Ritika Saraswat, 21, is not interested in “typical” Asian careers like doctor, engineer or lawyer. Instead, you’ll find the Indian native distributing hundreds of menstrual care packages in Vancouver, teaming up with Guru Nanak’s Free Kitchen and mentoring over 50 international students — all while working two part-time jobs.
Saraswat is not your “typical” international student too. During the summer, she’s not interning in big-name companies or living it up as a summer associate at a fancy firm. She’s working two part-time jobs (one of it serving pizzas), studying two summer courses and running a non-profit.
For Saraswat, impact matters more than prestige. Although she majored in kinesiology (that’s the study of movement and how it impacts our health and wellbeing) at the University of British Columbia, she joined case competitions — and found a knack for marketing and consulting.
Last year, she founded “Re-Defined,” a nonprofit that empowers international students and marginalised communities in Canada. When she graduates this September, she’s set to join Deloitte as a Human Capital Business Analyst — an analyst job with a scope of work vastly different from what will be stated on her degree.
Saraswat may not have taken any traditional route to get to where she is today — even chastised for working in a pizzeria — but she’s proud and confident in how far she can go. We caught up with her to learn more about her extraordinary journey:
Why did you move to Canada?
I am originally from Pune, and I grew up in a conventional Indian family where we were conditioned to pursue three careers: medicine, engineering and law. Out of those three, I gravitated towards pursuing medicine since I liked biology.
When I finished 12th grade, I wanted to pursue something related to biology, and that’s when I discovered kinesiology. Soon, I learned that the University of British Columbia (UBC) was one of the best universities for kinesiology, and I decided to come to Canada.
Where did you study in India?
I studied at an India Certificate of Secondary Education (ICSE) school in India. The ICSE state board is one of the best and most rigorous in the country. It is one of the classic systems that emphasises memorisation, which played an instrumental role in my education. In 11th and 12th grade, I went to an International Baccalaureate school, doubling as a boarding school.
What sparked your passion for marketing and consulting?
As a student majoring in kinesiology, I was always keen on seeking new experiences and keeping an open mind. Gradually, I discovered my knack for marketing since I was excited about the problem-solving aspect of marketing. Eventually, I pivoted into consulting and got more involved in consulting-related opportunities such as pro bono cases and case competitions.
I am also a person driven by the impact I can create, which was a significant factor that drove my passion for marketing and consulting. Through my experience with pro bono cases and case competitions, I realised that I could make an impact on the organisation. In contrast, I can only impact one person at a time as a doctor.
Congratulations on landing an analyst job in Canada! Tell us more about the opportunities that led to this.
Working in a non-profit was an excellent opportunity for me to learn while working since they didn’t have very high expectations. For instance, I worked with Medical Herstory, a non-profit dedicated to raising gender health inequity, as a Social Media Marketing Intern before landing my role as a Social Media Manager at My Restful Mind.
Once I had acquired enough experience, I ventured into social startups, such as Health Conscious and Elemeno, and became a freelance consultant. I also started to network with more people in the consulting scene to inquire about the different opportunities within the space. Eventually, I was interested in one of the big four companies — Deloitte — and reached out to my network to gauge what they were looking for in their potential candidates.
Case preparation, case competitions and pro bono cases were also a great way to get accustomed to the consulting line since consultants talk in a certain way. Fortunately, that paved the way for me to enter the industry. I am also lucky to get an analyst job with Deloitte.
What were some of the challenges you had to overcome in transitioning into a new career path?
It takes courage to redefine yourself. One of the reasons I can still vividly remember those comments people made to me when I switched from kinesiology to consulting was how vulnerable I felt upon realising what I had not done to realise my goals and dreams. In hindsight, I am grateful for that conversation because I wouldn’t feel bad if someone commented similarly to me since I have worked my way to advance my goals, passions, and interests.
Over the past year, I have seen a trend where many people from different backgrounds are pivoting into consulting. In fact, consulting companies love this since they want people from diverse backgrounds. Seeing that change happening in the consulting scene made my journey worthwhile as it was something I desired to happen as a kinesiology student who was pivoting into consulting.
How did Re-Defined come about?
I love answering this question. Redefined is my “baby project” since I resonate with many values the project stands for. It is a non-profit organisation that caters to empowering people from marginalised communities, specifically communities which are black, indigenous and people of colour (BIPOC).
As a woman who is a person of colour, I felt that there were a lot of barriers and struggle that I faced in different ways. Clearly, I am speaking from a privileged position since I know of people who have met more challenging situations. However, I believe it is through shared experiences — whether it is the traditional view of women’s capabilities or gender inequality — that connects a group of people.
People also have certain stereotypes about international students. When I first came to Canada, many were surprised to discover that I spoke fluent English. That experience opened my eyes to the many misconceptions people have about international students living in a foreign country.
As a kinesiology student pivoting into business, I struggled to network with people in the marketing and consulting scene. My educational background caused many to assume or doubt my capabilities to thrive in the industry. I remember someone telling me that I was never going to a consultant less than three minutes into a networking call since I am a student majoring in kinesiology.
Through these experiences, I grew into the idea of redefining myself, and I wanted to show people that they can define their passion, interest, and career. Since I was able to embark on my journey to redefine myself, I realised how important and empowering that was. I felt that many students could not redefine their identity.
How has Re-Defined grown in its first year?
As Re-Defined grew, it has spread more towards the marginalised communities, such as the homeless community in the Downtown Eastside, who face more marginalisation and discrimination than an international student or BIPOC student who is privileged to university with a chance to secure a regular job.
The shift allowed us to showcase our core values in making an impact. I believe if you start on the right foot, there is an excellent chance for the effect to spread quickly.
What was one of the most memorable projects you worked on at Re-Defined?
It would be the Chats over Lemonade event, where we focused on the idea of going into the homeless community. We would set the table with loads of free food to engage in conversations with them.
People from these communities usually pick up the food and leave for most food drives, so I noticed that no one was conversing with them. No one asked, “how’s your day?” or “what is your passion about?”. Hence, it was enlightening to see how we broke many stereotypes and judgements about homeless people during the event through deep conversations with this community.
As a group of people who have gone through so much in life, it is incredible that they are still generous in sharing their perspectives and story with the younger generation. I believe that was memorable for many of us at Re-Defined.
Do you have any advice for international students who want to venture into freelancing or set up a non-profit?
Keep yourself open to trying new things, get your hands dirty, and don’t limit yourself to one type of experience. I like to think that being a student is a time for us to make mistakes so we can learn from them before we start our career, as it would be a struggle to switch once you have a full-time job.
Cherish the value of networking as it keeps you open to diverse experiences and muster the courage to take calculated risks. Instead of comparing yourself with others, take inspiration from their journey and see how they worked towards success.