More than a decade in microfinance and development work taught Chowdri the value of an education; in 2019, he put his MBA and a two-year urban education residency at The Broad Center in Los Angeles to use in a new setting: the classroom. The center is currently being transformed into The Broad Center at Yale SOM, which will continue to offer programs to bolster public education leadership.
By Rebecca Beyer
The first time Siddhartha Chowdri ’05 saw the consequences of systemic inequality in education he was volunteering as a tutor near the University of Chicago, where he was majoring in economics. One day, he asked a high school student to do some basic math, and the teenager started counting on his fingers.
“It fried my circuits a little bit,” Chowdri remembers. “Here I am, in this awesome academic place talking about free markets and aspiring to do all these wonderful things, and the world around us is crumbling.”
Chowdri was overwhelmed by what he saw.
“I didn’t know then what I know now about all the systemic failures that led to that,” he says. “That problem seemed so big and intractable and out of my wheelhouse.”
The memory stuck with him as he launched a career in microfinance and economic development and got his MBA at Yale SOM. Eventually it led him into public education administration, and, finally, the classroom. In 2019, Chowdri started a two-year commitment with Teach for America, serving as a high school algebra teacher in Charleston, South Carolina.
“I think about that kid every day,” Chowdri says. “I wasn’t able to help him then because I didn’t know what to do. But for the kids who are in my sphere of influence now, I do whatever I can to make sure they don’t miss opportunities.”
After graduating from college, Chowdri went to work for the Federal Reserve Board in Washington, D.C, where he spent two years using statistical models to forecast labor statistics such as unemployment insurance claims. Then he was ready for a new challenge. “What I thought was interesting in an academic sense, I didn’t find fulfilling in a career sense,” he says.
Chowdri took a business development position at the Calvert Social Investment Foundation (now Calvert Impact Capital), a nonprofit investment firm that makes mission-driven loans to organizations that have a social or environmental focus; his goal was to work in international development. Eventually, he decided to move to India, where he had spent every other summer with his extended family and see if he could find an opportunity to work on the front lines of economic development.
“Within five days, I had found a job,” he remembers. The position was with a World Bank project that empowered women to take on income-generating activities.
Chowdri loved the work, and the experience paid off. He applied to MBA programs the following year, and enrolled in the Yale School of Management.
Chowdri enjoyed most the “technical skills” classes he took at Yale SOM, including accounting and courses on venture capital and business planning with the late David Cromwell. For one assignment, Chowdri and a few other classmates developed a strategy for a community bank in New Haven (Chowdri still has an account there). He also took advantage of the broader Yale community, often sitting in on lectures at the School of the Environment or hearing from Yale World Fellows.
“I was so thrilled to be around a lot of like-minded people,” he says.
After Chowdri graduated in 2005, he was recruited to start a new office in India for Accion, a global nonprofit committed to financial inclusion. He stayed for nearly a decade. Then he began to notice something: almost everyone seeking a loan wanted money for the same reason—to send their child or children to school.
“This is the story of microfinance: you help someone get a loan to buy a cow, so she can get money, so she can send her kid to school,” he explains. “I started thinking about what people are valuing: They want education; they don’t want loans. Yes, the financial system needs to be more equitable, that’s a symptom of the problem. That’s not actually addressing the disease, which is that people are not just financially illiterate but actually illiterate.”
Around the same time, Chowdri and his wife had a son, and they began to think about a move to the United States. A friend told Chowdri about the two-year Residency in Urban Education at The Broad Center in Los Angeles; Chowdri applied, was accepted, and, through the program, was placed as a School District Finance Resident in the finance office of the New Haven Public Schools system. (Under the aegis of The Broad Center at Yale SOM, the Residency will be succeeded by a Master’s in Public Education Management program, aimed at early- to mid-career school system leaders with extraordinary leadership potential who wish to increase their impact in key K-12 systems.)
During the residency, Chowdri says he “learned how race has played such a critical role in defining educational outcomes” in the United States. The residency sessions around the country also enabled him to interact with school-system and education leaders including John Deasy, the former superintendent of the Stockton Unified School District and Los Angeles Unified School District, and John White, the former Louisiana superintendent of education, who are both alumni of The Broad Center, as well as John King LAW ’07, the former U.S. Secretary of Education
Being in New Haven also allowed Chowdri to reconnect with SOM. He shared his perspective with students in a course called Managing Education Reform taught by Victor De La Paz, then the chief financial officer of the New Haven Public Schools and a Broad Center alumnus, and gave guidance to students consulting with organizations in India through in the Global Social Entrepreneurship course. He also took the opportunity to attend Yale SOM’s student-run Education Leadership Conference and meet prospective Broad Center residents.
After finishing The Broad Center residency, Chowdri accepted a job—through another Broad Center alumnus—as the chief financial and operating officer for the South Carolina Public Charter School District. But he still didn’t feel like he was close enough to the classroom, and decided to apply for a teaching position through Teach for America.
“Because of my background, I had been slotted into education finance roles,” he explains. “But I wanted to work in the area of teaching and learning.”
Although he hasn’t yet completed a full year in the classroom—the COVID-19 pandemic sent Chowdri and his students into remote education in March—Chowdri says he already knows he’s found the job he was meant to do all along.
“I’ve had some fulfilling jobs,” he says, “but there’s never been a job I’ve been so excited for. Every Monday, I’m ecstatic to get out the door.”
Chowdri knows his career path has been untraditional—“It’s kind of strange to go from a C-level job to being a teacher,” he concedes—but he says the Broad and Yale SOM alumni networks have made the transition seamless.
“The connections I have through both those programs are huge,” he says. “After the Broad Residency, I was connected with classmates from Yale I hadn’t even known had been in education or teaching.”
Chowdri says he also feels his non-linear path is an asset for his students.
“These kids are thirsty for knowledge and exposure,” he says. “I can bring that to them.”
Interviewed on July 14, 2020