As an undergraduate student, I often wondered what my first professional experience would be like--the selection process, the projects I would work on and who my colleagues would be. I spent a significant amount of time thinking and preparing for the next step. No amount of thought or preparation, however, readied me for the most unpredictable of externalities--starting my first job in the middle of a global pandemic!
My year of transformation at Samagra can be broken into 4 parts--each with its unique obstacles and learnings.
Part I : The offer, the acceptance, the travel
Brought up in New Delhi, I had ready access to the basics such as healthcare, education, and sanitation. Travelling across rural India and volunteering for various NGOs, I quickly grew out of this bubble. I realised that what I considered ‘basics’ were luxuries for a significant population of the country. However, mere cognizance of my privilege wasn’t enough--I had a strong desire to leverage that to create meaningful impact. I felt that the discipline and rigour of management consulting was necessary to systematically think through development challenges. When I came across Samagra, which was solving governance problems through a consulting approach, I realized it was the perfect next step post college. Going through the interview rounds and interacting with the firm’s leadership strengthened my desire to join the firm. I distinctly remember feeling exuberant the moment the offer was made to me. While I was given a day to decide, I took a full two minutes to accept the offer!
Brimming with excitement, I started putting my room together to make it ‘work-from-home conducive’. While I knew I would have to work from a program location, I didn’t think I would have to shift bases any time soon given the pandemic. But this perception changed rapidly as I was asked to travel to Panchkula to join my new team and program in the coming days. I was staffed on the ‘Saksham Haryana - Education’ program focused on improving learning outcomes of government school students in Haryana. This being early 2020 when the world was in the thick of the pandemic, the idea of travelling to and living in a different city was not something I was ready for. However, speaking to my manager helped me put things into perspective. Covid had posed complex challenges for the government to solve across various fronts:
I realised that I found exactly what I had set out to find--an opportunity to make a tangible difference. Given the scale and the complexity of the problem, it was important to be at the government location and co-work with stakeholders who were braving the pandemic to fulfill their responsibilities.
With a bag full of excitement (and sanitizers) and dreams to transform education in Haryana, I headed to Panchkula.
Learning #1 - Understanding the ‘why’ helps you unlock the ‘what’ and the ‘how’
Part II : Home away from home
Owing to the fact that I was not only starting a new job but also living in a new city, I had mentally prepared myself for a bumpy first few months. Surprisingly, however, the transition was smoother than I expected it to be. I was lucky enough to be working with a bunch of people who had the same passion for impact as I did. We would spend countless hours in front of whiteboards, trying to ideate and design robust and effective strategies for home learning. Debates and discussions were endless, and disagreements frequent. Strangely enough, I recall the differences of opinion fondly - they solidified the belief that while our approach might be different, we were working towards the same end, together.
I must also add that while all of us were there to work, there was plenty of fun too! Discussions that started with conceptualising a strategy to deliver tablets to government school students would also often end up in passionate debates about the best Netflix shows to binge-watch. Bollywood movies seen together were subject to the same analysis that a stakeholder meeting would be!
Without realising it, I was part of a small family in Panchkula - to whom I could turn to for advice, both personal and professional. The team was equally open in helping me fight my Covid anxiety as it would be in supporting me while making a slide deck.
Learning #2 - People become the difference between an underwhelming and fulfilling work experience
Part III : Stakeholder management 101
An integral part of Samagra’s way of working is thought-partnering and co-working with government stakeholders. As someone who took great pride in his people and interpersonal skills, virtual meetings and phone calls as a consequence of Covid really tested my strengths. Developing a strong rapport and sense of credibility with a new stakeholder is tricky as it is but attempting to accomplish this over video and phone calls was challenging to say the least.
Navigating through this phase, I learnt the essence of ‘stakeholder management’ -- developing a sense of when to push and when to hold back, and identifying effective, collaborative ways of engaging. This not only helped me get work done, but has also helped create meaningful relationships.
Looking back, this is where I feel I really grew as a professional. This also taught me the true meaning of being ‘mission-driven’--looking at challenges not as roadblocks but minor pit stops on our road to creating impact.
Learning #3 - Be humble about your strengths, there is always room to learn more
Part IV : Complex problems, innovative solutions
With students and teachers out of schools, improving learning outcomes, or even maintaining existing learning levels was a challenge. And the scale of the problem was formidable--22 lakh+ students and 90,000+ teachers. We were cognizant that interventions requiring in-class interaction, such as optimising textbook delivery, were not possible. And if we were to move the needle on impact, being innovative in our solution design was the way forward.
We supported the state government in designing and launching various interventions to help curb the imminent learning loss:
Through these interventions, we were able to keep students and teachers engaged during the lockdown, and ensure that learning was continuing.
Being creative in the face of complex challenges has been a learning I now carry everywhere I go. Be it in my personal life or the Saksham Haryana-Skills and Employment program (the project I am now staffed on), innovation is an ever present value.
Learning #4 - The more complex the problem, the greater the room for innovation
Starting a new job during Covid was challenging to say the least. Looking back though, it has helped me grow in ways I could have never imagined.