Fighting the Status Quo: Interview with Malvika Bhagwat

“I came to this country with no network… but I think things turn out okay eventually, and you just have to trust that and give it your all.” – Malvika Bhagwat

Malvika Bhagwat is currently the director of outcomes and efficacy at Owl Ventures, a venture capital firm that has invested in EdTech companies like Remind and Quizlet. Previously, she worked at Emerson Collective and Newsela. Malvika focuses on the use of data to measure the impact of initiatives, and she has built assessment strategies to produce 800+ quiz items per week. Malvika received her Masters in Education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The Penn Innovators in Business Network asked Malvika to share some of the lessons she learned through her career path and lend her advice for undergraduates today.

Tell us about your path to where you are today.

“I did an undergrad in psychology, and at the time didn’t know what my career options were. After doing some exploration, I stumbled upon a role at a firm called Education Initiatives that does large scale assessment design across Singapore, the Gulf countries, and India. We were seeing student learning and misconceptions data of over 200,000 kids, and I think the moment when I started seeing that data and realizing the gaps that existed in literacy, specifically in India, was the moment when I decided I wanted to stay in education. I then came to the U.S. to do a Master of Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Post graduate school, I ended up joining Newsela, which is a nonfiction content platform used in over 90% of schools in the U.S. today. After working for the startup for four years, I wanted to try something new. And that’s when I made a switch to my current role at Owl Ventures doing portfolio support with a focus on impact and efficacy.”

What do you do in your day-to-day life?

“In my current role, I spend a lot of time reading, looking at research around implementation and best practices, and working very closely with our portfolio companies doing monthly check-ins and thinking through what type of research and product KPIs they should be focused on in terms of measuring impact. A portion of my time also goes toward working with our limited partners, who are investors in Owl. I help them think through impact measurement frameworks as they apply to their work and context.

What did success look like for you during your undergraduate years and how has that changed over the years?

“I come from India where people predominantly believe that becoming an engineer or doctor are the main paths in life, and as a young (angry) teenager, I was actively trying to fight that and trying to prove a point to both myself and the world that you can build an equally respectable life in a different field. Success to me at a younger age was just about being able to do better than my peers who were in the sciences. I truly operated on a spirit of competitiveness.

Over the years, I’ve made peace; I think I have been sort of lucky to end up in a career that has allowed me to stay true to who I am and focus on the work that is meaningful to me. Today, when I think about success, it is about three things: 1] being at a job where I can respect, and appreciate my colleagues, 2] being able to do what I love doing and what I’m passionate about without compromising any of my values, and 3] making time for my family and friends on good days and bad. I think education is that space for me. It has given me that sense of joy and purpose.”

What was the biggest challenge you’ve come across in your career?

“The biggest challenge I had was an internal one rather than external. Because I grew up in India, I grew up inheriting some of the set of values there, including respecting my elders and treating them as if they are always right. After moving to the US, I was navigating cultures that I had no exposure to, so I held onto that idea that ‘if somebody in the work environment is older than me or in a more senior position, they’re probably right.’ That led to me often staying quiet, which resulted in people believing that I either didn’t have ideas to contribute or that I was too shy or disengaged. I time and again found myself in a situation where I disagreed or held a different perspective but didn’t think I had the right to fully express myself.

With some help from my colleagues, I realized I was my own worst enemy. Over time, I was able to teach myself to find my voice and speak up when I disagreed and eventually find the balance between being respectful while still expressing my point of view in order to have healthy debates. That was a long journey for me, but I think I am at a good place now.

What is the worst advice you have ever received?

“I think it’s the idea of giving in to peer pressure or doing something despite your instinct: to do it or try it because everyone else is doing the worst advice that I’ve gotten.

In the short term, [peer pressure] seems helpful, given that it ‘gets you friends’ and gives you a sense of loyalty to whatever that group is. It helps you blend in. If there’s one thing I’d say, it would be to trust your instinct. It’s not easy, it’s difficult to know how to balance what you want versus what somebody is asking you to do, especially when it seems to be feedback that is designed in your best interest. But if you feel like that’s not for you and if you have an instinct and a gut feeling, I think that’s probably more important than giving in.”

What do you hope we can take away from this interview?

“Follow your passion, and it’s going to turn out okay. I know right now the stress of finding a job and fitting in and making it big in life are all real [struggles]. I know because I came to this country with no network. After my master’s program, having to find a job was probably one of the hardest things I had to do given that I knew nobody, and I had no former experience in the US. It was like this chicken and egg problem of having no experience, but I need a job, but to get a job, I need experience. And being an immigrant was even harder because I had to do it on a 90-day clock. So I’m not denying that all of this is very hard and COVID is only making it more difficult, but I think things turn out okay eventually, and you just have to trust that and give it your all.”

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