From financial analyst to nonprofit program director

“It was the fresh energy and perspective from my volunteering experiences that reminded me of my passion for children and education.” - Rasika Sridhar Sethi

This article is produced and published by Devex Impact, a global initiative of Devex and USAID, that focuses on the intersection of business and global development and connects companies, organizations and professionals to the practical information they need to make an impact.

In the darkest days of the 2008 global financial crisis, Rasika Sridhar Sethi was working 60-plus-hour weeks for financial giant Citi, in a 38th-floor cubicle in Manhattan. Her days—and many nights—were spent as part of the chief financial officer’s strategy and planning team, identifying “toxic assets” and assisting in the structuring and execution of the U.S. government’s Trouble Assets Relief Program, or TARP.

Sethi’s weekends, however, were filled with a very different kind of work: evaluating innovative Indian development projects to determine whether they were candidates for “seed capital” from a nonprofit.

Sethi’s volunteer experience ultimately propelled her to leave behind her “Wall Street dream” and return to her native India to work for an international development nonprofit focused on children. Her journey from corporate world to NGO is recounted here, part of a five-part Devex Impact series on career-changers. (Read our introductory article: (From private sector to nonprofit: 4 real-life stories).

Part of her ‘DNA’

Growing up in Bangalore, Sethi learned the importance of education from her mother and grandmother, who served as leaders of a school system for disadvantaged children. As a freshman at Ohio Wesleyan University, Sethi took part in a Global Young Leaders conference in New York City; exposed for the first time to the world of global finance, she dreamed of working on Wall Street. She gave up summers up at home in India to take internships at Morgan Stanley, Deloitte and Citi.

After graduating in 2007, Sethi joined Citi full-time and worked as a strategy and planning analyst. Living and working through the financial crisis, however, had a professional silver lining for her.

“You learn the most when things are not all hunky dory, and in hindsight, it was the best exposure I could have asked for,” she wrote in an email to Devex Impact, explaining that her role required her to communicate across seven business teams, work directly with directors and managing directors and prepare presentations for C-level executives — experiences out of reach for most entry-level analysts.

Sethi credited Citi’s focus on professional growth with her own success. “I had managers who were committed to my growth and development,” she said. “Their [support] was instrumental in building my confidence to deliver on high-stake projects at a very young age.”

Blessed with an understanding boss, Sethi was also able to spend several hours a week volunteering with Tomorrow’s Business Leaders, a non-profit in New York City, through which she not only developed and tested a business curriculum for disadvantaged high schools, but also coordinated on-boarding for 70 fellow volunteers.

Weekends she spent with ASHA for Education, a U.S.-based nonprofit founded by Indians living abroad. Working side-by-side with “like-minded volunteers,” Sethi conducted due diligence on projects that might receive funding and worked with grant recipients on streamlining their operations.

The experience with ASHA, she said, was “immensely satisfying” and gave her valuable insights as a donor into how local nonprofits handle finances. She also began to realize how much she, as someone with financial experience, had to offer.

“Many organizations look for ongoing funding, but donors want to see an overarching strategy for the organization to become self-sustaining,” said Sethi. “What’s missing today is the expertise and foresight to build self-sustaining models.”

Through this volunteer work, Sethi said she began to feel an “idealistic pull.” The crystallizing moment happened when she heard a speaker quote from Steve Jobs’s 2005 Stanford University commencement address, when the former Apple co-founder and CEO said: “Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

Sethi said she realized that she had been “chasing the wrong dream” and that her path lay in the “DNA” instilled by her mother and grandmother’s educational work.

“My work at Citi showed me I possessed the required skills to succeed at my job, but I was not enjoying the journey,” she said. “It was the fresh energy and perspective from my volunteering experiences that reminded me of my passion for children and education.”

Making the move

Motivated to make the shift, Sethi began looking for opportunities that would leverage her existing skill set and narrowed her search to roles in strategic planning at international nonprofits.

While searching online, Sethi discovered a job in South Africa posted by Absolute Return for Kids, a U.K.-based charity focused on children worldwide. She applied for the job, even though the deadline has expired. But Sethi had made the right connection. When ARKplanned to open a new project in India, they offered her a position to develop new programs. “I wasn’t intending to go back to India, but it was too good an opportunity to pass up,” she said.

Working out of a converted house in New Delhi – a far cry from her Tribeca cubicle – she managed a research team, executed partnerships and supported the country director’s strategic planning work.

Reflecting on a transition

What surprised Sethi most about the new role was the “intellectual vitality” of the work. “It was a combination of analysis, research, relationship management, outreach and advocacy,” she said, with the result that she and her colleagues “pushed themselves to acquire new skills.”

More broadly, Sethi said she was excited by the “wave of innovation” happening in the development arena. “It’s extremely heartening to see the number of low-cost, efficient delivery models that exist in education for the bottom-of-the-pyramid clientele,” she said.

What was less exciting, she said, was discovering the lack of coordination among development actors in India. “Everyone seems to be working towards the same goal but in silos or in isolation.”

Another downer was working with government agencies. “There’s hardly any accountability or transparency in the way they function,” she said. “Lack of political will and frequent turnover makes it extremely tough for a nonprofit to leverage government partnerships at scale.”

Satisfaction came in bringing her data-focused skills to the nonprofit context, where she believes it’s sorely needed. “I was always amazed at how robust performance-measurement systems were in big investment banks,” she said. “It’s imperative to have those type of systems in this sector, especially in a low-resource environment.”

Word from the wise

For others looking to make the transition from the corporate to the nonprofit world, Sethi said she sees plenty of opportunity. But she also urged caution. “One needs to be wise in navigating the maze of opportunities and finding the right fit, both professionally and personally,” she said.

Sethi advised others to use a tactic that was successful for her: volunteering. This experience may help professionals thinking about change career in a realistic way. “Choose a cause you are passionate about and partner with a local organization as a volunteer before taking the plunge.”She also advised potential career changers to network within the nonprofit world and request informational interviews with organizations that interest them.

Sethi warned that because career trajectories are not as clearly defined in nonprofits, career changers should clarify their short and long-term goals, to make sure they are aligned with the career change.

For nonprofits themselves, Sethi also sees lessons. “There needs to be more business discipline in the way programs are designed and sustained over time,” she said.

To move beyond a “slightly myopic view” of funding sources, nonprofits in development “need to invest more in identifying, grooming and retaining good talent.”

After more than three years at ARK, Sethi is now off on her next adventure. Recently married, she is in Jakarta, serving as a work/study volunteer with the International Humanity Foundation.

Join the 500,000-strong Devex community to network with peers, discover talent and forge new partnerships – it’s free! Then sign up for the Devex Impact newsletter to receive cutting-edge news and analysis every month on the intersection of business and development.

About the author

  • Andrea Useem

    As former associate editor and content director for Devex Impact, Andrea created and managed cutting-edge content on the intersection of business and international development. An experienced multimedia journalist, Andrea also served as leadership editor at the Washington Post and spent three years as a foreign correspondent in Eastern Africa reporting for publications including the Boston Globe, Dallas Morning News, and San Francisco Chronicle.