As Vice President of Strategic Planning for Green Dot Public Schools in Los Angeles, where she’s worked since 2011, Nithya Rajan relishes her role at the public charter school network that prepares minority and low-income students for college. Even though Green Dot already serves 13,500 children across three states, Nithya spends a lot of time deciding how Green Dot Public Schools can increase its impact – for example, whether to open additional schools and how to improve its efficiency and secure philanthropic support for growth efforts.
Nithya’s role at the forefront of the education reform movement is surprising, considering the first few years of her career included stints in mergers and acquisitions, Internet advertising and consulting. After graduating from Dartmouth College and getting her MBA at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, Nithya’s career took a new turn while working at Booz & Co.
After becoming a manager at Booz, she did not know if she wanted to keep going. One night while working late, she received another email from the Broad Center (a nonprofit organization committed to developing leaders to transform America’s public school systems) about a residency position. Always interested in education as a career, Nithya needed additional experience and decided it was finally time to apply.
She was placed at The College-Ready Promise organization in Los Angeles, which eventually led her to Green Dot Public Schools. Although she had trepidation about leaving consulting and worked with many smart people who helped her develop and grow, she knew she had made the right decision after a few years in education.
What do you love the most about your job?
The people and the impact we have. I admire the dedication of the people I work with in the home office, school leaders, teachers and other team members who are aligned around this mission. Every time I meet a student, I am in awe, proud and hopeful that we did everything we could to help that person prepare for success and life.
Education and business are not a traditional fit. What attracted you to the field of education?
I realized before business school that my most meaningful experiences had been as a volunteer in education: as a tutor during college in New Hampshire, reading to students while living in New York, and working with Junior Achievement in Chicago. My family placed a lot of value on education, and my parents – immigrants from India – were proof that an education can impact the trajectory for an entire family. Service to others was also important.
What inspired you to pursue an MBA?
After working in advertising, I needed to do a reset. When I was in business school, there was a lot of activity in the education reform movement. There was an interest in bringing in non-traditional skills and perspectives to help solve the challenges in public education. I wanted to apply a lot of the things I learned in school – for example, analytical and strategic thinking – to a field I was passionate about.
How has your MBA has helped you?
You can build an incredible, valuable network of peers. I also learned specific skills that helped me as a consultant and in other roles. I learned how to work on a team, influence a team, understand my personality style and develop other soft leadership skills that were critical the minute I started working.
Do you have tips for other MBA women?
Consider what you want to do before you get an MBA. If you don’t, things can happen quickly once you are there, and it is easy to get attracted to a career that won’t be a fit long-term. If you honestly assess what you want to do, you’ll stay with a job longer.
If you had to name your biggest lesson in business to date, what would it be?
People matter. In consulting, you have a choice: location, work content, or people. I learned to always make people-based decisions because the right team and culture will allow you to be happy, contribute and learn from supportive mentors. I think about that a lot at Green Dot. Hiring is the most important decision we make, and bringing the right team together has always served me well.
Who is your role model in business? Why?
I pick up mentors in every job, but my family has had the most impact. My parents are hard-working, humble, and caring. My uncle was an investment banker who encouraged me to read the newspaper every single day so that I could understand the world.
If you had to pick a career “wow moment,” what would it be?
At Green Dot, we had to make a major decision about whether to expand our location beyond Los Angeles. We got approval to open 10 schools in Tennessee, and working through the process was not easy. But there was a feeling of pure joy when we saw that we could provide high quality, college-preparatory opportunities to students who really needed it.
How have you been involved in Forté to date? How does Forté benefit women in their careers?
I have attended the conference and served on panels. It’s helped me connect with different women who are interested in education. I admire the organization and think it is cool they are helping women to network and change the world together.
What do you do outside of work?
I love hiking, and access to the mountains and beach are great things about Los Angeles. I love to travel – either on a big scale or exploring new neighborhoods in Los Angeles.
What’s the song you turn up when you need to get motivated to make something big happen?
Florence in the Machine’s “Dog Days are Over.”
Words of Wisdom: Is there a quote that’s had a lasting impact on your career approach or outlook?
When I graduated from Dartmouth, Fred (Mister) Rogers gave the commencement address, and the last sentence is posted near my desk. “So in all that you do, in all of your life, I wish you the strength and the grace to make those choices which will allow you and your neighbor to become the best of whoever you are.”
Final Word: What’s the first word you hope comes to mind when someone thinks about you professionally? Committed or genuine.