The field of wildlife requires professionals from diverse backgrounds who can bring their unique perspectives to address the multi-layered challenges of conservation !
Vidya Venkatesh, our next pathbreaker, Director at Last Wilderness Foundation, works towards conservation of wildlife and wilderness with a focus on prevention and management of human-wildlife conflict situations around Tiger Reserves.
Vidya talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about her defining moments, stepping away from a comfortable corporate career in finance and banking, and finding her calling in wildlife conservation !
For students, until recent times, the field of wildlife was mostly meant for people from the science background. But as long as your work speaks for itself, an academic degree cannot be a hindrance to pursue one’s passion.
Vidya, tell us what were your growing up years like?
I’m a ‘Mumbaikar’ by virtue of being born and brought up in Mumbai in a middle-class family. My parents always encouraged us to try new things in life and to travel to new places. We had a few family friends with whom we would travel every year to different parts of India and learn new things. As a child, I loved painting and still own a fair bit of my hand-made creatives and my paint bottles. Having seen both my parents work all their life, I was very keen on starting working and earning very early in my life. It was during my graduation that I got interested in trekking and got exposed to the field of wildlife through a Nature Camp conducted by WWF-India. I continue to pursue both these activities till date. My special interest lies in butterfly watching and I travel on one butterfly trip atleast every year.
What did you do for graduation/post graduation?
I’ve always had a flair for numbers and accounting; thus, commerce was my default stream during graduation. Subsequently I did my Export-Import Management.
What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?
I continued pursuing my hobbies all through my college years and subsequently through my corporate career. All my holidays, vacations and weekends would be spent either in the mountains or in the forests. Though I thoroughly enjoyed my corporate life, I always wanted to travel to more places across India to see new species and meet new people. Hence, I knew that someday I would quit my corporate life and pursue my hobby as a profession to give back to nature, it was just a matter of time. There was a point in my corporate career when I had to commit myself for atleast 5 more years with a promotion coming my way. That’s when I had to step back and think about my decision. On one hand was a lucrative promotion which would’ve obviously enabled me to travel to more locations but would not give me the satisfaction of giving back; on the other hand, I wanted to travel extensively to the mountains and forests while I was physically capable of doing so, however, this may not fetch me the desired income to fulfil my commitments. This was a tough decision to make and this is when I chose to take the plunge and not worry too much about money.
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 soon as I’d completed my graduation, I got a job as a Foxpro programmer to create software packages. Simultaneously, I attended my EXIM management classes and soon got placed at Citigroup with the Imports department where I worked for 6 years. Subsequently, I moved to JP Morgan and I was happy to get a role which needed me to do night shifts. This helped me to finish my working hours by 5am and head straight for my nature walks at Sanjay Gandhi National Park, Mumbai during the early morning hours. Being an American MNC, it helped me take the benefit of long weekends and night shifts to travel to different forests across our country. Slowly, I started volunteering with various NGOs like Sprouts, WWF, BNHS etc to lead trails and short trips and I was enjoying every bit of this life. While I continued my treks, I also did one to the Everest Basecamp in 2004. I moved to Bangalore for a year on work, post which I was back in Mumbai around the end of 2006. This is when I seriously started thinking about the move from the corporate world into the field of wildlife. However, I was not very clear about the exact role that I would play in this new field. Below is a sketch of the decision-making process that I went through while going through a leadership training programme at JPMC.
Thus, I started exploring different professions in this field of wildlife and wanted to experience it myself before taking a call. This is when a couple of my friends were also thinking of doing something and together, we started a travel company for conducting wildlife tours. I was only helping them during my free time since I was still in a full-time job. However, in about 2 year’s time I realized that this was not my calling and wanted to explore my interests further which I continued. During this time, I was pretty clear that I would quit my corporate job someday. I had started working on my financial stability before taking the plunge. I had saved enough for a 1 year-long contingency, incase I didn’t get a job by then.
How did you get your first break?
In 2010, I decided to take the plunge so that I could explore further by working with different organizations, however, I didn’t have any job in hand at this point. My Managing Director & the HR at JPMorgan was very supportive and suggested that I take a 3-month sabbatical before resigning so that I could be very sure of stepping away from the corporate world. I utilized these 3 months to travel to at least 5 different National Parks in the country and also explore job opportunities further with a few organizations in the field of wildlife.
My first break in this field of wildlife was Sanctuary Asia, where I joined as the head of their Kids for Tigers program. This was a desk job and needed me to coordinate with schools across the country to run environmental education programs. My quest continued until I met the Founder & Director of Last Wilderness Foundation in early 2011 through one of my Citigroup seniors. This job role of “Director at Last Wilderness Foundation” seemed like a perfect match with what I’ve always wanted to do, and it felt as though I’d finally found my calling! Since then, it’s been 11 years now and there’s been no looking back.
What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
Challenge 1: Financial adjustments
Since I was now earning only 20% of my previous salary and no bonus, my liabilities had to be closed out before I took the plunge. Quite a few lifestyle changes had to be made, all extra expenses had to be cut down and there was no room for spending on any luxury items or additional travel.
Challenge 2: Family and social circle
My parents were very supportive, though some of my other family members had a hard time understanding why I would take such a stupid decision of giving up on a hefty monthly pay and roam around in the forests.
Challenge 3: Unconventional academic background
Until recent times, the field of wildlife was mostly meant for people from science background. Since I was a commerce graduate, it was slightly challenging for me to prove myself. However, I simply continued using my corporate skills of problem solving, negotiation, people management, project management etc. I’m happy to say that my work spoke for itself, and I strongly believe that an academic degree cannot be a hindrance to pursue one’s passion, it can always be an added advantage.
Where do you work now? What problems do you solve?
I currently work as a Director at Last Wilderness Foundation. We work towards conservation of wildlife and wilderness by working with local communities living around forests. Our focus is on prevention and management of human-wildlife conflict situations around Tiger Reserves. The local people are dependent on the forests for their daily lives, from collection of firewood to collecting mahua flowers, mushrooms etc. They sometimes enter the core area of tiger reserves thereby increasing the chances of encountering a tiger or a sloth bear which could potentially lead to conflict. There are times when the villagers also light fires in the forest that can lead to huge forest fires that destroy large patches of the dense forests. These are issues which we try to work on with the help of the Forest Department and the villagers. We use tools like education, alternative livelihoods, capacity building etc as solutions to prevent such conflict situations. When I’m on field, near the forests, I’m usually spending time meeting different villagers, trying to conduct outreach programmes for children, resolving pending issues of compensation claims etc. My job takes me to different forests to meet different people including tribals. For me personally, it’s very interesting to understand these tribes, their culture & values, their connection with wildlife and how we could leverage on their knowledge and skills to protect & conserve wildlife.
How does your work benefit society?
We have just one EARTH! The air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat are all dependent on the trees, animals & forests. If these forests are destroyed, we do not have an alternative plan to survive as a species. Thus, it’s in our benefit to protect and conserve the wilderness around us – the wild animals, the plants & trees, the water streams, the clean air. All of these form a part of an integrated solution for the survival of mankind.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
The Village Kids’ Awareness Program is one of my most memorable programs. Not only that it It was not only was too much fun to work with the children, but it also made me humble as a person to understand the simple requirements of the villagers and how critical their role is in the protection of our forests. Most of these villagers who live in the buffer area of the Tiger Reserves, had never even seen a tiger in their lives, but had only heard of this dangerous animal who had killed their cattle at different times. However, we expect them to protect the forests and these tigers, while continuing to live with the tigers in their backyard.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
Conserve nature, save forests and protect wildlife. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle & Recover.
Doing your bit in your own capacity will be a huge contribution towards this cause. Avoid the use of single use plastic, carry your own water bottle during travel, reduce the use of electricity whenever possible, walk, cycle or use public transport wherever possible, plant trees and protect them in your vicinity, visit forests and support local products and services, purchase gifts made by tribals such as handicrafts.
Volunteer whenever possible, that’s the only way to gain field experience. However, try to be professional and committed to your deliverables.
I’d continue supporting the local communities in their endeavor to protect our wildlife and also visit as many forests in India as possible to witness the beauty of different landscapes and different species before we lose any of them.