Raised in Gurgaon, India, Chaitali Pandit (Class of 2022) studied engineering and biological sciences at BITS Pilani University. Interested in entrepreneurship, Chaitali co-founded several ventures prior to entering the management consulting field working for KPMG and EY before she applied to Darden. As president of the Darden South Asia Society (DSAS), Chaitali shared more about her First Year Darden experience and her hopes for DSAS with the Center for Global Initiatives. In her own words:

Tell us a little about your background. What brought you to Darden?

While studying at BITS Pilani University, I led the Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership (CEL) club and supported aspiring entrepreneurs in the university with creating business plans, developing pilot programs and getting access to funding. I was also a core member of the NGO Nirmaan, where we worked to educate children for scholarship exams and spread health and sanitation awareness in slum areas by effectively engaging the government and local civic bodies. I established the Rural Entrepreneurship Division (RED) to empower women from poor backgrounds by helping them become financially literate and independent. RED partnered with different vocational trainers to provide skill-based education to these women in candle-making, paper-bag making, hand-woven designs and prints.

In 2013, I co-founded Zumbl.com along with some friends from the Indian Institute of Technology. Zumbl was a gamified platform that brought people across the globe together for meaningful conversations. Taking the idea forward, I co-founded a startup with the idea of bringing people together for the common good. My startup, Changemaker.be, served as a match-making platform to bring together NGOs, corporations and volunteers interested in similar initiatives for effective and transparent Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR).

My interest in creating innovative solutions to challenging problems for different companies opened doors to management consulting as a career path. I joined KPMG in Advisory services and provided consulting services to global leaders in healthcare, financial services and technology. My projects ranged from organizational restructuring, process improvement, manpower optimization, global outsourcing to digital transformation. I later joined EY as a senior consultant in their Strategy team focused on financial services companies, where I also served as an ambassador for the Women in Technology initiative that aimed at supporting young girls to take up STEM careers.

During my startup and consulting projects, I always enjoyed having conversations with people from different countries, backgrounds and cultures. I started exploring top business schools and came across Darden. Darden caught my attention as it was described as the “boot camp of MBAs” — the toughest program available. Darden’s case study method of instruction and how it prepares students for ambiguity in real world intrigued me. During the process, the genuinely nice students and faculty members surprised me. Darden became a clear first choice and I received an offer during the early admit round.

The onset of the pandemic in 2020 made my ability to come to U.S. for my studies uncertain. Darden administrators remained supportive and transparent; and, after taking classes from India virtually for a few weeks with a 10-hour time zone difference, I was fortunate to get my student visa. Even with all of the health and safety regulations in place, my experience at Darden was well worth the wait.

Why did you choose to seek a leadership position in DSAS?

As an international student, adjusting to a new country can be a challenge. The students, faculty and various communities make it easier for us to embrace the American way of living. As you become more familiar with the new culture, cultural and affinity groups such as DSAS can become your home away from home.

South Asian students constitute a large portion of the international students at Darden. A leadership position in DSAS gives me the opportunity to organize events and sessions to interact with the incoming students and make them feel welcomed as a part of Darden and the DSAS family.

I believe DSAS is an integral part of the Darden experience for domestic and international students, not just those of South Asian descent. Each year, the Darden community eagerly awaits many events and festival celebrations that DSAS organizes. This year’s celebration for Holi, the festival of colors, was one of the largest in-person events organized on Darden grounds under COVID safety protocols. Dean Scott Beardsley inaugurated the event, attended by over 130 students and faculty members. We plan to make more of our core events open to a broader audience so that the Darden community gets full exposure to our culture.

Chaitali (top row, fourth from left) and fellow Darden students celebrate the South Asian festival of colors at the 2021 DSAS Holi event

What are your hopes for the organization in this year going forward?

Interactions with students from different geographic backgrounds helped us realize that some of the challenges we go through as international students are similar across the board. Therefore, this year we plan to have more joint events with other cultural and affinity groups so that people can learn about each other, have fun together and expand their social connections at Darden. Some of these joint events on the DSAS calendar include a Garba/Bollywood Dance night in collaboration with the Darden Dance Club and an inter-faith summit with prominent religious groups at Darden.

The club will continue to support students in their recruitment journey through story building, resume review and interview preparation sessions catering to their specific needs and career choices. For example, we plan to collaborate with other affinity groups and organize joint sessions to help international students improve their communication and networking skills to strike meaningful conversations with recruiters.

For the first time, DSAS will organize a South Asia conference. We hope it will become an annual student-led conference to bring together industry leaders, academics and students to discuss pressing topics in business and culture of South and Southeast Asia. This conference will solidify Darden’s position as a top choice B-School among South Asian industries and MBA aspirants.

DSAS will always remain a key point of contact for many Darden alums from South Asia. We plan to engage more alumni in our events and sessions. Through informal discussions, we hope to bring together prospective students, current students and alumni and help foster deeper connections within the community.

Along with COVID, many people also suffered this year with the news of rising violence against Asian Americans and the Black community in the U.S. DSAS pledged to stand in support of these communities by spreading awareness and identifying our responsibilities as allies. We will continue to collaborate with the Asia Business Club at Darden (ABCD), Diversity Committee of the Darden Student Association (DSA) and other associations to build a safe space for the AAPI community to share their experiences, facilitate discussions on pressing issues and support each other.

What is the most important lesson this year has taught you?

This past year was anything but normal. We all grappled with uncertainties and loss in different facets of life. This last year taught me to be grateful; I am privileged to be alive and to have such an amazing husband, family and incredible friends who have supported me in my journey. This year taught me to not take any of this for granted anymore.

I saw people in my community and beyond as they struggled during the pandemic with illnesses, deaths of loved ones, job losses, interruptions to education and other life plans and personal anxiety, grief and pain. These individuals faced adversity with dignity and became examples of strength and resilience for me. They taught me the importance of being kind and offering support to those around us, as well as embracing the lighthearted moments and not taking life too seriously.

The ways people came together irrespective of their backgrounds, experiences and affiliations to help each other this year humbled me. I am grateful to the Darden community and our partner organizations – DSA Outreach, ABCD, Graduate Women in Business (GWIB) and Darden Resilience Initiative – for their support in launching ‘We stand with India’, a student-led initiative through which we donated funds to organizations in India to provide oxygen concentrators and food supplies to those in critical need during India’s recent COVID-19 crisis.