From UN associate to global innovation consultant

Sensemaking / From UN associate to global innovation consultant

Menka Sanghvi explains why collaboration is at the heart of her work, and how approaches to innovation differ in the public and private sector.

By Katie Shaw / 12 Sep 2014

Menka Sanghvi 

Currently: Partner at social innovation consultancy Reos Partners, Advisor to the Secret Seed Society.
Class of: 2003 – 04
Individual leader I most admire: Mahatma Gandhi for his ability to bridge the gap between inner peace and contentment and wanting to change and improve the world.
Organisations I most admire: IDEO, for helping boost design-thinking and the idea of rapid prototyping for solutions across the board.


Why did you choose the Forum Masters?

In my final year as a natural sciences undergraduate, we ran some mock scenarios in which we all had to take on different characters – from farmers, community members and local business people to representatives from environmental groups and corporates. I found it fascinating to see how important it is to understand the whole system in order to negotiate a positive change. I realised then that I wanted to do a master’s in sustainable development, and Forum’s was (and still is) the leading course in that space.

What did you learn from it?

The focus on leadership throughout the course was a completely new concept to me. Throughout my career I’ve held the basic idea that who you are as a person is completely fundamental to how successful you will be in creating systemic change. There’s such a strong emphasis on this aspect of the course, and I’ve noticed that, ever since, I’ve always been the first person to ask for feedback so I can learn and grow. It’s something I crave.

What made you move from working at the United Nations to Barclays Bank?

Although I worked on a great project with an inspiring team at the UN (identifying and celebrating community-led sustainable development initiatives), I struggled to turn ideas into tangible projects. The bureaucracy and risk aversion slow things down, especially in a junior role. I thought the private sector might be more dynamic, and for me that turned out to be true. Although Barclays has its own system that you need to learn to navigate, if you have a great idea your boss’s boss will want to hear it. The private sector tends to be more open to innovation and move faster to respond to opportunities.

How does the process of innovation in the social enterprise sector compare?

In my hunger to be at the cutting edge of where new ideas come from and how innovation happens, I later moved on to work at the Impact Hub. Through my work there, I got to know so many amazing innovators, and to see how they test and prototype ideas, picking themselves up with incredible resilience when things don’t go according to plan.

The difference between small social enterprises and large organisations is that their success or failure is entirely dependent on the market; there’s not much internal bureaucracy to negotiate, so the market alone decides whether an innovation will be successful. When you study the most successful social innovations of our time, most of them have started off in very small organisations, which have then been iterated, prototyped, before being taken up by larger organisations at scale. It’s at that stage that they really start to make an impact.

What do you plan to focus on in the future?

I’ve always been open to working on different challenges – from cotton farming to children’s health – because all these complex problems call for innovation. What I’m most interested in is the process of collaboration and how to get different people working together effectively, something I do a lot of in my current role at Reos Partners. If more NGOs, government agencies and businesses knew how to work together effectively, we’d be able to solve so many more problems. Increasingly, I see the question of how to bring the best out in people – their resilience, wellbeing and health – as a crucial part of all the collaborations I work on. When people are in a good place, they’re so much more receptive to new ideas, they’re more open. They’re willing to think more long term about what is good for them and for others, even if it is not optimal for them right now. It’s a huge shift.

Menka Sanghvi was in conversation with Katie Shaw.

Tomorrow’s leaders Forum’s MA in Leadership for Sustainable Development is a fast-track, intensive experience, split between seminars, project work and 6 months of practical work placements. The course immerses students in sustainability in a variety of contexts, and opens their eyes to the breadth of possible careers where they can effect change.

 Photo credit: Judy Baxter

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