Interacting with people at the grassroots level highlights the enormities and complexities of implementing developmental programs in India, especially from a behavioural lens.

Neeraja Sundar, our next pathbreaker, Research Analyst at Microsave Consulting, identifies and offers solutions to challenges/gaps in the implementation of social protection programs.

Neeraja talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about the need to push emerging economies towards meaningful financial, social, and economic inclusion.

For students, a career in social impact consulting not only allows you to interact with a diverse cross-section of people but also hones and enhances your analytical skills as a consultant/analyst.

Neeraja, Your background?

I grew up mostly in Pune and Bombay, though I am south Indian by descent. Through early childhood education and middle school, I was a curious and friendly child who loved singing rhymes and choir songs. Around the time I was 4 years old, my parents put me in swimming classes. Till date, it is the one sport I thoroughly enjoy and makes me feel truly free and myself.

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

I studied commerce in the 12th grade, graduated with a BSc in Economics from LSE’s external program and, further, an MSc in Finance and Development Economics from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London.

My father is an engineer and PhD by education. He was the CEO/MD of a few American MNCs such as Otis Elevators, Cummins Inc., and Thermax. My mother is a commerce postgraduate by education and is a homemaker.

Through college, I developed a sense of finding purpose in supporting the marginalized, in any capacity that I could, at the time. I joined NGOs such as Indian Mouth and Foot Painting Artists and Saturday Art Class (which teaches art to children of govt. schools) in and around Mumbai.

I was fortunate to know early on during college that I wanted to pursue a career in public policy. The course curriculum, while I was graduating from LSE’s external program, was quite a challenging one and involved mostly self-studying and peer-learning. During my third and final year, a paper called ‘development economics’ fueled my interest in public policy. Reading about works of Nobel laureates like Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo acted as a catalyst for me to immediately pursue my masters from an institution specializing in studying emerging economies of Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East- the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, UK.

What made you choose this career?

Even though my dad and most of my family members are engineers by education, I was fortunate to never feel the pressure to take up science/engineering by education. I fondly remember how my father told me this after we saw the bollywood movie ‘3 idiots’. My parents gave me the freedom to study what I wished to, saw, and encouraged my passion to study economics in college.

Some of the key influences that led me to choosing my career path were – my love for economics, my course curricula in college, and my inclination in college towards volunteering/pro-bono activities.

I was fortunate to have a few mentors in the early years of my career, especially a few women in my family. I have 2 aunts who are very well accomplished and working in IBM, and a senior in college who guided me on the specifics of picking my college for post graduation. 

While my father was doing his PhD at IIT Bombay, I was fortunate to accompany him at talks/panel discussions by renowned economists such as Kaushik Basu. I also attended talks held by the professors of the Humanities and Social Sciences Dept at IIT Bombay. They showcased a few of the academic papers they had worked on – this made me inquisitive about India’s development space. Following the summer I attended these talks, in September 2016, I started my post-graduation at SOAS, University of London.

After graduation, I was slightly confused about my career path with regards to a master’s in management or enrolling in an MBA program. But the talks/panel discussions I attended at IIT Bombay served as a turning point and re-fueled my interest in public policy.

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 quite confused about charting a career path in public policy back in 2017 given how niche this sector was in India – even 4 years ago. My internships were mostly in business ops/ marketing/ sales and had no relation to public policy.

What helped me land my first job with the Govt. of Andhra Pradesh was how well I networked with people during my post graduation in London. My cohort size, although small, was very diverse both culturally and demographically. I met people from 10-12 different countries from Africa, the middle east, and south-east Asia. 

These interactions over the course of my study helped me land a job as a consultant with the Andhra Pradesh Food Processing Society, under the Dept. of Industries and Commerce, Govt. of Andhra Pradesh. Although the job was very challenging and multi-faceted for a freshly minted postgraduate, in hindsight I realised it was the right stepping-stone for me as I closely observed the implementation of a state-level policy (the state’s food processing policy). 

The AP Food Processing Society is the nodal agency for implementing the state’s food processing policy (this is typically what a nodal agency does per se). I saw the implementation of the policy very closely- i.e., the fund flow, sanctioning of subsidies by the government to various eligible food processing units (such as tomato, turmeric, chilies, cashew).

At the time, the state was inviting investments into the food processing sector and several MoUs were signed with MNCs such as HUL, ITC, Cargill, Mayias, Haldirams, among others at national and state-level investor summits/road shows. 

I helped in setting up state-level road shows and interacted with progressive farmers/food processors while encouraging them to apply for subsidies under the state’s food processing policy.

Subsequently, I landed a research assistantship at the Dept. of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Bombay. This job was more academic-oriented but exposed me to impact evaluations by analyzing primary and secondary data. 

I worked on the institutional impact assessment of IIT Bombay to commemorate its 60th year (which was in March 2018). The project’s objective was to gauge the economic and social impact of IITB since its inception. This was done through a survey floated to alumni of IITB. Qualitative data was also collected after interactions with distinguished alumni (a judicious mix of alumni who are social entrepreneurs; alumni who are CXOs of various leading FMCGs, and also those in the creative field such as filmmakers) and also various working-class staff of IITB. 

Both tangible and intangible experiences from my first two jobs have led me to work as a public policy analyst today with Microsave Consulting (MSC), a boutique organization that focuses on digital and financial inclusion in developing countries around the world. I work with the social impact and policy team and work in a team responsible for conducting impact assessments, monitoring, and evaluations of social protection programs in India. 

Of course, I have got all these opportunities on merit, but it is through networking that I have learned these in the first place.

How did you get your first break?

As I had mentioned earlier, what helped me land my first job with the Govt. of Andhra Pradesh was how well I networked with people during my post graduation in London. 

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

Challenge 1: Finding a suitable opportunity after my stint at IIT Bombay took a very long time. I had to learn the importance of patience, take rejection in my stride, and to never give up.

Challenge 2: I was shy to network at times, because of this I have forgone many opportunities that could have materialized into job opportunities

Where do you work now? Tell us about your role at MSC

I work at Microsave Consulting (MSC), a boutique organization which focuses on digital and financial inclusion in developing countries around the world. I identify and offer solutions to challenges/gaps in the implementation of social protection programs. To do my job well I require tangible skills such as thorough efficiency in MS office, excel, and SPSS. I acquired these skills over time. I also did a few MOOCs/online courses in excel and SPSS. In addition to intangible/soft skills, I am also required to have patience, empathy, and integrity- given my work also involves interacting with marginalized people such as migrant workers, poor women, farmers, among others.

At MSC, we use human-centric design or in other words, apply a behavioural lens to our research- we are mindful of this while designing our qualitative questionnaire and accordingly interact with last-mile govt. functionaries/beneficiaries. For collecting quant evidence (this precedes the collection of qualitative data), we employ market survey agencies like Kantar/Nielsen, conduct trainings for them on the quantitative questionnaires we design, and once we get the quant data, its run through SPSS and we get certain leads for our collecting our anecdotal evidence.

Once the quantative data is corroborated with the qualitative data, we synthesize them in a report with the help of frameworks that MSC formulates/designs and a report is generated for the client. Applying a behavioural lens provides MSC an edge as we make sense of complexities from the grassroots (both on the demand side, the beneficiaries and the supply side, the government) thus refining the usual approach of assessing evidence-based policies/social protection programs in India. 

What I love most about my job is that it keeps me grounded- it allows me to interact with people at the grassroots while also honing and enhancing my analytical skills as a consultant/analyst.

How does your work benefit society? 

My organization Microsave Consulting (MSC)2,  is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF), all the work my organization has done in 65 countries primarily focuses on offering digital/smart solutions to enhance policy and drive financial inclusion. MSC works in a range of sectors such as social policy, banking, gender, agriculture, climate change, WASH, and FinTech. Our work for over 20 years has been pushing emerging economies towards meaningful financial, social, and economic inclusion. 

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

I worked on an early childhood education (ECE) project on a pro-bono basis with a local NGO in Hyderabad. While I have worked on far more diverse and larger projects, I cherish this project because it was the first time I went on the field and interacted with children and their teachers at Anganwadis. It was a very humbling and fulfilling experience and that was exactly when my career choice was reinforced.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

My advice to budding professionals and college graduates is that they must network as much as possible, through LinkedIn and in-person, never shy away from asking questions and being curious, and read as much as they can on their interest areas and publish as many posts/articles on LinkedIn/their college newsletters. 

Read more, write more! Keep up to date with the latest happenings in your industry. Hone your writing skills and start publishing posts on LinkedIn.

Find your godfathers/ godmothers in your professional life. Mentors can go a long way in guiding you on EQ/soft skills at the workplace.  Your conduct at the workplace dictates how good of a professional you are.

Future Plans?

For the interim period, I see myself working in M&E and impact assessments of social protection policies and continuing to build my expertise in digital and financial inclusion.