Megha Desai on Leadership, Pivoting, and Board Seats
February 25, 2024
Adrian Buckmaster
Megha is President of the Desai Foundation, a public non-profit that elevates the health, livelihood and menstrual equity of women and children through community programs in rural India.

​Prior to her work in impact and community development, Desai spent 15+ years in traditional advertising at some of the most prestigious firms in the world. Her work has been awarded five Cannes Lions, along with several other distinguished awards, and was a pioneer in the branded entertainment space. She also founded Marketing. Strategy. Dharma, a strategic branding firm working with brands that wanted to integrate social responsibility into their businesses. These brands included HP, Coca-Cola, NPR, ONE.ORG, 1 Hotels, award-winning musicians, and more.​

"I think my biggest success in my making connections is because I love to cook. My NYC apt can only hold 8 folks for dinner. So once a month, I host a dinner party, where I bring together a highly curated group of 8 folks, who likely don't know each other, from my different groups of friends."

You have transitioned from for-profit to non-profit work, what has led you to make that career change? 

I really enjoyed my time in corporate advertising, but after about a decade, I just felt like there was something missing. I moved from agency to agency trying to fill that void, but it wasn’t working. So, I started a branding and marketing company focusing on Impact brands which I ran for about five years. I chose to focus on impact because selling socks and deodorant didn’t feel like the right fit for me, and I wanted to be able to choose my clients. I worked with start-ups, big corporations and nonprofits that wanted to tell impactful stories. 

The Desai Foundation job was a bit of an accident - I really never imagined myself as the head of a non-profit! The Desai Foundation hired my firm (pro-bono) to help them with their transition from a family foundation to a public programmatic ngo. This meant helping them with redrafting their mission, building their website, establishing fundraising events for them, and more. I was also tasked with finding the right Executive Director for the organization. After a year of working with them, I applied for the job! And to be honest - I wasn’t entirely sure I had what it took to lead the company. But as it turns out, a lot of my existing skills were really transferable. I think we think of non-profit jobs as being really different. But they aren’t. I have a board of directors to report to, I have KPIs hit, and fundraising goals. I have so much respect for my fellow ED’s at NGOs. We have to run a full on company, but with little to no resources.

This role has been the most rewarding of my life. It’s also the hardest job I have ever had - but I wouldn’t change. The transition had its bumps, but I am so glad I did it. 

What have you learned by moving into a space of non-profit leadership?

I could write a book on the things I have learned. And every year, as the world changes, I learn more. I don’t think non-profit leadership is any different than leadership in any other business - except for the fact that non-profit leaders have THREE customers. First, we have the people we serve, who have to lead all your programmatic decision making. Second, we have our donors, for whom you have to paint a picture of your work that is relevant to not only their lives, but of the times. And third, you have the institution donors/grant makers, for which you have to show how your work fits into their focus and priorities. To inspire your team to do this, you have to help them have ownership of the results. Acknowledge credit for the wins. Elevate those that show initiative. 

I also learned that you simply aren’t ALWAYS going to be a good leader. During the end of 2020, beginning of 2021, I will fully admit, I wasn’t a good leader. Running a company on zoom was hard for me, and we were one of the few non-profit that pledged to not lay people off during the pandemic, and money was really hard to raise. All those pressures really took a toll on me. It took the crisis in India in 2021 to turn that around. And that too because two outside people came to me, and looked to me to lead, and trusted me. The crisis shook me and woke me up to step up and really lead again. I think being a good leader is admitting when you maybe weren’t the best leader you could have been. 

But I think one of the most important things I have learned about being a leader is to listen and adapt. The world of impact doesn’t have one size fits all solutions for our beneficiaries, and it doesn’t for our teams either. We do our best when we listen to the team, listen to their needs, and motivate them to excel. I have to admit that I still think I am learning to be a leader. I hope I never stop. 

You sit on many Non-Profit boards. What kind of a board to want to join next?

I want to join many FOR profit boards! It’s frustrating to me that for profit and other corporate companies don’t value the experience, knowledge and insights that those of us in the non-profit space can bring to their companies. We have to do so much, with so little money, answer to so many different types of customers, and yet - leaders in the non-profit space are often looked over for seats on for profit boards. I call for this to change. Especially, in a world where customers care a lot about your impact on the environment and where corporations stand on other issues. Some of my non-profit colleagues and I shake our heads when we see corporations make mistakes when taking social stands clumsily. Invite us to the table! We can help!

You also are a known connector. What tips do you have for people looking to improve or scale their own connections?

I love this part of my life! I am very lucky to have moved through many different worlds. I have a lot of interests. Impact, Music, Politics, Marketing, India, Entrepreneurship, Mangoes…I could go on. All of these passions have led me to meet very different people and different networks of people. It’s impossible to stay close to all the people I have met. But, I try to stay connected to a small cluster of folks in every circle I have the great fortune of meeting. I try to add value. I try to be more than my job. And I try to have fun! 

I think my biggest success in my making connections is because I love to cook. My NYC apt can only hold 8 folks for dinner. So once a month, I host a dinner party, where I bring together a highly curated group of 8 folks, who likely don't know each other, from my different groups of friends. But I think really hard about who I am bringing together, how might they vibe, what are their shared interests? There are so many great stories that have come from these dinners - business partners, travel partners, meditation partners, and friends! It’s hard to stay connected to everyone we have met, I am actually not good at this. I am not even good at taking advantage of the people I meet that can help me. But I am great at creating connections among others. So that is what I lean into.

What is one thing you cannot live without?

My family. I can’t live without my sister, my nephew, my boyfriend and my parents. I simply can’t. They are my life. They are why I get up in the morning. They are why I do what I do. So I guess another way to say it - I can’t live without Love. 

What is one trend you see in 2024 that you are excited about?

The world is making it hard for us to see the big picture right now, let's be honest. There is so much conflict, and so much happening that can perhaps make us lose sight of what we can control and do in the world. I am not sure it’s a trend, per se, but I have been excited to see more people getting involved in global issues. I know it's a complicated thing to say. But I want America to look beyond our borders and see what the world is facing. I think it's a moment where, right or wrong, I am glad people are having opinions about global issues. This may not be a popular answer. I get that. The US has never operated alone, in fact, it can’t. It’s about time we start acting like it, and understanding how conflict, suffering, success, etc, in other parts of the world affect us, and more importantly, affect our future. 

Who is one woman you admire?

So I deeply admire Anjali Kumar, but the WIE community knows her well. So I thought I would highlight someone you may not know. 

Sushma Dwivedi has been a dear friend for a long time. We have been through a lot together. She is a rockstar in her career, a hindu priest serving the LBGTQ community, a mother, a family caretaker, and a loving friend to many. Sushma has navigated her life, despite all the hurdles that it throws at her, with more grace than nearly anyone I have ever met. She is the President of Ghetto Gastro, which is crushing the food game at Target right now, but also check out her work at the Purple Pundit Project. She is one of the most generous people. She has a rock solid value system, despite how often it’s challenged. And her faith in God is a constant reminder for me to restore and refocus mine.


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