Dr. Ketaki Desai is the Executive Director of the LindenPointe Development Corporation, and runs the eCenter’s business incubator and the Entrepreneurship Academy for high school students.
Dr. Desai recently participated as one of the Global Talents at the UNLEASH Innovation Lab in Denmark. This year, she was also awarded the Business Women’s First Award, which honors women who’ve made a difference in their communities, blazed a trail for other women and are leaving a mark on the western Pennsylvania business community.
One of Pittsburgh’s “40 Under 40” honorees, Ketaki has cofounded and consulted with several startups in the Pittsburgh region. Dr. Desai has a Doctorate in Biomedical Sciences from Texas A&M University, a Master’s in Public Management from Carnegie Mellon University, and a Bachelors in Mechanical Engineering from Pune University, India. She was selected as a Graduate Fellow by the UN Council of Women World Leaders, and is a graduate of the Civic Leadership Academy of Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto’s Office. Ketaki also volunteers with the United Way Women’s Leadership Council and The UpPrize at The Forbes Funds.
This is her story
I want you all to close your eyes for just a moment – now imagine you are a high school student in a developing country and it is exam time. A lot is riding on these exams because your scholarship depends on it and your family cannot afford to pay for college. You are a bright student so the hard work doesn’t bother you, but suddenly the doorbell to your 500 sq. foot apartment rings. It is the neighbor, and he is there to politely let you know that your father, a chronic alcoholic, has fallen on the street and cannot get back up because he has been out drinking again. Your mother is much too embarrassed to face the neighbor and you are standing there instead, faced with the decision of either doing something about it or focusing on your exam and your future.
That high school girl was me 20 years ago, and that was the situation in our home in India. My mother, a primary school teacher made much less than a dollar a day for a family of four and working two jobs. My father, a brilliant person, felt let down by society; it is not easy being poor in a country like India because the social and economic systems do not align and despite how hard you work, it is always feel like the deck is stacked against you. He took to chronic drinking and was fired from his position in the Middle East. After coming to India, things kept getting from bad to worse. And it was in situations such as the one I shared that I truly wished for a way out of the helplessness, a way to be able to be in control of my life.
Ever since I remember, I had wanted to leave India and travel to the US for getting a graduate degree, and my parents despite the poverty and emotional upheaval never told me that I shouldn’t dream big. As a family, we barely made ends meet, and it was extremely difficult to imagine how I was going to be able to build a case that proved that we could afford an American education. My years in college were spent working hard towards the goal of receiving assistantship, and when the time came for sending in my applications, my father and I would spend days researching local scholarships and funds that would enable me to pay for my first semester at school. My parents created a saving account and our friends and family came together to help us to “show” that we had enough money. Not a single dollar belonged to my parents. My mother’s uncle was the closest family who could have potentially made that kind of money, and so I had to plead my case to him to be my sponsor on paper.
When I finally gave my visa interview and was told that my visa was approved, I think I actually started breathing normally after a year of anticipation and struggle. And it is with this in my past, and my future shining brightly that I sat on that Lufthansa flight on July 17th, 2002 to join the PhD program at Texas A&M University.
Upon completion of my PhD program, I worked as a Postdoctoral Associate in several labs for about 4 years, and realized that the research funding opportunities for international students were a fraction compared to those available for citizens, and so I decided to go back to school – this time Carnegie Mellon University – to get pursue a Master’s in Public Management that would provide me with better opportunities. While I was there, I started my first company in Education Technology, called LeSyn Labs, which had to be dissolved when I realized that it was not possible to work in your own company unless you had over 1 million dollars in investment. I graduated and took a consulting gig in New York, and decided to live away from my husband who continued his position at the University of Pittsburgh. After almost a year a working in New York, we decided to leave our home in the US and move to India, because we were starting to feel frustrated with the glass ceilings imposed on us by the immigration policy here.
In India, I consulted with a service-provider startup, and also worked remotely as a partner at BlenderHouse, a Pittsburgh-based healthcare technology startup. The interesting thing that happened to us though, is that within months of being in India, we realized that we had become outsiders to our own culture. We were so “American” that we felt like we didn’t belong and it was within 10 months of deep deliberation that we decided to come back to our jobs and back to Pittsburgh.
After coming back, I co-founded a startup in manufacturing analytics, PlantMetrix, which was dissolved after one of my partners decided to work for a client. That is when I was approached by the Chairman of the eCenter to apply for the Executive Director position. I have been at the eCenter for almost two years now, and truly believe that journey is more important than the destination, and I couldn’t have had a more memorable journey getting here.