Exploring a Career Switch to the Development Sector in My 20s

Signs you are or probably have been in the same boat at some point. (Picture credit: Author)
Urvashi Suraj, AIF Fellow (Photo courtesy of Urvashi Suraj)

At 15, in the midst of all the hullabaloo around picking a stream after class 10, an important step in the Indian education system, Commerce was a no-brainer for me. I’d always been sure I wanted to be a Chartered Accountant. The path seemed pretty straightforward – clearing a series of exams in about 5 years – first the Foundation, then the Intermediate, 3 years of articleship (a full-time intensive training period) and ultimately, the Finals.

While I more or less stuck to that plan, somewhere along the way, the interventions and innovations in the social impact space caught my interest. All it took was an internship at a child rights NGO in 2015 and I was hooked! It was humbling to learn about issues that seemed like a distant reality to me, but that so many organizations were working hard to solve. With little to no connections in the social impact sector, I decided it was too early to jump right into the deep end. So I continued onward with my CA journey. What followed were 3 gruelling years of an articleship that revolved mostly around financial audits. Nonetheless, I continued testing the waters through volunteer work at local NGOs and CSR events.

To my surprise, at the end of my articleship, I took away a lot more than just my love for Excel – the CA qualification, a great set of lifelong connections, a network of incredibly sharp finance professionals and some semblance of clarity on what I DID want to do professionally.

What I find most difficult to convey to people even today is that I didn’t dislike finance at all, but I knew I wanted to spend a lot longer working with people on problems that are often too complex to be approached with limited perspectives. The only question in my mind was whether I should do it now or later. So I went over my options:
1. Continue in finance and make a lateral move to the sector at a later stage.
Pros: Larger savings, a degree I could put to use immediately
2. Transition to the social impact sector now and start from scratch.
Pros: A deeper understanding of the sector and the potential to leverage my degree to work at the intersection of finance and impact in a few years

After weighing the pros and cons and speaking to folks in the sector, I eventually decided to go with the latter. So, once I cleared my finals, I worked my way into the partnerships team at a social impact startup. While the last few years were filled with learning, the biggest lessons they taught me were the power of collaboration to achieve impact at scale and the importance of looking at development from the lens of the communities. And that’s primarily what pushed me to apply for the AIF Banyan Impact Fellowship.

Some things I did to assess if the sector was the right fit for me. (Picture credit: Author)

As the proverbial “watchdog”, auditors are trained on professional skepticism which means they’re often looking for risks. We had a term for it too – the WCGWs or the ‘What Could Go Wrongs’? It took me quite some time to change this mindset and learn the art of asking “What could go right?” instead – something I deeply value today.

When you cross over to a sector you’re largely unfamiliar with, in a role that’s not exactly what you prepared for academically, it’s not uncommon to experience a range of emotions initially – for me they were mostly self-doubt, overwhelm and of course, the occasional FOMO.

If I had a dollar for every perplexed look I got in response to “I am a CA” within this sector, I’d probably be a lot more excited to tell people about it. Slightly exaggerated versions of such reactions during conversations in this quaint town of Dewas, that I will call home for the next 9 months of the fellowship, seemed to gradually revive those feelings within me. Only this time, I’m aware, prepared and feel a little more confident dealing with them.

Since I am fairly new to this space, this post is not intended to be a guide to making a successful transition. However, I do hope it serves as a voice of support, reason and validation for anyone looking to move to the sector from a traditional career. You’re not crazy, just multidimensional!

About the Author:
Urvashi is a Chartered Accountant (CA) and a budding development professional. Her career has been a combination of her skills in finance and her passion for social impact. Prior to the AIF fellowship, she was a Senior Associate in the partnerships team of ‘Haqdarshak’ – a social enterprise that uses technology to connect citizens with government welfare entitlements. Previously, she also worked in the statutory audit function at KPMG, Mumbai where she reviewed financial statements and tested internal controls of public and private limited companies. Over the past few years, she has volunteered as a music teacher at low-income schools in Mumbai to facilitate holistic learning experiences. She also led fundraising initiatives at ‘ARISE Impact’, a volunteer-driven NGO working to support college students with disabilities in Delhi. Having made the transition from the corporate sector to the development sector less than 2 years ago, she considers herself lucky for the insights she has gained on formal business processes as well as on challenges faced in implementing social impact solutions at scale. She looks forward to defining problems, brainstorming innovative solutions, and working with stakeholders to implement them. She finds joy in music, painting and nature.



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