Undergraduate students Amulya Uppala, class of 2020, and Noah Alviti, class of 2021, interviewed Aishwariya Chandrasekar ’17 as part of their 2019 Impact Ambassador experience with the Center for Social Value Creation at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business.
Can you tell us a little about yourself? What has been the experience that has brought you from your days at Smith, to where you are now?
I graduated from the University of Maryland in 2017 with a double degree in business management and psychology, and a minor in neuroscience. I began college studying psychology and neuroscience, and was fascinated with human behavior; however, in the middle of my sophomore year, I started to feel that my studies were singularly focused on the individual and not the larger world. I found myself thinking about how to zoom out, to see how I could use what I was learning to create an impact on a larger scale. Looking for ways to connect to a wider sphere of influence, I decided to apply to the business school. I pursued a degree in management, and it connected me to some of the most influential powers at play in the world. It was really interesting to have the dual perspective of a scientific background focused on individual behavior, alongside a macroscopic view of the world of business and industry.
As I continued my studies in business, I knew I wanted to marry those two perspectives in order to create a meaningful impact. I came across the Social Enterprise Symposium, through which I discovered the Center for Social Value Creation and Social Innovation Fellows, all of which offered the alignment of perspectives that I was looking for. At the time, I was also interning at a non-profit, Playworks, in D.C, exploring the field of non-profit management and development. Everything I was doing started to really coalesce when I was accepted into the Social Innovation Fellows. My cohort had students from different backgrounds and interests, and the class provided a space to have critical discussions about what social impact could mean in the business space.
Within the fellows program experience, I also had the opportunity to take on a project that explored social impact from both academic and practitioner perspectives. Our team, including three other SIF fellows and Dr. Kirsch, worked with Halcyon Incubator in Washington, D.C. to conduct a study on the social enterprise ecosystem in the United States, and what city-level factors would encourage social entrepreneurship throughout the US. This project culminated in an academic paper and our team went to Rome to present our findings at an international social entrepreneurship conference alongside Professor David Kirsch. It was an amazing opportunity to see the cultural implications of what social impact means to different societies.
After graduating, I worked in the corporate healthcare sector which gave me a better perspective of how large organizations can create positive social impact both within and outside of the operations of the organization. I also knew that I wanted to carry those skills back to the social impact ecosystem. I applied to the IDEX fellowship in Bangalore, India and that gave me the opportunity to return to India – my home country. It has been wonderful to explore Bangalore and learn about the social impact ecosystem here. I currently work with Gray Matters Capital (GMC), working on ecosystem development projects within the education sector. GMC works primarily with the affordable private school sector and focuses on how technology and collaborative efforts between different ecosystem players can help improve education outcomes, with a specific focus on women and girls.
All of these experiences built on each other in an unplanned and unforeseen way. At the time, it didn’t feel like they fit together. Now, looking back on these experiences, I am starting to piece together how I want to approach social impact and grow my career!
The IDEX fellowship completes in 6 months. What will you do after that?
I applied for graduate school, and I am now working on making a decision as to where I will be heading next! I applied to study social anthropology, which is a little bit of a deviation from what I’ve studied before. I’m interested in studying the culture of business and capitalism, and how that influences how we as individuals participate in society, interact with others, and work to address social issues.
When I think about impact, I gravitate towards wanting to bring people together, specifically those who contribute to factors affecting social issues, and those who are affected by them. My interest in anthropology comes from the prevalent role of culture in this field. I believe it is important to examine the cultural background of social impact work because there are always factors that contribute to the existence of any social issues and thus must be factored into the solution.
After I complete my master's, I would like to pursue a combination of academic and application-based work. I’m interested in getting a PhD eventually and moving into academia but would like to concurrently apply my research in a practical way. The area that I am most interested in right now is facilitating ecosystem development and working on broad impact ecosystems that operate holistically and bring together different ecosystem players.
You touched on your journey through Smith, the CSVC, Social Innovation Fellows and all your other involvements. How did those experiences prepare you for what you do now and what you want to do in the future?
Working with CSVC and SIF was very pivotal to my career. As part of SIF, I had to complete a portfolio project where I reflected various aspects of my academic, professional, and personal experiences – that exercise helped me define my own narrative of why and how I want to engage in the social impact ecosystem. Much of our class involved having open discussions about various facets and criticisms of social innovation, social enterprises, and the sector as a whole. Having fellows coming from different parts of the business school and with varying visions of social impact made these discussions extremely valuable and eye-opening as to the different ways to approach such issues.
The business school does a great job of preparing students for any path they choose to go down. I know many people who have moved on to different fields and positions, but all were prepared because of their education and experiences at Smith. One of my takeaways was a deep understanding of the positives and negatives of business. Business and industry have a huge impact on individuals, communities, and societies at all levels. Smith taught me to be informed and critical of this field, which has been really valuable for making career decisions.
How can businesses integrate social impact into more traditional profit-centered models? And how can Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) can make the most impact?
Substantial impact can be created through CSR, and through business itself. CSR is typically a segmented part of the business structure, but there are many opportunities to create positive impact by considering the downstream effects of current operations. What externalities flow down to the individual level? How does the business see itself contributing to society? How do the interactions that individuals have with this business affect the systems they are a part of? Asking questions like that are a way to identify how and where opportunities may lie to create impact from within existing operations. User-centered design processes such as creating personas to understand who might use and/or be affected by business operations, or using trend-mapping to identify external circumstances and trends that will affect and be affected by a business can be valuable ways to examine the downstream impact of businesses.
A huge amount of opportunity lies in combining business with social impact; we’ve seen many multi-national companies start to say, ‘we are playing this huge influential role, and we can and should contribute in a positive and powerful way’. This can pave the way for smaller companies to follow suit and ultimately create a better society. It’ll be interesting to see how it plays out in the next couple of years.
What advice do you have for students like us? We want to make social impact, but we also strive for financial stability.
It is possible to make an impact wherever you are. Regardless of where you are working, make sure you have a voice. Talk to people. You don’t have to be the most outspoken or extraverted person. Bring things up that you notice, such as areas for improvement that seem worth looking into. Don’t just let things go; think about it, talk about it, see if you can pitch it. If you’re passionate about something and think it can make a difference, then say it. It may not be received strongly, but at least you brought it up.
I think searching for ways to improve and thinking about how to bring up potentially problematic issues is a useful skill to foster. Large organizations are the ones with the most widespread impact, so use your voice. Don’t be apathetic. At some point, you will have the opportunity to make a call, and the more experience and practice you have in thinking through situations surrounding positive change and social impact, the better equipped you will be to make a decision when you need to.
Do you have a fun fact about yourself?
I am a part-time artist! I enjoy painting and drawing. I mostly do pen and ink work, usually involving repetitive patterns that might make some people go crazy, but I find them really interesting and meditative. I also really enjoy reading!