For developing countries, financial inclusion is the most crucial pathway to seek progress by bringing millions out of poverty and deprivation; but this requires a solution centric approach based on data and insights.

Nikita Dhingra, our next pathbreaker, Developmental Consultant at MicroSave Consulting (MSC), evaluates social impact and protection initiatives of the government, and helps them with strategizing and policy formulation through impact assessment surveys, primary field research and data analysis techniques.

Nikita talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about being intrigued by the applications of Mathematics and Statistics in analyzing the dynamics of the economy, how humans make choices and how the socio-economic systems work and opting for a career in economics.

For students, developmental consulting is all about leveraging your professional expertise to devise strategies that make lives better and more meaningful for under-privileged groups. 

Nikita, tell us about Your background?

I was born and brought up in the capital city of India, Delhi. Born to incredibly wonderful, progressive and liberal parents, my education and career aspirations have always been encouraged. My mother is a Professor of Mathematics in Delhi University and my father is a Chartered Accountant. My extended family consists of stalwarts in practically every field one could imagine- my eldest uncle is a retired High Court judge, my aunt is a Microbiologist, my eldest sister is a self-made entrepreneur and my brother is an aspiring Pulmonologist. So academic aspirations and achievements are not just considered extremely crucial, they’ve been in our genes and culture. 

As a young girl, I was growing up to be academically inclined, striving towards perfecting my conceptual knowledge and grades. I was also an active participant in debates, extempore, writing contests and athletics back in school. After class 10, I opted for Commerce with Math stream, though this was not an informed decision. I instantly fell in love with Economics- and the application of Mathematics and Statistics in understanding the dynamics of the economy, how humans make choices and how the socio-economic systems work. It was after two years of studying Commerce, and a ‘big push’ by my parents (my father is a huge Economics lover) that I decided to opt for Economics as a career choice.  

Throughout my formative years, I had diverse academic/non-academic interests, ranging from economics, public speaking, writing to sometimes organizing events. It was hard for me to pick one career stream- devoid of all these interests and hence my academic and professional journey encompasses choices and experiences stemming from all these interests. 

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

I pursued B.A (hons) Economics from Hindu College, Delhi University. Post that, I pursued M.Sc. General Economics from Madras School of Economics (MSE).  

The academic training at MSE and Delhi University, was enriching and rigorous in the quantitative streams. I particularly enjoyed studying Applied Econometrics, Statistical Methods and Game Theory. As part of Applied Econometrics, I worked on assignments to analyze India’s trends on migration, employment, and health and strengthened my knowledge of econometric techniques such as panel data models, qualitative response models, and simultaneous equation modeling. What fascinated me the most was how econometrics could be applied to explore structural economic relationships from actual data and analyze socio-economic issues. 

What were some of the influences that led you to such an offbeat, unusual and rare career?

Well, to begin with, I must tell you that my career trajectory has not been linear at all. Rather, it has manifested itself like a ‘sine’ curve, with its troughs and peaks. While brainstorming on career options post my Masters, I realized I did not want to work for a corporate house. I envisaged becoming an academic economist/researcher and contributing towards policymaking for solving challenges of the developing world. At this point, my professor from MSE, Dr Brinda Viswanathan and my dissertation supervisor, Dr Albert Jodhimani, were my greatest mentors. To this date, I’m sincerely grateful for their support, and wish them the best in life.   

Post my Masters in 2014, I started working with TRAI (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India) as a Research Associate with the Finance and Economic Advisory. Working with TRAI enriched my economic policymaking experience, inspiring me to prepare for India’s Civil Services examinations. I realized I could channelize my inclination to work in India’s policy making, through entering into the prolific Civil Services.  I took a sabbatical for about 3.5 years, for this arduous preparation. Though I failed, at clearing this exam, the journey has been wonderfully fulfilling- both personally and professionally. I then routed my passion towards working for the country, through ‘development sector/financial inclusion consulting’. 

Tell us, how did you plan the steps to get to where you are today?

I didn’t really plan to be a Development Consultant. As I explained before, I landed up in this space, after wading through many other streams, a series of failures, a bit of introspection and realization.

As I was concluding my Masters at MSE in 2014, I opted out of appearing for corporate placements and instead started looking for research opportunities in think tanks/ministries. I got placed with the TRAI, as an RA in the Finance and Economic Advisory.  As a member of the division responsible for providing recommendations to GOI on reserve price for auction of spectrum in 2100 MHz bands in India, I gave technical and theoretical insights into valuation of spectrum. I particularly computed the reserve price of spectrum using Multivariate Regression Analysis, which was later used by GOI as the base price during the 2015 spectrum auction. Not only did I enhance my skills in Econometrics and Statistics, but I also gained proficiency working with large data sets and statistical programming with STATA and R. 

After a 10-month stint at TRAI, I decided to quit my job and plunge into preparing for the Civil Services exam. After failing at clearing this exam for 3.5 years, I decided to move ahead and took up a job with the Social Statistics Division, National Statistics Office (NSO) under the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation (MOSPI), GOI. As a Consultant with the Environment Unit of SSD, I was involved in the compilation of ‘Envistats-Supplement on Environmental Accounts’, based on the accounting framework of System of Environmental-Economic Accounting developed by the United Nations Statistics Division. I also undertook studies to understand ‘Air Filtration Services’ in India, through the concept and methodologies to compute Air Quality Index (AQI). This experience at SSD, introduced me to Environmental Economics and the application of statistical/econometric frameworks to this field, thereby steepening my learning curve.  

These experiences, though enriching, opened my mind to various other possibilities within the development sector. It was through a series of failed UPSC attempts and limitation of working with the government, that I ventured into exploring another sector/arm which plays a pivotal role in development- consulting. 

How did you get your first break? 

I got my first break, my first job at TRAI through MSE’s campus placement.  It was a simple two staged process, where they shortlisted about 6 CVs from a bunch of 100- as the first filter. This was followed by an interview. The board questioned me on basic concepts on the economy- specifically related to their work domain on spectrum auctioning, which I answered through my decent grasp on game theoretical concepts on auctioning. 

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

Challenge 1:  Getting used to the bureaucratic set up at TRAI and MOSPI. The government/bureaucratic set up is very different from academic or corporate space. It is rule bound, stringent and at times the working environment can feel mundane. 

I took this opportunity to train myself on statistical concepts and software like R. I started undertaking additional projects, with another technical division. For example, I took up ranking analysis of Telecom service providers (TSPs) in Mumbai circle, through ‘Sequential Equation Modelling’. Not only did I enhance my capabilities of conducting econometric analysis, but I also valued collaborating with a different professional. 

Challenge 2:  Application of statistical concepts and techniques in real world problem sets.  Since I was required to conduct such an analysis, in both my previous jobs, I plunged into learning and re-learning relevant concepts and techniques.  I used platforms such as Edex, Coursera extensively to undertake advanced courses on ‘MS-Excel’ and ‘Programming through R’. I also referred to ‘Dougherty’, ‘Econometrics by Gujarati’ for brushing my concepts of Econometrics. 

Tell us about your current role

Currently, I work with MicroSave Consulting (MSC). We are a boutique consulting firm, aiming at financial, social and economic inclusion of communities in regions of Asia and Africa, supported by Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. I work as an Analyst with the Government and Social Impact domain of MSC.

What problems do you solve? 

I am responsible for evaluating the financial inclusion and social protection initiatives of the government, and helping them with strategizing and policy formulation for the same. I have conducted impact assessment surveys, primary field research, and used extensive data analysis techniques to design project implementation strategies. To name a few projects, I worked on assessing the impact of the COVID relief packages rolled out by GOI to the migrant population; and evaluating the nationwide rollout of Integrated Management of Public Distribution System (IM-PDS) and the last mile delivery challenges. I also work on themes at the intersection of development and public health- majorly nutrition and women and child health. With the thought of re-inventing data synthesis, I am training myself on qualitative data analysis- pilot testing with field insights, and understanding its value additions to the current process of manual qualitative data analysis. 

What skills are needed for your role? How did you acquire the skills?

Consulting requires one to be an all-rounder- a jack of all trades. The job requires brilliant problem solving and analytical skills (PowerPoint and Excel), project management, stakeholder management skills and communication skills.  Development consulting, in particular, also requires one to undertake extensive fieldwork, which means travelling to rural hinterlands and undertaking numerous interviews in a day. Qualities of patience, resilience and empathy are non-negotiable to be able to perform well and enjoy one’s experiences. 

Since my academic training and prior experiences did not prepare me for a role like this one, I tried acquiring all these skills on the job- through peer-to-peer learning (engaging in detailed discussions with colleagues and seniors, asking for continuous feedback and working on it), watching YouTube videos, taking courses, etc. 

What’s a typical day like?

A typical day (when we are not on the field conducting interviews) consists of reviewing and writing reports/documents, discussing strategies and frameworks over voice/video calls and extensive secondary research. Given the conditions of remote working, all the qualitative surveys have had to be conducted through phone/zoom calls. On such days, a considerable part of the day goes in conducting telephonic interviews, taking down notes and analyzing and compiling insights from these.   

While we are on field (pre-pandemic times), the days are more adventurous and engaging. We get to travel to rural hinterlands of the country, meet people from diverse socio-economic and cultural settings, and get a chance to interview them extensively. Sometimes we also conduct group discussions like ‘Focused-group-discussions’ to seek opinion on a particular issue. 

What is it you love about this job? 

What I love the most about my job is that it gives me a chance to touch a million lives- of the poor and marginalized, and uplift them out of poverty. I absolutely love the part of field work- where I get to travel and meet people, all with different intriguing personas. I also like to delve into qualitative field notes and extract insights- all of which help us analyze the efficacy and impact of public policies. Thinking and working like a consultant – where the motive is to reach a solution, within a constrained environment is also what excites me about this job.  

How does your work benefit society? 

Development- financial, social and economic is the most important agenda of all  global leaders. Financial inclusion is the first and most crucial pathway to seek development and bring millions out of poverty and deprivation. My work at MSC spans through the entire country, effects and impacts those below poverty line, differently abled, unemployed, migrants, hapless women and children. We devise solutions and strategies to make lives better and more meaningful for these groups. 

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

In April 2020, as the pandemic swept the country and pushed a huge mass of the country in poverty and malnutrition, MSC undertook a qualitative survey to gauge the effectiveness of the central government’s response to COVID-19 through the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana (PMGKY). This included conducting telephonic interviews with beneficiaries to understand the effectiveness of in-kind assistance through the Public Distribution System; new G2P payments; access to essential services, etc. It was an overwhelming experience to interview about 35 beneficiaries from Delhi, and actively listening to their stories- some of them being extremely agonizing. My team and I further analyzed insights from these interviews, consolidated those into a report, based on a solution based approach. The consolidated report was presented to BMGF and was well appreciated within the industry circles. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Planning one’s career pathway is extremely important, otherwise one tends to lose focus. Please invest considerable time in identifying your interests and passions, researching career outcomes of your interests, avenues for growth in your field, etc. Here, extensive reading can be very helpful- newspapers (depending on your interests- I’m a fan of Indian Express and Mint), magazines and journals (EPW, Economist) and books (I cannot emphasize enough on the treasures of life they possess). Networking with peers of one’s field, and other diverse groups is a great way of learning, right from the horse’s mouth! Learning persistently, upskilling and diversifying oneself is the key. 

Nevertheless, one must never lose heart, if one’s plans do not work out. The world is abundant with possibilities and probabilities. One just needs to rise up after a failure, brush and dust off themselves and match ahead with persistence and confidence. So please, Never Back Down. 

Future Plans?

While development consulting with an economist’s lens has been an enriching journey, I aspire to pursue economics research. I plan to pursue a PhD Economics, in fields of development and health economics, preferably from a US based university. Post my PhD, I would like to work as an Economist/Consultant for solving the developing world’s challenges through evidence based economic policymaking; something which fulfills my sense of purpose.