In conversation with Ashima Gulati on her transition journey from corporate world to impact sector

Ms Ashima Gulati, a law graduate (2016) from National Law Institute University (NLIU), Bhopal. Right after her law school she started working as an Associate in the Securities, Capital Markets, and Corporate Group at Khaitan & Co., Mumbai but discontinued in 2019 to switch her career path. She is currently a teaching fellow at Teach for India and also an impact fellow at Global Governance Initiative. She is also a co-founder of #HumHongeKaamayaab, an initiative that works for Covid-19 vaccination in India. She has been nominated for India’s COVID Soldier award, organised by The Better IndiaIn this conversation, she talks about the world for law graduates which lie beyond the corporate sector.

She has been interviewed by Vranda Agarwal, Campus Ambassador for National Law Institute University, Bhopal.

I. Can you please introduce yourself and give us a glimpse of your law school journey?

My name is Ashima Gulati, and I was born and brought up in Punjab. I am a first-generation lawyer, and one of the few students from my city at the time who have appeared in and cracked CLAT.

Since my first year itself, I was certain that I would participate in all kinds of co-curricular and extra-curricular activities that were present to understand my own interests, likes and dislikes. This led me to participate in various moot court, debate, arbitration and negotiation competitions and sports and cultural events. I developed a keen interest in moot court competitions, particularly international law, and participated and did reasonably well at Philip C. Jessup Moot Court Competition, amongst others. I also ensured that such activities do not overshadow my academic learning. During my law college, I have interned at law firms, an NGO and a lawyer’s chamber. Such a diverse experience guided me in leveraging my strengths and working upon my weaknesses. I made an informed decision of pursuing a career at a law firm, and worked on my knowledge and skill set accordingly.

I am a sports enthusiast and was the first female co-convenor of the sports society of my university. Further, I have also held positions of responsibilities in other societies in the university, including heading the IPR society in my final year. It has been 5 years since I graduated from NLIU, Bhopal, and I cherish and reminisce my five years spent at the university with utmost happiness and hope to visit it soon.

II. Please tell us about the journey that began once the glittery college life ended. Looking at your career trajectory, you have tried and tested, experimented with varied career roles. How did you navigate through them?

In my 4th year, I got a pre-placement offer (PPO) at the Mumbai office of Khaitan & Co., which was a good milestone to achieve as a student. I worked in its securities and capital markets team for almost 3 years, and gained a great sense of accomplishment and experience at that stage of my life. However, my quest for upskilling and problem solving made me inquisitive to look beyond a corporate job. After quitting Khaitan & Co., I took time off to comprehend my KSMs and identify career opportunities which would be able to nurture and hone my skills better. In the meantime, I ensured to acquire as much knowledge as I could about foreign policy, international development, public policy, and enrolled myself in various learning courses. I also utilised my break in applying the acquired knowledge by participating in various workshops and conferences. Such an investment helped me gauge my natural inclination towards impact sector, and thereby I applied for the prestigious Teach for India Fellowship. I was fortunate to have been accepted into one of the most challenging and life-changing fellowships that any organisation has to offer. I am currently in my second year of the fellowship, and I am already working towards my next career move in the impact sector.

I believe it is human nature to get extremely comfortable in a phase and to then just be tied up in your own comfortable zone. It takes a lot of courage and confidence to break such barriers and to take the risk of being in a zone of unknown. I would say my courage and support from my family and friends has helped me navigate through every decision I have made in my career, and having a sense of ownership to my own mistakes has strengthened my confidence to navigate through such a career transition.

III. How has your experience with Khaitan & Co. shaped you and please share the highs and lows during your tenure?

During my time at Khaitan & Co., I was fortunate to be involved in a diverse range of market deals and securities products. The deals varied from public deals to private deals, and involved well-known and reputed corporate brands in India and abroad, with unique and complex issues to be addressed. I have had a great learning experience working at Khaitan & Co., and my work ethics have grown and strengthened during my tenure.

IV. Please tell us about the switch that you made from a completely different field of securities and capital markets to the impact sector. What was the motivation behind it and what all hardships did you face with this decision?

The decision to transition from capital markets to impact sector did not happen overnight for me. I have taken a number of steps before making an informed decision of switching my career path. After quitting Khaitan & Co. in 2019, I took a work break before diving into another law firm job. I utilised this break to not just relax and rejuvenate but also to catch up on my other interests, including painting and reading. I thoroughly enjoy reading news. I believe such interests motivated me to acquire more knowledge and perspective about emerging career paths. Over the course of few months, I was learning about foreign policy, international development and public policy, and was really enjoying working on case studies for building my problem-solving skill set. I would say one thing led to the other, and I ended up realising that I am interested in learning and working in the impact sector, and I believed that I weighed in my options before making a career switch. It was definitely a challenging decision to make in light of my comfort at a law firm and its perks however, it was a decision that made a lot of sense to me. It was difficult for my friends and family members to understand the rationale behind the career change but given it was an informed decision that I was making, they supported me throughout. It has been more than 1 year since I have transitioned to impact sector, and I am challenged with different issues almost every day, which requires a combination of skills and values, including research, problem solving, courage and compassion.

V. Many students face a sort of unsaid pressure to join corporate firms during their law school and are often skeptical about the alternate career paths that might on the face seem challenging. How to avoid this dilemma?

I believe every career path has its own advantages and disadvantages. Sometimes, as a young student, we tend to give in to the most common career choice amongst our peers for a number of reasons. It is perfectly fine to make a career decision based upon your comfort or that you do  not want to explore the unknown territory. I believe it is a matter of choice and one should make an informed decision in making that choice. I would say to weigh in pros and cons before making any such decision, and to identify the exact cause or reason for making a choice. Once you are certain that you have a reason for following a career path and not just an illusion or peer pressure, you would be much more comfortable with the decision that you make vis-à-vis your career. It is not necessary that the reason for joining a law firm or other career option would make sense to another person but it should make sense to you. It is also important to understand that choices can change anytime. You can start working in one career path and transition into another after sometime. All that is important is that you have made an informed decision and not just followed someone’s career decisions blindly.

VI. Since you are working with the impact sector which is known for its challenging construct. How did you overcome these challenges and hardships? Also, please tell us how the law has helped you move ahead in this journey.

During the initial months of my fellowship at Teach for India, every day would bring a new issue for one or the other families of my students. The issues would be either financial, physical or emotional in nature. I have had check-ins with the families, where the elders have had breakdowns due to the obstacles they were facing in life. Suddenly from a very comfortable law firm job, I found myself in extremely difficult and sensitive situations. I believe my understanding of my own strengths and limitations has helped me in each of such sensitive moments. I grew up from reacting to such issues to responding to such problems. I strongly believe in the power of collective action and strategic thinking, and I would say that such skill and mindsets helped in finding my footing in the impact sector and to rise to the never-ending challenges. Legal education has empowered me in building and honing such skills, in addition to building up my knowledge to address such issues. The work ethics and learnings from my tenure at Khaitan & Co. has supported me to perform better in a more effective and efficient manner. I believe if I am able to perform well now, credit is to also be given to my earlier experiences and learnings at law school and Khaitan & Co.

VIII. Your passion to work for the under-resourced community is evident through the various projects like #HumHongeKaamayaab and legal education awareness projects that you are working on. Please share your experiences with the community. Law as a subject is very closely linked to society at large, what would be your suggestion for all the young lawyers who are passionate to work for the underprivileged. What can be the possible contributions even without taking it up as a full-time career?

I started my Teach for India Fellowship in July 2020, right in the middle of the pandemic and lockdown restrictions. The pandemic exposed the actual depth of inequity and divide that exists in India between the different economic brackets of citizens. With the imposition of lockdown in India, we saw an exodus of migrant workers along with their children from smart cities to villages on foot. The immediate need for a greater percentage of students in India was to secure safe shelter and constant supply of food. Regardless, we saw a sudden and immediate shift in education policies towards digital/virtual learning, with the assumption that each student in our country has access to a smartphone or an uninterrupted access to internet. What appeared to be an easy reality of learning for a few was indeed a far-fetched dream for the majority of students in India. My students who have migrated and/or have survived the lockdown restrictions with a daunting fear of lack of food needed more than the basic construct of education. The students from better economic brackets have received enhanced learning during this time whereas, for the majority of our students, we have experienced a setback in their learning, development and growth. The lockdown restrictions, though a necessary evil, has created an emotional damage to our students, which sought our immediate attention. My first few months as a fellow were invested in collecting data about my students, their families and their well-being. Through Teach for India and additional support, I have been able to ensure each of my students have an access to a smartphone with monthly internet recharges, and ration supply as well. During the lockdown, I was also personally involved in securing and negotiating rental arrangements for the families. I have also been able to search for and provide for various job opportunities to the family members of the students affected by the pandemic and lockdown restrictions. With the support of my legal peers, I have assisted a few families in their legal disputes as well. All of such efforts are in addition to my working as a teaching fellow to my 60+ students, for whom I am deeply motivated and invested in ensuring that each one of them receives excellent education resulting in their holistic development.

I also work for the community at large, and have initiated a number of welfare projects aimed at creating awareness and providing access to the welfare schemes and policies. One of such projects is #HumHongeKaamayaab which was made public on 29-4-2021 with a clear aim of getting 100% Covid-19 vaccination amongst under-resourced communities in India. In the last few months, we have been able to reach out to more than 19,000 individuals by creating and spreading Covid-19 vaccination awareness, and have assisted more than 500 individuals in the vaccination process. Additionally, we have successfully vaccinated more than 200 individuals. We have recently adopted a new working model to organise medical expert sessions for our NGO partners. In the month of August alone, we have trained over 1500 individuals across PAN India, who shall further train and counsel local communities to get Covid-19 vaccination. I am humbled with the support #HumHongeKaamayaab has received in the last 3.5 months from civil society organisations and individuals. We have officially partnered with over 15 partners operating in States PAN India. It was truly gratifying to see #HumHongeKaamayaab being featured in Max India Foundation’s April-June Newsletter.

I have also started a legal education awareness project with the aim of creating awareness about legal education and law as a career option for the students belonging to under-resourced communities in India. As a lawyer, I believe it is my duty to create awareness about the benefits that legal education has to offer, and to work towards ensuring inclusive education for all.

I believe that knowledge and information are essential means to ensuring equity, and legal education plays an important role in providing access to such knowledge and information. There are various career paths that a law graduate can undertake if one is passionate about working in the social sector, such as practising litigation for marginalised and vulnerable sections of the society, consulting for the Government and NGOs in policy and implementation sector, working in an NGO or a social enterprise, amongst others. If one is unable to dedicate full time then volunteer options are always available at NGOs and social enterprises, wherein one can work accordingly to their availability. During the second wave, we saw a number of student led projects and organisations work in providing Covid-19 relief, and I believe we all have the will and motivation to work for the society. I believe that my legal education and work experience has always been an advantage for me in comprehending and working through my new career path.

IX. Any message that you would like to share with all those struggling with career decisions.

I believe it is essential to trust your own gut when it comes to making career decisions. It is a good practice to take career advice and learn from others mistakes but it is all very subjective. What works for others might not work for you and may not even be the best thing for you. I would rather suggest to research about each of the career paths that interests you in terms of comparable measures, and to also identify your weaknesses and strengths and evaluate how well does your attributes work in a given career path. Whatever career path that you choose, just ensure that you have made an informed decision and not just blindly followed the common trend.

I also want to emphasise on the point that one can change a career choice at any stage of life so, let us not overburden and overwhelm the young students to make life decisions at the start of their careers. It is okay to not know which career decision is better for you at the start of your career. This is a lifelong decision, which will keep on evolving at different life stages, so just take an informed decision and enjoy the work that you do.

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