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In Conversation With Megha Desai

Ranjani Saigal

 Megha Desai runs two organizations trying to make a positive change in the world. She is the President of the Desai Foundation and the founder of MSD (Marketing.Strategy.Dharma.).The Desai Foundation empowers women and children through community programming to elevate health & livelihood in the US and India. MSD is branding and strategic partnership advisory for impact brands in NYC.

Megha began her career with over ten years in traditional advertising at some of the most prestigious firms in the world. Her work has been awarded five Cannes Lions, along with several other distinguished awards. She was a pioneer in launching brands and branded entertainment. When she began MSD in 2010 she focused on brands that wanted to do something good for the world like HP, NPR, ONE.ORG, 1 Hotels, award winning musicians, and many more. Her expertise in building strategic partnerships, brand voice and innovative marketing strategies has help catapult some of these brands, and many more.

Around that same time Megha began getting more involved in the Desai Foundation – then a small family foundation. She helped to transform the organization’s mission, work, and message leading to its pivot into to a robust public foundation. Her leadership has helped put the Desai Foundation on the map through heralded events, like Diwali on the Hudson and Lotus Festival, along with highly impactful programming leveraging strong partners on the ground in the US and India. The Desai Foundation focuses on sustainable development with programs spanning from vocational classes, health camps, community volunteer outreach, and sanitary napkin programs. The organization, to date, has impacted 330,000 lives in Gujarat, India, Metro-Boston, and Harlem, New York.

Megha currently sits on the advisory boards of several start-ups and non-profits, including NPR’s Generation Listen. She is something of a curator of people, content and experiences. Megha holds a B.A. in Economics from Barnard College of Columbia University. Raised in Boston, Megha channels her New England upbringing as an avid skier and New England Patriots fan. Megha enjoys singing, podcasts and her nephews. She is also a contributor to Fast Company, The Huffington Post and Entrepreneur Magazine. You can find her @Meghatron5

Can you tell us about the Desai Foundation?

The Desai Foundation started as a small private family foundation, with modest aspirations. Over the first 15 years, it developed many programs, and found itself growing rather quickly. In order to do justice to the work, we knew it had to expand. So we shifted to a public foundation - where more people join us in our mission to empower the lives of women and children through community programs to elevate health and livelihood. Our footprint reflects our past as a family foundation, but we imagine that will grow as well, as more partners join us to help expand programs like our health camps, our vocational training programs for women, our health and hygiene education programs, our student based volunteer programming, and much more. This year will mark our 20th year of service.

Can you tell us about the Lotus Festival?

The Lotus Festival this year will mark our 20th anniversary of service. We are so thrilled to bring this highly unique event to the Boston community. It's not your every day Gala. The event takes place in a airplane hanger filled with antique cars and planes. Our Keynote speaker this year is Nilofer Merchant, a world famous TED speaker, entrepreneur and author. We are so thrilled she is joining to share her concept of Onlyness which weaves so nicely into our mission of cultivating dignity. Our MC this year is Boston's own Karen Anderson, from WCVB! We will have an incredible performance from students at the Berklee College of Music. Our events are always a lot of fun, and provide an opportunity to meet a wide variety of people from in and around the Boston community. We have a couple seats still open if you want join us! Visit TheDesaiFoundation.org

Why did you decide to have a special  focus on empowering women?

We focus our work mostly on women because women have the capacity and ability to not only change, but to move society forward. Studies by the UN show that if you give a woman $1, she will invest 90% of that in her family and her community versus a man who will only invest 40% of that same dollar. We know women, around the world, are the reason why kids stay in school, see a doctor, have food on their plate, and are their source of dignity. Mothers and women are at the core of community development. And we will always invest in them. Women get the job done!

It goes without saying that women are often held back both in India and in the US for a variety of reasons.  My parents always told my sister and I that we were capable of achieving anything, doing anything and being anything we wanted to be.  I was lucky enough to also grow up with a father who believed strongly that his daughters were capable of anything, and that nothing should hold them back. Growing up in America, and spending so much time in India, I was able to see the need for feminist messages in different ways. Even outside my work with the Desai Foundation, empowering women has always been my focus.

Is there a special story about the impact of the Desai Foundation that you would like to share ?

Two years ago we had one lovely lady named Struti take our sewing program. She chose not to take the job we had set up in the factory. So I went back a year later to see if she was glad she took the course. She has started her own little business. Her and her friend have teamed up and are now a duo that does all the sewing for their whole area. We also spoke to her daughter, who attends our school. She said that her mother has so much more pride and faith in herself, so she is able to stand up to her husband, and ensure that her daughter attend school. Her daughter attendance has gone up, according to our principal.  We love stories like this. And there are hundreds more of these stories. Where we walk women take not only a skill away from these classes, but also a sense of dignity that allows them to fight for their children, fight for their safety and fight for their health. They want to learn. They want to work. And they want to live life with a sense of purpose, just as we all do.

Your entire family seems to be philanthropically inclined. What in your upbringing shaped your philanthropic bent of mind?

It's kind of you to say we are philanthropically minded, I think we are  more community minded. Every member of my family knows that our successes are the result of those people around us - our community that helped shape us, show us who we are, and provide us what we needed to succeed. We can't rise if all of us don't rise. And that is the same philosophy that we try to bring to the work we do with the Desai Foundation. Having the luxury of growing up traveling around the world helped shape my sister, Moha.  We understand that sometimes the luck of where you were born provides you with certain opportunities others may not have, and vice versa. But I think most of the credit goes to our parents, Nilima and Samir. They raised two women who believed they could take on the world, but to also not leave everyone behind. It's a pretty special balance that they have instilled in us from the start.

Anything special message for our readers?

Yes, I am so thrilled to tell your readers about a new and exciting partnership we are launching with the incredible Indian designer, Payal Singhal. The line will feature tunics, indian clothing, stationary, kids clothing, and for the first time, bags! You can learn more about our incredible partnerships on our website, TheDesaiFoundation.org and purchase the line at www.PayalSinghal.com. A portion of this line will benefit the vocational programs of the Desai Foundation.

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