Nikhil Gehani on Career Changes and Development Challenges

Nikhil Gehani

Nikhil Gehani, studying with a friend

OID: Thanks for talking to OID today! Tell us a little bit about yourself: where are you from, what makes you passionate about development, and why did you choose GWU for your Master’s degree in IDS?

Nikhil Gehani: I’m from Michigan and have actually spent my entire life there. So, as surprising as it sounds, this is my first time moving away from home! After graduating with a BA in Marketing from Michigan State University, I spent five years working in Detroit for a couple of advertising agencies (assigned to, of course, two of “The Big 3” accounts). Working in Detroit, I would see the effects of poor policy decisions, corruption and a single-source economy. But I also saw the resurgence of a city rebuilding itself through innovation, entrepreneurship and community involvement.

The Detroit skyline

The Detroit skyline

I wouldn’t say that’s the reason I decided to pursue a degree, but it definitely impacted my thinking and approach. It forced me to think about development each day. I chose to come to GW for a number of obvious reasons (ie location, prestige, curriculum). But what really made the choice clear was a conversation I had with Dr. Roberts in the spring. If I can simplify it, he basically said that the program encouraged students to challenge long-held assumptions, to be critical of the status quo and then to get out in the field and do something about it. That was refreshing to hear, especially from a program director. I accepted the offer later that week.

OID: What specific areas of development are you interested in and why?

Nikhil Gehani: As of now, my focus is on entrepreneurial and enterprise development. I’ve always wanted to build businesses and I enjoy building brands and market strategies. In many parts of the US, entrepreneurs and small- and medium-sized enterprises have a plethora of resources to tap into whether that is financial or knowledge support. But in other parts of the world the soil isn’t as fertile, so to speak. Yet, there are very capable, competent and committed entrepreneurs all around the world who are pulling their communities out of poverty through job creation and market development. I don’t want to dictate how they should build their business. I just want to help in any way I can, whether that is raising capital or crafting their brand strategy.

Lafayette Greens in Detroit

Lafayette Greens, an urban farm in Detroit

OID: You’re making a seemingly big career change—what made you decide to get out of advertising and into development?

Nikhil Gehani: I’m not sure I see the move as a complete departure from advertising into development, at least in terms of what I want to do with my career. I mean, in terms of moving from one industry to another, absolutely it was a big switch (and seemingly random to most people). The ad industry is full of brilliant, creative and dedicated people. It was difficult to leave the agency world and some of the perks that came with it (let’s just say the beer and wine fridges were a nice touch). But there is plenty of overlap between advertising and development (not just the drinking part), especially in entrepreneurial and enterprise development. We built campaign strategies, brands and, ultimately, businesses. Now, using that experience along with what I’m learning at the Elliott School, I want to help build businesses in the areas that need them most.

OID: Tell us your first impressions: How is your cohort so far? How has grad school differed from how you imagined it would be?

Nikhil Gehani: Let’s just say the first week was extremely humbling. I spoke and debated (and, yes, drank) with insanely smart people from all over the world with fascinating backgrounds, experiences and perspectives. In the few short weeks that we’ve been here I’ve expanded my thinking, challenged nearly all of my assumptions, and revised my approach to development (more than a few times). As for grad school expectations, well, I had a very narrow focus on what I wanted to do. But seeing the different perspectives has made me realize there are other aspects I need to consider. Development has many facets and seems to become more complex each week.

Nikhil, demonstrating an important facet of development work

Nikhil, demonstrating an oft-important facet of development work

OID: Where are you currently interning and how did you find this opportunity?

Nikhil Gehani: Right now I’m interning at Encite Capital, a start-up that not only invests financial capital in Haitian-based companies, but also provides consulting and mentoring services. It’s a great organization and the co-founders are really inspiring and talented people who have already taught me an enormous amount about the sector. I stumbled upon them while reading about impact investing and, after poring over their website, it was clear that this was the organization I had been searching for. I spent a week meticulously composing an email (that may or may not have sounded completely desperate) and, after a few email exchanges, phone calls and in-person interviews, I joined them as a part-time intern. I’ve been there for about a month and absolutely love it.