Cultivating Meaning out of the Unknown

October 11, 2022

Big sheet of paper with post its under two columns - causes and effects

By Anjum Dhamija, Amani Institute Fellow

After spending 2 years working at the intersection of technology and business in Goldman Sachs, my calling for the development sector again came back. Coming from a premier engineering college in India, having worked with the best of the financial industry globally, nothing less than Columbia or LSE made sense to me. However, as life had it, despite invitations to do that, that’s not what my journey had in store. My journey called for belonging and connection through an unraveling of the world I had seen so far and a gentle inner journey towards purpose and creativity. The serendipitous launch of Amani Institute in India that year led me to join their first ever Social Innovation Management Program in India.

SIM class India
SIM India Class 1

In a love bubble, as we called it, time just flies and it was soon time to step out of our safe space, and into the real world. In the classroom, we focused on building our toolkit to solve problems, build enterprises and manage them and manage ourselves. While living in any Indian city, you come across problems such as pollution, traffic, waste etc. and being a simple-minded small town person, I always felt the solution was in moving back to the village. As we looked both externally and internally, I realized what drew me, like many others, to live in the cities is the opportunity density and probably, I will never chase my vision of going back to the village. That is how I found my purpose in urban sustainability. It led me to apply to be part of the program management unit of CITIIS, a policy innovation program focusing on sustainability, innovation and smart cities in India, and as it unfolded, a future Amani fellow believed in me and enabled me in charting my career 2.0.

Anjum presenting her final social innovation presentation

We experienced the design principle of adults learn by doing through the real-time practice of masterclasses on the variety of problem statements that we chose to engage with. I, along with a partner from Brazil, tried to address urban waste through a mobile application, leveraging my experience in platform design from the financial industry. A Brand designer worked on gender through a card game as an awareness tool for toxic masculinity. A chef designed cooking as a life skill program for a primary school. And many more living similar lateral thinking examples.As I entered the new field of urban development, I leveraged the same approach and brought forward my existing commercial skills in technology from the financial industry to design a digital platform to enable program management and governance in the public sector. I also found myself uniquely positioned to contribute from my expanded toolkit to facilitate internal sessions on strategy and planning using design-led approaches as well as lead Monitoring & Evaluation for the program. As I contributed, I expanded my thinking and practice by merging my skills from distinct spaces as well as by observing others and collaborating with them in a visionary and highly interdisciplinary team. This experience enabled my continuous learning by doing and unlocked my interest in the public sector, leading me to take on my role within the Monitoring & Evaluation Office in Government of India.

Photo Credits: CITIIS – National Institute of Urban Affairs

As we explored our mental models, we identified what really drove us to be where we were and how our personal selves manifested in the purpose we were choosing. Through a guided inner journey, we embraced awareness of our belief systems, became open to reframing and rebuilding it and many times letting go of the parts which no longer belonged. 

In one of the most impactful and challenging roles as an M&E Lead with the Government of India, I reframed my understanding of developmental challenges and programs and understood the role of technology, data and capacity building at a large scale. At the same time, I practiced what it means to leverage and integrate tools like logical framework, design thinking, participatory facilitation etc. for sustainable institutional transformation. As I concluded my time in the role and navigated my next steps, I again found myself amid the same battle of brand names that I had at the beginning of my journey. Only this time, I relied on my inner compass to identify the impact I want to create and found it in our shared value of global mindset. It led me to pursue opportunities which connected me to the world beyond my immediate and towards my current role of consulting governments outside India. 

Very often, when choosing an investment in education and learning, adults consider what is the ROI (Return on Investment)? In my journey, I didn’t find a job or a higher salary as a return, my return was in the courage to pursue the opportunities I was able to, irrespective of the spaces I went to. And I figured that what you get out of a course is what you take out of it, completely different for you and me, but hopefully meaningful in our own ways.

Main image photo credits: CITIIS – National Institute of Urban Affairs.

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