Our formative years play a crucial role in linking our childhood interests and aspirations to a larger vision for our career !

Bhushan Patil, our next pathbreaker, Social Impact Consultant at Intellecap, provides innovative business solutions that help build and scale profitable and sustainable enterprises dedicated to social and environmental change.

Bhushan talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about his engineering thesis based on his childhood experiences that gave him the inspiration to pursue a career in the environment and development sector.

For students, look around yourself to understand what excites you, what motivates you and what inspires you, and then channelize your energy to go after your aspirations !

Bhushan, can you take us through your background?

I was born and brought up in Nagpur, the city of oranges. Growing up in a joint family taught me the value of building and sustaining relationships early on in my life. While I lived with my immediate family in Nagpur, we used to frequently visit my Aaji’s place in a nearby village. My fondness for her and the many stories she told me gradually translated into a fondness for rural and agrarian life. 

I spent the formative years of my schooling in Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya. These are central government residential schools that provide free-of-cost education to selected students from low-income backgrounds. The school was located in the foothills of Satpura mountain range surrounded by pristine water bodies, which further contributed to establishing my love for natural surroundings. 

Life at JNV has always been focused on the all-round development of the students. Throughout my time at JNV, I was involved in multiple extracurricular activities, be it representing students as house captain or representing my school at regional level sports meets. In terms of study specialization, I opted for PCM (Physics, Chemistry, and Mathematics) primarily due to my keen interest in understanding the physics behind everything. The constant curiosity and love for physics have helped me in my future journey as an engineer. 

Additionally, the school’s motto “come to learn, go to serve” and the fact that the majority of students came from rural or minority backgrounds instilled in me a sensitivity towards community, inclusion, and equity which guides my professional outlook to date. 

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

I realized I had an analytical and scientific temperament during my school days and that’s why I decided to pursue a Bachelor of Engineering for graduation. I chose Mechanical Engineering and participated in a lot of hands-on projects. One such key project was my major thesis in the final year of engineering. 

As I described earlier, spending vacations in my Aaji’s village exposed me to the plight of farmers. I observed frequent power cuts, long working hours, unreliable rains, and long spells of drought in the village. This became my inspiration to use my engineering thesis to design something that can be put to use by the vulnerable farmers of Vidarbha. I discussed it with my friends and faculty and came up with the idea of a solar-powered seed sowing machine. I first built a prototype and then compiled my efforts into a research paper, and published the findings in an internationally reputed journal. 

This small victory gave me an insight into the environment and development sector as a career option. At the end of engineering, when all my friends were appearing for job interviews I chose to opt-out of the campus placements. I further explored my passion, searched for colleges and niche courses that offer education in the development sector. I came across the Indian Institute of Forest Management (IIFM) which immediately struck a chord with me. The institute was accepting CAT scores and so I decided to appear in the upcoming CAT exam. I cleared the cut-off score and was called to Bhopal to appear for Written Assessment (WAT) and Group Discussion (GD). At once, I fell in love with the beautiful campus of IIFM, the 230-acre lush forest situated on a hilltop surrounded by lakes on three sides, it reminded me of my olden schooldays.

I took admission in their flagship programme Post-Graduate Diploma in Forestry Management (PGDFM) and completed my specialization in Environment Management. IIFM gave me all, much more than what I was even looking for, amazing faculty, a well-designed curriculum, lifelong friends, mentors, and also my life partner. The best part of my learning experience at IIFM came from outside the classroom doors, we had month-long field trips to remote villages and forests, business conclaves focused on sustainability, frequent interactions with industry leaders and imminent alumni. All of this helped a great deal in shaping my understanding of the sector. Later as a working professional, I completed another distance Post Graduate Diploma in Urban Environmental Management and Law offered by National Law University, Delhi in collaboration with WWF (World Wildlife Fund). 

Tell us, how did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career after engineering?

My inclination towards the environment and social sector was a gradual process, there were many small moments that led me to choose this career. One such moment that I can recall is when I showed the prototype of my solar-powered seed sowing machine to my Aaji. She was filled with pride and joy that her grandson cared about her community and her village. This really helped me put things in perspective and for the first time, I seriously considered social impact as a career choice. Though I was still unsure whether or not I can make a career out of this passion, I kept searching about potential courses or degrees that might help me in doing so. 

Another major event that had a lasting impact on my decision was the emergence of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) in December 2015. Knowing that my area of interest is directly aligned with the global megatrend assured me that I am on the right path. I started digging deep into SDGs and their purpose, and the more I read, the more I became motivated to contribute to the cause. And lastly, my inner motivation to build a better world, the joy I get out of helping people kept me persistent in my pursuit.

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.

As described above, once I decided to make a career in the social sector, I started looking for institutions that offer that platform. The first real step I took towards my dream career was to get selected in IIFM. More than the educational qualification, it was the experience and exposure that I gained at IIFM prepared me for my professional success. The elements of field visits, rural immersion, summer internship, numerous interactions with alumni provided me the opportunity to understand the nuances of the sector up close even before I started working. 

Once I realized the importance of networking, I became an active member of the Alumni Network Committee and the Placement Committee at IIFM. I not only attended but organized multiple talk sessions with industry leaders and proactively participated in various forums like our annual business conclave, paper presentation competitions, etc. I made it a habit to read monthly publications like Down To Earth, TerraGreen, Economic and Political Weekly, etc. which kept me up to date with the current developments in the sector and gave me content to build conversations with senior alumni and faculty members. Talking to alumni gave me a sneak-peak into their current job roles and helped me further narrow down the companies and profiles that appealed to me. 

I did my 10-week summer internship with Network for Certification and Conservation of Forests (NCCF), a non-profit organization working towards developing national sustainability certification standards in diverse areas of natural resource management

As a research intern, I conducted a study to understand how credible sustainability standards can help businesses in achieving sustainable development goals (Agenda 2030). I created a central repository of 108+ global sustainability standards and aligned it with the relevant SDGs. I also assessed the potential business drivers and market for select voluntary standards. 

I utilized this internship in two major ways – a) I did deep research and came up with a thesis on a topic of my interest ‘Drivers to adopt Voluntary Sustainability Standards’, I used the excerpts from this in multiple other research paper presentations and pitched it to potential employers to stand out among other candidates who only applied with their CVs and cover letters; b) I utilized these 10-weeks to expand my professional network beyond the alumni pool of IIFM. I made sure to remain in touch with my colleagues and seniors from the organization even years after my internship. 

Post my completion of PGDFM; I started my professional journey with a rural empowerment organization, Swades Foundation. It is a non-profit organization founded by Ronnie and Zarina Screwvala working towards empowering rural communities of Maharashtra. 

I joined the organization as a management trainee and was later promoted to Manager – Economic Development. My job role was just what I was expecting from my first job, which was core development work at grassroots level. I was responsible for designing and implementing livelihood solutions for the local communities that can generate enough income to stop or at the most, reduce the migration of village youth to Mumbai and nearby cities. My job was extremely satisfying at many levels, I got to use my knowledge from IIFM classes in real life and I could actually see and feel the difference brought by our efforts working closely with communities. 

Experiencing the impact I have directly and indirectly created on these villagers’ lives helped me become a humble and compassionate individual. It was here that I learned that working in the social sector is much bigger than textbook knowledge on NGO management or rural marketing, it is about touching and improving lives. 

From Swades, I moved on to RTI International, as a Senior Research Analyst. RTI International is one of the world’s leading research institutes, dedicated to improving the human condition by turning knowledge into practice. 

As a part of the Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WaSH) team, I worked on various long-term projects to create economic opportunities for vulnerable and marginalized population groups and simultaneously improved the availability and accessibility of WaSH products and services in urban slums of India. In addition to this, I worked on multiple impact assessment and research studies with clientele including the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Government of Australia (DFAT), Water for Women Fund, United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), HUL, HT Parekh Foundation, along with multiple NGOs and state governments. 

From RTI International, I moved on to Intellecap, the advisory arm of Aavishkaar Group, a pioneer in the impact investment space. At Intellecap I am working as an associate with the business consulting team. 

How did you get your first break?

I got my first job in the social sector through IIFM campus placements. It was with Swades Foundation, a rural empowerment organization founded by Ronnie and Zarina Screwvala working in the Raigad district of Maharashtra. 

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

One of the most critical challenges was choosing the right path between multiple competing options. Over a period of time, I have learned that sometimes it’s good to be confused between multiple options because that’s precisely when you evaluate each option with care. That’s exactly what I did, researching every possible option, and evaluating them with the current information and potential future scenarios. 

Another challenge I faced to get into this sector was limited access to mentors or guides. This could be because there were very few people opting for a similar career path, at least in my social circle at that time. However, being proactive helped me a lot. I identified individuals who have taken this path and are already working in this sector. I reached out to them through various social platforms like LinkedIn, Facebook, Quora, etc, and got answers for my multiple queries/ doubts. Soon I realized there are many people who are happy to help, we just need to reach out and ask politely. 

Another challenge, rather a difference in the social sector is that, apart from technical knowledge one needs to have a high emotional quotient to be able to work in the field.  However, not many schools or courses prepare us with these soft skills. In my case, I have been really fortunate to get into JNV and then IIFM, both of these Institutions have played a really important role in imparting these values to me. Numerous field visits, interactions with rural and tribal communities, and classroom case discussions have helped me build the right attitude and empathy for others. Another major share for this learning goes to Swades Foundation, where I got ample amount of time to shadow ground executives and interact with communities in order to understand their perspectives. 

Where do you work now? 

I am currently working as an Associate with the business consulting team at Intellecap, the advisory arm of Aavishkaar Group. 

What problems do you solve? 

As a part of the business consulting team, I get to provide innovative business solutions that help build and scale profitable and sustainable enterprises dedicated to social and environmental change. I also assist various multilateral agencies, NGOs, and governments in designing and executing social impact projects in India and internationally. 

A few of my ongoing assignments include a) designing innovative financing mechanism like Blended Finance Facility and Alternative Investment Funds for small and mid-size enterprises in developing countries. b) Analyzing factors enabling and inhibiting women entrepreneurship in urban India and devise a strategy for promoting women-owned enterprises. 

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

In the domain of social business consulting, primarily two types of skills are required – Hard skills and Soft skills. Hard skills involve technical knowledge of the subject area or ability to work on relevant software like MS Office and Data Analysis and visualization software like Tableau, SPSS, Power BI, etc. These skills I have acquired during my coursework at IIFM and by doing online certification courses. Soft skills refer to analytical and interpersonal skills like communication, leadership, entrepreneurship, etc. I have acquired these gradually since my childhood days by being proactive and participative. On-the-job training during all my professional endeavours has also helped me refine my soft skills. 

What is a typical day like? 

My typical day starts with a team meeting where we take stock of the work completed and the tasks ahead of us. We also have to keep a close watch on the project timelines to ensure there are no delays. Based on the level of complexity of a particular task, we have brainstorming sessions among the team members. We also have multiple calls with clients to discuss the nuances and expectations of the project. A lot of my time also goes into preparing presentations and writing reports, concept papers. At times, there can be project-related travel involved to the site locations.

What is it you love about this job? 

My job provides me a platform to create a larger impact for the community that has been my true motivation to choose a career in the social sector. We help social businesses that are in turn helping local communities, generate employment and create sustainable business models. Another factor that keeps me hooked to my work is the dynamic nature of this job. I get to work with multiple clients from different industries and geographies and more importantly, I get to work on a different challenge every other day. 

How does your work benefit society? 

As the name indicates, my current role in social impact consulting benefits society at multiple levels: a) working on niche environmental and social challenges help me build awareness and positive momentum at an ecosystem level; b) I get to support enterprises/ other developmental partners who in turn are creating a positive impact on ground by improving community access to basic services like water, sanitation, energy, financial services, and livelihood. 

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

There are so many stories to share, the one I would like to mention here is from my first job with Swades Foundation. 

As a Manager, Economic Development, I along with my team, supported a small hamlet in Mangaon block of Raigad district by providing household water connections to the villagers. To get this work done we had multiple rounds of discussions with villagers addressing their queries and solving internal conflicts over water. Many times these discussions go up to 10 -11 in the night since most of the community members used to be on farms during the daytime. But all of it was worth it seeing the joy on villagers’ faces when we inaugurated the project. 

I still remember (and will do so for the rest of my life), it was my last day at Swades, I was packing my things from the office, and one of my team members came announcing that someone is waiting for me at the reception. I went to the waiting area and to my surprise, there was this tribal woman in her late 70s (I used to call her Aaji) waiting to meet me for one last time. As soon I entered the room, she bent to touch my feet and said that, “Deva sarkeh aale tumhi aachya aayushayt” (You came like a god in our life). I just hugged her with tears in my eyes. 

She was the lady from the same hamlet where I worked earlier. Our work has helped her get drinking water at her doorstep. She was overjoyed with the fact that from now onwards she will not have to walk so many kms daily to fetch drinking water. This happiness and lasting impact is what I work for, it’s my everyday motivation

Your advice to students based on your experience?

One key thing that I would recommend to students is to be proactive. That is the fastest and most effective way to learn new things and acquire new skills. Give your best in every task at hand no matter how big or small it is. Another take-home learning I would share is to always go ahead and ask what you want, people might refuse it but unless you ask, the answer is always no! Having an overall positive outlook and proactiveness will take you far. 

Also do not underestimate the importance of networking, do reach out to new people and learn from their experiences. And lastly, invest in yourself, and I do not only mean financial investment but invest time in your growth. Read good books, do online courses, participate in forums and competitions, and this way you will keep building skills one by one. 

Future Plans?

For now, I would like to continue working in the social sector. I am looking forward to working on more national and international projects in the coming years. I would also like to start my own social impact venture someday that addresses the inequalities in third-world countries. Somewhere down in the future, I also fancy having my own off-grid homestay in the hills.