New IDEA CEO embarks on global experience to India


Neel Desai, CSSH'17 , CEO of IDEA, Northeastern University's student-led venture accelerator.

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 first of a three-part series that follows the students participating in the Dialogue, “Voices of Gender Development, and Participatory Design Thinking with Social Enterprises in Mumbai’s Urban Slums” from May 9 - June 10. Join their journey below and follow the students at #NUIndia16.

Neel Desai, CSSH’17, is the new CEO of IDEA, Northeastern’s student-led venture accelerator, and a teaching assistant for the India Dialogue. He spent his first co-op as an associate consultant at Endeavor Partners, a strategy consulting firm in Cambridge, MA, and recently completed his second co-op as head of employer relations at Level Education, an analytics boot camp start-up out of Northeastern. He is an economics major, and is minoring in global social entrepreneurship, philosophy, and international affairs. Previously, he participated in a Social Enterprise Institute field study in Cape Town, South Africa, and studied abroad at the London School of Economics.

We spoke to Neel before he left to learn more about his trip, and what he hopes to take, and give, from his time in India.

Q: What brought about your interest in this Dialogue?

It was a combination of having family in India, growing up in Vermont, studying social entrepreneurship, and wanting to have an impact. What drew me in was using the tools we learned in the classroom to help people in a place familiar to me. I was born in Toronto, Canada, lived in Gujarat, India, from ages 3 to 6, then moved to South Burlington, Vermont. I think having that perspective is unique. Even after going to India four times, I am still learning about the country. It will be rewarding to provide students with a certain context for this trip, like the nuances of the culture, the people, and the religion.

Q: How do you think the students will react to India, the new environments and people?

Definitely a roller coaster of emotions. You start out after arriving in India being overwhelmed by emotion – what you see, smell, and eat, and conversations you have with people. Because we’re in this four-week sprint of learning, it’s easy to feel like you’re just learning so much about the culture. But then we’ll be changing our focus and locations after a week, and we’ll be exposed to a new culture again. Given the fast pace and immersive nature of the program, I think students will be questioning everything that they’re seeing.

Q:Do you anticipate this trip influencing any of your plans as the new CEO of IDEA? How?

Entrepreneurship is glamorized, and I don’t mean just at Northeastern. It’s the new hot thing. The reason I find it interesting though, is it’s often the perfect way to solve some problems and have an impact. India will be a good reminder to us that we should be focusing on understanding the problem before anything else. As soon as we get there, we’re talking to people. Rather than make assumptions, we’re going to be speaking to local women entrepreneurs and getting a sense of what they’re experiencing and the problems that they are facing.

Above everything at IDEA, we focus on identifying why you’re doing what you are doing, what problem you’re solving, and its impact. Then the business plan and financials will naturally follow.

As IDEA’s first non-business major CEO, an “interdisciplinary” approach to entrepreneurship will certainly be a theme for the year. Starting an enterprise and solving problems requires many disciplines to succeed, which will require bringing together more stakeholders from around the University during my time here. I’d also like to continue building out an infrastructure and support system for our social ventures.

Q: President Aoun recently said he’d like to see every student at Northeastern have a global experience. Why do you think this is so important?

College in general exists to prepare us for the future. More than ever before, our actions have an impact that goes beyond our own communities. Since the world has become more connected, we need to learn to be sensitive, tuned in, and respectful. Leaving Northeastern with a global experience will allow us to understand how to effectively utilize what we have learned and have the greatest impact.

Q: What’s the thing that you want to get most out of this trip?

I want to experience India again through an academic lens. This will allow me to look at problems that many people are facing, think critically about solutions, and utilize the framework I’ve learned through the Social Enterprise Institute.

Q: What’s the thing that you want the students to get most out of this trip?

Global poverty in India is a concept that many people read and see on TV. But it becomes very real when you are there. Having a conversation with individuals at the source of where the problem is, in addition to the cultural experiences we’ll have, will be the most powerful for the students.

Q: How do you think this experience could be impactful for students interested in business and entrepreneurship?

Seeing how universal and simple business practices are. No matter where you, and who your customers are, at the end of the day you have to understand the problems and solutions. Similar to the IDEA process, we validate the problem, design a solution, check its viability, and execute. Immersing ourselves in India for a month while going through this life cycle will be very valuable.

Q: What is your biggest hope for students on this trip?

My biggest hope is that students come back with a realization of how much more there is out there to learn and how diverse India really is. It’s also about coming back and truly understanding how you can use entrepreneurship to help people.

Also, I hope we understand that this is really hard; 99% of companies fail. It’s not easy, but it is rewarding. I came back from a Dialogue in South Africa two years ago thinking, ‘It’s harder than you think it is.’ You don’t often hear about the failures.

Lastly, I hope we learn the importance of collaboration. Starting a company isn’t always the perfect solution. It can be a waste of resources and time. Entrepreneurship means many different things. It’s when you start focusing on the problem that you can start to figure out the solutions.

Q: What are some unique or important items that will be in your suitcase when we depart?

Coffee Bars, my Mophi battery charger and earplugs.