Sharing our personal journeys to working on climate
In an earlier post on Indiaspora’s blog, we discussed the value of art and science in building regenerative resilience for individuals and communities in the face of environmental and climate change. In this post, we would like to discuss our individual paths behind that post and share how we arrived at this point. We hope our stories further illustrate how diverse backgrounds and skills have a significant role to play in addressing some of the major challenges that face our society.
Anshul Mathur is an Indiaspora Friend, working on the intersection of food and human behavior and is also a board member and advisor to One Resilient Earth.
Shefali: Anshul, you and I met at McKinsey and immediately connected over our rather “unconventional” backgrounds for a strategy consulting Firm.
Anshul: Yes, I remember you called yourself a doctor and I was intrigued, coming to McKinsey fresh off a Masters in Public Health and a Fellowship in Health Technology.
Shefali: … and then you learned I was an economist and used the “doctor” title somewhat jokingly since most economists don’t use that title. I was intrigued to learn that you made such a shift from a medical career to McKinsey. It was even more surprising knowing that you came from a family of doctors. What drove that change?
Anshul: (Laughing) … I had been in academia my whole life till that point and wanted to learn about the tools of the business world. I also had a strong desire to move into startups one day and McKinsey was a good stepping stone toward that goal. I remember you sharing stories about lions and bugs, and thought that was equally unexpected, since that’s not the normal background of consultants. Why did you leave a field that you loved that much?
Shefali: I knew entering my PhD that I did not intend to stay in academics. However, I never thought I would enjoy research so much and I definitely would never have predicted that I would work with such a wide range of topics including invasive species, conservation, hunting, forestry, student financial aid and higher education, Bayesian statistics… I’m grateful to have worked with a phenomenal group of professors and mentors, many of whom I am still connected to and work with today. But I realized the best way to apply my skills to environmental issues would not be directly through academia. I’m impatient and need to see change, which is already difficult when working with the environment and agriculture – both are so long-term and over a large and diffused scale. My goal was to learn how businesses truly work and how individuals make decisions (not what we theorize in economics) and carry those lessons forward to a nonprofit or government role. I only meant to stay at McKinsey a year…
Anshul: That happens. And you didn’t go to a nonprofit after either?
Shefali: No, after 4 years, I left McKinsey and went to Syngenta. You also took an interesting turn after McKinsey and found your entrepreneurial heart. You definitely were a bigger risk taker than me – I played it (relatively) safe. I was really impressed (and inspired). I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve told people the story of this medical doctor I met at McKinsey, who then went on to indulge his passions in a multitude of directions – everything from creating a recommendation engine for books to fashion photography and most recently trying to decode human behaviors in the food ecosystem.
Anshul: Well, my first foray into entrepreneurship started with a short sabbatical from management consulting. I moved to New York City on a whim and launched my first startup – a recommendation engine for books and movies. I also used my free time studying photography which over the years expanded beyond a hobby and today art and fashion photography projects have become a regularity in my life. My most recent venture has been in the food and beverage space and I find myself fascinated/disturbed by the myriad problems related to food that span disciplines from medicine to economics, agriculture, culture and sociology. You and I reconnected at this time sharing war stories of our times in the startup worlds and I was really inspired by your experiences in the food and ag tech spaces.
Shefali: It was serendipitous that my own “leap” to run an ag tech start up coincided with you working in the start up food tech space as well. My tech start up experience was not (conventionally) successful but an amazing experience. We reconnected then during your venture into food. It’s so funny to look back and see the parallels and complimentary steps we were taking, without realizing it. I was on one end of the ag and food value chain, working closer to production and farming, as I’ve done through much of my career, and you were on the other side, focusing on consumption patterns and also the impact of climate change on food through One Resilient Earth.
Anshul: Yes it was super interesting to see our paths merging. Something I never imagined when we first met.
Shefali: This coincided with me realizing I had been living completely out-of-whack with my beliefs, values and spirituality, which took a major toll. I learned an immense amount during the past decade but was depleted. I realized that there was only one thing to do, it’s really the only thing I cared for since childhood – focus on the environment, plants and agriculture, but do it my way, without compromising my values. Then lo and behold, we connected again and I find you went through a similar processing and found a way to bring your passions to something you value, focused on climate change. I’m still amazed at how you landed on a focus on climate change which also combined all of these elements of your lives in such a unique and powerful way.
Anshul: Yes…Food in many ways was my gateway to learning more about the impact of climate change on ecosystems, livelihoods and farming. I reconnected with an old friend from my graduate school days who was launching a new non-profit focused on building resilience and regenerating communities to better face a climate altered world – One Resilient Earth. I joined the Board and am passionate about helping realize the vision. You and I spoke in great detail about the various problems of climate change as it impacts the food and ag space. One area that particularly resonated was how the diversity of experience in both our paths had such a large role to play in being able to look at the problem through different lenses. Imagination is so critical to the process of problem solving and that only comes through regularly engaging in a variety of avenues of creative expression and being open to new experiences especially one’s outside our comfort zones.
Shefali: I could not agree more! Imagination drives the kind of shifts we need, and moves us from incremental to large shifts. I’m definitely inspired by your story and hope that more folks come to ag, food and the environment. It was rather isolating for so long as one of the few people, especially in the Indian diaspora, who worked in this particular area. I’m so happy to see more people in this space bringing their talents, energy and passion. It gives me hope and the fuel to keep going!
Anshul Mathur is a former physician who currently spends time analyzing human behavior with a focus on the food and nutrition space. His experiences have ranged from management consulting to data science focused tech startups. He is also a visual artist and brings his multitude of experiences to the climate resilience thinking of as a board member and advisor to One Resilient Earth.
Shefali Mehta is an economist and statistician who deploys her skills as a strategy and implementation advisor focused on agriculture and the environment. She founded Open Rivers Consulting Associates to collaborate with organizations and teams to crystallize and implement robust strategies that leverage their strengths and truly unleashes the potential of its organizations and its people.
Featured artwork: Dream Time. Acrylic on canvas 200x100cm 2017 by Joaquin Vila