An advert at a bus stop convinced Akash Ghai to study NGO Management (2013). Now his company, Development3, helps growing companies build their social responsibility legacies. We skyped him in New York to find out more.
Tell me about your time at Cass!
I applied for the NGO Management program after I saw the course advertised at a bus stop. I studied part-time and that was a godsend, to be able to do it part-time as I was also trying to establish myself in a new professional role. You don’t usually get that level of flexibility at high calibre Universities like Cass; you might get online learning at Stamford or MIT, but you don’t get that full-on experience. It was interesting because at the time I was working at The Commonwealth, helping to improve the back end coordination of international development. The course taught me a lot about what happens on the front end and helped me to have a complete understanding of how the aid and change sectors work.
When I decided to see what it was like and give it a go, I ended up on the wait list. I was doubting myself, thinking am I too young? Inexperienced? But once I got on the course, it gave me a strong foundation and enabled me to bring a more entrepreneurial approach to the projects I was working on. The results of my education were immediate – I could see them every day in my job. Cass is not just a name brand, it genuinely pushes talent and career progression.
Cass helped me get clarity on the niche I wanted to fill in the sector and triggered me to set up Development3 to help mid-sized NGOs, who in my experience were the agents best equipped to truly move the needle, to become more competitive and functional. Cass taught me all about business structure, framework mapping, advocacy, and positioning.
When sector novices ask me how to navigate the sector, I always refer them to Cass. My time there shaped my thinking and the way I am as a person. At Cass, you can identify what your end goal is a bit earlier than at other Universities, and the immediate application of your learning sets the program apart. I didn’t want a theoretical understanding, I wanted the hands-on knowledge so that I could be part of a working solution.
What did you do after?
I studied part time and kept working at The Commonwealth and spent hours talking to people from the NGO world to understand how I could apply what I learned at Cass. That led to setting up Development3, which initially focused on international development, sustainable development and social development. We worked with 20+ NGOs/non-profits in 5 different countries. We worked with our clients to build their back-end: marketing, finance, and HR, leaving them free to focus on helping their beneficiaries.
In 2014, my then girlfriend, now wife, a native of New York was selected to do her PhD in the States. So, I packed up my London life and moved. I didn’t know anyone in the US and didn’t know how to navigate the US as an immigrant or professional.
How did Development3 fare in the US?
First, I went and got a corporate role and got to grips with the American way of working. I decided to keep Development3 working in the background until I could get a true sense of how it would work in the USA. I spent 2014-15 in this corporate environment and then I found my value proposition: how can I help companies pursue corporate social responsibility (CSR)? I also found a niche: mid-market companies.
We pivoted our focus in 2015, where previously we focused solely on the NGOs, now we are striking a balance of working with both NGOs and mid-market companies. Currently, we work with companies in the US, Australia and the UK. Multinationals are sometimes rigid in their CSR thinking because of their scope while start-ups are just looking to survive which leaves mid-market companies. Companies that are growing, have a stronger risk and creativity appetites and are at times led by founders or CEOs who genuinely want to have a social impact.
I brought in Annie Agle as a partner at the company. Her strong cause marketing and international development background means we can not only develop and implement CSR strategies but also help communicate their results as well.
We are now on track to grow our business in the US. It’s been a lot of work! It’s been an interesting experience to shift the culture from London to New York. In London, I found the ways-of-working to be very systematic and process driven. When I got to New York I realised there are many more opportunities. That’s when my entrepreneurialism shone through.
What’s been the biggest challenge?
At the start, it was being in a new culture and working environment, but I’ve got that down pat now! I’m now finding living in New York as normal as being in London, which I think means I’ve truly become accustomed to it. Now, we are looking to California, which seems to be leading the charge in terms of bringing innovative ideation to the aid sector and CSR spaces.
The challenge now is getting in front of more mid-market companies. We are building visibility to aid business development, and we all know this doesn’t happen overnight, but since the election, strangely enough, companies have a strong sense of urgency to become change actors. We have done our best to make ourselves available to any and all companies interested in whole-heartedly making this transition.
Do you have any advice to pass on?
I’m naturally introverted, which is something I am very comfortable talking about. Back when I graduated I found it difficult to assert myself, so I spent time building my knowledge. Then I moved to the USA and learned to not be afraid. The climate of idealism here really does rub off on you over time. Everyone here is trying and not afraid to fail.
I think if I’d learned sooner to really open myself to discussions that would have allowed me to grow quicker. I find it odd that I had to go to the USA to find that out. In the UK, I feel the attitude is different, there are more set ways of interacting and approaching problems. In the US, everything goes back to collaboration and productive feedback.
Finally it’s the quick-fire question round!
Favourite place in London: Streatham Common
Favourite holiday destination: Hawaii
Must-check every-day website: Shapr. Quick plug, Shapr is one of our clients. Our friend Ludovic and his team developed an app that enables people to connect with likeminded professionals through their phone.
Dream travel destination: Singapore
Cheese or chocolate: Chocolate!