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IDinsider Talks: Episode 4 – Krishna’s journey: forging your own path

In our fourth episode, alum Krishna Ramesh joins IDinsight Senior Associate Winfred Kananu for an insightful conversation on his alignment with IDinsight’s values and mission and his professional growth during his six years at the organisation. He opens up about his IDinsight journey, changing the narrative on how Africa is perceived in global development, and advice for younger Associates early in their career.

Full transcript of the interview:

Winfred Kananu: Hello, and welcome to IDinsider Talks, a podcast series where we sit down and have a conversation with IDinsight alumni. My name is Winfred Kananu. I am a Senior Associate at IDinsight, and I’m based out of our office in Nairobi, Kenya. Our conversation today is about growing professionally. We at IDinsight believe that we are a community of leaders and that each of our teammates has the opportunity to shape IDinsight’s future in strategic impact. Our guest today, Krishna Ramesh truly embodies this value. 

Krishna was an Associate Director and Africa Lead for DataDelta at IDinsight. Prior to that, he led IDinsight’s work with government partners in Malawi and Zambia, alongside leading IDinsight’s Zambia office and partnership development in Southern Africa. At one point, he was our Africa Chief of Staff, where he was responsible for developing new relationships across the continent and implementing IDinsights regional strategy. As a client-facing Associate, Krishna worked with governments and foundations in Ghana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, South Africa, and India, and he helped establish IDinsight’s operations in South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Ghana. 

For our listeners, I have personally had the opportunity to work closely with Krishna during his IDinsight tenure, where I benefited greatly from his valuable advice and collaborative spirit. I’m very excited that today we will be sharing his incredible IDinsight journey with all of you! So let’s get started. 

Krishna, you once said that IDinsight is a place where as much as you’re willing to step up, you have the room to step up. How did this play out for you? Take us through your IDinsight journey from being an Associate all the way to an Associate Director.

Krishna Ramesh: Thanks! It’s fun to have this conversation, especially with you. I think I said this, probably a few years ago now. And I think, throughout my time at IDinsight, which was about six years, that continued to be personified and at various different stages, sort of proven right. 

As you mentioned, I joined IDinsight as an Associate in 2017, in our Lusaka office. I had just wrapped up my Masters and was looking for a way to build more exposure in the policy space, and do so on the [African] continent, I happened upon IDinsight and it really gave me the opportunity to do that. The excitement for me was to get as much exposure as possible. 

I joined IDinsight as an Associate, and really through that process, right from the beginning, it was very clear that this was a place where people trusted you. I remember right from my first week, people that I onboarded with getting pulled into projects, from my second or third week on my first project being asked to facilitate client meetings, and being provided the guidance, but at the same time being trusted to learn to grow and to execute. And so through the different roles, during my time at IDinsight, I wore the many different hats that you mentioned, across different locations.

I think through all of those roles, they’ve been characterised by a desire from my end for a wide range of different experiences, but then also a deep level of trust from others in my own abilities, and other colleagues’ abilities to step up. That’s where really, I think it comes in terms of both the willingness and the room to step up. As I transitioned from an Associate to Senior Associate through to playing the Chief of Staff role, there were different opportunities in each place, but the importance of the value of ownership in seeing challenges and taking the initiative to address them. And if you do take the initiative to address them, you’re supported in that process, you’re guided in that process, and you’re given the space to do so. It’s the reason why, at least for me, I stayed at IDinsight for as long as I did, about six years. It’s a reason why I was given as many opportunities as I was. But then also, I think it’s a reason for having a very deep culture of ownership that I think we still do, in the sense of folks who come in, who may not have all the experience in the world, or who may be working on relatively new things, but who are sort of trusted and supported to execute. And that’s what sort of characterised my journey wearing those many hats, accompanied with, I think, a second piece, which I think is equally important, or I found equally valuable, of mentors and guidance through those different stages. 

It’s one thing to want to have many different experiences, it’s another thing to do a good job within those experiences. But all of that is enabled by having a supportive team around you and people that I felt I could go to seek advice to be thought partners who were genuinely committed to my growth and development. I think those things combined helped to create the sort of atmosphere where there are opportunities and room for growth, as it was for me to take on new roles, to take on new responsibilities, to see challenges and play a role in solving them. But then also, you don’t do that in a silo, you don’t do that on an island, and the people that you can look up to around you, that you deeply admire, but who also committed to you not just as a sort of cog in a machine, but also as an individual. Those have been guiding lights through that journey. It’s something that has stuck with me in this place that has both obviously shaped me as a professional, but then also shaped me as a person.

Winfred: That’s such an inspiring journey. Thank you so much for being open to sharing it with us. Hearing your responses has got me thinking about your journey, which spans across six years – a very long time with any organisation – and it makes me wonder that you must have seen IDinsight’s, vision and mission aligned with yours at some point in your journey. And let’s talk about that in our next question. 

What role did IDinsight’s unique vision and mission play in helping you realise that IDinsight would be a good professional home for you?

Krishna: I think there are a few elements of this. For me, one of the biggest motivators was trying to better understand when I first came in, and then over time sort of contribute to having an impact within the broader sort of policy and development space, but really grounded upon helping people fulfil their own potential. And a lot of that, for me was grounded around the policy space, and a lot of the things that we find easier to complain about, than to play a role in addressing, particularly with respect to our own governments. So when I first came across IDinsight, one of the things that I found most interesting in terms of the vision and mission was about trying to find a middle ground, between working directly with clients and working directly with partners, but then also being focused around what is this actually going to do. And I think through the nature of our organisation as a nonprofit, but then also through the nature of how we were created, in terms of trying to blend more of the sort of client-facing consulting skill set with more of the sort of technical and research skill set. The focus on – we’re not really happy unless what we’re doing is contributing to decisions being informed, more so than just we should do this project and move on  – I think that’s something that I find distinct within IDinsight. I think it’s one thing to just say it, but it’s another thing for individuals to personify it. And it’s challenging at times. I think it’s definitely challenging when growing within one’s own career to be oriented towards what is my work contributing to and better trying to understand that. But I think that focus within the vision and the mission of being oriented around impact, but then also and while this isn’t explicitly stated, I think it’s very implicit being oriented around our own team and our growth. I remember speaking to the founders when trying to decide to join and feeling that sense, as I mentioned previously, of folks who are deeply invested in not just what we’re doing, but also doing so in a way that helps to cultivate a team and enjoys the process. I think that that’s something that I find really distinct. And so that’s what prompted me to join in the first place. And then I think that’s manifested the vision and mission, but also, I think, our values, which are what really grounded us on a day-to-day basis, at least for me, in terms of finding values that deeply aligned with my own in terms of I’ve talked about elements of trust and ownership, but also humility, and an understanding that we are contributors within a bigger picture, but we’re also not about to solve everything. We are in a place where we see and understand what we can do and what others can do. I think that also, for me, was a really unique element of how our values are personified that made me feel like this is not just a place where I can sort of grow as a professional, but then also as a place where I can build relationships and grow as an individual, in terms of those values being well aligned to my own. 

So I think, obviously, all of this becomes clearer over time. But I do distinctly remember, even in those initial conversations, those points around just like people make a place and when you sort of have people that deeply believe in these institutional values, visions, missions, then that, I think is what sort of institutionalises them and then gets sort of passed on over a long period of time in new people who join to.

Winfred: It’s really nice to hear how your values aligned with IDinsight’s values. I’m going to pick up on what you said about aligning with our mission of ensuring we are impact-oriented and actually contributing to decisions that are made in the space and use that as a jumping-off point to our other question. 

Global narratives drive so much of how the African continent is perceived in the development space. So given the noise around impact and policy and our unique position in the sector, was there a moment or a particular experience when you thought that the work you’re doing is actually helping bring that much-needed change in global narratives?

Krishna: I won’t say it’s a specific moment. But I think there’s there’s two themes or journeys within IDinsight that I feel really sort of proud of and excited about to this end. 

Noise is the right word. There is so much noise within the development space with respect to who is doing what, but also in terms of just orienting fundamentally around impact. But then also, I think, a lot of baggage that the development space carries, in terms of colonial mindsets, in terms of the way in which interventions are done, in terms of fundamentally respecting the dignity of people that we work with, and sort of almost orienting towards just attitudes towards creating impact, and how that’s perceived. And so I think that the sort of sector more generally has struggled with a lot of these questions of identity and as has  IDinsight. I think there are a couple of things that I feel really proud of that we’ve started doing to address that. 

One, I think, is our Learning Partnership model. For those who don’t know, our Learning Partnership model is oriented around working with predominantly government partners but doing so in a way where we embed our team directly within those government partners, based grounded in an attempt to deeply understand the context in which they work and the constraints within which they work, such that we can work directly with civil servants, but then also political appointees in order to help inform decisions. And I think, at a very fundamental level, this is a different approach to how a lot of advisory organisations or technical assistance providers do the work that they do. It’s often very fly in fly out, it’s often highly critical of what’s being done particularly sort of oriented around a western mindset of, do this as we do it, and it would be better and not as cognizant of fundamental constraints that say governments but then also people within government space when trying to get things done. And I think that our Learning Partnership mindset is sort of grounded in an element of humility, in the sense that we need to deeply understand the context in order to do the work. And also that we don’t intend to be here forever. The goal is really to sort of engage as thought partners and build out capacity such that this work can be done independently. But then also the importance of just understanding the context, understanding the people and building relationships, which I’ll talk about in my second point. But I think that for me, very fundamentally, and we saw this when I was embedded within the Government in Ghana, for example, and sort of led a few different government partnerships. We saw this every time we interacted with other stakeholders, but then also, when we interacted with government, in terms of government deeply appreciated the way in which we were firmly committed to what’s most important for them, as opposed to sort of coming in with explicit external agendas. All the work that we do is oriented around a demand-driven nature, which is most important for them. I think that sense of service in that way is something that I think is, is really distinct and really valuable within the space in terms of an approach to doing the kind of work that we do. 

The second thing is in terms of IDinsight’s own journey. I think IDinsight started, I don’t know, 10-11 years ago – and we talk about this a lot internally – as a relatively Western organisation, as a predominantly expat-oriented organisation, as an organisation where a lot of folks came in for a few years, and then transitioned into the next thing. And I think there has been a very intentional shifts over time in who we hire, and what our team looks like, ensuring that our team is much more representative of the places in which we work. But then also doing so in a way that deeply respects the quality across the team. Right from the beginning within IDinsight, there’s been this deep commitment to equity and equality and a very proactive effort in terms of what we want, who we want on our team, and what we want our team to look like in order to be sort of representative of where we are. And I think also that proactive shift over time has been something that sort of I feel very proud of. In terms of making those changes, in terms of global narratives, in terms of who’s involved within the development space, someone who cares about policy and who’s committed to working about policy and what can be done within our own countries as far as trying to create impact and create change. So I would say, those, to me, are two big journeys that IDinsight has taken through continually looking at ourselves and being self-critical. We have a long way to go. But continuing to think about what is our position within this broader space, and given more general trends and challenges that the development sector faces and how do we want to adapt in alignment with our values to reflect that.

Winfred: Amazing, thank you for sharing! That also resonates with what I’ve observed so far, even in my work. Particularly, I really, like over my past two years at IDinsight, just observing how deeply we think about our projects, and how we approach them. Especially the point of being really demand-driven, and not just doing things for the sake, but actually going deeper to understanding the landscape and thinking deeply about how we add value to our partners, and especially our government clients. So that brings me to my next question. One final question before I let you go, Krishna. You’ve been able to witness IDinsight grow into what it is today.

What advice would you have for young Associates joining the development space in our organisation today?

Krishna: This is a good question. I would say a few different things. One is, to understand and interrogate your own motivations for doing it and those don’t have to remain consistent. But I think something that’s really interesting, at least for me, through exposure, is seeing how those evolve, right? And so coming in with a clearer sense of what motivates me it’s a very challenging space. Sometimes we’re not as impactful as we’d want when we come in with sort of all of these ambitions for what we want to do. Sometimes we face challenging projects when we come in with these ambitions of how much we want to grow. It’s not easy, particularly in times when it is challenging. So coming back to those core reasons for what feels most exciting is something that, for me has continually been motivating. And then also keeping track of how those evolve and how those change. Our careers are long – I know for myself when I first joined IDinsight, there was this impatience to do so much. But I think something that is really interesting for me is reflecting and looking at, Okay, how did those motivations evolve and change over time. And that I think is really valuable information in sort of shaping a broad-based career. And I think that applies whether joining IDinsight, whether joining the development space more generally, in terms of just knowing what you feel is most interesting and continuing to reflect upon that. 

I think a second thing is, to trust yourself. I think that one of the biggest challenges, I know this, I faced this, especially as one sort of grows within their own careers, and in a place like IDinsight, but also in many other places where you are trusted by other people is a sense of imposter syndrome. I remember sitting in meetings with government partners relatively early on and, and thinking, “Who am I to be here and to do this?” And I think that, at least in my experience, we spent a lot of time going around in circles on that question. And so I think, trusting yourself, trusting your strengths, building up your strengths over time, and sort of building yourself up by leveraging those strengths, of course, there are areas that we all have to grow on. But I think sort of building that self-confidence, especially as one grows within their career, is I feel really important. And something that I think, I definitely do, but I think a lot of us do, when speaking to folks within IDinsight, a lot of people do less than they potentially should, in terms of trusting why they’re in a particular place, that they deserve to be in that particular place. And that they can sort of do the work, and they’re well placed to do the work. And so I think that to me feels like something that’s really important. And, of course, is important to sort of accompany with a sense of desire to continue to learn to grow, and the humility that’s necessary to know where you have room to continue to learn and to grow. 

Then I think the last part comes is this point around learning and growing. I think that there are very few experiences, if any, that are not learning experiences. And so I think coming in with that open mind, while understanding your reasons for coming in, building relationships with people within the organisation that you’re working with, building mentors, learning from others, just being a sponge, in terms of absorbing information, experiences, knowledge and learning, I think that to me is one of the most important. I often think of IDinsight as every time I think I’ve been here for a year, I’ve been here for two years, it sort of feels like it’s actually been double that amount of time because of what gets crammed in. But I do think being open to those new experiences is something that I think is deeply valuable. We can only live one career path at a time. However, when we’re surrounded by people that have done very many different things, I think that there’s so much room sort of think about and learn from them in their journeys, whether they’re peers, supervisors, or other people within the space, and I think retaining an excitement for that is something that I find, or have found deeply valuable, and I know as leaving IDinsight, I’ll be leaving with a lot of mentors, but then also friends. And I think playing around building relationships, and not just building relationships for professional reasons, but also building relationships for personal reasons in terms of being in a setting where hopefully, folks are able to find kindred spirits and like-minded people is, as I think a really important thing, because at the end of the day, you’re doing challenging work, you’re doing it for reasons that go beyond just making money. Therefore there’s an importance of sort of that intrinsic motivation and for me, a lot of that comes from connecting with the other people that that you’re surrounded by as well. I would say those three things, I think understanding your reasons for doing it, opening yourself up to experiences and then also trusting yourself through that process.

Winfred: That is such a great point to close it on! Thank you for that advice. It’s definitely very useful for me and I believe for many other young professionals in the industry in the global development space. So thank you for taking time out to have this conversation with me today. As always, I really appreciated hearing your reflections on your own growth and hope that they’ve been very inspiring to our listeners as well. So thank you so much!

Krishna: Thank you. This was lovely. I really enjoyed it.