For students, a career in Public Service is not just about administration but also about developing and honing your analytical abilities, research skills and knowledge to work on developmental challenges in India.
Anirudh, tell us about Your background?
My interest in public service was fostered by my family’s tradition of storytelling, which has been passed down through narratives of the political and social impact that India’s leaders have made. My interest to pursue a career in public service was sparked, in part, by listening to such stories.
My family was part of the aspirational middle class in the 1990s which saw incredible opportunities. My formative years were spent moving around a lot where I attended schools in 6 different cities. There was a strong emphasis on education which positively helped both me and my sister become independent quite early in life. I suppose this is largely true for most people from my generation with a similar background.
What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?
I first gave serious consideration to public policy as an economics student at St Xavier’s College in Mumbai – a city where India’s dramatic socio-economic convulsions are constantly on show. The university experience truly exposed me to brilliant ideas and people. It was quite a strange experience to live in the city’s growing urban sprawl and not have regular electricity and running water which made me question broader concepts like governance and state capacity. These experiences deeply influenced me and informed my decisions to pursue a career in public policy.
After my graduation, I worked for a year at the Indian School of Business (ISB) as a research associate in Hyderabad where I worked on multiple projects including a field assignment on solid waste management which took me back to Mumbai.
I wanted to gain a wider perspective on matters that relate not only to India, but to other developing countries. I pursued a Master’s degree in International Political Economy at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). Here, my interest in policy issues matured as I studied topics related to institutions, power structure, and the synergy between markets and international politics.
I returned to Mumbai and worked at Gateway House, a foreign policy think tank, and then later at KPMG, a large private sector consultancy. I understood the real cost of poor governance on businesses, but was unable to fully understand the process of foreseeing and accounting for the unintended consequences of poorly designed policies. In seeking answers, I enrolled in a Master’s in Public Administration (MPA) at University College London (UCL) where I was fortunate enough to secure the Chevening scholarship, the UK government’s international awards programme. Chevening is a fully-funded merit-based scholarship based on your academic and professional experiences. The selection process is highly competitive and comprises of a written application, followed by a panel interview, a conditional offer, and the final award. The programme was an excellent opportunity for me to meet and interact with incredible leaders from around the world and experience the rich cultural experience of the UK.
I then returned to India in 2018 where I took up a short assignment with PwC, a professional services firm in their Government Reforms and Infrastructure Development (GRID) and then later moved on to the Tata Trusts, a large philanthropic organisation, where I currently work.
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
I was interested in pursuing a career in public policy but options were limited to either civil services or International Organisations like the United Nations – both of which are incredibly competitive. I knew my limitations and was not too keen on spending years preparing for the civil service exams. I decided to take the university route and enrolled in a Master’s degree in international relations.
My academic experience equipped me with the analytical abilities, research skills and knowledge to work on developmental challenges in India. After completing my degree in the UK, I returned to Mumbai to work with Gateway House, where I helped establish their Africa Studies programme. The work was intellectually rewarding and I learnt a great deal about India’s foreign policy.
However, I wanted to seek private sector experience as well to better understand the intersection of public policy and business. I joined KPMG, a professional services group, as a risk consultant in the Forensic practice. Here, I gained valuable insights about the interplay between commerce, politics and regulation in a developing economy. Specifically, I advised companies on how to manage risks related to corruption and fraud that were linked to investment projects — a major problem across many developing countries.
During this time, I enrolled in a three-month public policy programme at the Takshashila Institution, an innovative think tank based in Bangalore. The programme provided me the grounding for public policy analysis and helped me strengthen my economic reasoning skills. I found this course to be a useful link between my past experiences and my plans of pursuing a career in public policy. The course also gave me the confidence and the tools to later apply for a full-time Master’s in Public Administration.
What were the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
When I began working, a career in public policy did not have clearly defined pathways unless you were part of the civil services. Even today, public policy jobs in India are not structured as it is in other countries.
I remember meeting and interacting with several like-minded people to gain clarity about career options in this space. I also used social media platforms to identify interesting people and wrote to them to gain insights into the policy sector. I wasn’t always successful but networking really opened up a lot of new opportunities.
Where do you work now? Tell us about your work
I work with the Tata Trusts within their Policy and Advocacy team. Through grant-making, direct implementation and co-partnership strategies, Tata Trusts support and drive innovation in the areas of health, nutrition, education, water, sanitation and hygiene, livelihood, digital transformation, migration and urban habitat, social justice and inclusion, environment and energy, skill development, sports, and arts and culture.
Specifically, I work on the public policy and advocacy efforts of some of these portfolios, such as education, water, sanitation and hygiene, and elderly care. The work comprises of a wide range of activities – including policy research, building coalitions, engaging with the government across levels (national, sub-national, city, village level), influencing the decision makers, working with the media, building evidence, taking the work we do to scale, organizing advocacy campaigns with media organisations – basically all activities that would go into influencing public policy.
Over the last few years, I have engaged with key stakeholders and I’ve produced reports and recommendations on key policy areas, including the recently released National Education Policy (NEP), the National Action Plan for Senior Citizens where I was invited as a member of a sub-committee, and the Impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on women and girls. I have interacted with and supported key ministries including the Ministry of Education, Women and Child Development, Social Justice and Empowerment, and agencies like NITI Aayog and the National Institute for Social Defence.
Additionally, I support in building and strengthening relationships with relevant authorities across political and administrative levels in aspects of government priority, policy and programming related to the strategy of the Tata Trusts.
Some of the skills required for this job are the ability to break down a complex problem into solvable components, research and writing, economic reasoning, design skills, interpersonal and communication skills, public speaking etc.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
My advice to people who are looking at career options in public policy is to identify areas of interest / passion early on and write on these subjects. It can be blogs, op-eds, articles, reports. Try to get a few pieces of your writing out in the public domain.
Another advice would be networking. I generally use platforms like LinkedIn and Twitter to connect with experts in the policy space and more often than not the people I approach respond positively.
I want to continue working at the intersection of public policy and philanthropy, where I want to explore how philanthropic organisations can break away from the traditional role of grant giving to that of enabling solutions. My goals are to advise major philanthropic organisations on issues of public policy with a focus on issues of gender and water governance. Subsequently, this experience will help position me to achieve my long-term goal of serving in leadership roles in the development sector.