Dhananjay focuses on executing Surgo Foundation’s existing investments in India, as well as building its investment pipeline and key relationships in the region. Before joining Surgo, Dhananjay worked for Siemens AG in Germany, Mexico, and India, leading strategic global projects. Prior to that, he worked at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s India Country Office, with a focus on the foundation’s portfolio in Uttar Pradesh. Dhananjay began his career as an investment banker in Germany, working on mergers and acquisitions in the technology and media sectors. He has an MBA from INSEAD and earned Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in engineering from the Delhi Technological University and the Technical University of Munich, respectively.
These are his reflections from an adventurous, impact-driven and inspiring career.
“A chance conversation with a classmate at INSEAD landed me into a role as a consultant at Gates Foundation’s Delhi’s office. Until that point, the word “development” had a seductive ring of altruism to it, which appealed to my old-fashioned sense of patriotism. I already had a role lined up at Siemens’ coveted global leadership program post -MBA. The firm was open to my plans of traveling for six months prior to joining. As I was fussing over which intrepid route to take for my travels, the Gates offer came up. Fortunately, I took it.
My pre-MBA experience had been a case of experiencing multiple worlds. I had tried my hand at corporate R&D, strategy consulting and investment banking in Germany. The transition to Gates Foundation was surprisingly not difficult. I did not have to get into non-profit mode, if there is such a thing. About half of the team working on tough Indian Public Health problems had a business / management consulting background. It was easy to work at an organization with a strategic (“what can be done with a given amount of money”) mindset and data-obsessed approach. Working on the some of the biggest problems in Indian Health brought humility (“markets do not fix everything”, I tell my younger investment banking self now) and a sense of respect for the scale of problems governments must deal with. Can you imagine that about 5 million kids are immunized, mostly by the government, in one Indian state (UP) alone every year? What gets done by governments in developing countries rarely makes for great headlines. I also learnt to appreciate that the problems in the public sector often are harder – for instance, governments do not have the luxury of leaving out unprofitable segments. The experience was enriching and I realized that I would return to this world one day.
At Siemens, there were new challenges. As part of the program, participants drive high-level strategic projects in the first few years. It is pertinent to point out that mentoring from board-level executives from day 1 is one of the prominent features of the program. It’s not hard to imagine how valuable this can be at a 300,000+ employee company. This was a fantastic way to get to know diverse parts of the company across geographies in a short time. From Uttar Pradesh, I was thrown into a restructuring project of a large rail factory in the outskirts of Munich, Germany. Then, I had the fortune of leading a challenging $60 million project in Mexico – 4 project managers had been changed before I joined. Working in a in a hostile environment in a language that I had not yet mastered, this probably represents the most challenging time in my career till date. I could not have tided over the rough first few months of the project without the mentoring support that I had. To pull away from the daily firefighting just by talking to someone removed from the context, provided enormous amounts of perspective. I was enjoying the challenge immensely and my learning curve was near vertical.
A chance to return to development came, perhaps earlier than I had expected. My former boss from the Gates Foundation reached out to me to see if I wanted to lead a new non-profit foundation’s India portfolio. I was in two minds whether to continue my leadership journey at Siemens or to join Surgo Foundation, a non-profit which seeks to dramatically change the way development is approached. The case for spending additional years at a global powerhouse was strong. There was excellent institutional support behind the program, my engagements were challenging and taking me to new parts of the world, and I was doing well. On the other hand, I wasn’t sure if there would ever be another chance to be part of the journey of a new non-profit with global ambitions. The jury is out, but I listened to my inner voice (probably the first time in a professional decision) and chose the non-profit. Surgo invests in approaches that look at the challenges of those at the Bottom of the Pyramid in novel ways. For instance, we have funded a team of behavioral scientists to understand the decision drivers of women and families with regards to their health in rural Uttar Pradesh. We are funding work that tries to bring the power of machine learning and predictive analytics to large societal problems of our times.
As I reflect on the past few years, the weight of the decision as to whether and when to move to non-profit stands out as a key moment. It also feels unnecessary. This decision invariably comes along with a sense of finality and permanence. Typically, it is a one-way street – a person after many years of experience in the private sector, wakes up inspired one morning, (possibly checks her/his bank account bracing for a pay cut) and joins the non-profit world for good. What a pity! I hope of a future where there is free movement between to the private sector and the government/non-profit sector. A seamless two-way flow of talent will help the cause of the development through the latest private sector innovations and approaches. A better understanding of developmental challenges can help the private sector find and serve its next billion customers better and faster. Hopefully, this diverse community can help trigger this change!”