Two years after On Purpose: where are they now? With Surabhi Narendranath
Can you tell me about your background and your career prior to On Purpose?
I’m originally from India where I completed a Bachelor's Degree in Commerce, then went on to business school and got an MBA. I was recruited to the graduate programme at an investment bank, Barclays Capital, in Singapore. I subsequently moved to London and all in all spent 10 years working in finance as a ‘futures broker’. It was quite a stressful, fast-paced environment but I enjoyed it a lot, especially the years I worked with a small entrepreneurial team setting up its own algorithmic brokerage business from the ground-up.
How did you feel in your work before you decided to make a change?
More than anything else, towards the end, I was quite burned out. The environment I was working in was stressful and intense, but also, looking at how the world was changing with the major political shifts that happened in 2016, I was starting to ask myself whether I was contributing to the problems the world was facing. I wanted to do something that felt more purposeful and fulfilling. I was furthermore looking for opportunities for personal growth and felt that the longer I waited to make a change, the harder it would get.
It's been two years since you completed the Associate Programme. What are you doing now?
I work for Opportunity International Edufinance. Opportunity International is a US-based nonprofit and one of the pioneers of microfinance. Their Edufinance programme looks at increasing access to quality affordable education in low income countries. I work in a team providing technical assistance to financial institutions in Asia to enable them to launch and grow sustainable education lending portfolios.
Prior to my current role and immediately after finishing the Associate Programme, I worked in social investment for two years at Nesta, where I worked on the deployment of the Arts and Culture Impact Fund. I had previously worked on this Fund during my On Purpose placement with Big Society Capital and the team already knew me, which I think helped me get the job. On Purpose also played a role in my move to Opportunity Edufinance, as the recruiter came across my profile on the On Purpose website!
Why did you join the On Purpose Associate Programme?
I decided to quit my job in finance in 2017. I knew I wanted to move into the social impact space but I had only worked in a very niche area of finance and found it difficult to pin down exactly where I wanted to be (and what transferable skills I could use to get there). I went back to university and got a Masters in International Politics (a long-held aspiration). I also started to volunteer with a small mental health charity in London, which helped me get some practical experience in the non-profit space. While I was finishing up my Masters, I came across On Purpose and felt that it was 100% what I was looking for. The Associate Programme would enable me to gain much-needed practical experience and sector knowledge, and figure out my next steps. And luckily I got through…!
Can you tell me more about your placements?
My first placement was with Charity Bank, a bank that lends to charities in the UK. Here I was working closely with the CEO and supported him with the organisation’s capital raising efforts. It was quite a strategic role and involved juggling multiple projects, but also had clearly defined deliverables and Charity Bank did a great job of introducing me to the organisation and supporting me throughout.
Big Society Capital (BSC) was my second placement. I knew they had a long history of working with On Purpose Associates, but I was still pleasantly surprised by the degree of responsibility and autonomy I was given. I got to actively lead on the due diligence for an impact investment proposal and write an investment application within my first two months! I was also part of an innovative place-based blended finance programme, which meant travelling to different parts of the country and working with local stakeholders across government and VCSE sectors. BSC was a great placement to get a bird’s eye view of the social investment sector and the different kinds of social investment funds and roles out there. And it also led me to my next job with Nesta!
What’s the most important thing you learnt during your year as an Associate?
Confidence in myself and my abilities. Before joining the Associate Programme, I had spent many years working within one industry and wasn't sure whether I could start over in a new sector. Through both On Purpose placements, I gained confidence in my ability to adapt to new environments and pick up new skills, got a much better understanding of the social investment sector in the UK and built invaluable connections. The On Purpose network is everywhere! I often found that if there was an organisation that I wanted to find out more about, there was a very good chance an On Purpose Fellow worked there and would be very open for a coffee or a chat, which I was very grateful for.
What support did you get along the way?
My biggest source of support was my cohort. It was so comforting to have people around who were on the same journey. Making this kind of major career change can be overwhelming at times, and being able to debrief at the end of the week, collectively reflect on issues and challenges and then go out for a pint made all the difference. I formed amazing friendships with some very special people that have lasted to this day. Furthermore, the core team as well as my mentor and coach were also there as an additional source of support. If I was struggling with something at my placement, I could have a chat about it with my mentor who was an On Purpose Fellow herself. My coach, who had a background in recruitment, helped me get my CV in shape and reframe my previous experience in finance to draw out key transferable skills, so that I felt much more confident when the time came to start applying for jobs.
How did you approach finding a job after the programme?
Towards the end of my second placement, I saw that Nesta was recruiting for a position to work on a Fund that I had previously conducted due diligence on during my placement with Big Society Capital. I applied and got the position. I think it definitely helped that I already knew the team at Nesta and they were familiar with the On Purpose programme.
What advice would you give to others in a similar situation?
I recently spoke to someone who is working at an investment bank and considering making a similar change. He asked me whether I could have made this change without On Purpose. I said that I genuinely wasn’t sure I could've done it on my own. The social impact space is incredibly competitive and you need relevant experience to even get a foot in the door, which is why the Associate Programme is so useful. The placement organisations you work with know that you are making a career change and come from a very different background, and yet they trust you and give you a chance. Plus, gaining access to the On Purpose network, and the ability to demonstrate to a future employer that you can learn quickly and deliver on time-bound projects and that you have practical hands-on experience of working in the sector is invaluable.
What do you miss about your old career, and what don’t you miss?
Being brutally honest, the money was much better! But I am really glad I made the change. I am a happier person now. Towards the end of my time in finance, I had become really irritable and anxious. Now I feel much more at peace with the direction in which I’m heading, and I think that has made me a much nicer person to be around.