Rita Soni ’92 Reflects on Her Journey to CEO of Indian Trade Group
Rita Soni, Class of 1992, was recently appointed CEO of the NASSCOM Foundation, the social development arm of NASSCOM, the internationally recognized trade body of the Indian IT-BPO industry. It was established to transform the lives of the underserved through the application of Information and Communication Technology.
Even leading up to this, Rita’s journey has been full of great opportunities and experiences.
Born in Birmingham, Alabama, Rita also lived in Texas for awhile before finding herself in Morris County, New Jersey with her American-Indian family. As a family, they visited India about every four years.
At a very young age, Rita had a practical mindset. Her father was the one to tell her that she should be an engineer. She initially wanted to study math in college, but after taking an electrical engineering class at Stevens Institute of Technology, she realized that math was very much incorporated, which sparked an interest and ultimately led to her decision to major in electrical engineering instead.
She found Stevens to be the perfect mix of a small school next to the “big city.” She was very involved at Stevens, especially with the Indian Association, serving as president of the organization. Although her family was Americanized, she appreciated the integrated atmosphere at Stevens and being around those students for whom English was not their first language.
Rita also joined the Cooperative Education (co-op) program, which she cannot say enough about: “Now being in the real world, I see how great of an opportunity the co-op program is for young people. Gaining practical experience at a young age is so important.”
Rita herself was able to work with four different companies while at Stevens, where she got hands-on experience in areas such as research, support function, and design.
This experience helped Rita land a position with General Electric at the time of her graduation. She was placed into a technical leadership program and the rest is history. She embarked upon her professional journey with G.E., moving from several positions within the company to the Corporate Audit Staff where she was able to travel all over the U.S. and in Europe.
“My engineering background was extremely important during this time as I was working on financial audits and process reviews along with a band of internal consultants,” said Rita.
After working with the audit staff for a few years, she moved to NYC to work in operations and finance at NBC.
Starting to reflect on “what next,” she had her heart set on a Master’s degree, which she obtained in International Affairs at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.
During her time at Columbia, Rita transitioned into a new area of her life by working for the U.N. The following summer her perspective began to shift again after she spent a few months in India with a non-profit organization.
Once she graduated from Columbia, Rita became a founding team member of the International Fellowships Program (IFP) at the Ford Foundation and focused on worldwide affirmative action for communities excluded from higher education.
Added to her prior experiences, these opportunities began to add up for Rita. She always wanted to live abroad, but found excuses to not make that leap. Finally, an opportunity arose and she realized it was the right time to make a change. There was an opening in the American Indian Foundation (A.I.F.), which would make her the first American working in the position. She moved to India in January 2006, shifting her career path to non-profit.
Her job focused on communication, bridging the gaps between the organization’s offices in India and counterparts in America. Ironically, she had her own communication gap as she transitioned her life into the Indian lifestyle. Here she was able to travel to every corner of India and really learn what development was all about.
At this time, a corporate bank based in India was seriously looking at how they could have an impact in that country. This was exactly what Rita needed to hear to find her next step.
She gained an important leadership position within YES Bank, spearheading a pioneering business approach to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and Sustainability and was part of the core team that offered innovative financial solutions to address a wide spectrum of issues regarding sustainable livelihoods, food security, public health, education, and climate change.
“I have a completely different outlook on what the issues are in India and how embedded and complex they are. In terms of solving problems, I realized that it would take a lot of time to see changes.”
Her time in India had been truly eye opening – and continues to be – as she has met many innovative individuals working to solve issues on education, health care, poverty, and the environment.
“The professionalism in India is quite personal to me,” says Rita. “The level of distress in India is overwhelming. I see the need to make a difference whether it is on a daily basis or at least on the path of making that difference.”
Recently, the NASSCOM Foundation recruited Rita to be its Chief Executive Officer. Rita’s position calls for strengthening the efforts of the IT Industry towards inclusive growth and bridging the gaps between private sectors and non-profits to contribute to the cause of social development.
She also focuses on creating innovative, effective, and scalable programs that leverage ICTs for education, health, employability, and entrepreneurship for under-served communities. As part of this, she will further enhance relationships between NASSCOM members and the NASSCOM Foundation in all its endeavors including programs and fund-raising.
Rita has successfully found her passion in helping others in a place where she can be surrounded by professionals. Other than missing Mexican food and being apart from her family and friends in the U.S., she has truly enjoyed this part of her journey in India.
Her time at Stevens enabled her to cultivate relationships she still values to this day. She remarks, “If I did not partake in co-op, really engage with the Indian Association, or had not been in such a diverse university as Stevens I would not be the person I am today.”
Looking back on her college days, she talks about how much Stevens has continued to evolve: “It is so wonderful to see the variety of courses available from engineering to humanities, the amount of sports, and campus involvement. If I can give you my advice, take part in the co-op program, get the technical background, and expand your horizons to see the world outside of you.”
“The mindset you obtain as an engineer to solve real-life problem makes SUCH a difference,” Rita states. “Being in India now, I can say that engineers are very valuable. Undoubtedly, Stevens has been a huge part of my journey and success.”