Entrepreneurship has made me the happiest and most fulfilled: Megha Desai, Desai Foundation

For Megha Desai, President of Desai Foundation owning a firm was a wild, non-linear ride full of many ups and downs.


After over a decade of advertising experience, Megha Desai decided to change directions in her career. She joined her family business, the Desai Family Foundation as a challenge but fell in love with working for the social good.

“And now I am the president of the Desai Foundation. Through community programming, this organisation empowers women and girls to elevate their health, their livelihoods, and their menstrual equity in India,” she tells us.

Megha lives between New York City and Boston and spend lots of time in India. On International Women’s Day, in a conversation with SME Futures, she talks about her work and various other aspects of entrepreneurship.

Edited excerpts:

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your entrepreneurial journey.

Before becoming the president of the Desai Foundation, my career began in corporate advertising. I spent over a decade working at some of the best firms in the world and then launched my firm, Marketing Strategy Dharma, which focused on branding, strategic advisory, branded entertainment and marketing. I felt the need to open and operate my own firm because the brands in corporate advertising that I was assigned didn’t always align with my values. With my firm, I could choose projects and brands that were more grounded in social good. 

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Then, over seven years ago, the Desai Family Foundation was converted from a family business to a public one because of its desire to scale its programmes and its innovative model. I joined the team to help them transform the organisation into a public programmatic non-profit and, along the way, realised what a great fit we were for each other. I have been running the organisation ever since!

While it was a roundabout way of getting to where I am now, the most surprising part of this journey were the unexpected turns, successes, and failures that I encountered. I am always kept on my toes, and you never stop learning! I am always consistently surprised by what works out and how, and that’s the fun and joy of leading a business.

From a corporate career to an entrepreneur, to running your family business. What has made you happier?

While the Desai Foundation was originally a family business, I would now characterise it as a public, non-profit organisation. Nonetheless, I am very thrilled with how my career started: Being in the corporate world was an incredible training ground; I loved my clients and co-workers, and the institutional training provided me with a wealth of invaluable knowledge. One of the reasons I approach things the way I do now is because of the corporate training that I received for so many years. 

Then, owning my own business was a wild, non-linear ride full of many ups and downs. With my firm, I could experiment, try new things. Some of which succeeded, and others didn’t. I won’t lie, securing a new business was difficult for me, but I was good at the work that I accomplished when that new business came. Again, I learned so much during this time; it was the perfect pathway to end up here today. 

My current role as the president of the Desai Foundation is undoubtedly the most challenging one that I’ve ever had. I’ve never worked more hours, and I have never been more obsessive about what I do. Nonetheless, it is also the job that has made me the happiest and most fulfilled. 

So, there is nothing that I would change about my journey!

Megha Desai, Desai Foundation

What have been your biggest challenges and the lessons that you have learned from them?

An interesting theme throughout my career has been metrics and measurement. In corporate advertising, it was clear when you were doing excellent work as there were sales goals, research metrics, and other indicators to use as measuring sticks to gauge your success with. When running your business, though, it’s harder to see those metrics because you’re operating at a smaller scale, making it challenging to interpret a smaller success within the big picture. 

At a non-profit, it’s a totally different ball game. I see it as a beautiful challenge and a great blessing to have to take stock, pause and re-evaluate our success at the Desai Foundation. I frequently have to ask myself and the team about how we should measure our success and determine if we are making an impact. And the very apt answer is to change and evolve. It is both an incredible challenge and an opportunity to expand our minds about how we measure success and progress.

How is your organisation making an impact in rural India?

At the Desai Foundation, we work in rural India across eight states in 2,500 villages. Our most impactful work at the Desai Foundation can be observed in our three verticals: Health, Livelihood, and Menstrual Equity. Over the last 25 years, we have impacted over 5 million lives.

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But today, I want to talk about the impact beyond the numbers- because I can sit here and rattle off our impact numbers. But that is hard to really connect with. 

Rural life comes with certain struggles which our work tries to address—lack of education, healthcare, menstrual equity, etc. But we found that what is most needed are social currency & dignity. Women in rural India face several challenges, and life is particularly hard for them. So, we build our programs with their social currency and dignity in mind. The transformation that is wrought in these women due to our vocational courses allows them to live their lives with dignity, confidence, and social currency.

To share a story, a woman we work with came to our sewing class, and we asked her what the most valuable part of this course was to her. She didn’t say it was the sewing skills or the job opportunities. She said that this was the first time that she had friends outside her husband’s family and community. That was the most valuable thing to her: Friendship.

Through her friendships, she learned that it’s not normal for her mother-in-law to beat her. She was able to stand up for herself and mitigate the abuse with her newfound support system and community. She developed confidence and began to perceive her value as an independent human. This has made her a better mother, co-worker, and an overall more productive person.

There are numerous stories like this, and yes, we help them get access to skills, health, and menstrual pads – but the stories that I love to tell are the ones around dignity and social currency.

Have you drawn professional inspiration from other women? Tell us about it.

Oh my gosh, there are so many incredible women whom I take inspiration from!

The first is the women that we serve. I cannot emphasise enough on how deeply in awe I am of them.

In addition, Hillary Clinton is a true inspiration to me as a fierce fighter and champion for women’s empowerment and rights. She has also shown us what is possible for all of us. I am so grateful for her service. 

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Another woman I deeply admire is Oprah, who is an incredibly successful businesswoman and has created these incredible platforms and spaces for telling stories and inspiring us daily. The way in which she has lent her success to inspire others is hugely inspiring to me.

The ways of doing business have changed. What will be the biggest challenge for the next generation of female leaders?

One of the big barriers for female leaders is the push and pull between women being ready to lead (which they are) and society not being ready for them to lead. 

The business world may support women in India (paid maternity leave, women’s business networks, etc). However, women still do nearly 100 per cent of the domestic work, preventing them from a healthy work/life balance. This is because the general culture in rural India still needs to catch up regarding women’s empowerment. This push and pull will remain unless we pull along 100 per cent of India. We need to speak openly and loudly about why every rung of society needs to move forward – not just the top one per cent in Mumbai and not just the top 10 per cent in the major cities. 

So, when we are having these inspirational moments and highlighting women, we must include rural India in the discussion, for its imperative that society’s perception of a woman’s role undergoes a change. We need to encourage this multi-generational shift to elevate women.

Men need to shift their mindsets towards domestic responsibilities. They must share the burden, as women are beginning to out-earn men in many rural communities. Men also need not be intimidated when the women in their home earn more than they do.

It’s time for women to have control over their incomes, time, and dignity. We know that not only does that benefit the women themselves, but really the entire society – and they bring their children and the men in their lives along for the ride! So, it benefits everyone!

What is it that most people do not know about you? 

Because I often talk about my work, I only sometimes speak about one of my biggest passions: singing. I am a singer in the Resistance Revival Chorus, which is signed to Righteous Babe Records in NYC. We have performed at Carnegie Hall, the Lincoln Center, Joe’s Pub, and the Newport Folk Festival, among others.

I feel so passionately about singing because it is a way to connect with God. I love being in a chorus, feeling the vibrations of other voices, and knowing that we are connected: It is a pathway to connect with a higher power. 


What has you most excited about the future?

The thing I am most excited about for the future is seeing the women that we serve continue to grow and flourish. They have an incredible opportunity to uplift the GDP of this country, and if they are provided the tools that they need; they can genuinely transform rural India. I am so excited to come along for the ride and watch them do it.

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