Saumya Krishna (Ontario & Somerville 2014) is currently completing the Master of Public Policy at Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government. She graduated from Western University in London, Ontario in 2013 with a Bachelors of Health Sciences through the Scholars Electives Program. She is a graduate of The Next 36 entrepreneurship program and a co-founder of the Toronto-based Youth Social Innovation Capital Fund. Saumya was the Profile Coordinator for The Rhodes Project June 2014-June 2016.

Rhodes Project: How would you describe your time at Oxford so far? What stands out most?

Saumya Krishna: It’s been a very rich experience so far, but it’s also been quite a whirlwind ride.  I don’t think I’ve ever felt so active in so many different areas of my life. Socially, I’m interacting with so many new and captivating people every week. On any given day, there are a handful of different events—talks, discussion groups, dinners—I could attend. This ‘fullness’ has made the experience quite exciting and at times a bit overwhelming.

I do believe it has been a really nice opportunity for me to step away from what life was like back home, broaden my horizons and gain new perspective. I have valued taking more time out to just have fun and travel, reflect, and talk about life with peers instead of focusing entirely on academic or professional next steps.

Rhodes Project: What do you enjoy most about your current studies at the Blavatnik School of Government?

Saumya Krishna: Without doubt, the people. It is one of the most diverse and heterogeneous classroom environments I have ever experienced. For instance, in our small-group seminars, I will be sitting beside peers from around the world—China, Ireland, Israel, Spain, Colombia and Australia. Everyone is sharing opinions and ideas that reflect their contexts and the ways they have been socialised. The opportunity to hear such a myriad of perspectives, and unpack who these individuals are and why they think a certain way makes for a very interesting learning experience. As the world becomes more globalised and more interconnected, I think these kinds of experiences are even more relevant for good decision-making and leadership.

Rhodes Project: Can you tell me more about your year off before arriving in Oxford? How did you spend your time?

Saumya Krishna: When I went into my final year of undergrad, I felt like I had been ploughing through life for quite a few years—pushing myself incredibly hard and trying to move really fast. I had been working on a few entrepreneurial ventures, so I had some  dynamic and formative experiences outside the classroom, but I had not given myself much of a break to just step back, reflect and do other things.

At the time, I was taking an English course called The Culture of Leadership and the professor often quoted poetry and novel excerpts. I came to realize how little time I had given myself to actually appreciate literature and art, among so many other things outside my direct areas of concentration. I decided that I needed to pause and step back. I didn’t apply to any graduate schools or jobs–it was terrifying in many ways, but the year off was also an important learning experience in dealing with uncertainty. I spent part of the year backpacking by myself through Asia—I visited India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Vietnam and Lao, and it was an adventure I will remember forever. 

Rhodes Project: What prompted you to co-found the Youth Social Innovation Capital Fund in Toronto?

Saumya Krishna: I jumped into entrepreneurship when I was about 19.  My first venture was a mobile application company in Toronto. Not coming from a business or entrepreneurship background, the whole idea of entrepreneurship was actually quite foreign to me until I was thrown into this environment. But it was at that time that I saw many dots in my life starting to connect—entrepreneurship resonated deeply with my passion for problem solving, building strong teams, negotiating, being able to create things, challenging the status quo and having an impact. Entrepreneurship also offered a level of autonomy and creative control that I started to greatly value. I remember thinking, “I have never felt so alive, so energized in my entire life.” That is how I started to realize this was the kind of work I wanted to do.

It was also at that time that I started thinking about how entrepreneurship could be used to create a positive impact. I decided to get much more involved in the social innovation and social entrepreneurship communities in Toronto, and  realised at that point that Toronto and Canada more broadly were lacking a robust support system for young social entrepreneurs.

Back in 2011, a colleague and I one day were talking about the fact that it’s hard enough to raise financing as a young entrepreneur because you don’t have the collateral, business experience or credit history. It’s even harder when you’re trying to launch a ‘social’ venture because there’s this stigma that it’s not a good investment. We wanted to change this, and find a way to financially support young social entrepreneurs in the early stages of their work. What started as a small micro-loaning program with $1,000-$3,000 investments has grown into the YSI Capital Fund, which now gives $10,000, $25,000 and $50,000 in debt financing.

Rhodes Project: What was it like to enter the start-up space as a young woman from a less conventional academic background?

Saumya Krishna: I was 20 years old when I co-founded the organization. I hardly knew anything about finance, though I was insatiably curious. It was quite the learning curve, but so much of the excitement and growth for an entrepreneur comes from stepping into unfamiliar territory! It also demonstrated to me that you don’t have to be a certain age or have a list of qualifications to create something of value. It was more essential for us to put together a really solid team of people with financial expertise and recruit advisors who could guide us in the right direction. One of the most important tasks for an entrepreneur is to build the right team, and to convince people who are more skilled and experienced than you to join the cause.

Rhodes Project: During your undergraduate studies at Western University, you designed your own major. Can you describe what inspired this decision and the process of getting such a proposal approved?

Saumya Krishna: I went into my undergraduate studies thinking I had life planned out – I wanted to go into medicine and become a surgeon. The summer after first year I did a medical internship in India shadowing a variety of physicians and surgeons. It was a very rich experience, but also made me realize that medicine was not the right fit for me.  I found myself more drawn to the socioeconomic issues and social disparities in the Indian health care system than the medical science. One of my takeaways from the summer was that I wanted to use my undergraduate studies as a space to explore my own curiosities, as opposed to seek training for a specific profession. I decided to approach my faculty and ask if I could pursue a self-designed major. It had never been done before, so I put together a proposal and asked professors to endorse it. It took about 6-8 months of negotiating—and more special permissions than my academic counsellor had ever seen before—but it was eventually approved. I was then able to take courses in sociology, women’s studies, economics, English, political philosophy and health sciences.

Rhodes Project: How did that interdisciplinary approach shape your current academic trajectory?

Saumya Krishna: I place significant value on being able to think laterally. Often times, we get stuck in very fixed, myopic ways of being. I believe it is so important to have a flexible lens—to be able to zoom in or out on issues and still be able to see the big picture. In order to do that it’s necessary to explore various disciplines and different ways of thinking. When I now make decisions about my learning, I am continuously challenging myself to step outside of my comfort zone and grapple with new ideas.

Rhodes Project: What books have been particularly transformative for you?

Saumya Krishna: I have two all-time favourites: The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy and Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez. These two writers produce at the level of mastery and outstanding artistry, and they are unapologetically bold and unconventional with their ideas. Reading their works always leaves me inspired.

Rhodes Project: Who are some of your role models and mentors?

Saumya Krishna: In undergrad I had two sociology professors who transformed the way I looked at the world: Dr. Charles Levine and Dr. Anton Allahar. They became good friends and mentors; I have fond memories of attending their office hours every week and chatting about almost anything. Some of my most important learning experiences came from those discussions.

In the entrepreneurship world, Reza Satchu has been a huge role model and inspiration for me. He made me realize how important it is to believe in yourself and he taught me the importance of continuously stepping outside your comfort zone. He’s a big advocate of putting yourself in positions that are so challenging that you could very likely fail – that’s where growth happens. He also believes that the difference between people who have a major impact and those who don’t is marginal. The high-impact people have higher expectations for themselves, take more risks, and every time they fail, they pick themselves back up and carry on. These ideas have really shaped my thinking and approach to entrepreneurship.

Rhodes Project: What do you hope the next 10 years of your life look like, professionally and personally?

Saumya Krishna: Over the next few decades, I hope to pursue a few different adventures. Next year, I’ll be studying at the Oxford Internet Institute and shortly afterwards I would like to return to entrepreneurship. I’m eager to begin applying my studies in public policy and technology to future entrepreneurial projects. In the longer term, I would like to shift gears and spend more time on writing and on work that is more politically charged, whether that is advocacy, activism or working in politics.

Rhodes Project: What excites you most about your incoming role with the Rhodes Project?

Saumya Krishna: The opportunity to hear someone’s life story is something I always cherish—I find the process of self-reflection and life review to be so rich and illuminating. It will be a privilege to unpack the biographies of many spectacular Rhodes women, hear about experiences significant to them, and celebrate the multiplicity of achievements and life paths they have pursued.

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