Why this HBS alum is building a Partition Museum

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Mallika A, Harvard

Hi Mallika!

Thanks for taking out the time out to speak with us! From Princeton to Harvard, Mckinsey to the Gates Foundation, you have had an illustrious and an unusual career for a Business School graduate.

We'd love to know more about your journey.

1. Let's get started by learning why chose to pursue your undergraduate degree in Princeton instead of studying in India?

When I was in high school, some of my friends were older than me - from what I could gather from them, life in DU was quite fun, and mainly consisted of bunking class and sitting in the canteen. I had always been a very intellectually curious child, and I felt that I wanted to be pushed in college. That as well as the fact that I wasn't sure if I was ready to commit to the sciences - so I appreciated the draw of a liberal arts education. In my time at Princeton, I felt like a kid in a candy store and ended up taking classes in 19 different departments, to try them out and see what I loved the most... I highly recommend this, as college should be a time to explore.

2. Coming to Graduate School, what are some of the most valuable things you learnt from your Master's degrees at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and Harvard Business School?

I think the most important things one takes away from College or Graduate School is less from the textbook and more from one's peers, professors and the environment one is in. The soft skills like communication, analytical thinking, discipline, empathy - these are the things that stay with you. For example, at Princeton, I had to work as part of my financial aid - I mopped floors and picked up dirty plates for four years- I think that probably did a lot more to make me who I am than anything I learned in a lecture.

3. Currently, you're working on creating India's first partition museum in Amritsar. What compelled you to take this up?

The Partition remains the largest mass migration in human history anywhere in the world. It was an event in which millions and millions of people lost loved ones or their homes. Yet, despite this, there has been no Museum or memorial to it anywhere in the world. I come from a Partition family myself - 3 of my 4 grandparents were affected. I also live with my grandparents, so hearing their stories, and seeing that generation leaving us, triggered the realisation that the Museum had to be established - and soon. And so rather than just waiting for someone to pick up the baton, a few of us, decided to go ahead and do it!

4. What have been some of your biggest highs with the Partition Museum Project? What excites you the most about your job?

I love my job. It's a start-up, so that means the usual ridiculously long hours of a start-up when you are bootstrapping and don't have enough team members. Despite working till I'm exhausted, I wake up every morning excited. I think the number one thing that excites me about it is that I believe in it - I believe that this is something that must exist, and so I love that I can help bring something into the world that was missing before, and that I think will have a huge social impact. Its great that as a product its very tangible - so I can physically see it growing and visitors coming to it. My advice to anyone considering a start-up: Make sure you're really passionate about the idea - I can't imagine sustaining these energy levels, or attracting supporters without a deep level of passion.

5. As a first time entrepreneur, have there been any challenges? Tell us your learnings from the project?

Yes, there have been challenges. One of the main ones is that it's very easy to get distracted. There's always more work than is possible to do - and there's always new exciting tangents to go in. So one has to constantly keep evaluating where do you focus your own energy and the team's energy. I made a bad call on this, where I think we lost about one-two months of time - which in the larger scheme of things is not a lot, but when you're an early stage start-up, it's huge. None of these calls are easy when everything seems urgent and important, but learning to parse those things out very quickly is what determines success.

6. Prior to working on the Partition Museum, you were the India Country Lead for Health at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Delhi. Tell us more about your work there?

When I started at the Foundation I was working on the Uttar Pradesh team, looking after some of our work with Self Help Groups. About a year into the job, the Foundation decided to create a new team that would look at cross-cutting health system issues. I helped to build out our strategy and early investments for this area. We were basically trying to explore what the architecture of a health system would need to be in the Indian context to promote access to care, equity and less health poverty.

7. Why did you decide to move back to Delhi from Washington DC? Didn't you have a great job as an Engagement Manager with Mckinsey, one of the top consulting firms there?

I moved back for personal reasons - I always knew that I wanted to live in India, but after spending a decade with one foot here and one foot there, it seemed time to just take the plunge and come back. It was 100 percent the right choice. I love living in Delhi - the fact that I'm close to family, that I'm in a city that has so many centuries of history and culture, that I'm culturally at home, that I get to eat home food, speak hindi, and drink chai...these are all amazing things to me. Also, for someone who is very clear they want to be in the non-profit space, there's just a lot more one can do in India, while being closer to the impact.

8. You're clearly someone who is not afraid to take risks and make bold decisions about your career. How do you make such decisions, quit something you're good at to do something entirely different?

Its cliche - but I follow my heart. At the end of the day, I'm someone who is very 'mission motivated'. When I believe in something, I pour myself into it, and then my passion and energy just shine through. Conversely, I can't fake it - if I work on things I'm not driven by, it instantly reflects in my attitude, my energy levels and therefore my performance. Ultimately, I'm still too young to know whether this will work out, but the path I've decided to take in life is that of a generalist - not a specialist. In a world that typically values specialists, this is a risky path. So I can't advise others to take it, since I myself don't know if and when it will stop working for me. But I see my core value propositions as being more in terms of how I approach my work (dedication, discipline, analytical thinking etc.) rather than specialization in a topic area. My hypothesis so far has been that if I bring those value propositions to any topic area, and am willing to work really hard, I will get smart on the topic, and deliver. Check in with me in 10 years whether this worked out or not!

9. You have been a member of IvyPlus Network from our early days. What has been your experience of engaging with the network so far?

I think it's amazing how you guys have managed to build something that so many people really value. It's very important at all stages of life to have peers and mentors who you can check in with, bounce ideas off, learn from and support in turn. By creating this network, you've enabled so many of us to make those important connections.

10. Finally, what's next? Once the museum is up and running, where does life take you next?

We're launching in 6 weeks. All I know so far is that life takes me immediately after that to Goa and then to the mountains for a much-needed holiday :)

Mallika Ahluwalia is a Princeton & Harvard alum and the CEO of the Partition Museum Project.

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