College is a balancing act, something Megha Desai ’01 knows well: during her four years at Barnard, she aimed to strike the perfect balance between education and community leadership. In addition to her academic pursuits, she nurtured her passion for helping those in need by volunteering as a second-language English teacher to students in Washington Heights. “Those students, that experience, and Community Impact had a direct impact on my work today,” Desai said.
All the while, her time spent in Barnard’s lecture halls and seminars pushed her to expand her beliefs about how the world worked. “In the classroom, I chose to take classes that challenged and fulfilled my curiosity. I still reference my Political Theory I notes from [Professor Dennis] Dalton,” Desai said, calling the class “one of the best academic experiences of my life.” She continued: “He showed us there was nuance in the big things and that nothing was as simple as it seemed — that society, policy, life, etc., was complicated — and not everything was so black and white. He made us confident and strong, and armed us with tools of the past for a life today. I am not just a better professional or student because of this class, I am a better person.”
After graduating from Barnard with a degree in economics, Desai went into advertising and marketing, where her success with managing teams and brand partnerships at BBH New York, Anomaly, and other top-tier companies led to five Cannes Lions awards for her creative advertising work, as well as Columbia University’s King’s Crown Leadership Excellence Award and a Jay Chiat Award. Yet despite her success, Desai still felt like there was something missing from her professional life.
“I have always been involved in social good in one way, shape, or form. Since I was a child, I was raising money for one thing or another, but I had never really thought about it as a career,” she said. “I didn’t have a lot of examples around me of people in the social sector, so identifying what was missing took longer than I would like to admit.”
With this new focus, Desai committed herself to finding a profession where she could put her passion for social good to use. That led her to start her own branding firm, MSD: Marketing. Strategy. Dharma, where she took on more clients invested in social change. Eventually, Desai saw an opportunity to create a place where she could fully devote her time, talents, and energy: She transformed her small family foundation, the Desai Foundation, into a public nonprofit organization dedicated to community health for women and girls in India and the United States.
To meet the increased health needs created by the pandemic, Desai and her team at the Desai Foundation expanded their initiatives like the Asani Sanitary Napkin Program, which produces and distributes high-quality, low-cost sanitary products to communities in need. Along with this menstrual health program, which was a finalist in the second annual Shorty Social Good Awards, the foundation also distributes face masks and other essential materials to underserved communities in India and the U.S. through its Masks of HOPE initiative.
“Like everyone, we have had to begin to reshape what 2021 will look like and adjust our health and livelihood programs so that we can restart our programming [to be] safe and sound for those we serve,” Desai said. “I have to say, the team at the Desai Foundation has never worked harder, and I have never been more proud of our ability to pivot in this difficult time.”
Looking forward, Desai has robust plans to improve and expand upon the foundation’s mental health and menstrual health initiatives that focus on providing support to people who are incarcerated across the U.S. Desai and her team hosted a series of virtual community celebrations for Diwali on the Hudson and the Lotus Festival on October 8 in compliance with social distancing protocols.
Wherever Desai works and in whatever programming she creates, she strives to make an impact through community-driven approaches. She credits this motivation — which has led her foundation to affect over half a million lives through 25 different programs in India and the U.S. — to her pivotal experiences at Barnard. “Frankly, I am not sure I would be doing this work today had it not been for those experiences, both inside and outside of the classroom,” Desai said. “I am very grateful to be a Barnard woman and for the education and experiences that helped shape my time there.”
—SOLBY LIM '22