Policy making at the United Nations: How this CA went from the echelons of the business world to the halls of international diplomacy

  • Coming from a middle-class family in India, Radha Kulkarni followed the general societal definition of success; of achieving academic excellence and securing a high-paying job
  • She was successful in achieving it, as a Chartered Accountant and MBA with stints at KPMG and the Tata Group
  • But after much reflection, she asked herself “What was her personal definition of success?”  She realized that success for her was bringing about change and making an impact on people’s lives at scale
  • To see the direct impact of her work on people in a more tangible way, she joined the Development sector which then led her to MPA and the Policy-making space.
  • Currently, Radha works at the United Nations in New York at the intersection of Finance, Strategy, and Policy.

It is okay to not have a plan

I arrived at the Commerce domain through the elimination method.

For most children growing up in the 90s in India, there were mainly three options to pick from for college – Science, Commerce, and Arts.

I did not want to pursue the Sciences (engineering/medicine, etc.) in the long run, so it would not have been fair to occupy a government-funded seat at a premier science institution only to move to another field later.

I was also not inclined to pursue the Arts. This elimination method propelled me towards Commerce and I joined the prestigious NarseeMonjee College of Commerce and Economics in Mumbai, India, hoping to figure things out along the way.

Now that I was in the Commerce domain, I decided to make the most of the opportunity and took up Chartered Accountancy. 

My CA journey was quite demanding since I took it up along with my undergraduate studies. To add to that I had my CA articleship with one of the Big 4s – KPMG, which was incredibly intense with long hours including a lot of out-station travel. 

Since I started school at the age of 2, when I gave my final year graduation exams I was only 19 years old. Hence, for me to juggle my Undergraduate studies, CA studies, and an intense job, while I was still in my late teens, was quite a task.

Perhaps I did not really foresee what I was getting into but in hindsight, I believe that the CA drill definitely prepared me for tougher multi-tasking situations that I would encounter later in life. CA also gave me the analytical skillset that I can now say is fungible across domains.

Even after a CA and MBA, the desire to explore

I am inherently a very curious person. Hence, though I was doing CA, I did not want to limit myself to just Accounting or Finance.

I had this quest to learn more about all aspects of business across functions, such as Strategy, Marketing, Operations, Human Resources, Technology, amongst others. Hence, when my Articleship ended, I decided to pursue Business School.

Post-Business School, I joined the Tata Group (Tata Consultancy Services) working at the intersection of Finance and Strategy, doing Pre-Sales & Strategy for their Banking and Financial Services domain. 

The stint was incredible, however, after the initial years, I was yearning for greater exposure. This led me to apply to TAS (Tata Administrative Services) In-house – Tata Group’s prestigious leadership pipeline program.

I made it to the shortlist but eventually did not get selected. This was one of the turning points in my life.

I call it my quarter-life crisis.

Defining my own version of success

I had so far followed the general societal definition of success; of achieving academic excellence and securing a high-paying job.

However, my quarter-life crisis led me into questioning some of these deep-seated societal definitions.

I began asking myself what was my personal definition of success? What made me truly happy? And after much introspection over several months, the answers that I got were – Success for me was change and impact at scale and happiness for me was bringing joy to people’s lives.

I decided to use my skill-set of Finance and Strategy to a sector that needed it the most – the development sector, where I could see the impact of my work on the ground, at scale.

People do not generally venture into the development sector due to lower monetary compensation or undefined professional growth.

However, I decided to follow my gut and gave up my mainstream corporate career to take the leap of faith into the development sector.

I joined the Piramal Group’s Foundation (which was then based at the Chairman’s Office) in a Strategy role. The foundation had investments across Healthcare, Safe Drinking Water, Rural Livelihood and Education, impacting 47 million lives across 22 Indian states.

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Finally found my calling - Policy

At the Foundation, I was incredibly lucky to have had the opportunity to work with the Piramals, the Board of Directors and the Senior Leadership.

The Foundation had a multi-stakeholder approach to problem-solving. So, throughout my stint, I also had the opportunity to interact with extraordinary people who have changed not just India, but the world, across Business, Government, Civil society, Academia, amongst other arenas.

To give you an example say from the Business world, I had the opportunity to be a part of organizing the India Philanthropy Initiative’s dialogue on shaping public policy in India, where we were hosting Mr. Bill & Melinda Gates.

So, as one can imagine, a myriad of such interactions with various awe-inspiring people from diverse walks of life can be truly life-changing.

It leads to the complete transformation of one’s worldview. Then it is not about the next best job or how much money one can make, it is about how one can genuinely add value and make a difference to lives and the world around.

My stint at the foundation also helped me realize that one of the most powerful levers to impact lives and bring about change at scale, was through policy-making. I had found my calling – Policy.

Once I realized that Policy was my calling, it was important for me to get professionally trained in the field.

I wanted to understand how countries interact with each other, what are the geopolitical dynamics, socio-economic levers, macro-economic fundamentals, amongst other things. This led me to Columbia University’s two-year Master of Public Administration (MPA) programme, which gave me tremendous exposure, access to networks and opportunities, and an incredibly evolved worldview.

I was able to work at the Chief Minister’s Office in India, with the UN in Indonesia, with the UN in Singapore, and then with the UN in New York.

I shall remain forever grateful for all my stints, that have so profoundly shaped my journey.

Working with the United Nations

It is one of the most diverse workplaces in the world with over 190 countries that are members of the United Nations and work side-by-side to make a difference.

I have been extremely lucky to have come across some of the brightest and nicest people, as colleagues. Their life journeys and rich experiences are nothing short of awe-inspiring.

Working at the UN gives one a sense of purpose larger than oneself. It is mission-driven, striving to make the world a better place. Every day is a learning experience across various facets of life – personal and professional.

On the flip side, it could get a bit challenging with the bureaucracy and sometimes the time-consuming consensus-building. However, overall, it has been an incredibly enriching and fulfilling experience so far.

Every day is different depending on the priorities at that point in time. My areas of work at UNICEF’s Financial Innovation Lab include Strategic & Policy engagement, Partnerships & Multi-stakeholder engagement, Programme engagement, and Outreach & Knowledge engagement.

To give you a sense, some of the key global initiatives of the Lab include launching Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) in support of children across the European and North American capital markets, spearheading work with Global Asset Management Companies, leading Development Impact Bonds (DIBs), working on Country Office Sustainability including through revolving funds, Vaccine Financing, WASH (Water, Sanitation, Health) Financing Facility, amongst such other initiatives.

Most days require one to build a strategy, engage on policy issues, collaborate, negotiate and build coalitions with a variety of stakeholders such as governments, other multilaterals, private sector organizations, non-profit organizations, civil society, and academia.

Other days require one to convene discussions and dialogues, build capacities of country offices worldwide, enable knowledge management, speak at international events, amongst other things.

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Opportunities for Chartered Accountants at the United Nations

There are many opportunities for finance professionals at the United Nations.

Having said that, some academic background in policy and/or prior work experience in the development sector is always helpful.

Some of the paths for CAs to get a grip on the development sector could be, to join Development Sector Consulting, ESG Investing, Impact Investing, or to take up stints with State/Central Government and/or its agencies through a variety of fellowships and contractual stints available, amongst others.

For Company Secretary's, they could explore legal work for some of the above-mentioned lines of work, to get the required exposure to the development sector

Wrapping up...

Growing up, I never thought that my life would take me from the echelons of the business world to the halls of international diplomacy, but it happened. So, anything is possible.

I cannot emphasize enough the critical role that Curiosity, Adaptability, and Tenacity play in one’s life journey.

It is incredibly important to have a Growth mindset versus a Fixed mindset. Growth happens when one explores new things, takes risks, and has the courage to move beyond one’s comfort zone. This approach would help in pursuing one’s interests without limiting or putting oneself in a pre-defined box.

It is pivotal to remember that every door that shuts, opens many other doors far beyond one’s imagination with life springing amazing surprises!

One just needs to keep reflecting, be open-minded to grab new opportunities and follow their gut, hoping that it will all make sense in the future.

It is also crucial to focus on cultivating meaningful bonds with mentors and peers along the way as they play a pivotal role in one’s professional life.

At the same time, it is vital to pay it forward by helping and lifting others up whenever one can, so that the cycle of goodness continues.

Lastly, I would highly encourage practicing gratitude everyday, it can literally change one’s life!

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