Addressing many of the global challenges today, ranging from pollution to climate change, requires a fundamental technological shift and new innovative processes with an interdisciplinary approach.

Navanshu Ahuja, our next pathbreaker, MBA Candidate at University of St. Gallen (Switzerland), aims to complement his industrial background in chemical engineering with business skills.

Navanshu talks to  Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about problem solving approach and ability to learn new things being much more important than mere technical knowledge.

For students, the most impactful jobs of the future will require application of core research in industrial environments, and linking technology with sustainability and business challenges !

Navanshu, Your background?

I was born and brought up in Kota, Rajasthan, which was at that time called the educational capital of the country because of the prominent coaching institutes there. I was very active from the beginning and played a lot of football and cricket in the early days, but somehow managed to also study enough (It is never enough :D). My father worked in a private hospital as a manager and my mother was a government school principal. I have a brother, who is a doctor. He studied in Kota for the MBBS and specialized in Critical Care in Delhi. Therefore obviously, while growing up, I chose to study Engineering. 

I choose engineering for three main reasons (in decreasing order of importance): first, I felt that the medical books were too big, second I felt that there should be diversity of thought in the family and third was that I was quite strong in mathematics. 

It was a fascinating time for me because I could see many students from across India come to Kota to join the coaching institutions and spend their precious time to achieve this one dream: to get into the IITs. My family focused a lot on education, therefore encouraged me to pursue the same dream of getting into an IIT. 

While I did not have any strong career opinions at that time, in hindsight, I believe that it was immensely important to receive that push from my family as it turned out to be a great decision overall. I had to take a drop year but then finally, I cracked the IIT-JEE exam in 2011.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I completed BTech in Chemical Engineering at IIT Hyderabad, with a minor in Entrepreneurship. After the exciting time at my Bachelors, I was motivated enough to pursue a masters degree. I did my master’s at ETH Zurich in Switzerland in Chemical and Bioengineering. After that, I worked for 4 years as a R&D Engineer in a manufacturing company, following which I decided to do an MBA and currently, I am doing my MBA from University of St. Gallen in Switzerland.

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

While the entry into chemical engineering was based on my rank in the IIT-JEE exam, it was during the 4 years in college where I started to appreciate the breadth of the field. I tried to keep a holistic approach in my college, focusing on studies as well as extra-curricular activities. While in the beginning, it was my family who pushed me towards engineering education, in college I tried to take in the experiences of my seniors and professors. One of the early awakenings I had was when I was giving a presentation to a professor for a course. While the presentation itself was good, the professor took the discussion into greater depth, asking me more about the topic and relating to the real examples. While I felt a little sad to be destroyed by the professor, I later realized that it was one of the most crucial learning moments for me. The professor tried to tickle critical thinking in me, which I now believe is one of the most, if not the most, important goals of education.

I tried to reach out to seniors for their experiences and learnt from them about the breadth of the opportunities available to me. What I did not do at that time, and would encourage everyone to do now, was to keep a track of one’s key strengths and evaluate opportunities as per your strengths.

I got into one of the premier universities in Europe, which is where I truly started to appreciate critical thinking. The masters curriculum was less focused on stress testing but more on independent thinking to push innovation in the scientific field.

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 think figuring out what you really like to do is an evolutionary process which requires continuous evaluation. When I was in college, most of the buzz was around computer technology companies (it still is, as it is the fastest growing field). However, since I was in chemical engineering, I did not bother much about computer science and just focused on my studies and enjoyed my extra-curricular activities. One thing I was sure of was to try and learn in the best way possible. I maintained a good grade throughout my masters and had a great extra-curricular record. Also, based on my discussions with seniors about possible career paths in the future, and my curiosity to study abroad, I applied to three Universities for their master’s program. I wasn’t completely in love with chemical engineering, but I also knew that I was quite good at it.

In 2015, I joined ETH Zurich’s master program. It was the first time there where I realized how interesting the field of chemical engineering is, since I could see the practical applications of the chemical industry, food industry, pharmaceutical industry and even the tech industry. ETH forced us to think critically and understand why processes worked the way they were working and encouraged innovative ideas to make them better. That independent thinking and exposure was extremely helpful and insightful in helping me appreciate chemical engineering better.

I did my thesis at Janssen when I was doing my masters.

During my masters, I did my master’s thesis in a pharmaceutical company (Janssen) near Zurich. The thesis was focused on process optimization for one of the key pharmaceutical processes which was used to make a drug. The focus was to use the fundamentals of chemical engineering unit operations like mass conservation, heat and mass transfer and process modeling to model and improve the process. 

The study in chemical engineering trained me to understand the concepts and apply mathematical relationships to describe the scientific process. The practical application of the theory was the highlight of the thesis where we could propose and test process improvements at pilot scale. The study led the way to propose model-based improvements to be tried on the commercial scale.

I got a job as a R&D Engineer in 2018 in a manufacturing company working on polymer processing technology.

A great company strives to work at the intersection of innovation (great products which solve an existing problem), a strong business model, good finance practices and superior customer engagement. After 4 years of working in the R&D field, I felt the need to study business in order to also get a holistic understanding of the corporate side of the company. Therefore, I joined HSG in Switzerland in the MBA program.

Consistently, one of the things that definitely helped me was a good scorecard (in the top 5%), good communication skills to convey my strengths, and my ambition and the proactiveness to seek out opportunities (via networks or LinkedIn).

How did you get your first break? 

My first working experience (3 months) was as an Intern in a company in Bangalore. I got this opportunity through a professor at the university who connected me to the people responsible in the company. Moving forward, I got a job through campus placement, where I worked for 2 months, before leaving for my masters. After my masters, I got a job as a R&D Engineer in a manufacturing company in Switzerland.

Overall, there are two main things: one is to be aware of one’s key strengths along with a rough idea of what to do next (does not have to be the final career but a small next step), and to regularly connect with others to discuss and seek advice for your career. As long as you can justify your strengths and provide value, new opportunities come up from some of the most random discussions.

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

One of the challenges I faced was to choose ONE topic amongst the 5 interesting ones and do a deep dive. In today’s world, when there are so many options available, it is important to choose one topic and stick to it to understand it in detail. Over time I realized, it is not so much the topic which may be critical, but the learning process which helps you to understand and solve challenges, and this process is pretty much the same in every field (i.e., it is a transferable skill). One way to simplify the process would be to always evaluate your key-strengths and explore a topic which matches your strengths.

Second challenge was (also is) to be able to deal with uncertainty and still be able to make good decisions. It comes with experience to be able to not know things but use your knowledge to make optimum decisions. It is completely alright if the decisions do not turn out to be perfect, but the trick would be to keep adapting and moving forward. Also, making use of the community around you to support you helps to keep your spirits high.

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

Till September 2022, I worked as a R&D Engineer at Sulzer in Switzerland, working on polymer processing technology. The main tasks were to find innovative equipment design for the manufacturing of the polymer material on an industrial scale. 

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

More than the technical knowledge, the approach to problem solving and ability to learn new things are of immense importance in today’s work environment. Another key skill needed is collaboration, because the issues involve different dimensions and more often than not, an expert opinion is needed to provide innovative solutions.

Overall, the day could involve performing experiments in the lab, communicating with the team about key issues and brainstorming solutions, along with the regular friendly lunch discussion with colleagues.

The job was a fantastic learning experience since it involved experimentation, modeling and innovation, along with doing scale-up (working on lab and pilot scale to develop solutions for industrial scale).

How does your work benefit society? 

Chemical Engineering is a broad field where you can work on anything from atomic particles to kilometer wide chemical plants. One of the key learnings I had from the study was to be able to think on different scales, and appreciate how the world around us works at a fundamental level, ranging from the paints we use for our houses to how coffee is made, to how to manufacture chemicals like plastic on a large scale.

Overall, the field itself is full of opportunities. Many of the global challenges today, ranging from pollution to climate change, require a fundamental technological shift and new innovative processes for the same. In my case, I was working on designing and testing equipment to handle recycled polymer, so that we can recycle plastic waste to make plastic like we make from fossil material. The problem is not only industrially complex but requires an interdisciplinary approach. What excited me about the work is that it was practical and involved a lot of hands-on work (which I enjoyed), was collaborative as I had to work with experts from different fields and has a potential for having significant impact.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

My advice to everyone would be simple: be curious, be prepared to give your 120% to learn new things, be critical in your thinking and communicate with others to learn from their experiences and to share your experiences. Also, remember to have fun along the way.

Future Plans?

In the future, I plan to move from core research towards the business side of a company, where I can link my technical expertise to business applications. For the next 8 months, I am going to enjoy the courses on customer centricity, innovation, finance and business model development, since the school is a perfect playground to explore the topics which were outside my realm till now.