Akashmegh Sharma (second from right) with teammates during a field visit for the Aspirational Districts Project in Baksa, Assam, India.
A career change always requires reflection about your goals and next steps. When I began thinking about switching careers from finance to social impact, I had many conversations with friends and mentors. I also tested and explored various options. In this article, I share a framework that may be useful to others wishing to transition their career to the social impact sector. I hope readers interested in pivoting their careers walk away from this article with knowledge and insights that will help them make a smooth career transition.
Let’s start by answering two of the most fundamental questions for anyone that wishes to pivot to working in the social impact sector, why you want the change and what you want.
It sounds cliche, but it’s important to have an answer before planning and creating what I like to call a “sectoral framework” personalized for you (more on this below). Why are you interested in the development sector? Be honest with yourself and list the reasons.
Here are some popular answers I’ve gathered over multiple conversations with several people:
Never underestimate the power of a well-thought-out ‘why’ for any decision you want to take.
Once you’ve got your ‘why,’ it will help put everything in perspective. It also builds mental fortitude for you to make that jump. It was much easier for me to digest my decision once I had reasoned why I wanted to make the switch. A lot of my ‘why’ fell under 1(1) and 1(3).
Before pivoting my career, I worked at one of India’s fastest-growing lending Fintech firms on their product, policy, and risk team. For a first job, it was a brilliant opportunity to learn from some of the best minds in the industry. But I was miserable. I did not enjoy the financial world. As much as I cared about “dhandha” (business), I realized I cared more about making an impact and building things that can support people at scale. I realized quite early into my financial career that I should move to the impact space, but I didn’t quit immediately. This was because I wanted to make sure that my reasons for wanting to move were not momentary or whimsical or because I lacked knowledge of the job I was currently engaged in. I made the final decision after I had mapped out my next steps. That’s what the next question sets us up to do.
Most people have their ‘why’s’ in place but are stumped at the ‘what’. This is where you have to dig deep and figure it out. I’ve got a couple of questions that might help answer this and end some of that uncertainty. Be warned, answering this question is nothing short of existential. There’s also no getting out of this, so take a pen and paper and start mapping out your answers to the following questions:
Try to visualise where you want to be in 5 years. These goals can be very lofty or can be something simple. Your goal could be building out a startup (in any sector) or working for a large foundation (e.g. the Gates Foundation) to help end a problem you care about, or you could have graduated/have an acceptance to your dream school/masters/PhD programme.
I suggest breaking down your goals into the following three categories:
Most of these goals will overlap. In five years time it’s possible to want to run a marathon, build your own startup and have worked for one of your dream firms and more. So, once you have listed down these goals, make buckets of different possibilities and rank them in order of priority.
Year 1–2: Work at one of your dream firms + build running expertise.
Year 2–3: Start B-school preparation and apply + train and run in at least 2–3 marathons this year.
Year 4–5: Get your B-school admit + build your own startup for the experience before you go to b-school + run la ultra.
Year 1–2: Join a startup in the development sector + start learning a language.
Year 2–3: Get promoted quickly and build meaningful professional networks/connections. Take a couple of language examinations.
Year 3–4: Join a social impact investment firm. Learn deal making/sourcing and from the investment side.
Year 4–5: Start up on your own or go to B-school.
Sharing a bundle that I had built for my career when I had decided to switch in 2019 (a lot of my goals and ideas have changed since then):
It’s possible to work on ‘all’ goals that are in your bundle. Create a roadmap for what you’d have to do to accomplish all of the above.
Next, you need to consider the how.
Achieving one’s goals requires planning, hard work, resilience, luck and the ability to not take yourself too seriously. The best way to understand what you need to do to get to what you want is to plan backwards from your goal.
Please find below a framework to work towards bagging a job at your dream firm as an example:
The first step involves identifying your dream firm (if you don’t already know which one you want to work at).
For example, I knew I wanted to work in the impact sector but I did not know much about the different firms in the space. To counter my lack of knowledge about the sector, I reached out to different people (professors, mentors, etc.) and read more about the sector by going through reports, etc. Once I was confident I was getting an understanding of what the different firms were in the space and the kind of work they do, I built out a simple sector landscape.
Each person can have their own style of building a sectoral landscape. Instead of dividing the sector into the more well-known “development topics/sub-sectors” like “education, sanitation, financial inclusion, etc., I decided to divide the sector by firm type. Please feel free to use this landscape as a template to create your own for any sector.
Once the sectoral landscape is ready, identify the sub-sector that aligns with your goal. For example, I had always been interested in research (It’s been one of my strengths. I had gained research experience after interning at Centre for Policy Research (CPR) and Trivedi Centre for Political Data (TCPD)) but wanted to apply the concepts practically. My internship at CPR gave me a lot of insight into research and the think tank career space but left me wanting to apply my learnings and push for more concrete policy changes. I wanted to do more hands-on work, especially with respect to programme evaluation and implementation. With that in mind, I decided to explore joining a firm in the M&E (monitoring and evaluation) space with strong ties to decision-makers in the government.
To that end, I started looking for firms that matched the above description and came across IDinsight. There were also other firms I was interested in but fortunately, a very good friend who I’d met during my time at CPR had recently joined IDinsight. A quick conversation with him along with significant research into the firm strengthened my conviction to work towards landing an offer.
The second step requires one to take an honest assessment of their abilities to understand where they are lacking to start building out a plan to improve. Once this is done, we can begin analysing what is required to reach/join this firm and also build a timeframe for reaching that goal.
To take an honest assessment of one’s abilities, the following is required:
Additionally, I suggest building up an “x factor” that would differentiate you from the crowd of applicants. This x factor could be anything that might add value to the job but isn’t a core requirement. For example, build topical expertise by putting out regular articles and thought leadership on Twitter, or comment on industry updates on LinkedIn. Another idea would be to have a side hustle that demonstrates your skills. All of the above serve as good signals of your work ethic and will increase your chances of getting that job!
I hope this framework is useful for those transitioning between sectors and careers. I would love to get your feedback on the pivoting framework to understand if it is replicable in your experience. Let me know in the comments section below!
I would like to thank Vikramjeet Sharma for the long development sector-related conversations and for planting the seed of building sectoral landscapes. I would also like to thank Saumya Kedia, Anjali Hans, Kanika Jain, and Aaditya Shetty for reading earlier drafts and edits of this blog.
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