As Country Director and CEO of ChildFund India, Neelam Makhijani has been working tirelessly to make a difference in the life of underprivileged children.
Armed with a Master’s in Business Administration from London University, Neelam has been with ChildFund India for over four years now. She worked in the UK for 15 years with major organizations such as the Resource Alliance, Help-Age and Oxfam GB.
Born in Delhi, Neelam schooled at Frank Anthony and admits education was always a priority for her family. “I was always a sports person and then went into Science and Management. It was more like hit and try. I have never been a book worm and I did vocational courses like travel tourism as I enjoy traveling a lot. My father was with Indian Airlines so we were constantly traveling so that fueled my interest.”
Neelam soon moved to New York and got into journalism. “I studied journalism in New York and I covered South Asia extensively as I enjoyed politics. I then joined ‘India Abroad’, a weekly in New York as a journalist and lived there for 11 years. I have interviewed about five or six Prime Ministers of India as part of my job. I also did a lot of activities and campaigning for India in my role there.”
Neelam moved back to India in 1989-99 and applied for a job in Heritage India in Delhi which kick started her career in the charity sector. “So from communications, I got into fundraising by default and I have never really looked back after that.”
Soon she joined Help Age and worked in Delhi, Mumbai and was transferred to UK. “I was the first Indian Asian woman to head a global organization then.” After 15 years in London she returned to India and joined ChildFund India. “ChildFund India does amazing work but very quiet about what it does. I was able to effectively use my skills in communication and branding to make it a known name and a leader in child development, besides providing strategic leadership. Our corporate partnerships now are also far stronger.”
ChildFund India works in 16 states and has also introduced projects to help alleviate urban poverty as well. The lives of people impacted are also significant as they reach over 3 million each year in India alone.
Quiz her on if being a woman in a senior managerial position is harder, Neelam disagrees. “Global organizations today are expected to embrace diversity in all ways. I have never felt that being a woman has prevented me from doing something or I have been perceived as being less capable. Of course these are very individual perceptions and I believe that you must gain the respect of the people you work with through sheer hard work.”
Neelam is a self-confessed workaholic and admits that every job she does is with the same kind of effort. “I have a huge amount of self-motivation and can never be a status quo person as I know that the only constant is change. Even though I have never changed many jobs, I believe that I must leave a legacy behind which comes from giving the right time, commitment and stability.”
Considering the nature of her role Neelam admits that there have been many challenges. “When I joined ChildFund there was a lot of change management that was needed including several internal operational issues that had to be improved. And when you make changes, most people will be unhappy. The first two years here were the hardest of my career but ultimately what worked was that everyone recognized that the changes were for the organization and children we work with.”
Neelam stays with her mother and is very close to her sister and nephews but admits that she has no work life balance and is not burdened by the fact. “I enjoy my work and do it in my own pace. If I am exhausted I just shut off for two days and not think about it. I have a quick recovery mode and can get back full steam after that. There is no pressure on me to work when I leave but I rather keep myself updated and I like being like this.”
Work wise Neelam is clear about the path for her organization and has a clear strategy for the same. “Personally however I like to keep it flexible and go with the flow so I enjoy it. I can switch off when I want to and do what I enjoy at that point in time. So I have a nice mix in my life.”
Her advice to the younger generation in the workplace is clear and crisp – much like the person she is. “The first thing is to focus on what you enjoy rather than do it only for money. For long term gains don’t chase money. What has worked for me is that I have stuck to jobs that I have got into and delivered beyond what was expected irrespective of the level I worked in.” It is little wonder then that her previous organisations keep asking her to join them again. It is stability that matters and keeping the focus on the right things and being committed that has worked for Neelam and held her in good stead.