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Developing ‘board’ skills isn’t something that an executive career always teaches you. Learning how to exercise influence rather than authority takes time, and sometimes you have to look outside of the company you work for to gain this experience before you can continue up the career ladder. After having spent over 20 years in international banking, travelling all over the world, working with some of the most intelligent people I’ve had the pleasure of knowing, and living 18 hour work days, I decided to make a change. Late in 2007, I felt it was time to move on to the next phase of my life and pursue a career that contributes more to society.

I’ve always had a strong social conscience. As a teenager in India I was involved in charities that helped young women escape domestic violence, and I worked with young girls to help educate them and enable them to aspire to a financially independent life. However, this time I wanted to do something different. I wanted to use the skills I had gained over the years, to help make a more meaningful and perhaps structural change. The problem was that I didn’t know if these ‘business’ skills were of any use!

It was at this time that I came across Pilotlight. The business model that Pilotlight established – where business people make a donation, and then have the opportunity to coach charities through the strategic challenges they’re facing – really resonated with me. I was also drawn in by the passion and wonderful work being done by the team. It opened my eyes to the possibilities of making myself more useful, so I signed up.

The first year was a struggle. I was impatient and didn’t take time to really understand the issues in the third sector, or the structures, constraints and strengths of the charity I was working with. I struggled with the pace of change I could enable. I was often disheartened at the constant challenges charities faced, trying to deliver meaningful services under severe financial constraints. I was, however, always surprised and inspired by how wonderfully optimistic the leaders of the charities I met were, how they managed to make very little go a long way, with commitment, dedication and ingenuity.

This truly helped me re-think my ‘big company’ ways, and I started looking to more practical structures and inventive solutions when advising charities. My experience with Pilotlight inspired me to begin looking at trusteeships. It was at this time, that I had many good conversations with the Pilotlight leadership team, and they set me up with my first non-executive role as a trustee.

Since then I’ve gone on to make this my second career. I am currently Vice Chair of the England Committee at the Big Lottery Fund. My commercial career as a non-executive director (NED) has blossomed and I now hold NED positions in banking and technology organisations. I have also been involved in social investment programs in the third sector, looking at how to build a more inclusive economy for all.

It hasn’t been easy, and I’ve learnt a lot about myself along the way. Reflecting on my journey, I realised that my career has been greatly enabled by other women. As a younger woman starting out on this journey, I found that the presence of so many women in the charity sector, their essential empathy and inclusivity, really helped me learn how to be a successful NED. I felt supported through my mistakes and I gained the courage to ask questions, to challenge and to not feel intimidated. I learnt how to apply my commercial skills in multiple areas: organisation structures and design, business models, metrics management, and product and service structuring (to name a few!). I also discovered the art of being a NED: how to frame an argument, how to create a collaborative response to issues, and how to influence decision-making without necessarily being part of a management structure.

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all of the inspiring women who have helped me along this path, specifically Gillian Murray and her predecessor Fiona Halton, and to thank Pilotlight who helped get me on the right path to what has become a very successful career.

If you’re interested in joining Pilotlight see our Join Us pages.

Written by
Profile picture for user Geeta Gopalan
Geeta Gopalan
Pilotlighter - Non-Executive Director