From Banking in London to the Backwaters in Kerala…

157027_118973138168244_8231825_nEvery year, between 30,000 to 40,000 students from India embark upon education in UK Higher Education Institutions. They are willing to pay exorbitant fees as a British education is considered to be more prestigious and a source of opportunity for these students once they graduate.

Most of these students remain in the UK post their education and others return back to India joining their family business or international conglomerates.  Very few return back to India with the desire to make a difference to a country that requires the skills and knowledge that is often lost as Indians settle abroad.

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Whilst travelling in India on a recent trip, I met someone that had made a reverse journey.  Ridhi Patel, 30 was born in London, raised in Kolkata and came back to the UK to study. She graduated from Kings College London with a Business Management degree in 2004 and then an International Managament masters in 2006.  Upon graduation, she spent several years working in the investment banking sector, developing a successful career and a comfortable life for herself in London.  A few years into her career, she made the brave decision to return back to India. Not to the comforts of her home city, Kolkata, but to a completely new city to establish a volunteering program from scratch, all alone. Ridhi Patel explains why she made this reverse journey…

Why did you leave a lucrative investment banking career to return back to India?

I left London during the financial crisis. The culture of banking changed rapidly and the sentiments of working in the city were just not the same. It became far more aggressive and insecure. I simply did not enjoy going to work and wanted to take a break away from investment banking to do something worthwhile with my skills

What made you join the “not for profit” sector in India?

I made the decision to join the “not for profit” sector whilst I travelled across South Africa. I met some amazing people who had done so much more with their life than working in an office job.  I knew that I would have to leave my banking salary and the comfortable lifestyle that came with it but I was prepared for that. I researched a few projects in London initially but moving back to India became an obvious choice being a country I was already familiar with, where I could make a real difference and being of Indian origin, I was going back home.

You didn’t go home though. You moved to Kerala instead, why was that?  

I got in touch with Global Vision International (GVI), an international volunteering company initially. I spoke to the founder, Richard Walton about opportunities in India. The position they had was to set up a program in India from scratch. This seemed exciting but was also very daunting as I had never done anything like this before. Even though I was born in India, I did not realise how diverse India was and how many social issues were still holding India back. After some research, I chose to set up GVI in Kerala, a state in the south of India that I had never visited before but it was a city that offered huge potential for volunteers to make a difference.

What was your initial experience of setting up GVI Kerala?

GVI Kerala has been the biggest challenge I have undertaken in my life. I had to build the project from the ground up, understand the infrastructure of a new city (or lack of infrastructure!) and build relationships with the locals.  I had some initial failures but I overcome these and managed to launch the first volunteering program within three months of coming to Kerala. That is when I decided that I had the potential to make a real difference.

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As a single female living and working alone in India, was it difficult?

Being a female there is a lot of pressure from Indian society to fit the “norm”. In the south of India in particular, the culture of women is more subdued and women don’t generally take on leadership positions. Living alone, away from friends and family, being unmarried and doing something that no-one really considered a ‘real job’ was really tough initially. I did not know anyone in Cochin or the local language (Malayalam) when I arrived so I had to build my life from scratch. Today, however I feel very proud of what I have achieved as a woman in a society where considerable sexism still exists, especially towards a young woman who is single, living away from family and passionate about doing something for India.

What key lessons have you learnt from this experience?

The lessons from my experience are immeasurable. I set up GVI with one project in 2010 and today we have 11 projects, 2 program coordinators and capacity for 16 volunteers. Every day is a different challenge for me and teaches me something new in life. I deal with a diverse range of people – from the children in schools and orphanages we work in, villagers from the fishing villages we do our construction projects in, teachers in the schools, parents of children, community members and the international volunteers. As with any company, I manage regular meetings, work on reports, marketing, accounts and manage staff. I have learnt far more through this experience than I would have through any banking job. Surviving with little and being happy with the simpler things in life is the biggest lesson I have learnt.

What if anything do you miss about London?

I do miss London at times. I miss my friends, I miss the food and I miss walking around Selfridges! I don’t miss the rat race, the craziness of working in the city or travelling on the tubes. I come back to visit when I can as my sister lives in London. Plus with technology it’s a lot easier to stay connected.

What are your future plans?

I am setting up my own volunteering company called Rainbow VolunTours. I want to combine my two passions: volunteering and travelling. I am launching my company in summer 2013; where volunteers can come to India for short periods and give their time to community development as well as travel across India through a structured program. A lot of people are confused about how and where to travel in India and often never really go beyond the tourist tracks. I want people to see the real India, so they get an authentic experience of India but also leave their mark by helping the communities they travel within

What advice would you give to someone that wants to quit the city to pursue a career in the not for profit sector?

You must be willing to sacrifice the luxuries of life, work unpaid or at best earn a very low wage, live in remote undeveloped places and enjoy the simplicities of life. It is a challenge and you should only pursue such a path if you are truly passionate and committed. Unlike the city where everyone works for material pleasures, in the not for profit sector, we work hard to make someone else’s life better.

Global Vision International (GVI) is an award winning international volunteering organisation.
They run conservation and community development programs around the world. GVI offers over 150 different volunteer abroad projects in 25 countries all over the world. These include: conservation, education and community projects in Africa, South America, Asia, Europe and Central America. All their volunteer work abroad projects are run alongside, and with the collaboration of, local partners and communities. For more information on GVI volunteering programs, visit www.gvi.co.uk.

Aekta Mahajan is a Senior Manager at the Cabinet Office; where she leads on a range of priorities for government. She is a freelance writer, co-founder of the Young Asian Social Enterprise and Vice Chair of the City Hindus Network.  

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