Social inequality is a very deep rooted problem that can only be addressed through policy advocacy and strong narratives that are built around on-the-ground experiences.

Shruti Kapoor, our next pathbreaker, works with UNICEF YuWaah, a partnership platform to bring the voices of young people to the forefront and to provide them with learning, civic engagement and economic opportunities. 

Shruti talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about the significance of field experiences in a country like India where you can understand the real challenges of the country only if you have visited, stayed and worked closely at the grassroots.

For students, there is always a dilemma between working directly at the grassroots level vs taking up office-based roles. But there is nothing more fulfilling than directly seeing the benefits of one’s work reaching the last mile beneficiaries who deserve them the most.

Shruti, can you tell us about your growing up years?

I grew up in Patna, my hometown, where my parents continue to reside. My father is a businessman, and my mother is a homemaker. Both came from traditional business families, with little focus on education. However, they realized my inclination towards academics from an early age and worked very hard to ensure that I go to one of the best schools in town. While at school, I was one of the good students – performed fairly well in academics and was equally participative in extracurricular activities like dance, debates, elocutions, singing, quizzes etc. My mother pushed me hard to perform well in academics, but also focus on extracurriculars. Sports was one area where I wasn’t active and did not inculcate interest. 

At a very early age, I was constantly told and reminded that I am expected to become a doctor, and gradually I started speaking the same language. In 11th and 12th grade, I opted for science subjects and prepared for medical entrance exams. I did not pass any major entrance exams and there was a lot of pressure from the family to take a gap year and prepare again for medical entrance exams. However, I was sure that I had already put in my maximum effort and did not think I could put any extra effort in the gap year. It was a difficult decision as there were far too many hopes from me, but I did not look back. At that moment I knew I had to get out of Patna to stay away from family’s expectations and shape a career for myself. I was also certain I needed to find something which did not put financial pressure on my family. I applied to Delhi university in all the relevant courses that I was eligible for and secured admission. 

Overall, my early interests were mostly shaped by hopes and expectations from family and had very little to do with the career I am pursuing now. Looking back I realize how I was always more inclined to social science, literature and mathematics, over biology and chemistry

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

I got admission in B.Sc honors (Zoology) in Hansraj college and moved to Delhi. This turned out to be a life changing decision as the city opened doors for me to explore life on my own without external expectations, hopes and pressures. While I continued to perform decently well in academics in my course, I also continued to maintain my interest in extracurriculars by proactively participating in clubs, societies and emceeing opportunities. It took me a year to realize that I did not want to build a career in Zoology. I was completely averse to dissecting animals and could not wait for the day when I would do my last dissection. I started speaking to people to understand other possible career options and spent a lot of time deliberating what I enjoyed learning and doing. MBA came up as a natural choice as it did not require any specific career background, and the tests primarily included English and Mathematics, both being my favorite subjects. 

I worked hard to prepare for entrance exams while still maintaining a decent score in Zoology. I managed to score good percentile and got calls from multiple colleges. After a lot of introspection and filtration based on placement records of these colleges, combined with financial considerations, I got admission in IRMA (Institute of Rural Management Anand) based in Gujarat. Getting admitted to IRMA was the single biggest turning point in my life, and the first step to shaping my career where I stand today. 

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

IRMA prepared me to work in the social development sector while making me undergo multiple internships in remote parts of the country. It is during these internships in Bihar and Maharashtra that I was exposed to rural life, its challenges and every single experience sensitized me to become the human being I am today.  To choose this as a full-time career was an extremely difficult decision because it meant rigorous field work, along with very less salary, at least for the first few years. The projects that I took up were mostly centered around women and rural youth, comprising life skills education, digital literacy, youth employment, creating awareness about gender stereotypes, and rights and entitlement of women. While ensuring that the benefits of these projects reach the last mile successfully, listening to their challenges and aspirations became a part of my daily life and I knew there was no looking back from here. I have been an avid traveler and all my jobs ensured that they kept me on foot to hear the stories of people firsthand by traveling to the remotest places alone. All this travel felt worth it when I would finally reach a training center tucked inside a secluded village, full of women, adolescent girls and boys, their eyes looking back with a gleam of hope. 

Even though field visits have become very limited now, those past experiences are my fuel that drive me everyday to do my work, knowing it will eventually impact someone’s life for good. 

However, I was also deeply influenced in my career by the people that I worked with. All my managers have been extremely passionate about bringing a social change. They helped me develop professional skills of managing teams, building capacity of team members, creating business development strategy and plans, grow into leadership roles and encouraged me to pursue higher studies from the US

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 internship was in rural Maharashtra where I had to study different healthcare systems prevalent in rural India. While those eight weeks passed with a lot of hardships with limited access to water and toilet, it was eye opening to learn about the challenges and the grim state of healthcare support in the villages. 

My next internship in rural Bihar was equally challenging where my project involved working with rural women and newborns. There were heartbreaking instances which led me to question whether I was mentally strong enough to understand the difficulties of these people and yet get minimally impacted by them. 

I consciously chose my third internship that was starkly different from the previous two, to be able to draw comparisons and introspect where my true interest lies. It was a sales job based in Mumbai, which I did not enjoy much. 

Finally, I took up a job in rural Bihar after I graduated from MBA, which was accompanied with similar hardships of staying in rural India, causing me to fall sick very often. Eventually I realized that if I am not physically and mentally fit personally, I may not be the best person to create a social change in other people’s life. I left that job in 6 months and joined another NGO that required me to travel to rural India thrice a week, but not necessarily stay there. 

I got an opportunity to learn tremendously from my peers and colleagues in this role and I started leading multiple small projects independently. After 2 years of extensive experience, I decided to further deep dive into my interest in working for education and youth employment through my next role. I joined Generation India (founded by McKinsey & Company) which had just begun its operations in India. The team was a perfect blend of McKinsey consultants who brought strategic thinking and seamless problem solving to the table and social sector professionals who carried grassroot experience. This opportunity allowed me to set up a new program from scratch, expand it pan India and explore my capabilities besides program operations, to venture into strategic and business development work in the social impact space. 

These 2 years led me to introspect the quality vs quantity debate in the Indian social impact sector. Most programs that focus too deeply on bringing about a social change struggle to scale up, while the benefits of larger programs often get diluted till they reach the last mile beneficiaries. I also felt the need to enhance my data analytics and policy advocacy skills to be able to pursue leadership roles that require data driven decision making for scaling up programs.

With constant push and unparalleled support from my partner, family and colleagues, I took the biggest decision of my life. I got admission in a one-year public policy program at the University of Chicago and moved to the US. While the program helped me understand evidence-based policy making with case studies from across the world, living in the US widened my perspective and helped me broaden my horizon beyond the definition of social impact in India. Another major addition it brought to my skills, is the ability to freely network and reach out to people for professional discussions and support despite their designations and roles. I was certain to go back and work in India after completing my studies in the US, but also wanted to make the best use of my time in the US by experiencing policy advocacy and social impact from the top. After writing several applications and reaching out to hundreds of people, I finally managed to get an internship opportunity at UN headquarters in New York. By far it was the happiest and proudest day of my life. 

During my time at the UN, I learnt how policy advocacy and strong narratives are built around social and environmental causes, and how bringing in all the strong stakeholders together on a common platform shaped some of the biggest decisions in the world. 

After completing my internship at UN, I moved to Dubai in the interim and joined a bank as a consultant to lead their paperless program for environmentally sustainable outcomes. The platform provided me an opportunity to expand my interest in environmental sustainability that I had picked up at UN. Being in a  consulting role shaped me to build a structured thought process, leading to streamlining processes across one of the largest banks in UAE. This was in the middle of the pandemic, and I was hoping to return to India to continue my work in education and youth employment. 

Around this time, I got an opportunity with UNICEF’s YuWaah program to lead economic opportunities for young people in the country, where I work currently. The role blends my interest in program strategy and management with policy advocacy. 

Overall, most transitions that I made in my career were an outcome of critically analyzing my work time and again, questioning the status quo and my quest to upgrade my learning to find answers to the challenges. However, some decisions were also influenced by personal situations and factors, but every new opportunity only made me more adaptable to work across diverse sectors and helped me gain at least one new skill.     

How did you get your first break? 

My first job opportunity came through campus placement service. It was a financial inclusion and livelihoods program, a joint project by the World Bank and Bihar government. Since all my campus internships were in rural Bihar and I am natively from Bihar, it was a smooth process to get selected as I came across as a natural choice to the interviewers. 

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

Challenge 1: The initial few years of my career were very challenging, as successful on ground implementation of projects was difficult. I worked with a team of about 15 community coordinators. To understand their mindset and build their capacity required a lot of time investment in the field and engaging with them not just professionally, but also personally. Hand Holding each of them based on their needs, training them and building their capacity to enhance their skills always helped me overcome challenges. Simultaneously, it equipped them to enhance their efficiency at workplace

Challenge 2: Trying to find the right balance between staying with a partner vs following my passion has been a continuous challenge. My passion to work for social change in India has restricted my mobility in terms of location. This has led to staying away from my partner for the long term who works in another country. Mutual respect for each other’s work and consistent understanding that I am very passionate and devoted to my work, has consistently helped us navigate our way through different geographies   

Challenge 3: Dilemma between working directly at the grassroots vs taking up office-based roles has been another big challenge. While traveling as a solo woman to remote places in India for field work comes with diverse challenges, particularly safety and security issues, it gives extreme fulfillment to directly see the benefits of one’s work reaching someone who deserves it the most. However, senior leadership roles do not provide many opportunities for field visit, and therefore it gets difficult to visualize the impact of work. It took me multiple conversations with my seniors, peers, and mentors to make a shift from a program operations role to be able to lead a partnerships platform, which offers minimal opportunity to engage directly with beneficiaries.

Where do you work now? What problems do you solve?

I work with UNICEF YuWaah, a partnership platform to bring the voices of young people to the centre and provide them with learning, civic engagement and economic opportunities. 

When decisions for young people are made, they are mostly at the receiving end of things. Through the Yuwaah program, UNICEF works to bring young people at the center of policy making, convening diverse stakeholders on a platform and co-creating solutions for scale up. As Lead for ‘Economic opportunities for young people’, I bring in the public and private stakeholders together to create a conducive ecosystem to enhance job opportunities for young people. The role involves understanding successful job models, providing them resources and avenues for scale up and creating policy briefs and notes with youth centric approaches, to be tabled to government 

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

The overarching skills required for this role include creating partnerships, policy advocacy, strategic thinking, data analysis, problem-solving and stakeholder management. Besides these, the ability to understand the education and employment ecosystem in India and realities of the job market across diverse sectors help me bring a rational approach to problem solving and decision making in this role. Most of these skills have been acquired as part of my experience in previous job roles as well as the perspectives that I have built during my academic stints in IRMA and University of Chicago. 

What’s a typical day like?

A typical day involves exploring new partnership opportunities by understanding the various models for employment in the market. These conversations lead to creating joint action plans. Some part of the day goes by in creating and developing ecosystems by analyzing the role of each partner, creating policy notes and presentations for partnerships 

What is it you love about this job? 

My current job is able to bring in a blend of program operations along with creating policy notes, framing research studies and convening stakeholders. I am able to incorporate my learning from all my previous job roles as well as perspectives gained during my academic learnings. 

How does your work benefit society? 

My work is able to provide a platform to many small organizations in the country who do great work in the area of youth employment, but unable to get scale and access to the right partners to strengthen their program outreach. 

While I do not get to see the direct impact of my work, as part of an international organization shaping perspectives of various public and private stakeholders, I am able to nudge them to take a youth lens in policies and programs that they work on, the effect of which eventually trickles down. 

Eventually, I hope to engage in large- scale social impact through this role by creating a conducive ecosystem with successful models to solve the problem of youth employment in the country.

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

Building a youth mentorship program from scratch, to provide emotional support to young people migrating from the remotest of places to cities in search of skill training and job opportunities, is closest to me. Along with my team members, we partnered with a third party to onboard qualified psychologists to provide one on one mentoring services to these young people. This was the first time that psychological mentoring was being explored with rural youth, so it was a very difficult journey for all of us engaged in this project. The stories and mental traumas shared by these young people deeply impacted us, and at the same time made us question our work each day. In 2 years, we were able to build the program to understand behavioral patterns of candidates and basic predictive tools that could tell us whether a candidate would retain a job or not. This led us to pre-empt job attrition, discuss the challenges with concerned employers and get the issues resolved. Overall, it helped us make a positive impact on the job retention rate, an indicator that is very weak in the context of the Indian job market otherwise. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Working towards creating a social impact requires long term commitment, persistence and patience. It requires a lot of self motivation and time and again brings one to re-contemplate their work and skills. Continuous reading and critical analysis (news, articles, policy documents, research reports) to keep yourself abreast with latest issues, policies, schemes, models, technology and resources plays a very important role. But the most important learning for a social impact role comes from field experience. Nobody can understand the real challenges of this country beyond a section of population that resides in cities, till they have visited, stayed and worked closely at the grassroots. Finally, to work for a social cause and commit professionally to it requires believing in a cause and practising it in one’s personal life. 

Future Plans?

I plan to continue to work towards bridging the gap between education and employment for youth. It’s a very deep rooted problem, and one that can never be fully solved. It can only be streamlined to keep up with the ever changing times, alongwith perpetual evolution in preference of employment opportunities by upcoming generations. 

Besides, I am also very keen to explore starting my own venture for creating social impact. I hope someday I will be able to gather all my learnings, experiences, ideas and passion, convert them into a work plan and create my own space for impacting youth employment!