Managing Risk, Or How to Get What You Want in Life

“No, we can’t move here.” It was May 2019 and Neeti had called me from India, where she was visiting family and friends. I was going to join her a week later.

Earlier that month, we had announced our departure from TCS at the end of the 2019-2020 school year. I didn’t know what I’d do next and that was fine with us. I had time and opportunity to figure it out. As luck and circumstances would have it, I was introduced to Ravi, the founder of Enabling Leadership (EL), in late April at a friend’s house. Ravi was on a fundraising tour of the United States and I was invited, as a friend and educator, to meet him and hear more about EL. When I returned from our friend’s home, I was excited, and when I’m excited, I pace and talk really fast. I needed to catch my breath, and Neeti was trying to fall asleep.

Moving to India was not in my plans. We‘d be eligible to apply for US citizenship in August 2019. We liked Atlanta but also dreamed of moving to the west coast, or living abroad for a short while. For the last couple years, Neeti had been trying to get me interested in the idea of moving back to India for a few years. Our parents were getting older and she wanted to live closer to both of them while they still had their health and some good years left. I was against it and kept telling her that it wouldn’t suit us anymore. We were too different, I had lived away and apart too long, and we wouldn’t identify anymore with the culture and lifestyle. It wasn’t for me.

Ravi was in no rush for a response from me when we first talked in May. He and I decided we’d think about it, including the details of how it’d work. We talked about the broad strokes in person, before he left Atlanta. If I accepted, I’d come in as the CEO and commit for at least 3-5 years. We’d have to move to India, however, since it is EL’s current base of operations. Neeti and I already had a personal trip to India planned in June 2019 and we decided, without telling anyone about EL, that we’d use that time to consider this option. Neeti went to Mumbai first, and less than 48 hours after landing, she called me and said we can’t move there.

By late summer/early fall, I was meeting people in Atlanta, talking to friends and mentors in schools, and considering offers from a couple places that’d keep us in Atlanta and maintain a comfortable life. All I vaguely knew in the spring and summer of last year, is that I was ready to scale my reach and impact. I didn’t know fully what that meant, and I was willing to wait if necessary. EL was an intriguing choice, possibly the most interesting one, but we weren’t prepared to commit several years to it. What if it didn’t work out? What if I, or we, couldn’t resettle in India? We knew of many friends and family who had tried and failed. What if?

On the plus side, EL gave me a countrywide platform with the option of going global. It’d also open other doors and opportunities in other industries, without closing any existing ones I have available to me in independent schools. The idea of going home as an immigrant, just when we’d have received our American citizenship, was intoxicating. Could I talk and write about it? As one of our friends said to me over dinner in September, “Nishant, this is the option you’ll regret not doing 15-20 years from now. Everything else you’ve described you can do later too.” Working for EL would offer a journey into myself through travel and work in a country (and continent) that had changed dramatically over the last quarter century, just as I had too in that same period.

Neeti and I still faced a few risks and obstacles. We didn’t want to bite off more than we could handle. Just as I had warned her over the last couple years that she was romanticizing the notion of returning to India, now so was I. Her job and business was gaining momentum here in Atlanta. What’d she do for the first couple years in India, and what if I, or she, didn’t like it there and we wanted to return? Stopping, starting, then stopping again and restarting all felt very inefficient and unnecessary. Neeti finally said to me, “You’re not going to be happy doing something else. Just say yes to Ravi and we’ll figure out the rest.” I agreed, but I wasn’t ready to jump out of the plane without a parachute, and a backup parachute. I ran my plan past her, and then called Ravi. I told him I could offer him ten months from August 2020 to June 2021. Would he consider it? He said yes.

So I said yes, too, and jumped out of the plane. What about the parachute and the backup parachute?

  • Ten months is not a long time in the grand scheme of things. I can do anything for ten months.
  • It’s still enough time to give both Ravi and me an idea of our working relationship, my value to him and EL, and their value to me.
  • Neeti would stay in Atlanta and continue her job and grow her business, commuting to India every 8-10 weeks to visit our families and me. No point in uprooting her too if this whole adventure ends up being for just ten months.
  • We’d keep our home base in Atlanta, in case I’m ready to return after June 2021.
  • I’d stay with my parents in Mumbai for this first phase. Adjusting to life in Mumbai and work life in India will all be key as soon as I land there in mid-August. Trying to set up a home too for just ten months feels like a futile, and financially unnecessary, exercise.
  • Working for a nonprofit like EL will open opportunities with national and international foundations; make contacts and develop a network I don’t have currently; provide me with international experience, reach and impact; and give me time and source material to talk and write about, hopefully, in various forums and media.
  • No doors would be closed here. Domestic (American) and international schools begin their year on July 1. If I want, I could apply for headships back in the United States or abroad. These ten months would only add experience that’d make me more attractive rather than less, and I’d still have my network and experience in independent schools over the last 19 years, to help me out when I need.
  • We had called our financial adviser last spring after we made the decision to leave TCS. I wanted to make sure then, not knowing yet what was in store for us, that we’d be fine for a bit if I decided to not choose the obvious option: another headship. He confirmed for us what I wanted to know. Making an impact has always been my first criterion when picking a job, and it could still be my first criterion now. As Debra [Wilson of SAIS] said to me later, “Nishant, we are both impact junkies!”

    I now had all my parachutes.

Three years ago, I led my staff at The Children’s School through a risk mitigation exercise. We first rated ourselves on our risk tolerance from 1 to 100, with higher numbers indicating a greater risk tolerance. I then asked everyone to rate me on my risk tolerance. I was trying to get them to understand that regardless of one’s individual tolerance for risk, in a workplace relationship, our individual tolerance will be influenced less by our own preference or experience, and more by the risk tolerance of the person we report to.

I asked my staff to share their guesses. Peatra, my assistant at the time, probably knew me best in the room and she wrote down 40 for me. I had put down 90. Peatra scoffed and said that wasn’t possible. She felt that I didn’t take many risks, while I clearly felt the opposite. We talked about it afterwards, and she explained her rationale. She said, “Nishant, I put you at a 40 because I’ve never seen you not get what you want.” My assistant head, Allen, replied to her, “Actually, Nishant mitigates his risks so much that by the time he makes his decision, what’d be risky for anyone else in his position doesn’t look risky for him at all.” Corey, NAIS’s CFO, made a similar comment a few weeks ago when I told him about EL: “Classic Nishant! Maximizing his opportunities and minimizing his risks.”

Many have asked, “Why ten months? Why not a full year? Or longer?” This post is my answer. I wanted to scale my reach and impact, I wanted to open more doors on a wider platform without closing any I can still access, and I wanted to phase any transition for Neeti and me into manageable chunks so it wouldn’t overwhelm us. No matter what I choose after June 2021, working with EL for even ten months will be personally and professionally additive. It will make me a better person, educator, leader and citizen; and I’m not afraid of any risks now, only excited about what’s coming.

4 thoughts on “Managing Risk, Or How to Get What You Want in Life

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