Every summer, hundreds of Northeastern University students embark on faculty-led programs that focus on critical issues across the globe, known as Dialogues of Civilizations. These Dialogues give students credit toward their degrees while immersing them in cultural and experiential learning. D'Amore-McKim Executive Professor of Innovation and Entrepreneurship Sara Minard leads one of these programs. This year she is taking 26 students on a journey throughout India that will focus on female social entrepreneurs, business consulting, visual storytelling, and human-centered design thinking.

This is the third of a three-part series that follows the students who participated the Dialogue from May 9 – June 10. The first article profiled Neel Desai, CEO of IDEA and teaching assistant and the second article featured early reflections from business students on the Dialogue program.

The first summer semester recently came to a close, and Sarah Zhukovsky, DMSB'17, has already adjusted to her third and final co-op as an investment analyst at a firm in downtown Boston. She gets into the office around 7:30 a.m. each morning before the stock market opens and sends a daily report to the entire company. Yet it is still hard for her to believe that just a few weeks ago, she was in Dharavi, one of the world's largest slums in Mumbai, India, working on a different kind of investment portfolio.

Sarah Zhukovsky, DMSB'17, participated in a one-week consulting project as part of the Dialogue of Civilizations in Dharavi, India.

Together with three other Northeastern classmates, Zhukovsky participated in a one-week consulting project as part of the Dialogue program. The class split into a handful of groups for various consulting projects with local Mumbai organizations, both offering their unique skill sets and learning about consulting in real world situations. Zhukovsky and her group chose to work with Vandana, a local microfinance institution (MFI), which provides small loans to rural and urban borrowers for income generating purposes, like starting or growing their own business, such as chai stalls, embroidery, or tailoring.

Microloans were pioneered in the 1970s in neighboring Bangladesh by Nobel Peace Prize-winner, Grameen Bank, aiming to provide economic growth opportunities to the rural poor, who are traditionally locked out of banking services. Working with a MFI allowed Zhukovsky to try out what she has been learning in the classroom back in Boston and explore the possibility of working in the industry after graduation.

“I want to go into the impact investing field, and Vandana was a way for me to test the waters and see what it's like to work with a MFI.”

It is all part of the plan for Zhukovsky. With her two previous co-ops at wealth and investment management firms in New Jersey and Boston, a study abroad in Australia, and social enterprise courses on campus, Zhukovsky has tactfully built her resume and explored her interests before graduation. 

“The way I look at co-op is you have an opportunity to do three different things. I'm really hoping by the time I graduate to have a well-rounded skill set. Real world learning does not work like case studies.”

For the consulting project, Zhukovsky and her teammates conducted online research and compiled suggestions prior to meeting Vandana founders. However, after meeting the father-daughter founding team, they re-worked project deliverables based on the organization's identified struggles and better utilized the students' skill sets.

“The consulting project was only a week, so we had to discuss what we could offer that would be useful,” Zhukovsky said.

Vandana also considered what the students could gain from the experience, through exposure to microloans, its borrowers, and how a nonprofit financial institution in India. The team spent most of their week conducting interviews and visiting the businesses and homes of Vandana borrowers.

By the end of the week, Zhukovsky and her team produced five deliverables: a fundraising brochure for prospective donors, a redesigned website prototype, a Voices of Vandana booklet which tells the individual impact stories of borrowers, a video about the organization, a borrower impact assessment, and an internal written report for the Dialogue lead faculty, Sara Minard.

According to Zhukovsky, the group was able to produce a robust package for Vandana in part due to a cohesive group dynamic and good communication from the beginning. Zhukovsky feels lucky to have had the opportunity to work with the growing MFI and a group of peers from varied majors that shared her drive.

“When we first sat down as a group we quickly realized that we were all driven and weren't afraid to ask more from each other,” she said. “India presents its own unique challenges, but it incorporated everything I was passionate about and interested in.”

The organization is on target to reach their goals, but the group hopes their work will help facilitate the growth of new borrowers and donors in the coming year.

“There's a big spectrum of how this all works,” she said of impact investing. “This helped me gain a deeper understanding of how to put the theory to practice and the impact small loans can actually have.”

While Zhukovsky's meaningful experiences both inside the classroom and out seem unique, she considers it typical for most D'Amore-McKim School of Business students. “Northeastern makes it easy,” she said.

Written by Emily Turner