Neesha Modi (MBA/MS ’12) is the Director of Programs and Social Investment Operations at the Kresge Foundation, a Detroit-based philanthropic organization dedicated to promoting human progress. Through her guidance as the connective tissue between the foundation’s operations and the mission, Ms. Modi forwards Kresge’s goals of building and strengthening pathways to opportunity for low-income people in America’s cities, and seeking to dismantle structural and systemic barriers to equality and justice. We connected with her via video link to learn about her impact journey and learnings along the way.
What would you like to say about your experience at Ross?
Pre-business school, I was in consulting with Accenture, focused on supply chain strategy, and that was not my jam. As many who come to business school, I was looking for a career pivot, but also an opportunity to deepen and hone my business skills. I was also taking a leap by doing the dual degree program (MBA/MS) with the Erb Institute, and wanting to learn some of the skills there around sustainability, while also bridging the gap within the nonprofit and private sector. I went in not totally sure what I was going to do, and honestly at the time, told myself I was not going back to consulting.
Fast-forward through an incredible several years at Ross School of Business, and I found myself identifying and fostering a deep passion for talent, and how people exist within organizations, within systems, within communities. While I was at Ross, I worked with Jane Dutton from the Center for Positive Organizations, and we created a class from my independent study on coaching skills in business. I was also part of the group that launched the Detroit Revitalization & Business Initiative (now known as the Detroit Initiative at Ross), and one of the things I did that was pivotal to my choice to move to Detroit was leading our impact projects. Impact projects are design thinking, consulting opportunities for grad students to partner with organizations in the city, and that’s how I got to know Detroit more. The span of coursework in the Erb program, as well as independent studies eventually led me to Deloitte, where I was focused on talent, strategy, organizational culture–and how those are pivotal elements to acheiving an end goal. In the private sector one would say, “how might we serve our bottom line,” but in the social sector you would describe it as, “how might we serve our mission?” It is more about the people. And that led be back into consulting at Deloitte. I guess I actually loved the process of consulting; I just needed to find more of a passion and a connection with the content.
What happened right after you got your joint degree?
I was at Deloitte for 3 years, and I was lucky to try a variety of projects in my first year that led me to eventually focus on working in the healthcare space on culture and talent. I felt a deep connection to that, and I felt that I was actually starting to understand what impact-focused work was like even through a consulting lens. However, I eventually decided, as many people do, that the consulting lifestyle and all the rest of it was just more than my life could handle at that time, and I decided to leave. I was excited to move into Detroit after grad school, but being on the road with Deloitte really didn’t allow me to be a part of the community in the way that I was hoping and aspiring to do. At the 3-year-mark, I transitioned over to the Kresge Foundation, and, like I mentioned to you, was really lucky and honored to be a part of our Detroit team, which allowed me to be squarely focused on the community in which I was living.
For our readers. Can you describe what you’re doing now with the Kresge Foundation?
I’ve been with the foundation for about 7 years, and I’ve held a variety of roles. I came in as a program officer on our Detroit team, which is our largest grant-making team at the foundation. It’s focused on the city of Detroit, which is our foundation’s hometown. Over the years I’ve moved through a variety of grant-making roles, and then started taking on some additional responsibilities around our strategy and operations for the team. Most recently, I have stepped into my current role, where I am looking across the operations of our 7 programs teams, as well as our social investments practice. I think the simplest way to describe my role is one that is focused on building connective tissue around how we operate and how we think about our work in community strategically. A lot of what I do now is more of that sort of internal connection that’s required, so that we and our program colleagues (those that are grant makers) are able to best serve our communities and grantees.
Have you leveraged your MBA/MS learnings and co-curricular experiences in your current position, or any previous positions?
The answer is unequivocally yes. Everything was so interconnected and interstitial in my graduate years that of course, I apply it to so much of what I’m doing right now, and I believe where I’m going to be. I am not surprised to be honest with you, that I ended up where I am, given that most of the courses I was drawn to were around organizational strategy, which I leverage all the time.. It’s all around leadership and people, and enabling teams and the culture that’s required to really allow people to thrive in their work. and that was like a really formative part of my time at Michigan. It influenced my decision to go to Deloitte and focus on talent strategy, and I’ve brought that with me all along in my heart, my passion and my superpower, thinking about how people can enable the work.
You know a lot of the learnings happen sometimes outside of the classroom, through clubs that you might be a part of, or through the incredible set of supports that exist, obviously the friends that you make, and all the love that you just take with you for life, and that network is invaluable. I didn’t come into school understanding quite how important that network would be–a beautiful support in so many different ways at different times and different points throughout my professional career and (we’re all people so) personally as well.
Do you have advice for current students who want to work in a social impact?
Consider doing what feels right, not what looks right.
You know, I remember we used to jokingly call the temptation to do something else the “Winter Garden Syndrome”: The idea that if you spent a lot of time in the Winter Garden and you were influenced by all the activity down there, you might all of a sudden find yourself recruiting for this major corporation you never thought you’d be recruiting for. And you had told yourself you were coming here because you wanted to do important work in XYZ, but you end up finding yourself following the herd mentality. It’s like, “Oh well, everyone’s doing that. Why am I not doing it?” And you find yourself doing a lot more on-campus recruiting as opposed to the off-campus recruiting needed for social impact work. So that cognitive dissonance that people face when they want to really focus on the social sector, it’s really hard to hold on to. But you need to stay true to yourself. And that’s why this advice that someone gave me resonates so deeply within me: “doing what feels right, not what looks right.” If it doesn’t feel right, it’s just not going to be right.
And also remember that there’s a lot of different paths to get you where you want to go. There is actually not only one. There’s like an infinite number of paths; nobody has the same path. We all have a different decision-making calculus, and a different appetite for risk. Also, for a lot of people going to the social sector, the salaries will just not be what they will be in the private sector. You have to really be honest with yourself about how that’s going to feel for you–financial obligations and debt. How are you going to feel with that reality combined with the reality of your choice? I personally don’t want to see people in the social sector get burned out or driven out of it unnecessarily because of these other pressures. Just be honest with yourself.